First the good news. Turns out that Climate Change is a social cognitive disorder with what amounts to a very simple cure! We can beat this!
Oh… There’s a catch. In order to affect this cure, we must first learn to take the climate crisis very personally. We’ve become so expert at externalizing our problems, at projecting our own mental afflictions on others and on our environment, that reversing this process, seeing this global chaos as a reflection of our own shadow, is actually asking quite a lot.
Then again, we have no choice.
We simply cannot continue traveling down this steepening road to perdition. That direction, by definition, is insane; that is, “characteristic of a person [or society of persons] of unsound mind.” For those capable of glimpsing this in rare moments of clarity and insight, the question becomes ‘how can we, as a culture, still manage to turn away from so much unnecessary suffering?’
There is no malady,
awareness can not cure,
No secret, it will not reveal.
~ Anonymous (ca. 11th Century C.E.)
Western Civilization needs to stop viewing climate change as just another political issue, to be labeled and ranked in public opinion polls along with the economy, terrorism, abortion, and transgender bathrooms. It is no more a political issue, really, than mad cow disease is – or species extinction, for that matter – in spite of the craven efforts of corporate politicians and scribes to reduce it to an economic concern. Even more remotely, it is tempting for we, the consumers, to view climate change from inside our espresso-foam bubble as another problem for science and technology to catch up with, like cancer or space travel, while we keep fiddling with our virtual reality gadgets, or otherwise distracting ourselves from the clear and present danger lurking beneath the turbulent waves and above the gathering storm clouds of actual reality.
Psychological Evaluation of American Culture ca. 2017
What we are really dealing with here is an epidemic mental disease of the highest order, a pandemic of rampant social pathology unrivaled in human history. Surely we can agree, now that we’ve placed a person with an obvious mental disease in the White House, that it is time to have a national discussion about mental health in a cultural context – yes? Can we who still consider ourselves adults please spark a national dialogue about just what it is that is causing us to consign all future generations, including our very own grandchildren, to a kind of hell on earth?
Have we really degenerated into a society that devours its own progeny?
Regrettably, there is only one popular world leader who gets this issue. (Only ONE!? WTF, world?) He wears a funny white hat, flowing robes, and regularly washes the feet of the poor. Unfortunately, he has yet to master miracles. Though he leads the largest Church in human history – over a billion people worldwide, with over 70 million here in America – a church in which his word is considered God’s will, even He cannot seem to hold his follower’s attention on this issue!
There’s a reason for this pervasive dissonance. You see, the cognitive disorder alluded to earlier is quite contagious, a culturally transmitted virus that has already spread among us via the disease vector of our electromagnetic media. The antidote for this planetary mental poison cuts directly against the social grain here in the West, making it politically incorrect to even talk about the existence of a crisis in most places, and rendering any form of political solution in these broken times unattainable.
I’ve been closely involved in this existential crisis since its earliest days. First, as a student of environmental engineering (thermodynamic systems analysis) in college, then as an intergovernmental environmental affairs specialist in the 1980s. Horrified by that experience, I became a legal monkey wrench from the mid-1990s forward; and finally, I morphed into the ecopsychologist, writer and agent-provocateur I am today. In other words, I’ve followed a career arc from dealing with the many symptoms of the climate crisis to diagnosing the underlying disease. And at the height of this elevated symptomalogy, in a world that has truly gone off the rails of civilization in a scary clown car, I believe I have finally arrived at a diagnosis.
It may be too late. Sorry, world. I really tried…
All this madness we are seeing played out on the world stage right now, the “great unravelling” long predicted by social ecologists like Paul Hawken and Joanna Macy, is a frantic call for help from a depressed culture that is borderline schizophrenic. A collective spiritual emergency, if you will, marked by extreme dissociative behaviors at every level of social interaction (surely, you’ve noticed?), and frantic socio-political episodes of “acting out” in the most irresponsible ways imaginable – making for entertaining news, perhaps, but grievously harming ourselves and myriad others as a matter of course.
And so it is, with all these unmistakable psychological markers, that I as a formally educated ecopsychologist and self-appointed sociocultural shaman can now confidently inform you that there is really only one remaining cure for our planetary crisis, this dark night of our troubled souls, this existential funk.
The question I have for you, America, is this: are you ready to hear it?
Rx: The Cure
Most of us won’t visit a specialist unless we suspect we have a real problem. There can be no cure for the addict who will not admit addiction, or the terminally ill who eschew doctors. So yes, the first step in treating the symptoms of what is at root a societal mental disorder is for each member of that society, each one of us in this case, to admit that it is we who have the problem, not “the planet” or even society or just everyone else. Especially those of us who appreciate what is at stake – we must lead by humble example.
We must by internalize this crisis.
That’s what it means to make it personal. Climate change is a personal issue, and no one gets a pass. Allow me to start:
“Hi. My name is Zhiwa, and I’m having a climate crisis.”
(everyone else): “Hi Zhiwa!”
