Ecopsychology

 

We can’t solve problems using the same thinking that caused those problems in the first place.  If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got.  These common sayings speak to a common impulse.  When faced with problems in the world, for many of us our first impulse is to rush out and try to change things.  But we cannot change things effectively – and, unfortunately, we may do more harm than good – if we do not first examine the attitudes and beliefs that have caused us to act in the destructive way we currently do.

 

Since Rene Descartes’ cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am – western philosophy has moved along a path of separating the mind from the body.  If the mind is the most important part of a human, the part that proves one is human, the part that sets us apart from animals and above the rest of the natural world, then the body, the emotions, are by definition less important.  As Val Plumwood showed, when we have binaries we in the west add value judgements to them, so that if mind and body are binaries, though the mind is dependent on the body, the mind is seen as superior to the body.  We can see the same effect at work in the binaries man/woman, nature/culture, light/dark, and many others.

 

What this means now is that we feel fragmented; we have lost sense of ourselves as whole creatures and we have lost sense of ourselves as connected to the whole. We are damaged by not having a healthy relationship with the earth.  Either we are not close, afraid of nature, or we feel guilty or feel grief at things that are being done to the natural world.  We yearn for a wholeness – a sense of connection with the natural world – but also a relationship of equals, of respect.  We want to not have to grieve.  We feel isolated from the thing we are grieving for, and the closeness we are not able to have with it; and isolated from each other.

 

Gestalt is a method of psychotherapy which is based on the understanding that the human mind always tries to create a wholeness (“gestalt” – roughly – in German) where there are fragments.  The human mind is a pattern-recognising machine, and will make a pattern into a whole where it can.  Considering how separated we feel from the earth, if we embrace a philosophy of moving away from hierarchies and binaries, and an understanding that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, principles of Gestalt might show us a model for a more healthy psychological interaction with the world. 

 

For example, is there something in the nature of working with materials in craft that leads to a feeling of connection with the earth?  It is a sweeping generalisation, but also possible, that those who work with their hands with natural materials have a visceral connection with those materials and thence to the wider earth. Is there something about craft that leads to a gestalt within ourselves?  Craft, as often practiced in both professional and non-professional senses, is not totally separate from the rest of life.  And perhaps this might work in more than one way.  We need to reintegrate art and life as we need to reintegrate ourselves with the earth; a sense of greater connectedness  with earth and nature and life would perhaps make us more aware not only when we make, in terms of sourcing materials, how much carbon we use in processing, transport costs of the finished article, and so on  – but also we might pay a little more attention to provenance when we buy manufactured or craft objects as consumers rather than as makers.

 

Reports on the value of craft activities in child development show that it is a necessary step, not just in areas like hand-eye coordination or small motor skills but in a wider sense of a child being able to discern and to examine limits.  There are very few activities in the modern world in which a child comes up against natural limits.  In our fear for our children we have tried to sanitise the world.  Richard Louv, in The Last Child in the Woods[1], writes of the (metaphorical) condition of Nature Deficit Disorder to describe the feeling of fear or disconnect that many children have for the natural world.  If children cannot experience a connection with a kind of wild natural power, by the age of about twelve it is suggested, they never really learn to connect with the earth.  It is not difficult to see that we are well on the way to creating a second and perhaps even a third generation who have this disconnection; and it is not hard to see the evidence of the destructive attitudes and behaviours that ensue.  But one only has to compare the feeling of achieving a difficult physical feat like climbing a large hill, surfing a big wave, or wrestling with a garden, to experience the joy that can come from the feeling of engagement with a powerful nature that does not come from just being out in the rain.  When we remember school cross-country runs, for example, we are unlikely to see them as a grapple with natural forces – more with the forces of malevolent teachers.  We resent challenges from other people: we feel achievement when we face up to nature and survive.  Forest schools and other initiatives that connect children to challenge in natural surroundings try to supply this missing link, and in craft terms, when children work with materials they cannot help but come up against non-negotiable limits.  A piece of wood can only be bent so far; clay can only be worked in certain ways.  The re-skilling initiatives within the Transition Towns movement have the potential to take this way of understanding the world and its limits to a wide audience.

 

The re-skilling – getting people back in touch with the craft skills that were central to survival in earlier times – are the “hands” part of the Transition movement.  The “heart” strand deals with our addiction to oil and implies that we need to understand the psychology of addiction before we can undergo or instigate change.  For example, climate change advertisements or other initiatives which focus on shock and guilt tend not to be very effective. As Futerra[2] says, there should be no information without agency:  if you tell people about something bad, you must give them a chance to do something about it, otherwise the cognitive dissonance will have people changing what they believe rather than what they do, which is the opposite of what the advertisements set out to achieve. 

 

Another example of this is in the work of James Hillman, a psychologist, who says that therapy is problematic as it internalises what is, in reality, a social problem.  If we look out of the window and see how bad the traffic is, see how people are largely angry and disconnected, see how polluted we are making the world, Hillman says it is counterproductive to go to therapy to talk about our dysfunctional reaction to the world.  If the world is dysfunctional, says Hillman, we need to change the world, not our perceptions or our reactions.  And the world needs people who care to be acting, not thinking about themselves.

 

If we try to better understand what a craft practice offers us individually, we will be better placed to examine what it might offer to the world in general, whether that manifests as a sense of connection to nature, as a developmental stage which leads to an understanding of challenges and limits, or as a movement like craftivism, which uses craft as a medium to drive social change and connection. Psychology as a field has much to offer if we want to change, not just the things that are difficult about the world as it is today, but the course of the cultural and personal choices that have led us to this place. If we understand the psychology of change we can better tailor our attempts to cause change.   

 

 

 

 



[1] 2008  New York:  Algonquin Books

[2] http://www.futerra.co.uk/  accessed November 7th  2009