Radical Ecopsychology? A Book Review.

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In a second edition of his Radical Ecopsychology Andy Fisher comments that if he were writing the book now he would stress that ‘an ecopsychology that faces the psychological dimension of ecological crisis head on [would] not pretend that the psyche -as an inter-relational phenomenon- can be disentwined from either nature or society’.  Psychology, in other words, cannot be disentangled from political ecology.  This updated edition (published in 2013) was written at the time of the Occupy Wall Street Protest against a backdrop of mounting concern about climate change and peak oil, by an author moving in a more ecosocialist direction whilst still affirming ‘a deep love of the land and its creatures, our erotic attraction for wild and sensuous things, our innate desire to know the stars and the planets, the birds and the mammals’.

A new chapter reviews the difficulty of establishing ecopyschology within a discipline dominated by a scientific paradigm, and calls for writing grounded in interdisciplinary dialogue, Marxian dialectical praxis, and the researcher’s lived experience.  Frustratingly, however, no personal material is added to a book that, in my view, remains overly theoretical and abstract.  Discussion of internal debates (critiquing ‘second generation ecopsychology’ and ecotherapy) may be helpful to those involved in the subdiscipline but is unlikely to excite the general reader.  I was encouraged, though, both by the author’s insistence that ecopsychology programmes need to ‘interpret the earth as ensouled, with its own subjectivity’, rather than as a psychological resource, and by his enthusiasm for a community-focussed heroin addiction recovery programme in a Mexican village which uses indigenous land based traditions to tackle ‘the severe state of dislocation caused by a brutal history of capitalism and colonialism’.(1)

Radical Ecopsychology is a dense and thought provoking book describing a project that I’m in broad agreement with, but I want to focus here on several areas that I’m uncomfortable with, or have a different take on.

As a former community deveopment worker I wholeheartedly agree about the value of community empowerment, cultural ownership, and processes of decolonisation, but am not convinced that Andy Fisher has grasped the extent of the colonising tendency of the psy-disciplines themselves, including his own. In his concern to promote ‘a wide range of practices, even if some will be less obviously “ecopsychological” than others’, the author may have unwittingly colludeded with a tendency to psychologise (and thus individualise and depoliticise) areas of life -community development, activism, meditation, spirituality- which are simply not the business of psychology.  I felt that he wasn’t clear enough about this.

Although (in the main body of the original book) he mentions ‘mental health oppression’ (as defined within Re-evauation Co-counselling, a not unproblematic self-help therapy movement he has been involved in, and endorses unquestioningly) he relies on professional critics of medicalisation whilst overlooking the contribution of a diverse and energetic psychiatric user/survivor movement that has produced a prolific literature at least since the 1980’s.  I was troubled by his decision to organise a substantial portion of the book around ‘five figures of psychopathology’.  Reframing psychopathology as suffering (pathos) of the soul, and citing the Buddhist view that suffering is endemic to ‘the Egoic mode of existence’, or to writers such as Gendlin, who talks about ‘malfunctioning character structures’ and ‘pathological repetitions’, is unlikely to win many converts from the critical mental health or survivor movements, given the provenance of that profoundly normative term.

Given Andy Fisher’s strong advocacy of marginalised spiritual approaches, and his concern about the intrusiveness of ‘natural scientific disclosure of nature’, I was also uncomfortable with his choice of the term ‘naturalistic’ to describe his approach.  Perhaps as a former geologist he’s more comfortable with it than I am, though in a rare and powerful instance of personal disclosure he describes his own profound emotional discomfort at the act of splitting a rock sample in a laboratory -“a voice inside me screamed …..”.  In justification he turns to Erazim Kohak’s assertion that naturalism, in a generic sense, refers to ‘any philosophy that recognises the being of humans as integrally linked to the being of nature […] as fundamentally at home in the cosmos.'(2)  Given the conventional association of ‘naturalistic’ with literal depiction (in art), denial of otherworlds, spirits, or deities (in religious studies), and reductive rationalism (in science), however, I would have much preferred some other term such as biocentric, or animic.(3)

