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Ecopsychology and Wellbeing.

Ecopsychology and Wellbeing.

John Pickering, Psychology, Warwick University

ESRC Seminar Series on Wellbeing: Social and Individual Determinants

Seminar 1: Wellbeing; the interaction between person and environment'

11th September 2001, Queen Mary University of London.

Human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.

T.S. Eliot (1942). Burnt Norton.

Wellbeing is the feeling that "all’s right with the world". Here I suggest that wellbeing is diminished as media technology brings us increasingly powerful messages that all is not right. What is wrong is our violent and destructive relations ship with the global environment. Even though this may not be as easy to study with the methods of the social sciences as they now stand, it is fundamental to wellbeing. It needs to be studied properly within an appropriate theoretical framework and with appropriate styles of enquiry. I shall propose that Ecopsychology provides both.

Ecopsychology (e.g. Roszak et al., 1995 ; ) is roughly at the centre of a cluster of related disciplines, such as Ecological Psychology (e.g. Winter, 1996), Deep Ecology (e.g. Tobias, 1988 ; Deval & Session, 1985) and Environmental Psychology (e.g. Cassidy, 1997). The following remarks about Ecopsychology give some idea what it is like. They were made by Lester Brown, founder and until 2000 the director, of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington (, probably the world’s most authoritative voice on planetary wellbeing. "Ecopsychologists believe there is an emotional bond between human beings and the environment out of which we evolve. …. Ecopsychology seeks to redefine sanity within an environmental context. … Ecopsychologists are drawing upon the ecological sciences to reexamine the human psyche as an integral part of the web of nature. " (Brown, 1995)

Now in recent times this web has had another thrown over it. The global network of digital communication reminds us that the world is one place. It was an ironic co-incidence that the first in this series of seminars should have been held on September 11th. 2001. Unknown to those taking part in it, events elsewhere were providing a dark backdrop to their discussions of Wellbeing. Witnessed around the world, in real time, the attacks in America were a trauma for some and a triumph for others, signifying both the interconnectivity of and the deep divisions in the world community.

In Manhattan & Washington, Occidental hubris encountered Oriental Erynnes in a Greek tragedy but without catharsis. The response to the attacks has increased hatred of America and its allies, which prompted the attacks in the first place. There is greater danger now than before and the ‘War Against Terrorism’ will make the world a more violent place for decades. As America prepares, in the words of Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for " …. A much wider effort. It will like be sustained for years, not weeks or months.", we are moving closer to the permanent global warfare depicted in Orwell’s 1984. It is not so much between states as between the rich and the poor. This divide has always been with us, but now it has reached pathological proportions with the grotesque disparities that have emerged within the world community. Since these disparities are patently unjust, they have to be maintained by force. They will therefore be resisted by force. The consequent violence, amplified by ancient cultural enmities, is literally brought home to us via globalised communications.

Globalisation and the growth of the internet have dominated cultural change over the past few decades. Indeed, they can be seen as different aspects of the same process: "I see globalisation as a fundamental shift in our institutions ... an underlying shift in the way we live. The main driver of globalisation isn’t economic globalisation as such, it is information and communication." (Giddens, 1999; ). The new weightless economic order is a result of the digital mobility of information and value. Global communication networks have shrunk the world. The information they carry circulates and blends to create the recombinant culture of postmodernity (Harvey, 1990).

Giddens puts a positive spin on all this, seeing it as the means to wealth creation and even to fairer distribution. Digital mobility means that those in the poor world now have a greater chance to benefit by participating in postmodern capitalism. By contrast the anti-capitalist movement sees globalisation as leading to more disparity, not less. In their eys it reflects the unsustainable exploitation of people and environments by transnational corporations (Klein, 2000).

Whether it is for good or ill, and of course it will be for both, globalisation is unstoppable. It will intensify and thereby diminish cultural diversity and autonomy. Expectations based on Western lifestyles, spread via the internet, are the hypermobile shocktroops of postmodern capitalism images of unsustainable wealth sear into vulnerable minds. They create desires wherever they go and the fulfillment of those desires becomes central to wellbeing as

The force of the internet is not only economic but semiotic. It signifies the interconnectivity of our economic and political lives. Moreover, it actively creates what it signifies through its power to transform. The turbulent, spaceless interconnectivity of the internet is an unmistakable, albeit preconscious, reminder of the braided lives of all those who live on our world. The medium is the message and the message, appropriately, is that we have been living in McLuhan's global village for decades.

