What would happen if we moved the therapist’s office outside? In fact, what would happen if we invited Earth to be our therapist? A number of recent approaches gathered under the name of Ecotherapy have been doing just that, with impressive results. “Ecotherapy” was coined by pastoral counselor and Civil Rights activist Howard Clinebell in 1996 to describe healing through conscious reconnection with the natural world. The term has since been expanded to include interactions with animals, gardening therapy, recreational therapy, wilderness excursion work, various forms of “green” exercise, and a number of other “healing as though the Earth mattered” practices, many discussed in the anthology Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind.
Some documented examples of Ecotherapy include: equine therapy for Veterans; walking outdoors to decrease depression, becoming nicer through nature; urban environments and their effects; nature as vital to mental and physical health; and, a study showing environmental effects on addiction treatment and prevention.
Of course, there have always been purported nature cures. Every year, thousands of us visit forests, beaches, and national parks. But most of this activity goes in only one direction—from nature to the recipients of its benefits and beauty. If true healing involves mutuality and creativity, when we utilize nature solely for our own entertainment we abandon that outcome and simply engage in exploitation.
Ecotherapy seeks a deeper transformation from spectators and exploiters of nature into its friends and advocates. For the practitioner, plants, animals, rivers, and landscapes are active, creative partners who should benefit from what they give us, rather than serving as mere tools or backdrops. Gardens should flourish, soils regenerate, dogs and dolphins enjoy their work with us and receive our protection and respect in return for all they provide.
Ecotherapy is not psychotherapy, nor does it replace psychiatry, but it challenges both to
reconceptualize their view of human nature as embedded in the environment. We cannot expect to feel well in ailing cities or toxic lands. For humans to be sane and whole, our healing and that of our planet must be mutually supportive.
I spoke about partnering with the natural world at last year’s Bioneers conference in California when asked during a panel discussion about working to protect and restore the environment. My reply included the following:
- Be careful not to shame and blame your audience for not caring enough about the planet. Quite a few people grew up being told how to be “saved” in negative, guilt-inflaming terms. Using the same tone to tell them how to save the planet only induces them to tune out the message.
- It is difficult to handle bad news about global warming or mass extinction without a supportive container for making sense of these grim tidings and for creating and testing new courses of action. Ecotherapists do small-group work with this in mind. Connecting these groups would widen the container of support and expand the laboratory of cultural transformation.
- Nobody will protect what they do not love. Ecotherapy shows people how to get back in direct touch with the cycles of nature, the sensibility and feel of growing things, and the increasingly obvious intelligence of animals (as recent interspecies communication research demonstrates). We see that we are not alone here, other beings matter, and landscapes which do so much for us need our attention. We advocate without necessarily being traditionally political. Earth as an all-creative entity knows no political parties, only people trying to live happily here.
For me, Ecotherapy begins answering a question I often pose to my graduate students: “What will it take for us to finally feel at home on our world?”