INTERVIEW WITH VIKTOR PANOV*
*The journal does not necessarily agree with the ideas expressed in it
The broad range of ecopsychology topics is discussed in this interview with one of the Russian ecopsychological founders and leaders, Viktor Panov. As he reviews the specifics and different directions of this scientific and practical discipline, Panov pays special attention to ecopsychological research associated with the psychology of environmental consciousness. During the discussion, different types of human interactions with natural objects are described, including those corresponding to the nature-centric type of ecological consciousness.
Keywords: ecological psychology (ecopsychology), psychology of ecological consciousness, nature-centric type of ecological consciousness, eco-centric type of ecological consciousness, subject-generating interaction
Brief information about the interviewee:
Viktor Panov is Doctor of Psychology, Professor, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Education, Head of the Laboratory of Ecopsychology of Development and Psychodidactics of the Psychological Institute of the Russian Academy of Education, organizer and head of the "Environmental Psychology" section at the Russian Psychological Society, specialist in the field of general and environmental psychology, methodology of psychology, psychology of giftedness and developmental education. Founder of the "ecopsychology of human development" direction in the field of ecological psychology.
Alexander Kopytin (A.K.): At the beginning of our conversation, could you tell me a little about ecological psychology and different areas of ecopsychological research, including those carried out by the Laboratory of Ecopsychology of Development and Psychodidactics of the Psychological Institute of the Russian Academy of Education?
Viktor Panov (V.P.): Already half a century ago, environmental psychology was represented by several independent areas with their specific methods. I will briefly list them. First of all, there is psychological ecology and one of its sections, called human ecology. It is essentially biological or physiological ecology. This branch of ecological psychology is mostly interested in the study of changes of mental functions and states under the influence of the chemical and physical properties of the environment, for example, radiation, oxygen deficiency in the atmosphere, or iodine deficiency in drinking water. The latter leads to disruption of the functioning of the thyroid gland and, in turn, an imbalance in the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, impaired memory, intelligence, and other adverse effects.
Another direction of environmental psychology is the ecological approach to perception developed by [James] Gibson, which showed the limitations of physical ideas about the object of perception—that is, that a real observer, for example, an airplane pilot, does not deal with separate objects, but with the environment as an integral object of perception.
There is another eco-psychological approach - an ecological approach to mental development. It was introduced by [Charles] Brenner. It is based on a cyclic system for describing the environment, more precisely, several environments - microenvironments, macroenvironments, megaenvironments, etc. It was developed about 20 years ago.
We should also recall environmental psychology, which includes the psychology of the spatial environment, information environment, educational, family, professional and other environments. Unlike psychological ecology, here the direct impact of various environmental factors on the human psyche is studied. For example, it could be related to commercials, TV [shows], or movies with their aggressive content. Half of television programs now are action films, detective stories and other similar genres. Their influence is ambiguous. This is bad for the child's psyche, because they learn the stereotypes of behavior, and they voluntarily or involuntarily implement these stereotypes. For adults, such films can have a different effect, connected, in particular, with the possibility of emotional release of the accumulated emotional stress. Fears can be also objectified and exteriorized while watching such films.
Another direction of ecological psychology is the psychology of the educational environment, which is associated with one of the most serious problems, which, however, is little discussed here, the problem of didactogeny. This applies to psychosomatic, emotional disorders of children, which are caused by a mismatch between teaching methods and the development of children as well as the individual psychological characteristics of the child. For example, gifted children do not accept being taught in the traditional way - through repetition, exercises, memorization, etc. They require creative learning methods.
Continuing the conversation about the main directions of environmental psychology, we will definitely come to the psychology of global changes. This is a very interesting area of ecopsychological research, since changes in the natural environment occur so slowly that they are incommensurable with the duration of life of one generation of people. Therefore, those changes that we perceive as clear signs of deterioration or improvement of the environmental situation suddenly go in the other direction after several generations. These problems require a special study of the specifics of human perception and understanding of these phenomena.
In the 80-90s of the last century, such a new direction as the psychology of environmental consciousness appeared in ecological psychology. In my opinion, the most developed concept in this field was the concept of ecological consciousness by Sergey Deryabo and Vitold Yasvin, since they developed this problem at the methodological, theoretical, experimental and practical levels, and created a system of methods that helped to develop ecological consciousness. Despite the fact that we worked together for some time, we have a slightly different approach to the problem of environmental consciousness. According to their concept, the natural world is objective. It acts as an object of the individual's subjective personal relationship to the environment. The highest form of ecological consciousness in their typology is the eco-centric type of ecological consciousness. We can talk about the eco-centric type of ecological consciousness when, according to their concept, a person endows a natural object or the natural world as a whole with the ability to perform subjective functions. The ability of natural objects to be a subject is something that natural objects do not have in themselves, but it is something that a person ascribes to them. This is a psychological mechanism that just allows you to reach an ecological form of consciousness - an eco-centric type of ecological consciousness.