Yes, that’s it. Sorry to disappoint you. There is no technological fix for the climate crisis, no silver iodide bullet. There is no political compromise that can do the trick (take the Paris Accords – PLEASE). We put all our eggs in those baskets, and they are now as broken as the runaway climate system itself. This is a deeply personal issue – are you feeling me? – and we have to re-learn how to talk about it – quickly.
We’ve been viewing this unfolding crisis all along, from scientists all the way down to the swamp-creatures in D.C., through the very distorted lens of “Cartesian” analysis and worldview. Therein lies the intractability of this problem. A psychological defense mechanism that courses deeply through our culture. In plain english, we’ve been seeing this all along as a crisis “out there” somewhere, like inclement weather. In truth, however, what is happening out there in the world today has almost nothing to do with anything out there in the world today. Ultimately, the only useful function of climate chaos is to direct our attention to the real crisis, of which that discordia is but a complex set of symptoms reflecting back our own collective psychological disturbance – which in turn reflects yours and mine, each in our own unique manner.
As without, so within.
This is the conclusion of the new movement in psychology that arose in response to the crisis itself: Ecopsychology, which can be best appreciated as psychology with “eco” (our home) substituted for ego (our tormentor). Stated simply, the climate crisis could not be coming from any deeper “in here.” It’s not about political views or education levels or any of that social media fodder. Polarized talking heads cannot grasp it. Instead, this crisis is about something inside each and every one of us, no matter how much we may think we’re not part of the problem.
And that presents a real conundrum in a death-phobic culture that pathologizes everything out of the mainstream, and stigmatizes any and all mental illness ~ except, of course, narcissistic personality disorder! Only awareness of this problem is capable of neutralizing it’s effect.
Self-awareness. Honest reflection. Humility.
So perhaps we should not be surprised that Pope Francis has come closest to offering a practical course for treating the climate crisis. He’s begun the difficult conversation that addresses our frozen unresponsiveness, our relative inability to respond appropriately to what is – in fact – an existential crisis that is – in fact – suffocating the seas, breaking links in the food chain, and threatening all life on the planet. As the Pope pointed out in his luminous encyclical, Laudato Si’ (Care for our Home), the climate crisis is a reflection of a much deeper spiritual crisis, one that poses a most urgent question to each one of us individually – and to all of us collectively – no matter our religious beliefs or political affiliations:
What does it mean to be human?
Can you feel the enormity of that question? Do you sense its urgency? We are witnessing the birth of what geologists and other scientists are now calling the Anthropocentric Age. Yes, the Holocene epoch that began approximately 11,700 years ago, an age that saw the rise of human civilization itself, has ended. In fact, they now date that epochal ending to the first successful detonation of a nuclear bomb in the White Sands desert of New Mexico at 5:29 am on July 16, 1945.
“Trinity,” we called it. We now controlled the “basic power of the universe,” our Commander in Chief announced. As the Pulitzer prize winning poet James Agee noted in TIME magazine, splitting the atom brought us “inescapably into a new age in which all thoughts and things were split.”
“Holocene” is from a Greek phrase meaning “entirely recent.” Now we’re in an “entirely new” geological epoch, one triggered and being shaped by anthropos ~ us ~ primarily through the one-two punch of nuclear energy and anthropogenic climate disruption unleashed on a global scale. Has anyone yet asked the obvious follow-up to the Pope’s question: What does it mean to be human in a human-created, human-centered age? (Dear Pontiff – have we become gods?)
Admittedly, that’s a big question. Let’s at least try to define the parameters of the discussion going forward. And for that, we need to return to that pesky issue of cognitive disorders. Whenever a psychological malady is involved, it becomes really important to get the diagnosis right before prescribing a course of treatment.
Now this may sound a bit mad to you, or even like science fiction, but it happens to be a scientifically proven fact: we humans are caught in a time warp. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever confronted before… and it’s killing us. Slowly, but most assuredly, and out of our sight, it is proving to be the death of all higher life forms on the planet. This is what has scientists so worked up.
When we consider all the disturbing developments in the world – dying coral reefs, melting ice caps, killer storms, extreme heat, drought, famine, exploding Siberian methane bombs (from thawing permafrost), we reflexively focus on the wrong question: Are we causing all that?
I’m here to tell you that ‘we’ most assuredly are not. That’s right, we’re not causing the climate chaos you see in the world right now. Unless, that is, you happened to have been around in 1977. AH, there’s the rub! The REAL ‘Inconvenient Truth.’ Everyone who was alive and engaged in technological civilization in 1977 had already caused what is appearing on the global canvass now. It’s a bit like spotting a star in the night sky that, unbeknownst to us, actually went super-nova millennia ago. But we’re still seeing, with our own eyes in “real time,” how that distant sun appeared millions of years ago.
Why worry about that star up there? Look – it’s doing just fine!
Looks can be deceiving. It’s a provable fact that nothing exists as it appears. And that presents quite a dilemma when it comes to causes whose effects lie four decades in the future, a day when maybe half of those reading these words will no longer be. Compounding this quandary is the unfortunate fact that we’re also a death-phobic culture that has mostly forgotten how to grieve what we’ve already lost, let alone face our prospects of future loss.
