The Next Phase for Ecopsychology: Ideas and Directions From the Incoming Editor

Peter H. Kahn, Jr.
University of Washington


About this journal...

New beginnings. They hold promise—often realized. This journal has gone far under the editorial leadership of Dr. Thomas Doherty. I remember when the journal started five years ago. I kept my eyes open and was inspired. I saw renewed energy for a field that I had been aware of from the early 1970s onward—a field that, at least in my telling of it, has had two overarching goals. One was to help us to rediscover within ourselves a connection with nature that lies deep within the evolutionary architecture of our bodies, minds, and spirits. A second was to reshape modern psychology by showing that it cannot stand apart from an intimate human connection with nature. As the incoming editor, I see myself continuing in this tradition, even as I seek to expand the journal’s scope and increase its impact.

I’d like to share a brief story and then move on to what will be new with the journal.

It was last summer, and I was in the river some several miles from my cabin in a remote rural mountain area of Northern California. The river opens here into a circular pool about a stone’s throw in diameter and then narrows downward into a channel of small rapids. I was standing chest high in the middle of the pool when I saw a mother duck and her ducklings swimming up the rapids. I don’t think they spotted me. I stood very still. The sun was high overhead. The ducks entered the circular pool and then began paddling parallel to me at the bottom. The mother duck was leading and occasionally ducked under, looking for food; the younger ducks did so as well. They got near the sandy shore and then turned around and swam in the other direction, again staying parallel to me. I have encountered ducks many times on this river over many decades. They have always seen me and left quickly, often by flight. I was thinking, “These ducks don’t see me; I wonder how close they’ll come?” Never once did they look in my direction. Right when I thought they might approach closer, perhaps within thirty feet, they didn’t, but chose to keep swimming back and forth, back and forth, parallel to me in the pool. I remained without moving, with most of my body still submerged in the water. Then very slowly I started moving in their direction, without making waves. The ducks still never once looked in my direction, but they did move their parallel swimming to adjust to my movement, so as to keep about the same distance from me. At some point my movement toward them created more open space on one side of the pool, and then the mother duck calmly took that route and led her family farther upriver. They never looked at me. But then I knew that they knew that I was there from the moment they entered the pool. And what I saw going on seemed at once entirely simple and equally profound. Two different species meeting in an environment of equal belonging. There was room for both, with patience. The ducks didn’t force the issue. They waited for me to finish whatever I needed to do; and when I created space for them to pass, they did so. I had no need to disturb their passing, as they had no need to disturb my being. Because there was room for both of us, with patience and respect for differences.

What if it’s the case, and there is good reason to believe it true, that the overarching problem of the world today is that we see ourselves as dominating over nature rather than cohabiting, coexisting, and affiliating with it? There are many different ways to cast ecopsychology. I think this one has merit.

This casting is congruent with how major contributors to the field have historically shaped the field. As Patricia Hasbach and I have discussed elsewhere (Kahn & Hasbach, 2012), the field of ecopsychology includes the following four orientations, among others. One is the ecological unconscious, which brings forward the constructs of repression, mental illness, irrationality, and ego identification (Roszak, 1993; Shepard, 1982). A second is phenomenology (Abram, 1996; Kohak, 1984), which argues that direct experience is the source of knowledge and that with the senses fully open to an abundant physical natural human world, we become more fully human. A third is the interconnectedness of all beings and Gaia theory (Lovelock, 1979/2000; Macy, 2011; Naess, 1989), which argues that ontologically there is no fundamental separation between self, other, object, and nature. A fourth is transpersonal, which brings forward the idea that interaction with nature helps provide for “optimal mental health, and psychological development, mystical and spiritual experiences, inner peace, compassion, trust, fully realized aliveness, and selfless service” (Davis, 2004, p. 6). As the incoming editor, I will continue to welcome all of these and related orientations.

What’s new, then, with this change in editors at the journal? At this early junction, I see seven differences, at least in emphasis if not in kind.