Unlike them, we understand the psyche as a form of being, and we also consider the natural world as a form of being, and the planet also as a form of being. And like any form of being, nature has the ability to self-develop. It is substantial, if we consider nature from a philosophical point of view, and in this sense, as a form of being, on the ontological plane, it is the subject of its development. And then the question arises: What should be the type of interaction between human beings and nature, given this understanding of subjectivity? We came to the conclusion that the archaic type of ecological consciousness in the "human-nature" system is characterized by an object-subject type of relationship, since it means the subordination of humans to the influences of the natural environment. Anthropocentric type of ecological consciousness is a subject-object type of relationship between humans and nature, since humans become either subjects of exploitation, or subjects of protection of natural environment, and nature is the object of their influences. The eco-centric type of ecological consciousness presupposes a subject-subject type of interaction between humans and nature, according to the concept of ecological consciousness of Deryabo and Yasvin. The subjectivity of nature is attributed to the environment by humans.
A.K.: Could you please explain in more detail the main differences in the perception of human relations with the natural world from an ontological and epistemological position?
V.P.: If we consider the psyche as a form of being, moving to the ontological perspective, then we find ourselves in the logic of the relationship between the human being as a subject and nature as a subject as well. Then three types of interaction between them are possible. The first type is an isolated subject, that is, when a person develops on his own, not paying attention to the needs of the natural world, and the natural world also develops on its own. The second type is their joint subjective interaction. This is a co-evolutionary type of development of humans and nature. It corresponds to the eco-centric type. Humanity develops, taking into account the peculiarities of the self-development of nature, but at the same time, nature develops, ensuring the life of humankind. In fact, the planet as a habitat has always performed this function, although humans have not always performed this function. If, however, an interaction of this kind arises between them, when a person and nature feel a certain commonality, then this commonality, and, at the same time, differences in the ways of their self-realization allow us to say that a subject-generating type of interaction is possible. Namely, when a person and a natural object, or humanity and the planet, form an aggregate subject of joint development in their interaction.
A.K.: Could you give an example of a subject-generating type of interaction between a person and a natural object or between humanity and nature?
V.P.: I can give two examples of this interaction. In the 2000s, I was asked by the regional department for licensing educational institutions to review one project. The department was contacted by two women who allegedly have psychic abilities, but the point is not that they have it or not, but that they have been running a summer camp for adults and children near Blagoveshchensk for eight years. One of them is Natalya Lapchinskaya, the other is Tatyana Egorova. They called this camp "Psychology and Ecology," that is, they studied the psychological aspects of the interaction between humans and nature when people live in tents. It was next to the "lake of pink lotuses." There are only two such lakes in the world; one is near Blagoveshchensk, and the other one is in China. This is a unique natural phenomenon. There, the taiga was still in its natural state, and not as a forest park zone. Such were the conditions there. You can imagine how does a person feel this environment and interact with it in these conditions.
Omitting the details, I just want to say that Lapchinskaya and Egorova developed a program for the development of human sensitivity in interaction with natural objects, in particular, with trees, designed for three years. As a result, those people who successfully completed this program acquired the ability to non-verbally communicate with plants. The authors used ecopsychological training techniques. They have accumulated certain empirical and experimental material as a result of using self-reports, and the projective techniques. A theoretical concept and method of study were created and Lapchinskaya's Ph.D. thesis was defended, and then, 10 years later, Yegorova's doctoral dissertation was defended as well. The goal of the study was to develop the ability to non-verbal communication with plants, a sense of human unity with a plant, for example, with a tree. As a result of their study, it was possible to understand the psychological qualities and skills a person develops in interaction with a tree. It would seem that this is fanciful. However, evidence was obtained and dissertations were defended.
This is a type of ecological consciousness when a person does not oppose oneself to nature, but seeks and develops the ability to feel unity with a natural object. We called this type of ecological consciousness the nature-centric type and we believe that in the future, after the eco-centric type of ecological consciousness, the nature-centric one should arise. In fact, many people have experience of this type of consciousness. This, for example, is typical for those people who have pets. We even conducted a special study on the interspecies interaction of pets and their owners. It turned out that everything works there. Pet owners just feel this unity with their pets.
Another example of a powerful interaction with natural objects associated with the nature-centric type of ecological consciousness is the research of [Alexander] Chizhevsky. Some may know him as the author of the Chizhevsky lamp, but he is also known for discovering the relationship between the cataclysms experienced by humans on this planet Earth and its interaction with the Sun.
