A representation of Psyche, taken from the BPS logo
Climate and environment, History and philosophy

The roots and branches of environmental psychology

Christopher Spencer and Kate Gee take a historical look at the development of the field; and Jon Sutton examines the wilderness of the mind

25 February 2009

Environmental psychology, as a distinct and recognised area of psychology, is relatively recent. Its focus, on the transactions between people and places, is age old: many writers outside psychology have discussed the influence that a person’s surroundings can have on their behaviour and attitudes.

Indeed, what may be the first careful experiment recorded is startlingly early. In 1272 Marco Polo was travelling through the kingdoms of West Asia, and noted that the people of Kerman were good, humble, helpful and peaceable; whereas their immediate neighbours in Persia were wicked, treacherous and murderous.

The king of Kerman had asked his wise men what could be the reason, and they answered that the cause lay in the soil. Splendidly empirical in his approach, the king had ordered quantities of soil to be brought from Isfahan (‘whose inhabitants surpassed all others in wickedness’), sprinkled it on the floors of his banqueting hall, and then covered it up by carpets. As the next banquet started, his guests ‘began offending one another with words and deeds, and wounding one another mortally’. The king declared that truly the answer lay in the soil.

The place–person influence is not just one way. Environmental psychology has often quoted Churchill to illustrate how the people–place relationship can be a transaction: ‘We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.’ The war-time Prime Minister was arguing that the recently bombed debating chamber of the Commons should be rebuilt in its traditional, crowded oppositional form. He was against ‘giving each member a desk to sit at and a lid to bang’ because, he explained, the House would be mostly empty most of the time, whereas, at critical votes and moments, it would fill beyond capacity, with members spilling out into the aisles: in his view,
a suitable ‘sense of crowd and urgency’ (Churchill, 1943).

For much of its existence, environmental psychology has focused more upon its environment–behaviour strand than upon environmental attitudes: see a recent history of the subject by Pol (2006, 2007). But with the urgency of global changes borne in upon it, the balance has begun to change: for instance, recently, psychologists have specifically addressed the need to ‘green’ psychology under the banner of ‘conservation psychology’ (see www.ac.wwu.edu/ ~gmyers/cp; Saunders & Myers, 2003; Clayton & Myers, in press). This indicates the aspiration of some psychologists to use their training, tools and perspectives to contribute to making society more ecologically sustainable. It is not a discipline or subdiscipline so much as a term that designates a focal point for collaboration, research and outreach.

This current focus on attitudes toward the physical environment, and in particular to the natural world, again has antecedents in the wider literature. It has long been recognised that different cultures hold a range of philosophical positions about humans’ place in nature, from a right of mastery and exploitation, through to stewardship, responsibility and  indeed, in some cases, kinship with nature (Flint & Morphy, 2000).

Such views may indeed change over time within the one country: one well-documented change occurred in Britain as we entered the Romantic period, where our remote countryside ceased to be feared as dangerous wilderness and became instead the valued subject of poets and painters, and thereafter much sought by early tourists (Andrews, 1989

Many of the early writers on what we would now regard as ‘conservation’ might be cited as antecedents to this strand of environmental psychology: for example, the American 19th-century author and polemicist George Perkins Marsh, whose Man and Nature was published in 1864. Quotes from the book can be found to support almost any current environmental cause, and in his day he was highly influential, capturing the attention of land-use policymakers right round the world.

Marsh’s key message was that human societies, even enlightened societies, disrupted nature’s harmonies by cutting forests and grazing hillsides, thereby altering stream flows and eroding soils. He cited decaying Old Worlds as a warning to his fellow Americans, unless they came to husband their New World. In this, Marsh was formalising early 19th-century folk knowledge, as practised and promoted by New England farmers and fishers.

In Green Imperialism (1995), Richard Grove writes that as early as the 17th century European colonists in distant tropical islands noted that disruptive environmental effects followed human colonisation. But as David Lowenthal (2000) has argued, Man and Nature ushered in a revolution in the way people conceived their relations with the earth. Many before Marsh had pondered the extent of our impact on one or another facet of nature. But most took it for granted that such impacts were largely benign, that malign effects were trivial or ephemeral. (p.260)

Environmental psychology becomes recognised
Environmental psychology’s origins as a branch of academic psychology have often been attributed to the Proshansky group at City University, New York, who had been researching person–place transactions from 1958. As social psychologists, they had been challenged by psychiatrists to say what layout of rooms in hospitals would benefit patients, and which designs would be deleterious. Realising that their own area had few answers, they in effect set about the establishment of the new discipline because it was needed.

In 1970 they published Environmental Psychology (Proshansky et al., 1970), a gloriously varied collection of readings, drawn from a wide range of disciplines and literatures, and designed to herald the birth of a new field. Yet the historian of science can well push the intellectual origins of environmental psychology back earlier: for example, Kurt Lewin’s statement from 1936 that ‘Behaviour is a function of Person and Environment’ has been much quoted ever since, and looks a promising ‘founder’s statement’. But, on close examination one finds that ‘Environment’ here was loosely defined, and only really emphasised the social environment. I think that the real origins are to be sought in ecological psychology, whose originator was the dissident developmental psychologist Roger Barker. He reacted against artificial lab studies, and set up a field station to observe children’s everyday, real behaviour.

