bookREVIEW: Vital Signs

May-Jayne Rust and Nick Totton (Eds)
Karnac London 2012

Reviewer Penny Cloutte

“What is eco-psychology?” a friend asked me, when I told her I was reading this book. It is interesting that she did not know, as she is a counsellor, a gardener and a member of our local Transition group. I struggled to answer the question then; after reading the editors’ introduction to this collection of essays I still have difficulty! But at least I now have much more of an idea of the history of eco-psychology, as the emerging movement among therapists in response to planetary crisis; and after reading all the contributions I can appreciate the wide range of thinking and practice that is emerging in this new and exciting field.

Examples multiply to show that we, and our society and environment, are out of balance, in crisis; that our way of life is neither just nor sustainable. Whether we think about the strangeness of the weather this year, of the global mal-distribution of everything but especially of access to land, food, water and clean air, the basic necessities of life, or of the economic crisis that grips us, it becomes obvious. Things are not right. Something has to give.

Our professional backgrounds incline us to question: How do we feel about this situation? How to describe it? And what is to be done? The contributors to this book address these questions in various ways.

There is some broad agreement as to what is the overall diagnosis: humans see, conceive of ourselves as, feel ourselves to be, disconnected… but from what? Some writers would say, from “nature”; others claim that to pose the problem in those terms is to be part of the alienation, and that what needs to happen is for us to recognise that we are part of what is variously described as “the network of life”, of “all that is”, of “the network of the other-than-human and the more-than-human”. This pathological and life-threatening disconnection is described by analogy to collective mental health problems: as an eating disorder and refusal of intimacy by Mary-Jayne Rust, as a form of autism by Paul Maiteny, and as an auto-immune disorder by Peter Chattalos.

The book is divided into 6 sections and covers a wide range of topics. There are only two essays addressing clinical practice specifically, but many of them address the question What is to be done? in various ways. The opening piece by Viola Sampson sets the tone: “Climate change is calling us into a different sense of global self – with whole-earth systems, an eco-centric world-wide web of pattern and balance – a planetary consciousness” (p15). Or as one of Susan Bodnar’s interviewees put it: “ (ecological crisis) will become a psychological problem as much as it will be economic, geological and biological and otherwise. The battle will be partly in our heads” (p31).

Possible solutions, variously proposed, are: to work at healing the relationship between humans and all-that-is, at both an individual and collective level – by working with groups in wild places; by working intentionally with animals such as horses or dogs; to learn to empathise with the other-than-human, such as plants and animals, to speak their language and to learn to listen to them; to work with indigenous spiritual leaders to create ceremonies to affirm the healed relationship with the wider world, to learn to slow down and listen more openly. Challenges are made to accepted concepts of our trade: should we understand someone who talks of communicating with the family dog as projecting, psychotic, defended against relationship? Or should we take seriously that that is his experience, and learn from this to expand our expectations of what is possible in the world? Nick Totton shows how we can learn from ecological systems about balance and “just-is-ness,” and how to apply it in our practice.

My main disappointment with this book was that although there are passing references to feminist critiques of the concept of “nature” by Peter Chattalos, and Hilary Prentiss refers to how the Transition Towns movement has used the model of the feminist consciousness-raising group in building its “Heart and Soul” groups, there is very little acknowledgement of feminist contributions to our understanding. There is no mention of work on the body, eg by writers such as Lucy Goodison (1992); nor of the work of thinkers in the Goddess movement such as Starhawk (1997), who pioneered work in the area of understanding how patriarchal culture encourages precisely that alienation of people from their bodies, of disembodiment and disconnection, that most agree lies at the root of the problem. Two contributors refer to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve as if there is nothing problematic about it, with no reference to the work of Merlin Stone or Mary Daly. There is no exploration of how hierarchical social organisation and concepts contribute to the problem and need to be addressed in its solution, as explored by Jocelyn Chaplin in Deep Equality (2008).

Ah well, maybe we are all imbued with feminist understanding now? If only it were so…

This is a stimulating and exciting selection of essays. Readers will be drawn to some ideas more than to others; but it is well worth exploring. After reading it I feel inspired to become more involved in Eco-psychology myself.


Penny Cloutte has been a counsellor for 23 years, a pagan for 30 years and a feminist for longer than that. She has a private practice in London and teaches on the Professional Diploma in Integrative Counselling course at the Mary Ward Centre, London.


Goodison, L (1992) Moving Heaven and Earth: Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Change Ontario, Canada: Pandora Press
Starhawk (1997) Dreaming the Dark: Magic Sex and Politics Boston, USA: Beacon Press


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