Brenda Lovick

Book Review

Clinebell, Howard. Ecotherapy: Healing Ourselves, Healing the Earth.
New York: Haworth Press, 1996.

Imagine a world where you are surrounded by bright screens, digital images, concrete and asphalt, and car exhaust. This is a world where you live by artificial light and continuously controlled temperatures. Sound familiar?

In Ecotherapy: Healing Ourselves, Healing the Earth, Howard Clinebell challenges this industrial, technologically-advanced environment in which many humans live, especially in the Western world. This is called alienation from nature, or eco-alienation, and it can cause many physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health problems for humanity. He urges humanity to heal itself by taking some time to reconnect with nature and to reconnect with one’s mind-body-spirit well-being. The goal is to help individuals participate in eco-bonding where they would learn to more actively participate with nature and learn to love the planet. This book is written for caregivers: therapists, counselors, social workers, psychologists, pastoral counselors, teachers, parents, grandparents, and medical professionals are all considered part of the population that could benefit from the insights of Clinebell’s work. People of all ages can benefit from the interventions that he suggests.

The Rev. Dr. Howard J. Clinebell was a pioneer in pastoral care and counseling and taught pastoral psychology at the School of Theology in Claremont, California. He wrote many books on various subjects in the pastoral counseling field. He was also an ordained Methodist minister. Clinebell was a well respected teacher, therapist, and scholar among pastoral counselors around the world. He died in April 2005.

Clinebell brilliantly identifies the global environmental crisis as one of the most critical health problems yet. It is important not only for our species, but for all species on the earth. It is important because thousands of species are becoming extinct as a result of human participation in degrading the land, water, and air on our planet. This not only affects the health of humans today, but it also affects the health of humans in generations to come. What do we want for ourselves, our future, our children’s future? He believes that the most critical problem for humanity is that we need “to reverse the planet’s continuing ecological deterioration.” (1) Americans in particular are responsible for much literal waste and wasteful attitudes toward consumption. Americans, therefore, should become motivated to change their lifestyles and become more aware of their contribution to nature. This is not to say that other countries and cultures can dismiss their responsibilities to ecological health; all of humanity must become united in reconnecting with nature and working toward reversing humanity’s damage of the planet. I think that Clinebell would argue that American culture is one of the most disconnected countries and cultures on the contemporary planet.

Clinebell’s conviction is that when we are nurturing nature, we learn to be nurtured by nature; this is the “ecological circle” that brings us to a spiritual closeness to the Earth. (7) Humanity is rooted in nature much like the other species of Earth. Through the advancement of technology and industry, humanity has lost its connection to nature. “Thus, our relationship with the earth, mother-father of all living things, is an often-ignored but foundational factor influencing our overall wellness and the wholeness of our identity. This view affirms the wisdom of philosopher Simone Weil’s observation that ‘to be rooted is perhaps the most important and lease recognized need of the human soul.’” (27)

Eco-therapy is derived partly from object relations theory, social systems theory, and psychology of religion. Object relations theory poses that “the quality of our current relationship with the natural world is deeply influenced by whether our internalized natural objects are primarily positive and nurturing or threatening and toxic.” (29) Eco-therapy suggests that we encounter the mother-father earth in the way that we learned how to contribute and relate to earth from our earliest beginnings in childhood. Our most important relationships with those who cared for us—mainly, our parents—taught us how to relate to earth. At this early age, we already learn that the earth is a positive place to call home that needs care or a threatening place that can be taken advantage of. Object relations theory helps individuals identify the threatening, broken aspects of their relationships or attachments and attempts to make them whole and affirmative.

Social systems theory helps us to understand how we function not only in human systems but in the greater multi-species systems. Systems can only change when someone or something in the system change; all parts of the system are interdependent. Therefore, systems are constantly changing and evolving. It is difficult to understand how we are negatively participating and affecting the earth system; it is even more difficult to understand how we can positively affect the earth system. It is also difficult to change our current behaviors in the cultural systems in which we participate. We must rely on scientific theory to educate us on how to become more connected to the earth, and we must rely on spirituality to allow this connection to be positive, humble, and human.

Psychology of religion and ecological spirituality help us understand how humans exist in every aspect of our humanity. Spirituality occurs in the ordinariness of our connection with nature—with every drop of water we use and every breath of air we take. Religion is a human-made social construction that allows us to participate in our spiritual selves. When natural objects are threatening or toxic to humanity, we learn to understand how we function in nature and how nature systemically responds. We learn how we are spiritually starved when we are threatened by our experience of natural objects.

One of Clinebell’s primary assumptions is that healing and growth occur when we are closer to nature. “Eco-therapy and eco-education are complementary healing and growth processes that occupy partially overlapping positions on the same illness-wellness continuum, a continuum representing degrees of alienation from or positive bonding with nature.” (62) Clinebell also assumes that humans can experience creativity, self-transcendence, wellness, self-nurturing, and spirituality in nature. When humans cannot experience these things in nature, they may experience personal pain that would hinder growth and healing just like they would experience pain if they were disconnected to family member or another close relationship. This causes the eco-alienation, or alienation from nature. In order to address the alienation, Clinebell suggests that one uses eco-therapy and eco-education “to modify both conscious and unconscious attitudes, feelings, and memories that influence the dynamics of people’s relationships with the natural world.” (70) Eco-therapy and eco-education are simply therapy with nature and education about nature; they attempt to help humans engage more actively with nature. It’s also important to have a sense of humility in this process and use love, hope, and laughter as part of the process. These emotional responses to nature are human nature; they can bring the greatest sense of healing to a person’s consciousness. “Healing persons by healing the world is what eco-therapy is all about.” (71) Peace and justice are also key to eco-therapy.

