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Permaculture and Ecopsychology

Coming home to our souls

Permaculture as a practical set of design tools often has a focus on finding the equilibrium between elements within a system and aiming to sustain or restore the balance so that the system as a whole benefits. This thinking can lead to us moving the perspective inwards towards finding balance in ourselves and thus benefiting our physical, spiritual and mental health.

But what is the connection between our health and that of our environment? Can we really find balance within our own bodies and minds while the world which sustains us is being destroyed and if not, how can we address this imbalance? One practice we can look to in order to illuminate such issues is that of ecopsychology. This article will look at what ecopsychology is and how it is connected to permaculture, with some key perspectives offered as suggestions for achieving balance within our own lives.

What is ecopsychology?

Ecopsychology is a holistic psychological approach which accepts that as human beings, we (and our minds) are inseparable from the more-than-human world (see for example 1,2). That is, the intricately connected web of intercommunication which weaves itself around us and which surrounds us with the call of bird-song, the scent of new-falling rain on the soil, the way the air tastes as we take a deep breath, the sudden splash of bright colours of butterfly wings, the delicate touch of a spiderweb as we brush past; all we observe and interact with throughout our lives.

As we are embedded in this environment, growing out of it as Alan Watts would say (3), so all our mental, spiritual and physical health is connected to the health of the natural world which nourishes us and will eventually be nourished by us when we have breathed our final breath. Therefore, ecopsychology accepts “the ecological view that we are members of the biotic community, rather than its mere exploiters, [so that] we may learn to recognise the natural world as a social and psychological field, just as we do the human community” (1).

Coming home to our souls…

The meaning of the term ‘ecopsychology’, though probably unfamiliar to many readers, may nevertheless be easy to guess, since it is composed of three Greek root-words which are in quite common usage, ‘eco’,psyche’ and ‘logos’. I would like to briefly go into the meanings of these root words as it illuminates the deeper goal of ecopsychology practitioners.

Logos’ as a Greek word-root is usually translated as meaning “word”, but also “reason” or “plan” and is usually used to describe when we put words and reason to something, i.e. we study it. Many readers will be aware that ‘psyche’ is related to “mind”, but the origin of the word ‘psyche’ can be more closely translated as “soul”. Finally, the prefix ‘eco’ comes from the Greek ‘oikos’, which means “home” (1).

Ecopsychology, then, can be said to be to “approach the psyche in relation to its earthly or natural home, its native abode” (1), the giving of voice to our souls’ home; or to put it another way, the study of ‘coming home to our souls’.

How is ecopsychology connected to permaculture?

Andy Fisher, author of ‘Radical Ecopsychology’, says that the best term for describing ecopsychology is as a ‘project’ (1), since it provides a particular lens with which to view ourselves and the world, and some specific tools, but does not prescribe particular methods or institutions, and, since it has such an intense focus on connecting with our environment, the outcomes of any particular practice are always dependent upon context. In this sense it can be seen as very similar to permaculture.

Following our roots

In recognising that ‘psyche’ can be seen as the property not only of human minds but as present in some form in all living things, ecopsychology is related very closely to the myriad so-called ‘primitive’ or ‘traditional’ world-views of various communities around the world, which world-views right now are usually loosely grouped together as one perspective or practice known as “shamanic” (see for example 1, 2,).

This term comes with a lot of related associations in the world of permaculture, unfortunately not all of them positive; however, it is helpful in as much as it can define a way of thinking and relating to the world which is shared by numerous peoples around the world and throughout history. Many of these traditional perspectives are also the original inspiration for permaculture thinking (see for example 4). Both ecopsychology and permaculture, then, can be clearly seen to be following a clear line of traditional thought which in many cases goes back tens of thousands of years, and translating this into useful tools for modern-day society.

The permaculture perspective also recognises that we are closely linked with the beings and elements of the world around us and that it is important to consider the needs of others (other than human) as well as our own needs; if only because usually providing for the needs of the world around us also helps us to fulfil our own needs.

Giving tools

Both ecopsychology and permaculture utilise practical, observable phenomena which can be directly sensed in order to achieve holistic aims, and although both are aimed at directing the human perspective outwards to include the more-than-human community, the practical element is focussed firmly on what we as humans can achieve; since we are the ones putting it into practice.

This is most clear with the central importance of ‘People Care’ in permaculture thinking (4, 5) and the emphasis on human-centred design; and with ecopsychology in that it recognises that the so-called “rift” in between ourselves and the natural world is one which has been artificially constructed by we ourselves, and therefore we can be the ones to heal it (1, 6).

