Transitioning to a New Normal:
How Ecopsychology Can Help Society
Prepare for the Harder Times Ahead
Raymond De Young
School of Natural Resources and Environment,
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Not in his goals but in his transitions is man great.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson (1870 Harvard lecture)
abundance. This is no longer possible.
Many of the challenges we face can be traced to our centuries-
long consumption and construction binge and, soon, to its abrupt
culmination. Climate disruption, a consequence of our rapacious
use of fossil fuels, is intensifying. The amount of available net en-
ergy (the energy available to society after deducting energy used
during extraction and production) was massive at first, misleading
us with the false prospect of endless growth. False because, easily
unnoticed, net energy has been on a relentless decline. We are ap-
proaching the day when net energy becomes insufficient for
maintaining, let alone building out, modern society. Technological
innovation, to which we attribute much of our success, cannot
create energy or natural resources, and our industrial prowess
cannot negate the laws of thermodynamics. Thus, while our inge-
nuity can slow the approach of a resource-limited future, it will not
fundamentally change that outcome.
Soon we will leave behind the infantile techno-fantasy of a world
without limits giving us a life without want. We will all, of necessity,
accept that biophysical limits are a defining characteristic of life.
A New Context
owever vast were the resources used to create industrial
civilization, they were never limitless. Biophysical con-
straints, always a part of human existence, could be ignored
for these past few centuries, a one-time era of resource
Such acceptance is long overdue but hard for us, hard because it
demands profoundly different worldviews and patterns of living.
Ecopsychology can help us realize that our future will be attained
through thrift and humility, not by the consumptive growth and
boosterism that gave us our fling with material affluence. Un-
fortunately, we may well try all possible alternatives to outright
acceptance before realizing that limits are, by their very nature, not
open to negotiation or repudiation.
Yet acceptance is but the first step and not nearly as hard as what
comes next. The depth and duration of the required transition is
unprecedented. Adapting well to a drawn-out decline in resource
availability is not something with which we are familiar. Further-
more, since we seem to be starting late in the process, having tem-
porarily delayed the needed behavior change, we will likely need to
quickly respond to events. Prefiguring our response could ease the
It is here that ecopsychology can play an essential role, since
what is being faced is not a technological or political challenge
but an existential one. The broader missions of ecopsychology
and that of a society facing biophysical constraints will converge
on the need to lay a new foundation for sustainable, interdepen-
dent, and mutually enhancing relations with nature as well as
within the human community. In fact, the coming transition pro-
vides the ecopsychology community with a rare moment. During
the initial phase of downshifting, there likely will be a period of
flux, a time during which people might be willing to reshape their
emotional connection and moral stance toward each other and the
rest of the planet. It is during this time that our community’s on-
going efforts to promote ecological consciousness and to help
people reconnect with nature might turn to the even larger goal
of adopting an ecological partnership society to replace the ex-
tractive dominator society.
ª MARY ANN LIEBERT, INC.
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DECEMBER 2013 ECOPSYCHOLOGY237
When growth was an easy thing to do, we found it possible to
disregard the biophysical foundation of society. Later, as limits were
first anticipated and then became apparent, some among us advo-
cated for behavior change. Yet society cunningly avoided dramatic
change in favor of a green technology and policy approach. We were
sold on the belief that nature and natural capital could be sustained
by ‘‘greening and leaning’’ industrial civilization. We could note that
pursuing this approach for decades has produced no noticeable de-
cline in our overall ecological footprint or emissions profile. Or we
could point out that despite all effort at education and persuasion,
consumerism continues to consume the planet. But the premise
outlined above provides another prospect.
Soon, due to resource descent and/or declining net energy, society
will be consuming less, ready or not. We will adopt a reduced-con-
sumption pattern of living not because of extrinsic rewards or a
global policy agreement or a planetwide emergence of ecological
awareness but because we will have no other choice. We will con-
sume less because there will be less to consume. Dire consequences
will still arise from our past consumption (e.g., climate disruption),
but future consumption will first slow then decline.
Dismal as this outlook sounds, it could help the transition. First, it
is unlikely to happen all at once but instead emerge over decades—a
persistent downshift to a new normal. This spares us from slipping
into short-term emergency thinking where we imagine weathering
to persuade people to change their lifestyle. No longer will the public
need to judge the veracity of limits-to-growth arguments. Instead, a
constraining biophysical reality will be unavoidable, directly per-
ceivable and palpable. The need to downshift will be blatantly ob-
vious. And the motivation for change will come from the interaction
of biophysical reality and community self-interest.