Clinebell writes that it’s important to understand how people relate to the earth, and he highlights six perspectives for how people are interrelated with the earth. These six perspectives begin on page 77. They include the view-from-the-moon perspective, the transgenerational well-being perspective, the whole-biosphere well-being perspective, the whole-human-family well-being perspective, the wise woman/wise man perspective, and the interfaith inclusive ecological spirituality perspective. We need to understand these perspectives so that we can help people reconnect from their understanding of their relationship with the earth. These perspectives can help transform our understanding of the earth and therefore help humanity participate in a “sustainable future.” (85)

Chapter 5 is an important chapter because it discusses issues in eco-therapy and eco-education including issues of ecological injustice. Idolatry is a root cause for injustice because people who have power can use their idols against those who do not have power. This idolatrous power can be expressed with religion (especially magical or manipulative religion), materialism, wealth, politics, male domination, and ethical injustice. The chapter also addresses nature in various religious perspectives. Clinebell argues that religion is a human-created product of spirituality, and religion is crucial to participate fully in eco-spirituality and nature. He writes, “…the soulful living that reawakens the aliveness of the soul…must include loving interaction with the biosphere.” (96) Religion and spirituality are critical when awakening the aliveness of the soul as long as social justice is honored and the love of creation and love of neighbor are not forgotten.

My favorite chapter is Chapter 6 because it looks at various therapeutic models and suggests ways in which nature is incorporated into the models. He addresses insight-oriented analytic theory therapy, growth-oriented therapy, cognitive-behavioral and learning theory therapy, relational and social systems therapy (my personal favorite), social context or radical therapy, spiritually oriented theory, and body therapy. Clinebell’s arguments are still the same through this chapter: all things are interconnected through social systems, caring for the earth is caring for relationships with other humans, nature and spirituality are deeply intertwined, environmental harm and environmental injustice cause people pain, and nature influences all aspects of human life. These assumptions can be understood in each of these theoretical modalities.

The rest of Clinebell’s book offers suggestions on how to practice eco-therapy and eco-education. First, he offers important ways to clean the air we breathe and the environment we live in. His suggestions are as simple as filling a room with plants to clean the air to much more complex suggestions like building more parks and blocks of green gathering areas for metropolitan areas. Clinebell is not concerned about doing everything at once; even small measures can produce great results. The point is that humans need to do more to clean up their living environments, and they need to do it now. However, it does not need to all be done all at once.

Clinebell offers suggestions for eco-assessment and steps toward engaging a client or other person in the process of eco-therapy and/or eco-education. This process engages a person toward healing, growth, and greater understanding in how one participates in nature. He encourages story-telling, awareness, connectedness, reciprocal actions, and self-care. All of these things are foundational to eco-therapy.

Clinebell continues to share ways to engage a person in eco-therapy by offering tools to the psychologist or psychoanalyst to use in practice. Story-telling is very important in eco-therapy and an important part of narrative therapy. People can tell their “ecological stories” (190) to open up the awareness of eco-alienation. He also encourages people to allow nature to nurture oneself instead of people nurturing nature. When we allow nature to nurture us, we will in turn work toward nurturing nature. Clinebell also highlights ways in which to use stress reduction, imagery, dream work, bonding with nature, healing trauma and grief, and supporting “wildness” or intimacy with nature. Clinebell continues to highlight interventions that therapists can use to engage clients in eco-therapy and eco-education. These include rituals, poetry, music, photography, use of wilderness and animals, and spirituality.

As one of the few women of my generation that grew up on a family farm, it surprises me that people are not connected more deeply with nature. The earth-rootedness that Clinebell desires for humanity is an easy concept for me to understand. I have participated in the cycles of the seasons and the simplicity of nature all of my life. I have learned from reading Clinebell’s book that I take this for granted. When I form a therapeutic relationship with a parishioner or a client, I cannot assume that they are connected with nature in the same way. I have a rare experience with nature because those who raised me had a holistic relationship with nature and because I engaged in a positive relationship with nature. I wish that Clinebell had written more about why humanity has become alienated from nature.

Clinebell’s suggestions for helping people bond with nature are very creative and helpful to those in care giving vocational fields. I believe his interventions and theoretical suggestions would be invaluable to any clinician or clergyperson when helping people discover their natural roots. I hope to use these suggestions as a pastor in a congregation and also as a marriage and family therapist in private practice. Eco-therapy is a new concept to me; I think it’s very useful and would suggest that my peers use the interventions highlighted in the book as well.

The message of this book is clear: humans need to be intimately connected to nature to be whole and healthy. This book offers outstanding suggestions for how to engage people in the practice of eco-therapy and eco-education and to promote eco-bonding. These suggestions are both theoretical by using theoretical therapeutic foundations and also practical by using concrete examples of what an eco-therapy intervention might look like. It also lists ways in which parents, teachers, medical professionals, mental health professionals, and clergy can educate those around them to live more proactively and spiritually with nature.