How ecopsychology can help us to illuminate our permaculture practice

The idea of “coming home to our souls” can have deep and far-reaching impact. Fisher points out that

Modern society is in an extreme, pathological state of rupture from the reality of the natural world, as is indicated on a daily basis by the ecological crisis.” (1)

If we view the ecological crisis as part of a kind of collective psychological sickness, we can perhaps find not only compassion for ourselves and those around us who are engaged in environmental destruction, but also find ways to heal this sickness. We can look at the way of thinking which most encourages exploitation and destruction of the natural world as being wildly disconnected from our place within it. This means that those who think in this way probably feel very much alone in the world. As psychologist CG Jung (arguably the first ecopsychologist) put it,

No voices now speak to man from stones, plants, and animals, nor does he speak to them believing they can hear. His contact with nature has gone, and with it has gone the profound emotional energy that this symbolic connection supplied.” (7)

Since many somehow think that the world around us is made up of inanimate objects, we feel this as a keen sense of loss and isolation, even if we do not put such feelings into words. Ecopsyschology can help as a perspective to rebuild this connection, and thus help in all our other holistic practices, including that of permaculture.

Ecopsychology can perhaps most usefully be applied as part of the wider ‘culture’ aspect of permaculture, such as that recommended by David Holmgren with the “Seven Domains of Permaculture Action”; Land and Nature Stewardship, Building, Tools and Technology, Education and Culture, Health and Spiritual Well-being, Finances and Economics, and Land Tenure and Community Governance (8).

Want to learn more?

Ecopsychology is a continued source of help and inspiration to me in all of my holistic design practices, both in terms of inner work and outer communication, with humans and other beings. If you are interested in learning more I can recommend checking out some of the books in the ‘references’ section, and you can be sure I will include ecopsychological thinking in many future articles too.

Image by Sofia Cristina Córdova Valladares from Pixabay

References

  1. Fisher, A, 2002. Radical Ecopsychology. SUNY Press: New York City, USA.
  2. Abram, D, 1997. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. Vintage: New York City, USA.
  3. Watts, A, 1966. The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Vintage: New York City, USA.
  4. Mollison, B; Holmgren, D, 1988. Permculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari: Tasmania, Australia.
  5. Permaculture Principles, 2019. ‘Permaculture Ethics: People Care’. https://permacultureprinciples.com/ethics/people-care/ – retrieved 9/8/19
  6. Shepard, P, 1982. Nature and Madness. Sierra Club Books: San Francisco, USA.
  7. Jung, C. G., & Franz, M.-L. V, 1964. Man and His Symbols. Doubleday: Garden City, N.Y, USA.
  8. Permaculture Principles, 2019. ‘The Seven Domains of Permaculture Action’. https://permacultureprinciples.com/flower/ – retrieved 9/8/19

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth) I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and since then have been traveling the world learning about and practicing permaculture. Born in London, I've lived in a number of places in England, Spain, the Basque Country, and Italy. My mum lives in Leipzig (Germany) so I've spent some time there. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and have recently become interested in dance meditation. Currently, I live in Thailand in a Forest Buddhism community school, so you can expect lots of tropical permaculture related articles in future.

4 Comments

  1. What was the initial cause of that rupture? The only explanation I have found to be completely thorough is that put forward by Jeremy Griffith in his treatise on the human condition and presented in his book “Freedom” It is also the most difficult blind spot for people to overcome and is almost universally avoided and yet it is the most important step in the reconciliation of humans with their shadows, with each other, and the larger comprehensive community of all earths beings. Without a functioning central hub no wheel will function.

  2. I think you’ll find the Permaculture ethics all carry equal importance. Human centred design gives priority to humans not the ecosystem.

    1. Hi Lizzy! Thanks for your comment. I absolutely agree with you that any design needs to include all the beings present within the system, not only humans, and I can understand how my wording in the article may be unclear.
      To clarify, then:
      What I mean, and what I think Mollison and Holmgren were encouraging, when I talk about ‘human-centered design’, is design which begins with the designer themselves, which in our cases, would have to be humans. If I make a design whose main focus is to grow a forest, the trees may well start growing but if I haven’t provided for the humans who planted them then they will not be able to survive within the system, and so either have to input elements from outside it (which is less energy efficient), or stop living (which may not be desirable at that moment).
      What I think ecopsychology, among other techniques, can help us to remember is that we are part of a wider ecosystem whose health is interlinked with our own. For me, the easiest way to create lasting and fundamental change with this is to encourage the felt sensation of this connection. From an ecopsychological point of view, anytime we engage in environmental destruction we are psychologically lost. The challenge, then, is to find a way to ‘come home to our souls’. How you achieve this in your own personal experience is of course up to you.
      I hope this helps.

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