Under this scenario, the process of societal transition will not
await professional intervention, administrative permission, or ven-
ture capital support. It will start on its own, and as we say about
revolutions, it will not be televised. But there is a great deal ecop-
sychology can do to help the transition and to learn from it.
No community of scholars is better prepared than we are to guide
modern society through its reawakening to the effects of biophysical
limits on everyday life. At a most basic level, people will grieve from
losing an affluent lifestyle or from losing the belief that growth will
one day provide such a future. If we do nothing else, it will be
praiseworthy to help people respond well to this realization, to help
them to cope better than they would otherwise. Ecopsychology’s
understanding of the therapeutic effect of interaction with nature
may be put to good and frequent use.
But there is also a fascinating, if somewhat counterintuitive, aspect
to a downshift. Life would become much less affluent, mobility more
daily access to nature may greatly increase. Ecopsychologists know
that contact with nature is essential for humans to do well mentally,
physically, and spiritually. But under the scenario outlined above, we
will be presented with a unique opportunity, a chance to explore what
long-term, society-wide, regular and intimate connection with the
natural environment might achieve. Our understanding of and ex-
pectation about the effect are clear, but ecopsychology has never be-
fore had an example at this scope and duration to learn from.
Some people advocate quickening the process of simplification in
order to leave surplus resources for the future. While a worthy goal,
we must take care not to instill panic and chaos into the process. The
transition must be done well the first time with the changes made
durable; it is unlikely we will get a second chance.
of pre-familiarization, people can become mentally prepared for the
leaner times ahead. This process is possible because the mind is about
navigating the future, not just tracking the present. It turns out that
a major barrier to changing behavior is not the inertia of the status
quo but, rather, our desire for the familiar. Although this may sound
as if it is a rather small, perhaps even an academic distinction, it is in
fact a crucial issue, one with major implications for our role as
counselors and educators.
A status quo bias means that very little will change, and what does
change will change only in very small steps. A familiarity bias, in
contrast, means that change is limited not by where people are but by
what theyknow andwhere theyimaginethemselves going. Thefocus
is on the insights and experiences that people have, not what their
current circumstances happen to be. It is indeed fortunate that people
can have knowledge that extends far beyond the comfortable outline
of the status quo.
Since people are conceptual animals, what they can become fa-
miliar with is not limited to what they experience in a literal sense.
People can acquire familiarity through experiences both direct and
indirect: through the written word, artistic expression and simula-
tions (e.g., plays); through observation at living museums, ecov-
illages, and farmer’s markets; and through participation in reskilling
fairs, workshops, and personal projects.
Any affirmative examples we can provide of living well while Download full-text
living lightly could incubate pre-familiarization with a future far less
affluent. Ecopsychology’s leadership here would be in providing the
imagery and richness of context necessary for people to deeply know
the not-yet-present, thus helping them to feel at home in the lean
times soon to be, but not yet, inhabited.
A common prognosis by those accepting the premise of resource
downshift is doom and gloom. Popular authors write books with
apocalyptic titles, while respected environmentalists foretell a mas-
sive culling of the population. Perhaps such work sells because the
authors and audiences imagine that our only choice is between the
current folk mythologies of growth or apocalypse.
Ecopsychology practitioners do not believe in spreading fear or
causing pain. Nonetheless, we may be ill advised to soothe the
physical and social challenges of sustainable living. People have an
innate inclination to act in ways that matter, to seek meaning in
everyday activities. Thus, it may prove useful to validate the quiet,
internal voice that finds satisfaction in life patterns that while hard
There is no doubt that the coming transition will require much of
us: new skills, resourcefulness and cooperation through stressful
frugality, and participation to be intrinsically satisfying. Simply put,
perhaps because they are challenging, not despite that fact. Thus,
instead of emphasizing the inevitability of the coming downshift, we
framed, people may pursue the simple life not because it is necessary
but because it is important and fulfilling. Ordinary struggles may
reveal extraordinary benefits.
The inevitability of biophysical limits does not predetermine a
specific response. Society still has options, although it needs guid-
to get ourselves focused. They may begin without us.
alternative to the current relationship we have with resources. It is to
help people to anticipate that everyday life will soon differ sub-
stantially from conventional expectations. Yet, as a result, to realize
that psychological well-being likely will, if unexpectedly, improve.
Address correspondence to:
Raymond De Young
School of Natural Resources and Environment
University of Michigan
440 Church Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
Received: October 14, 2013
Accepted: November 5, 2013
PREPARING FOR HARDER TIMES AHEAD
ª MARY ANN LIEBERT, INC.
VOL. 5 NO. 4