A.K.: To what extent are your developments related to the nature-centric type of environmental consciousness currently implemented in practical work, in particular, in the field of environmental education?
V.P.: Two doctoral dissertations in pedagogy passed through our laboratory. The author of one of them is Alexander Gagarin, the second is Dmitry Ermakov. Both dissertations are devoted to the development of environmental consciousness in the course of education. Gagarin used our approach to substantiate nature-oriented activity as a form and means through which an ecological attitude to nature is formed. Ermakov's approach to environmental education was different and related to teaching high school students. The position of the author is based on the transition from epistemological to ontological perspective, and from traditional learning technology to competence-based one.
А.К.: Was the data about the interaction of people with plants and other natural objects that you spoke about used to some extent?
V.P.: This study has not received further development in practical application. Maybe someone is using it. We conducted these studies in two dissertations. In one of them, this was associated with the development of a person's psychological self-regulating skills. The results of this study are used in training courses. The author of one dissertation, Yegorova, teaches special courses at Moscow universities.
А.К.: You use the concept of a subject-generating interaction. Could you give some more examples of such interaction, in particular, those related to the interaction of people with large-scale natural processes, when, for example, there is some synchronism in the interaction of a person with natural processes and objects?
V.P.: Rather, we can talk not about synchronisms, but about resonance, when some phenomena find some kind of resonant confirmation or expression in others, but we are not working in this direction now. However, the typology itself, the spectrum of different types of human interaction with the natural world turned out to be universal. We applied it to study interactions with professional, educational, and natural environments. This typology turned out to be a viable theoretical construct that allows us to explore various phenomena from an ontological perspective.
А.К.: Can you describe in more detail the concept of the subject-generating interaction?
V.P.: In practice, the subject-generating interaction is very common. If, for example, we are talking about psychotherapy, about working with a group, then it involves several stages. The first stage is when it is a community of heterogeneous, isolated individuals. The task and art of a therapist is to create a joint activity within this disparate group. The art of the therapist is to find ways and methods of working with a specific group so that participants feel united and cohesion with each other. The selection of adequate methods ensures the unity of the group, and then the unity, which contains differences, is a necessary condition for the subject-generating interaction, during which something new arises in the space of intersubjective interaction, which is then internalized by each member of the group.
A.K.: Does this mean that in interaction with natural beings, a person forms a new subject, in which “a human being” and “nature” or “natural object” are viewed as subsystems of their joint subjectivity?
V.P.: In certain techniques of interaction with nature, this is really possible. You cannot even talk about techniques, but about everyday activities. Let's take fishing, for example. Why do people love fishing so much? Many people love fishing not because they can catch fish, but because the very process of waiting for biting and contemplation involuntarily gives rise to the experience of a certain unity of a person with nature. This experience may not necessarily be conscious, but for some reason after this person feels more balanced and satisfied. They, as it were, “nourished” by their interaction with nature.
А.К.: Is it based on empathy and identification with natural objects?
V.P.: Definitely, because I can't feel one and identify with a tree, for example, or a cat if I don't have empathy for it. This is also a prerequisite for identification with this creature. Although I don’t like the term "identification" here. Rather, there is a feeling of deep kinship with nature, as in [Rudyard] Kipling’s [The Jungle] Book, when Mowgli addressed animals, saying: "We are of the same blood." This feeling that we are with natural objects and beings of the same blood is precisely the basis for experiencing unity with a natural object, which acts as a condition for the subject-generating interaction and, at the same time, our feeling of joint being with nature.
A.K.: Is nature, represented by its representatives, able to show such an attitude towards us, to feel such a unity with us?
V.P.: The question is certainly interesting, but I think it depends on the specifics of a natural object. I can give two examples. If a person causes damage to nature, then she takes her “revenge” on him. What does revenge mean? This means that man did not show empathy towards nature, separated himself from it, used it as a dustbin. But she takes revenge on a person not because she wants to harm him, but since she initially acts as a habitat, she will not, as a result of such an attitude towards her on the part of a person, provide favorable conditions for his life.
Another example, I don’t know if you have experienced this or not, but some women who are fond of flowers and gardening, told me that they love to grow flowers in their summer cottage, and when they walk along the garden path, the flowers turn their heads after them. This is what empathy is - the response of a natural object to the love that it received from a person. Empathy is really possible from two sides - both on the part of a person in relation to natural objects, and on their part in relation to a person. The flower apparently can recognize what kind of person is in front of it, the one who loves it and values its life, or the one who is ready to "kill" it. Thus, nature can also show empathy, feel, recognize different objects and their attitude towards herself. And if we talk about animals, then, obviously, they have a developed ability to empathize in relations with the owner or other people and living beings.