  1. The first will be contentious to some core ecopsychologists in the field. As Hasbach and I argue in the introduction to our volume on ecopsychology (Kahn & Hasbach, 2012), the field needs to be revisioned. It emerged as part of the counter-culture movement in the 1960s. As Roszak (1968) wrote: “The only reason all this [ecopsychology] ever had to be a counter culture was because the culture it opposed—that of reductionist science, ecocidal industrialism, and corporate regimentation—was too small a vision of life to lift the spirit” (p. 12). But science need not be paired only with such ecocidal industrialism characterizations but with that which is deeply beautiful of who we have become as a species over the last 50,000 years: inquisitive, creative, investigative, analytic, reflective, and self-reflective. And we are also now a technological species. Our science and technology have led to artifacts practical and sublime. The Hubble telescope, for example, has provided access to times and spaces within and beyond our comprehension. Thus the challenge for a revisioned ecopsychology—which I see this journal taking up—is to embrace our totemic self and to integrate that with our scientific culture and technological self. That doesn’t mean we don’t critique science and technology in the process or seek to understand how our adapting to technologies can undermine human flourishing (Kahn, 2011). But science and technology are not the enemy. If we think they are, then not only is that, in my view, an intellectual error, but we would be making ecopsychology largely irrelevant to most everybody in the world today.
  2. Not all lines of inquiry are equally tractable with the scientific method. One line that is focuses on public health. Over the last three decades, there has been emerging evidence to support the proposition that interacting with nature benefits people’s physical and psychological well-being (Dannenberg et al., 2011; Frumkin, 2012; Kellert & Wilson, 1993; Wilson, 1984). If this proposition is true, then it needs to be better supported empirically, and we need to understand the mechanisms by which it occurs. We can then use this evidence to bridge ecopsychology to almost all peoples of the world. Such scientific evidence is not the last word in ecopsychology, but for some people it can be the first.
  3. In his classic essay on the conservation ethic, Aldo Leopold (1949/1970) argues that to effect meaningful change in the world, we need to focus not just on people’s behavior but on their “intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions” (p. 246). How do we that? One way is through good scientific research, theorizing, and argumentation; that’s at the core of this journal. But another way is through beautiful accounts of nature experience. I suspect most of us have deepened our awareness of and connection with nature through such nature writing. Thus I plan to make some space for nature writing in this journal. What I think this does, too, is more substantively connect the science—the empirical papers of this journal—with the metaphor, the poetic sensibility, the perceptions that go beyond, if not words, at least argumentation.
  4. The outgoing editor, Thomas Doherty, took good strides toward cultivating an international group. There was a recent special issue, for example, edited by Elizabeth Bragg and Joseph Reser in 2012 on ecopsychological perspectives from Australia and New Zealand. More needs to be done internationally. There is also currently the European Journal of Ecopsychology. I’m all for multiple voices. But I hope we can also move toward complementary and synergistic visions, rather than typecasting either journal and other groups by geography or narrowness of scope. As a point of comparison, some years ago I was asked if I would be willing to be editor in chief of a newly conceived European/Asian journal that was focused within a technological discipline (Human-Robot Interaction). That journal was poised to counter the “U.S.” tradition in the same field, which was viewed by many Europeans and Asians as too narrowly scientific and reductionist, if not militaristic. There was tension between these geographic communities. But at the time many of us in that field argued for a worldwide community of one—that the discourse would strengthen all of us. With effort over a few years, that’s what we achieved (HRI, 2013). Along similar lines, I would like all of us as ecopsychologists to work for healthy sustained international dialogue, with the goal of a worldwide community of one, with differences of course. It will take us a little time. But I think we can do it.
  5. Who is “us” as ecopsychologists? Right now, it’s everyone reading these words. More people need to become “us,” even as we need to deepen and expand ourselves and us as a field. I understand that this “expanding the field” idea can sound a little evangelical. But to effect change in the world, we need to draw in more people who have ecopsychological sensibilities but who currently self-identify in other disciplines: urban planners, epidemiologists, architects, neuroscientists, philosophers, landscape architects, clinicians, environmental historians, anthropologists, conservation psychologists, conservation biologists, phenomenologists, paleontologists, nature writers, nature guides, political scientists…. You name it, and at least I’d probably agree. I understand this move might worry some core people in the field who have strong opinions about what ecopsychology is and is not. I respond by saying that there’s room for all of us; and if you disagree, please bring your disagreements into the journal, so others can be privy to your position. In my view, if we hang on to the narrowness of what counts as an “official” ecopsychologist, we’ll become irrelevant.
  6. Many environmentally oriented people who advocate for the importance of nature in human lives focus on local, everyday, domestic nature. That’s important, for sure. That’s the nature that most of us have in hand, or out the door. But it’s only half the story. The other half is wild nature: that which is often big, untamed, unmanaged, self-organizing, and unencumbered by human artifice. As Hasbach and I argue in The Rediscovery of the Wild, as a species we came of age with more wild nature, and we need it still (Kahn & Hasbach, 2013). We can love the wild. We can fear it. We are strengthened and nurtured by it (Shepard, 1998; Turner, 1996). Building on this position, allow me then to be a little blunt. I think most of us have gotten too soft and that that softness has become reified in most of the major environmental and nature periodicals and discourse today. I would like to see this journal take a contrary stance. From this stance, ecopsychology can then take on a unique leadership role in arguing not just for the conservation of more wild nature but for the conservation and rediscovery of more wild interactions with it.
  7. Finally, I’ll be seeking to continue the trajectory established by Thomas Doherty toward enhancing the intellectual rigor of the journal. No matter the genre—whether it’s the scientific research paper, theoretical argument, or nature essay—there’s quality. Not everything has equal merit. I would like to ask people to submit their best work. I’ll move it through the peer-review process in as fair and supportive way as I can. I know readers will then draw on your best work in their own personal and professional lives.

One of the goals for this journal is to help position the field of ecopsychology so that it—all of you—can have an increasing role internationally to shape discourse, consciousness, and action. Please feel free to reach out to me. I welcome your ideas.


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