Barker argued that psychology has been primarily an experimental science; that this was true even of supposedly applied studies; and that the descriptive, natural history phase of investigation has had a minor place. He commented This has placed a serious limit to the science, for lab studies cannot disclose how the laws of behaviour are at work in everyday life, and the distribution of the variables under study. (Barker, 1968, p.22)

Barker wrote that one might think that psychology would have been informed about the ecology of behaviour: instead, it had done its best to excise environmental elements from the phenomena under study.

Other major and lasting influences upon environmental psychology from without mainstream psychology can be added – the concept of affordances (what an object or place offers the individual, what it provides or furnishes) has been developed from the writings of J.J. Gibson; the idea of cognitive mapping (originating with Tolman’s rats escaping from their mazes) received a major impetus from the planner Kevin Lynch (1960); philosophers, historians and lawyers helped sharpen environmental psychology’s consideration of privacy; and Oscar Newman (1972) developed the idea of Defensible Space from his work as a planner analysing the detailed crime statistics from the New York Police Department.

Journals and organisations
Proshansky et al.’s book of 1970 was the first formal raising of the banner labelled ‘Environmental Psychology’, but one of the two central journals of the field, Environment and Behavior, was founded under the pioneering editorship of G.H. Winkel as early as 1969. The Journal of Environmental Psychology followed in 1981. Introducing it, David Canter and Kenneth Craik wrote that its advent marked ‘the coming of age of a distinct and viable field’; the preceding five years had seen 10 textbooks, six edited readers, and over 30 state-of-the-art volumes devoted to specific aspects of the interplay between behaviour and environment.

The field of environmental psychology has been recognised for inclusion in the Annual Review of Psychology series since the review by Craik in 1973, and organisations were formed shortly afterwards. The American Psychological Association established its joint Division 34: Population and Environmental Psychology, which supported the journal Population and Environment. Other professional groupings were formed: the International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP) launched a new Division of Environmental Psychology; followed by the International Association for the Study of People in their Physical Surroundings (IAPS), the Man–Environment Relations Association (MERA) in Japan, and the People and Physical Environment Research Organization (PaPER) in Australia and New Zealand.

The issue then became how to ‘give environmental psychology away’ to potential users. Central to this mission has been the Environmental Design Research Association, which has from the 1970s brought architects, planners and psychologists together to discuss findings from their areas of common interest. These have been vigorous, exciting meetings, grounded in real-world research: yet by and large these have been largely ignored by ‘mainstream’ architects, planners and psychologists – the architects too busy to check out relevant findings, and the psychologists content to stay in their labs.

Christopher Spencer and Kate Gee are in the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield
[email protected]

Box: The wilderness of the mind
‘Wilderness is the ultimate encyclopedia, holding answers to more questions than we have yet learned how to ask. That’s the magic in you. You’ve got it; let it out.’—David Brower (founder, Friends of the Earth)

Many early environmentalists, particularly in the United States, were inspired by wilderness. Often, their time in the great outdoors led them to turn their attention inwards as well, to the expanses of the mind.

Take Henry Thoreau (1817–1862), the American author and naturalist. Thoreau was a philosopher of nature and its relation to the human condition, best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. He believed that humans are part of nature and that we need to be aware of that in order to function well, as individuals and societies. American psychologist B.F. Skinner wrote that he carried a copy of Walden with him in his youth. In 1945, Skinner wrote Walden Two, a fictional utopia about a community inspired by the life of Thoreau.

In his early years Thoreau followed transcendentalism, a loose and eclectic philosophy advocated by Ralph Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott and others. They held that an ideal spiritual state transcends the physical and empirical, and that insight is achieved via personal intuition rather than religious doctrine. Nature is seen as the outward sign of inward spirit, expressing the ‘radical correspondence of visible things and human thoughts’, as Emerson wrote in Nature (1836).

Not everyone appreciated Thoreau’s philosophy. Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson judged Thoreau’s love of natural simplicity, living apart from modern society, to be a sign of effeminacy: ‘Thoreau’s content and ecstasy in living was, we may say, like a plant that he had watered and tended with womanish solicitude; for there is apt to be something unmanly, something almost dastardly, in a life that  does not move with dash and freedom, and that fears the bracing contact of the world. In one word, Thoreau was a skulker.’

However, the transcendental philosophy lives on. Green Earth Foundation leader Ralph Metzner, who has a PhD in clinical psychology from Harvard, refers to the ‘profound alienation of the human psyche from Earth… If the imbalance exists because of certain mistaken or delusional attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs, then we can ask the psychological questions of how this came about and how it can be changed.’

As historian Theodore Roszak wrote in his 1992 book The Voice of the Earth, ‘Psychology needs ecology, and ecology needs psychology.’ Perhaps the final word should go to Rachel Carson (1907–1964), the American biologist and author whose 1962 book Silent Spring brought environmental concerns to an unprecedented portion of the American public. In her last years, she wrote:
‘I think we are challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.’ Her warning still resonates today.       

Jon Sutton

Further reading
MacFarlane, R. (2003). Mountains of the Mind. Pantheon Books.
Emerson, R.W. (1860). The Conduct of Life.
www.greenearthfound.org – from clinical psychologist Ralph Metzner