This has meant that the world’s violence is known to us in a new and intimate way. The connection between violence and rich lifestyles is becoming clearer daily. Images, more immediate and vivid than even a decade ago, remind people in the wealthy world that their secure and abundant lifestyles do not come for free. The cost is violence done to people, to cultures and to the environment. This was clearly recognised by Walter Benjamin, writing amid the dark geopolitics of the 1930’s that produced the second world war and his suicide. He saw that when society cannot contain the power of technology, the result is violence and the celebration of violence. The Disneyfication of the warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia demonstrate that he was all too prescient. There is more trouble ahead and even if geographically speaking it is ‘elsewhere’ it’s also going to be closer to home.

Now, we cannot disown this violence, since we know much more than Benjamin did about what produces it. The violent damage being inflicted our biological and cultures is patent. Even though it may be elsewhere in real space, that space has been shrunk by globalisation. As people resist and protest, there is more violence. It is not only Manhattan & Washington but also Seattle and Genoa that show that ‘elsewhere’ is closer than it used to be. Violence from which we benefit or which is connected with the way we live belongs to us. Since it is done in our names, we are involved. We feel responsible.

But this violence is out of control. Even those in power are powerless, given the decline of the nation state as a global political player (Hutton, 1996) Transnational corporations exert enormous geopolitical influence and yet are beyond political restraint. People have disengaged with the political processes, disenchanted as spin and misrepresentation are amplified by media technology. Distortion, intentional and not, makes it impossible to trust the ever-present media barrage. Real geopolitical events are obscured and misrepresented by what Baudrillard has termed the ‘hyperreal’. This is: " …. the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal..." : (Baudrillard, 1983, page 166). We feel powerless.

Now if people do feel responsible and yet powerless it surely diminishes their wellbeing. The effects may not be close to the surface of our conscious lives, but they are important nonetheless. Of course, they are overlaid by a host of distractions. Distant tragedies may evoke sympathy, but unless they directly affect our lives, they are soon forgotten. What's happening elsewhere may be distressing, but it is elsewhere, even though elsewhere is closer than it used to be. Things closer to home will still be more significant if they are sources of stress and anxiety. Even in the rich world, someone living in poor conditions has got enough to worry about. Without work or security we are not likely to feel much concern about events in Afghanistan or even in New York. Only when our basic needs are met is there the space to feel concern for others; when they are not, our concerns are for ourselves.

Here the psychology of needs and motivation provides a framework. Maslow, a founding figure in humanistic psychology, represented human needs as a hierarchy or pyramid. At the bottom are basic needs to do with the preservation of life that we share with other animals. All living beings need air, water, food, shelter and safety. Next up are social and emotional needs some of which we share with other social animals. These are our needs to belong to social networks. At the top come the uniquely human need for self-actualisation: to understand ourselves and our place in the world and to strive for the maximum of consciousness. Higher needs are conditional on lower ones having been met. If you can’t breathe, you won't notice being hungry, if you’re hungry you forget you’re lonely, and so on. Once needs at lower levels are met, needs at higher levels may receive attention, if our social environment encourages us to do so.

Now, over the past few centuries those in industrialised societies have found it increasingly easy to meet their basic needs. Of course, this doesn’t mean they have always been met. The sufferings depicted in ‘Hard Times’ and ‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists’ were real enough. But they were depictions of poverty amidst wealth. The monstrous disparities of Victorian England are now globalised, although as yet there is no Dickens or Tressell to protest about them. However, within the industrialised nations themselves, wealth and security have been increasing. Since the mid twentieth century people in the rich world have enjoyed what Franklin Roosevelt called the "more abundant life".

If wellbeing primarily depended on needs being met and if people in wealthy societies are becoming more able to meet them, then wellbeing should be increasing. Surveys show that economic indicators like GDP and unemployment levels do indeed predict reported wellbeing, at least in the developed countries (di Tella et al., 2001). At the same time other surveys of the same populations also reveal a steadily increasing incidence of mental and psycho-somatic illnesses coupled with consumption of anti-depressants (e.g. Skaer et al., 2000). Our basic needs may be met, but all is not well.