So no, what we are collectively causing right now is not all the disturbing and quite unnatural geophysical chaos we see in the world today. What we who are alive in the reeling global chaos of 2017 are causing is some kind of hell realm for everyone who happens to be alive on this planet in 2057.
That’s some time warp, isn’t it?
Now, just what kind of hell realm we are talking about 40 years from now — knowing that there is already as much CO2 in the atmosphere again as there was in 1977, waiting to be taken up into the climate system (yes, we’ve more than doubled all the emissions of the industrial age in the brief span of one time-lag increment) — is a question of (ahem) hot debate. Now that we see vast methane emissions adding to the mix, thanks to arctic warming that is outstripping the rest of the globe, now that we are seeing the triggering of these ‘feedback loops’ in the system, there are even some scientists who speculate that near term human extinction is more than just a possibility. Once this climate train runs off the tracks, the mayhem is likely to accelerate exponentially in ways we are powerless to impede. At the very least, some kind of Malthusian contraction seems inevitable. Losing whole species of charismatic mega-fauna like Orangutans, Rhinos, Giraffes, Elephants, Tigers, Whales, Sharks… is becoming more likely than not.
What does it mean to be human in a world with no tigers, elephants and bears, OH MY!?
Scientists have now begun to experience heightened levels of depression and despair. By contrast, most Americans are still quite oblivious to the grave issues of cause and effect in the anthropocentric world we are actively and passively creating for our children. Politicians, corporations, and increasingly centralized (concentrated) media continue to do everything in their power to prop up the illusion of the American Dream, a veritable heat engine that feeds us an endless supply of disempowering jobs, mind-robbing distractions, and spirit-numbing pharmaceuticals in order to grease its wheels.
Just as in the “Great America” of the 1950s, everyone is so busy trying to project an appearance of success and happiness, or just trying to hold onto some semblance of a normal life, that nobody wants to admit something is terribly wrong. The main difference between then and now is that we’ve ‘progressed’ from liquor and valium to beer and opioids.
Unlike the 1950s, the majority no longer harbor illusions about politics. In order to perpetuate the means of our destruction, fraudulent banksters, corporate police, and the militarized industry complex have now staged a coup at the highest level of the Unites States government – which is to say, at the highest level of global governance – under the convenient cover of a giant shit-storm of intentionally distracting, gossip-level controversies and gaslight-inspired questioning of the most basic facts. We’ve substituted a virtual reality television show for what used to pass for reality itself, with a farcical leader of the free world who is clearly incapable of distinguishing between fact and fantasy.
It is difficult to avoid the obvious conclusion. This cognitive disorder that has us trapped in a time-warped, Fukushima-fueled death spiral – otherwise known as ever-accelerating, abrupt climate chaos, ocean graveyards, waves of refugees, and the Sixth Mass Extinction – has now metastasized culturally into a rather severe mental disorder, causing global-scale displacement and disruption of both natural and human systems, and spewing forth pervasive social pathologies masquerading as political debate and economic normality. From the institutionalized racism punctuated by Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter, to the ongoing slaughter of bison, bears and wolves, the regular befouling of streams, the incessant poisonous plunder of the oceans, to the political scapegoating of vulnerable minorities and ongoing slaughter of foreign civilians, these mental, social, and ecological disorders are all feeding off each other ravenously and inhumanely, rather like the fabled horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Even our lavishly compensated corporate news mavens don’t know quite what to make of it all…
What does it mean to be human anymore?
Are we ready to admit we have a problem yet, America? Can we be adult enough, perhaps, to concede that we the people may even BE the problem? As creatures of our own culture, we’re like raging alcoholics who view ourselves as gregarious social drinkers, until we wake up one morning after a particularly forgetful bender and find ourselves in bed with a sow-shaped, orange pompadoured gas bag in leather thongs rudely demanding malt liquor and speed-balls…
This is our wake-up call.
The road to recovery for our climate, for our planet, and for our children’s children begins with admitting that we have a nature problem. Not just in the collective sense, but in each one of our lives, personally. It’s a family crisis. It is lurking in our communities, threatening to sever all social ties. A clear and present danger.
For me, being human means cultivating and exhibiting the best qualities of human nature. Compassion, awe, caring, sharing, love, respect, wisdom, humility. Human Nature. For myself, for others different than me, for animals (even the ones we eat), and for nature itself – what’s left of the natural world, anyway. Humane.
For what is left of human nature when humans are engaged in a constant (un-winnable) war with nature? It is inhumane. A crime against humanity.
We are obliged to end this war within ourselves, this constant decades-long assault on human nature we have all enabled.
Defend the Sacred. Become a Protector.
Zhiwa Woodbury is an eco-psychologist and author of the recently released book, CLIMATE SENSE: Changing the Way We Think & Feel About Our Climate in Crisis. He blogs at Heal the Planet! Follow him on Facebook: Planetary Hospice.