Ecological psychology, also known as ecopsychology or environmental psychology, is a somewhat new discipline that seeks to blend the principles of psychology with those of ecology. Ecopsychologists believe that the damage humans do to themselves and to nature stems from a spiritual and psychological separation from nature. Ecological psychology is an attempt to understand how the human mindset brought about an environmental crisis and how humans relate to that crisis. Ecological psychologists also work toward helping people recover their ability to care for the earth and for each other.
Ecopsychology presents a challenge to the human-centric mainstream approach to psychology, and it also challenges environmental activists to approach ecology from a humanist standpoint. Environmental psychology looks at the relationship between people and their physical surroundings. Ecological psychology can also be defined as the study of human behavior and the human experience from spiritual, political and physical standpoints so as to construct a sustainable world.
In the 1860s, Ernst Haeckel coined the word ecology as "that branch of science which attempts to define and explain the relationship between living organisms and their environment." Yet since that time, ecology has been studied as a physical science and not as a social science. The ecologist may study population counts and the characteristics of populations, but as a series of statistics. There is little attention given to the effect of human behavior on ecological systems.
Ecologists may distance themselves from the more human aspects of ecological science to lend validity to their chosen scientific discipline. Psychology is still seen by many as a soft science. Ecologists fear that by combining psychology with ecology, there will be a certain measure of "guilt by association," and ecology will also come to be seen as less than a serious science.
Nevertheless, the general public has begun to understand that a weak ecosystem jeopardizes human survival. Populations need to adapt to environmental changes or perish. From this perspective, the psychologist is charged with confronting human dependence on the ecology and directing efforts to ensure the survival of the species.
The ecological psychologist seeks to identify environmentally destructive behaviors. Such behavior results from the mistaken and selfish point of view that humans are separate entities and have no effect on the ecosystem. Traditional psychology is focused on improving the conditions that inform our actions, while the ecological approach takes into account the wider, deeper levels of human experience. The wider level signifies the need to consider the economic, political and global dimensions of behavior. The deeper level speaks to the spiritual interplay among man, his behavior and his environment.
At the wider level, behavior that is environmentally destructive has its roots in outside societal factors and not just at the personal level. For example, someone who drives to work each day is being environmentally irresponsible. However, not all dimensions of this destructive behavior are within the immediate control of the individual. The workplace distance is too far to traverse by foot, yet no mass transit system is available. It is viable from a financial standpoint for the worker to purchase and operate a car since the government has extended large subsidies to car manufacturers. An international trade system contributes to lower-cost gasoline. Tax dollars have been allocated by government officials for building excellent local roads. In other words, much of our damaging environmental behavior is underwritten by society and perpetuated by societal norms.
Part of agitating for transforming society into one that nurtures rather than damages the environment is found in spreading awareness of the global impact of individual behavior as well as the impact of global systems on the behavior of the individual. There is no doubt that as people become more aware of the relationship of humans to the environment and vice versa, some personal decisions will need to be made. Changing behavior is not easy and tends to cause a certain level of discomfort. However, ecopsychologists believe that a certain level of personal sacrifice is necessary for ensuring the future survival of the species and for perpetuating the ecosystem in which we live.
The main identifiable goal of ecological psychology is to find a way to teach human beings how to develop a sustainable culture to ensure survival of life on the planet. The ecopsychologist will examine human behavior from this perspective. Behaviors that promote sustainability are encouraged. Behaviors that do nothing toward sustaining the planet or that damage the planet are identified, and alternate behaviors are suggested and encouraged.