But then, it never was. Suffering is the universal condition, as the Buddha realised. Western philosophers from Schopenhauer to Sartre have also detected discontent at the core of human experience. It would be well to bear this in mind as we inquire into wellbeing. We should not try to eliminate that which cannot be eliminated, especially as it can be a source of growth (Young-Eisendrath, 1996; Gilbert, 1989).

Nonetheless, there does seem to be something amiss, over and above the normal trials of life. The last century or so has been called "the age of anxiety", something that McLuhan explained as " … the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools, with yesterday’s concepts." (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967). In one sense, however, "today’s job" is what it has always been: to seek wellbeing and to feel whole. But this is made more difficult when identity is increasingly open to indefinite redefinition. Our job today, as one celebrant of the postmodern condition puts it, is "to eclect" what to be (Jencks, 1996). Our tools, however, are those of yesterday, the notions of personal autonomy,, identity and responsibility bequeathed us by Locke, Kant and Mill.

The postmodern turn has provided new tools however. It has prompted a re-appraisal of our assumptions of stable personal identity and individual autonomy. Instead of taking them as absolute, we can also regard them as relative to the social system in which they are constructied and maintained. The psychology of postmodern selfhood now " ... focuses on the way in which we construct our experience, especially our sense of self, from messages in our quickly changing culture." Winter (1996). Our culture is indeed changing quickly and we are immersed in a sea of options, digitally enhanced and mobilised. Images, slogans and intellectual fashions make recommendations, both explicit and not, about how to look, speak and think - in short, about what to be.

This choice of identity is exciting while at the same time contributing to the "stress of modern life". Clearly "stress", like "wellbeing" is a complex condition with a range of components . One of these, at the somewhat neglected global end of the range, may be a growing preconscious, awareness of the troubled relationship between the self and the world. Selfhood is constructed using what the culture around it provides. What we take our selves to be is in turn taken from what our cultural context defines a self to be. In the wealthy world selfhood is bound closely bound to what a rich and abundant culture can offer. These lifestyles in turn cannot be separated from the relationships with the rest of the world that make those lifestyles possible.

Globalised communications are showing us that the lifestyles of the rich are unsustainable and are the cause of violence. Yet even as the environmental costs are becoming clearer, images of such lifestyles are creating expectations and desires around the world. Those enjoying the lifestyles are unconcerned for the most part. At the 'Earth Summit' held in Rio in 1992, the developing nations drew the attention of the then US president George Bush snr. to the over-consumption by the US and other rich countries. He dismissed their concerns with the remark: "The American Way of Life is not up for negotiation".

Now, George Bush jnr. has launched the "War Against Terrorism". Like any complex geopolitical campaign it has many interleaved objectives. One of these is for the US and its allies to increase military control over the energy resources of the middle east and the Caspian basin. Rich lifestyles need cheap energy and energy is cheap so long as extraction costs can be kept low and the environmental costs are not met, or are met by others. Consuming the global commons at an unsustainable rate and degrading the environments of those who do not benefit is unjust. It is also unsafe. As people in the poor world realise the direction of geopolitics, they realise that it will be increasingly difficult for them to meet their needs in the future. They will do whatever they can to protect themselves, including the use of violence.

Present indications are that this geopolitical situation will worsen over the next century or so. Unmet needs create violence and if the needs in question threaten our existence in the short term then the violence is correspondingly immediate. If we are being choked, we will fight for air, if we are being ignored, we will fight for attention. But equally, if the needs are longer term ones or are anticipations of being prevented from meeting our future needs, then although the response may be more planned and strategic, it will be nonetheless violent for all that.

The base of Maslow's hierarchy of needs is universal. Our needs to be nourished and to feel safe are not imposed by culture, although there may be cultural conventions about how they are expressed. As we move further up the hierarchy there is a shift in the balance between universal and culturally imposed needs and universal needs may be transformed by cultural influences into acquired ones. When these include a digitally mobilised flood of preconscious imperatives about what to wear, about what shape to be and about what it is fashionable to say and think, the middle and upper levels of Maslow's hierarchy becomes bloated with acquired needs. While children in the poor world look to their parents for food, those in the rich world nag theirs for the ‘right’ clothes. Their intrinsic need for social identity has been converted by advertising into the need to possess. A brand of trainers, functionally identical to a host of others, can be made so desirable that children are mugged for their sake.