A.K.: You’re talking about the ability to empathize as characterizing different living beings. Is it possible to speak of this ability as characterizing a system of organisms, such as ecosystems, or the ecosphere in general?
V.P.: There is the concept of the noosphere associated with the name of [Vladimir] Vernadsky. The noosphere is the result of the evolution of life on the planet in its unity with humans. Noosphere means the "intelligent shell" of the Earth. The question might be: Is "mind of the planet" synonymous with thinking? In psychological science, thinking is the subject of psychological research since it is one of the varieties of mental reality, a mental phenomenon. Is the noosphere a metaphor for psychic reality or psychic reality as such, the same as thinking in psychological science? In traditional logic, it is not possible to answer the question whether the noosphere is a psychic reality. If, however, we change the point of view of the problem and use the typology of subject-environment interactions, including subject-generating interaction, and if we accept that mental reality is a form of being generated in subject-generating interaction, then humanity as a community of subjects and the planet as the subject of self-development, if there is a subject-generating interaction between them, then the product of this interaction can be the psychic reality that arises between them. That is, the noosphere is the same mental reality as the thinking of a person or a group of people.
А.К.: Can certain forms of subject-generating interaction be used for the development of ecological consciousness, ecological culture? Can we, for example, use attuning to an ecosystem or a specific natural object, a living being in order to get involved in subject-generating interaction? Is it possible that the mechanism of subject-generating interaction will be implemented in the act of artistic perception of natural objects? Is it possible to speak about the creation of a certain artistic model to represent this being of joint generation?
V.P.: Absolutely, because a person can act as a subject of different systems. Interacting with natural systems, objects, I get into a certain relationship with them and determine my subjectivity in relation to them. At the same time, I can perceive them both as objects and as subjects, accepting their subjectivity. Depending on this, I will paint the landscape in different ways - depending on a position I take.
The impressionists moved away from the traditional methods and content of depicting the environment. Why? Perhaps they had a need to express themselves in this world in a different capacity. Perhaps they felt the need to express themselves based on their experience of the changing living atmosphere of the landscape, when, for example, Notre Dame was depicted on a sunny day, in the evening twilight, or in the morning light. The object was the same, but the artist's impression and feelings, caused by his inclusion in the integral landscape and natural space, changed the image of the depicted object. This means that the awareness and feeling of self in relation to the natural environment and objects can be different depending on artist’s position. And this is the position from which the environmental friendliness to the environment, or natural objects begins.
А.К.: You said earlier that a human being is not only a planetary being, but also a cosmic one. In this sense, can the psychic reality generated by humanity also be the product of its subject-generating interaction with a wider environment, the cosmos.
V.P.: The idea of the "cosmic" essence of human beings is very old. There is a powerful philosophical, natural-science, religious direction called “Russian cosmism.” It comes from Russian philosophers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as from natural-science minds such as [Vladimir] Vernadsky, [Konstantin] Tsiolkovsky, and [Alexander] Chizhevsky. They all believed that humans are in fact cosmic beings, and in this sense, they are not only responsible for order in their house, or order in their country, city or planet, but they are also responsible for the state on a universal scale. This is something that was not advertised in the Soviet period, but in connection with global environmental problems, this line of thought associated with cosmism, due to the inclusion of a philosophical and natural scientific foundation, became widespread at the end of the last century. It undoubtedly contains very interesting ideas, indicating that not everything is so simple, and what is happening now in the modern world, especially in the geopolitical sense, just contradicts the nature of humans as cosmic beings.
А.К.: There is Russian cosmism, but there are also other religious and philosophical currents that largely share its ideas about humans in their unity with the living environment, including the cosmos.
V.P.: It is clear that if we turn to Eastern philosophical teachings, in particular, Taoism, Buddhism and others, we can find the similar perception of human beings, though in a different form, but the idea that a person is a creature whose purpose is not is limited to providing oneself with food, procreation, and obtaining material benefits, pervades all philosophical and religious trends without exception. The purpose of humans is much higher. The only question is whether they will be able to reach the understanding of his cosmic destiny in the mass consciousness. Attention to environmental problems on a global scale, to the ecological consciousness of individual, collective and planetary existence, I consider as a sign, a reminder of nature: “Look, stop, think, come to your senses, what are you doing, humans!”
A.K.: On this high philosophical, ideological note, we could probably end our conversation. Thank you very much.
Interviewed by: Kopytin, Alexander
Doctor of Medical Sciences, Professor, Department of Psychology, St. Petersburg Academy of Postgraduate Pedagogical Education (St. Petersburg, Russia)
Reference for citations
Kopytin, A. (2023). Interview with Viktor Panov. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, Vol.4(1). - URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru