The review draws mainly on literature from the field of ecopsychology in asking how psychotherapists conceptualise the relationship between humans and the natural environment, and what the clinical implications of this might be. Particular attention is given to the Aotearoa context. The answers to this question came in two parts.
The first part spans the majority of the review, chapters three to eight. Psychotherapists‘ concepts about the relationship were organised into four categories. The concepts were organised in this way in an attempt to emphasise the clinical implications, which were referred to throughout these chapters. Each of the four categories offers different way of thinking about the human-nature relationship, which then lend themselves to different clinical interventions.
Chapter four reviewed concepts in the literature that were organised into the category of analytic materialism. Material reviewed regarding the colonisation of Aotearoa revealed themes of power and control, in which working class (mainly) English colonists were thrust into a competitive relationship with Maori. The land formed the basis of identity and sustenance for both Maori and colonists, then and now. Overall the relationship with nature from the perspective of this literature is one of competition and possessiveness, evoking oedipal themes. Pakeha ignorance of the ecology of Aotearoa was compared to Maori knowledge, and was considered to be a factor contributing to ecological destructiveness. Clinical implications of literature reviewed in this section focused on working with destructiveness and ignorance in the human-nature relationship. Various writers critiqued therapeutic neutrality as potential collusion with destructiveness, and also critiqued "psychologism" as ignorance of material reality.
Chapter five reviewed concepts in the literature that were organised into the category of empathic materialism. Literature consistently emphasised the powerful relationship between human wellbeing and the natural environment. A passive beneficial effect was well supported by quantitative evidence. Exposure to natural environments is in and of itself beneficial for a wide range of physical and mental illnesses. Literature also reviewed more active beneficial effects arising from conducting therapy in natural settings. Lastly, literature reviewed in this chapter emphasised the effect of loss of natural environments, loss that may be concealed by notions of a discrete subjective self bounded by the physical skin. Therapists must bear their own emotional responses to the loss of the natural, in order to empathise with the impact of this on their clients. The material in this chapter emphasises relationships with nature that are often overlooked or underestimated, be they healing relationships or relationships filled with agonising loss and despair.
Chapter six reviewed concepts in the literature that were organised into the category of analytic idealism. The majority of the literature in this section characterised humans as often having a narcissistic relationship with nature, with particular emphasis on narcissistic objectification, devaluation, and exploitation of the natural world. Literature emphasised the role of dominant Western culture in this narcissistic relationship, implicating aspects of religion, science, and consumerism. Katzenbach‘s reinterpretation of Oedipus contextualises the cultural critique at the birth of Western culture, and also offers the powerful metaphor of the perversion of human creativity in the act of incest. In the metaphor of incest the comparison is between natural and unnatural ways and objects of relating.
Chapter seven reviewed concepts in the literature that were organised into the category of empathic idealism. The literature emphasised gender and attachment. Chodorow‘s theories are used to consider masculine fears of dependency, as they might play out in relationship with nature. Evidence in the literature supported the relevance of attachment theory, in which relationship with nature regulates emotion and establishes sense of self. Modifications to attachment theory include the concept of an attachment ―field‖ rather than figure, an emphasis on the latency period in developing an ecological ego, and an emphasis on the group, individual, or societal context rather than dyadic context for attachment to nature.
This first part of the dissertation reviewed an array of concepts regarding the human-nature relationship, concepts that might lend themselves to a wide range of therapeutic interventions. While Aotearoa examples were used when possible, much of the material and concepts are universal to Western cultural contexts. The second part of the answers suggested in this dissertation, chapter nine, attempted to respond to the first part, bearing in mind critiques in the literature regarding universalised, technical, context-less knowledge. In chapter nine emphasis shifted from the model that has been suggested, to an emphasis on language as essential to the process of therapy addressing relations to nature. Abram‘s suggestions were utilised regarding the power of embodied, direct, beautiful, and poetic language to bring into consciousness an animistic and familial relationship with nature. Such a relationship, and the resources within western culture for recapturing this, was suggested as a foundation for relating to nature with biculturalism in mind – a biculturalism that might avoid colonising Maori or idealising or devaluing either Pakeha or Maori culture.
Whilst the concepts reviewed may be able to promote intimacy, reciprocity, healing, and insight in the human-nature relationship, in terms of research there is a huge amount of work still to be done in exploring how this might best occur. The strength of this piece of research has been to relate together the contributions of diverse fields into a whole that is coherent from a psychotherapy (particularly psychoanalytic) perspective. In my own reflections on this research process I have thought of this as being like piecing together the corner and edge pieces in a puzzle, a puzzle in which the centre is largely uncompleted and a great many puzzle pieces still lie about unsorted.
While this dissertation, and much of the field of ecopsychology, has worked on building a frame or meta-theory for the puzzle of working with the human-nature relationship, hopefully future research will begin filling in some of the centre pieces. These centre pieces might include more thorough research on clinical implications including application of Abram‘s language-animism link in therapy, more outcome research on the effect on behaviour of eco-psychological group and one to one interventions, more case studies of both one to one and group therapy in order to more fully map the depth of unconscious processes in the relationship, and more research addressing working with culture and biculturalism in relation to the environment. Whilst this review has attempted to draw some links to biculturalism, this has been limited. More full explorations of biculturalism and the human-nature relationship may not be forthcoming until there is a context of a larger social movement and more experienced researchers taking this up.
Research such as that suggested above would add more depth and detail, developing a field that is still young, and by its nature ambitiously broad in scope. Future researchers and clinicians may still have to go through a developmental step of finding their own broad meta-theories and frames for this work, before proceeding on to more detailed and deeper work. This would provide the necessary intellectual platform that, if the literature on the development of eco-psychologists is correct, would need to also be accompanied by more emotional and experiential processes of being deeply immersed in and connected to nature.
While there is a great deal of work to be done in developing clinicians and developing a depth of understanding about the psychology of the human-nature relationship, time is a factor. Recent projections indicate that in a matter of decades the consequences of global warming will be severe enough to radically affect every aspect of human civilisation (Le Page, 2007). Like all other life on earth, psychotherapists may have to adapt quickly to find their niche amidst this change.
Click to go to next section: Conclusions and Reflections on the Research