Advertising hijacks natural needs and converts them into desires that are hard to recognise and impossible to meet. The meanings attached to products often tap into Maslow’s hierarchy at the social level. Clothes can come to mean group membership and hence to satisfy a need to belong. Guided by digitally mobilised sales figures, advertising campaigns constantly re-tune the meanings of products. If needs can be made to remain unmet, demand will remain high. Even when we have enough, it must be made to seem unsatisfactory. A sales executive put it this way in the 1950’s: "It’s our job to make women unhappy with what they have". Advertising in 1950 was a cottage industry compared with the corporate enterprise it is today. Its impact on wellbeing, not only in the rich countries but also globally, should not be underestimated.

In a recent anthology on ecopsychology, it was put like this: "Corporate advertising is likely the largest single psychological project ever undertaken by the human race, yet its stunning impact remains curiously ignored by mainstream Western psychology. We suggest that large scale advertising is one of the main factors that creates and maintains a particular form of narcissism ideally suited to consumerism. As such, it creates artificial needs within people that directly conflict with their capacity to form a satisfying and sustainable relationship with the natural world." (Kanner & Gomes, 1995)

Wellbeing depends on a healthy balance between met and unmet needs. Advertising creates artificial needs which are designed to be permanently un-meetable. They act as an irritant, undermining our sense of balance between what we have, what we need and what we want. Unmet needs are those of which we are generally most conscious, but, being conscious they are subject to scrutiny and, with luck, proper management. Basic needs like thirst provide the information required to satisfy them. If you’re thirsty or hungry, you know what you lack. Artificially imposed needs, by contrast, are preconscious and hence harder to recognise. They are harder to meet because we don’t know what we want – only that we want it very badly. When they are specifically designed and constantly modified to stimulate consumption, they are virtually impossible to satisfy.

Gandhi remarked that: "The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not for some people’s greed". Someone who experiences the world from this view point will feel fundamentally secure. Corporate greed, got secondhand via the advertising industry makes people feel insecure. The world cannot seem ever to provide enough. The natural needs of the world’s peoples can be met, and met sustainably, given the technological resources we now possess (Seabrook, 1985; ). Artificial needs created and imposed by media campaigns, by contrast, are designed specifically not to be met. The technology for imposing them, like other forms of violence, is running out of control and producing more violence in the process. Someone who feels incomplete without this or that commodity will struggle to obtain it. There’s nothing wrong with the commodity, nor in fact with the struggle to feel complete. The problem arises when one is attached to the other. A child who kills another for their trainers or a nation that subverts the government of another for their own economic ends are two symptoms of a single disorder.

We are likely to become more aware of this as global networks bring the evidence to us. Inevitably, this evidence will be distorted and sensationalised in hyper-reality. But despite the smoke and mirrors, it is unmistakable that there is an ecological crisis, and a deep one. The perspective on this from ecopsychology is that we need to seek an appropriately deep solution.

The ecological crisis is a psychological crisis of which globalised violence is a symptom. It concerns the pathological consumption required to meet pathological needs. The condition is not one that globalisation has created, it was noted by Eric Fromm as early as 1940 in his The Fear of Freedom. He realised that as contemporary culture loosened traditional constraints in the name of freedom, the result was a type of emotional vacuity ideal for consumerism to fill. The condition was even more noticeable some thirty years later when he wrote To Have or to Be?

Now it is not so much noticeable as starkly definitive of contemporary lifestyles. What some ecopsychologists have called the "All-consuming Self" is a narcissistic condition in which selfhood, having been detached by zadvertising from more natural support, becomes too strongly defined by possession. The boundary between the self and the world becomes indefinitely expandable and hence disappears, a deeply pathological condition (Hillman, 1995). To be a self is now to possess this or that thing which is not self. If this need to possess is pathologically inflated, the self/world boundary becomes a moving frontier of greed. The answer to the question: "How much is enough?" is now another question: "What’s ‘enough’?". A media-induced trance of unlimited consumption is a global danger. Cultures in which it has taken hold will violently wrest what they want from the environment and from other cultures. This can be concealed within hyper-reality to some extent, but preconsciously the news leaks out. Combined with preconscious needs for self-actualisation that cannot be met, it makes for a powerful degradation of wellbeing.