SAM_7002trtrtr_1Andy Fisher characterises postmodern thought as ungrounded ‘relativism’, disconnected with the real or material world.  Some postmodern writing undoubtedly deserves such approbrium, but the proto-postmodern Nietzsche, Michel Foucualt, and broadly postmodern feminists such as Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, and Val Plumwood, have much to say about the nature of power, personhood, embodiment, the politics of identity, and ecology.  Foucault in particular produced some of the most powerful critique of psychology and influenced subsequent critics such as Ian Parker and Nikolas Rose, who don’t appear in Radical Ecopsychology’s index.  Nor does Red Therapy, a socialist self-help therapy collective based in London in 1970’s (who were perhaps little known outside the U.K).  More surpisingly, the new chapter doesn’t mention Roy Bhaskar, the influential socialist theorist of critical realism whose late Ken-Wilbur-esque spiritual turn appears to have flummoxed some of his former followers.

I would contend that writers influenced by postmodernism have often come up with better critique and guidelines for practice than their ‘realist’ colleaguesAndy Fisher is concerned about what he sees as a denial of ‘human nature’, but, I think, understimates the harm done by conservative appropriation of that concept, particularly in defence of hegemonic masculinity.  Lynn Segal, for example, has complained about dominant discourses of male sexuality as ‘a phallic imperative impelled by a primordial and transhistorical drive’.(4)

His enthusiasm for the universalist concept of human nature, ‘the common human being’, leads Fisher to cite ‘a worldwide epidemic of traumatic stress’, and to relate this to developmental needs for ‘trustworthy social relations’, and to ‘develop basic human powers such as boundary setting and handling one’s emotional life’.  ‘If we had no nature trauma would have no meaning’.  Against this, post-psychiatrist Pat Bracken, informed by Foucault (as well as by anthropology and phenomenology) argues persuasively, from personal experience of treating traumatised people in non-Western settings, including torture victims, against imposing culturally inappropriate Western diagnostic and treatment protocols.(5)  In such contexts the long term solution to trauma of this kind lies in controlling the arms trade, and in decolonisation and democratisation, of course.

I would reccomend postpsychiatry -a radically pared down, client centred, pluralist, non dogmatic, open minded, dialogical, approach to helping people experiencing madness and/or distress- as a model for ecopsychology.(6)  Professionals informed by postmodern theory tend to be strong on listening to marginalised voices, not least those of service users/survivors/clients.  Hopefully the next edition of Radical Ecopsychology will be as radical in relation to psychology as it is in relation to political economy/ecology.

For those who regard ‘socialism’ as tarnished beyond recuperation, Jamie Heckert has drawn attention to the close affinity between ecopsychology and anarchist traditions.  Again, however, there is a need for clarity about the boundaries of psychology.  Ecopsychology may have much to learn from processes of direct democracy, and activists may benefit from the reflective space of counselling or therapy, but lets be clear that activism is not therapy and politics are not reducible to psychology.  Depending on individual circumstances, activism, peaceful retreat, meditation, music, art, friendship, community, including the wider community of more-than-human nature, celebration, meaningful work, adventure, fun, and love, may well be the best forms of ‘therapy’?

B.T 15/9/15.


(1) Chellis Glendenning, Chiva, A Village Takes on the Global Heroin Trade, Gabriola Island B.C, New Society, 2005.

(2) Erazim Kohak, The Embers and the Stars, University of Chicago Press, 1984.

(3) on ‘animic’ see Tim Ingold.

(4) Lynn Segal Slow Motion; Changing Masculinities, Changing Men, Virago 1990/1997.

(5) Pat Bracken Trauma; Culture, Meaning and Philosophy, Whurr Publishers, 2002.

(6) Pat Bracken and Phil Thomas, Postpsychiatry, Mental Health in a Postmodern World, Oxford University Press.


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