Self-actualisation, lying at the top of Maslow's hierarchy, is our most important need and it is crucial to wellbeing. When the integrity of the self is threatened, wellbeing is impaired. The technologies of desire that have appeared within the industrial and post industrial cultures have fundamentally diminished the integrity of the self. Weber described the world as transformed by the industrial revolution as ‘disenchanted’ (Weber, 1958). One of the drivers of colonialism and the Westward expansion in America was an effort to re-enchant the world by the appropriation of exotic lands (Berman, 1981). To those already living there, the invaders were seen as maddened by the need to consume. The Hopi Indians, as their way of life was being destroyed, recognised the malaise of the white people. It was ‘koyaanisqatsi’, a term from their own vocabulary of mental illness, meaning, ‘a life out of balance’ ( ).

Wellbeing depends on a life in balance. If our way of life is being driven deeply out of balance by artificial and unsustainable needs, this has to be addressed if we are to carry out research that is appropriate and useful. Most social sciences, reflecting the ethos of modernity, model their research on the natural sciences. They mainly deal with things that can be counted and with the more immediate, rational, determinants of wellbeing. The contribution of ecopsychology might be to complement this with research that reflects the ethos of postmodernity. It advances a research programme in which there is a more even balance between quantitative and qualitative methods, in which preconscious psychological determinants are treated seriously and in which researchers are no longer neutral external observers but participants.

The ESRC, in making wellbeing one of its thematic priorities, needs to inquire into the deeper qualitative issues raised by the way we live as well as carrying out quantitative studies. Studying social relations can be done on many levels and the wider world community should not be ignored. Healthy outcomes may be sought at both the individual and the collective levels. But the latter is primary: it is harder to promote healthy individuals in sick societies than it is to help sick individuals in healthy ones. The teaching and learning of ecopsychology makes sense since we all inhabit the same environment. Ecopsychology seeks to make people aware of the deep reciprocity between the way we live and the impact that has on other cultures and the biosphere. In making sense of the world we cannot ignore our impact on it.

If our research simply takes growth, and abundant consumption for granted and then bolts on them modernist notions of selfhood, it will not address anything radically new. Of course, research carried out guide policy is not meant to address anything radically new. Quite the reverse. Its role is to stabilise and consolidate the power of those who fund it. Hence, it is normative and consensual. It is about finding out what will keep people happy so they will continue to support political institutions. Investigating the effect of the built environment on wellbeing could be an illustrative case. Most people in the UK live in cities. Helping to make the urban environment good to live in seems worthwhile, as indeed it is, in a limited sense. But if the life support for the world community is threatened by urbanised lifestyles, it is parochial and short sighted. Quantitative studies of urban wellbeing do not address the problem deeply enough.

For ecopsychologists, the object of our research needs to be the geopolitical pathology that threatens global wellbeing. Such research integrates with and complements conventional research very well (Bragg, 1997). It is not a luxury to be enjoyed by those with leisure and freedom from more immediate needs. If we are to promote wellbeing in the longer term and on a global scale, we must recognise the interdependence of self and environment. Then harm to the environment would then be experienced as harm to the self. This is far more effective in helping those in rich world to change their consumptive lifestyles. Moralising and alarmism, what Roszak calls "guilt trips and scare tactics" certainly don’t work (Roszak, 1995).


Wellbeing depends on feeling in balance with our environment. This relationship is obscured by massive propaganda that converts natural needs into the need to consume. Nonetheless, consciously or unconsciously, we know that violence is being done in our name, we fear things are going to get worse and we feel we are powerless.

Ecopsychology is an attempt to recognise and remedy all this. As a psychological analysis of human wellbeing, it suggests that research has to extend beyond the human sphere. If we confine our research to quantitative analyses of urban lifestyles in the wealthy world, we may not even be re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, but merely asking their occupants how comfortable they are.


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