To sleep, to dream, to keep the dream in reach
To each a dream, don’t weep, don’t scream
Just keep it in, keep sleeping in
What am I gonna do to wake up?
(Europe is Lost, by Kate Tempest)
In spite of the global attention that has been focused on so-called ‘climate change’ – it’s not change, it is chaos, it’s mayhem (according to the International Energy Agency, it is mass migration and mass mortality) – the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not only still rising, it’s accelerating. Erik Solheim, the UN’s environment chief, recently declared a global emergency: “We still find ourselves in a situation where we are not doing nearly enough to save hundreds of millions of people from a miserable future. This is unacceptable.”
If Western Civilization is to survive beyond the 21st Century as something more than a dark remnant of another “Great Dying,” the first of which wiped out nearly every species that inhabited our planet during the Paleozoic era, we need 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.
Climate Chaos is no more a political issue, really, than Zika virus or Alzheimers, in spite of craven efforts by corporate-controlled media and politicians to frame it as an economic concern. Even more remotely, it is tempting for we consumers to view ‘climate change’ from inside our espresso-foam bubble as yet another problem for science and technology to catch up with, like cancer, nuclear waste, or space travel, while we keep fiddling with our virtual reality gadgets, or otherwise distracting ourselves from the danger lurking beneath the turbulent waves and behind the gathering storm clouds of actual reality.
From an ecopsychological viewpoint, in a completely interconnected community of 7 billion humans now awakening to the full extent of our interdependence on one another and on nature, and just now beginning to grasp the Pandora’s box of un-imaginary horribles we are selfishly unleashing on the biosphere, it is incumbent on philosophers, psychologists, and quantum thinkers everywhere to consider the role of our collective psyche’s current mental state, as expressed (‘acted out’) obsessively through social and mass media, and to place it in the context of our seemingly intractable dissociative climate behavior. When you get right down to it, what we are really dealing with here is an epidemic mental disease of the highest (dis)order, a pandemic of rampant cultural and political sociopathy unrivaled in human history.
When it comes to this careening global crisis, America presents both the world’s biggest problem and it’s best hope for real change. Now that we Americans have placed a person with an obvious mental disease in the White House, surely we can agree the time has come to have a national discussion about mental health in a cultural context – yes? What is it that is causing us to consign all future generations, including our own grandchildren, to a kind of hell on earth? Have we really degenerated into a society that devours its own progeny? Or is this madness just a form of mass psychosis that can still be treated?
Who Cares For Our Common Home?
Regrettably, at this critical time there is only one popular world leader who really gets this issue. And unfortunately, the Man in White 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 – and although ‘His word’ is considered by Catholics to be infallibly inspired by our Creator, even Pope Francis cannot seem to hold his follower’s attention on this life-and-death issue! While a papal encyclical like Laudato Si’ is required to be discussed from every pulpit of every one of those churches, I’ve yet to notice Catholics marching en masse on D.C. to demand the radical change the Pope has called for – and the Earth demands.
I was born at the height of the baby boom, a child of the Greatest Generation – the same year and in the same town as the first McDonalds. McDonalds hamburger stands, like the American Dream itself, now reach every corner of the world. I also got in on the ground floor of the climate crisis. First in college, as a student of environmental engineering (thermodynamics), then in my professional career, as an inter-governmental environmental affairs specialist in the 1980s, when we first discovered there was a hole in the ozone layer, and then Dr. James Hanson of NASA informed Congress of the Greenhouse effect.
Horrified by my experience in government, I spent two years backpacking around the world, and then became a legal monkey wrench from the mid-1990s forward, challenging the grossly negligent stewardship of federal forests and grasslands by our federal mismanagement agencies. Exasperated by that experience, but still determined to get to the root causes of what I’ve always viewed as a spiritual disease anyway, I returned to school and became an ecopsychologist. Ecopsychology places the planet at the center of the self, rather than the ego, and accounts for our relationship to the natural world when considering psychological problems – Mother Earth, rather than just our mothers. So basically, I’ve followed a career arc from dealing with the many symptoms of the climate crisis to hacking at the roots of the underlying malady. Now, as these symptoms have become grossly acute before my astonished eyes, in a world that has truly gone off the civilized rails in a scary clown car driven by a strangely charismatic psychopath, I believe I’m prepared to render my diagnosis.
Ahem… (Is anyone still paying attention out there?)
SADD: Schizoid-American Dream Disorder
All this madness we are seeing play out on the world stage right now – American Empire run amok, the “great unravelling” long predicted by social ecologists like Paul Hawken and Joanna Macy – represents a frantic call for help from a depressed culture that is borderline schizophrenic. [Definition: noun 1. Psychiatry. Also called dementia praecox. a severe mental disorder characterized by some, but not necessarily all, of the following features: emotional blunting, intellectual deterioration, social isolation, disorganized speech and behavior, delusions, and hallucinations. 2. a state characterized by the coexistence of contradictory or incompatible elements.] A collective spiritual emergency 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. It all makes for entertaining news, perhaps, but this 24/7 Reality TV script that passes for culture these days, which glorifies emotional reactivity in order to entrain viewers attentional affect, is inflicting grievous harm on ourselves, our communities, our children, and myriad others, as a matter of course.
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 the first step in treating the symptoms of what is at root a societal mental disorder is for a critical mass of individuals in that society – each one of us in this case – to admit that IT IS I who have the problem – not “the planet” or society or everyone who disagrees with us. Especially those of us who already appreciate what is at stake – WE must be adults, and lead by humble example. How do we do that?
We can begin by internalizing this crisis, rather than continuing to uphold our natural psychological defense mechanism that reactively externalizes any threat of this magnitude.
Allow me to start:
“Hi. My name is Zhiwa, and I’m having a climate crisis.”
(everyone else reading this): “Hi Zhiwa!”
(Hey! That actually felt good!)
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’ve placed all our eggs in those baskets for far too long, 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. Fortunately, as William Burroughs once observed, language is a virus, and with social media that connects the civilized world into one super-sized Psyche, it can spread quite rapidly.
The problem that prevents a solution is that 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 the climate crisis – 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 or a giant asteroid hurtling towards Siberia.
“Can’t someone fix it?!” Right? Fix what, exactly?
In truth, 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 global 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.
We are caught in Indra’s net. That ancient metaphor is apt. On every node is a jewel that reflects every other jewel, and at the same time every jewel is reflected in all the other jewels. There is only the illusion of an individual psyche somehow detached from all other psyches and from Psyche herself – Anima Mundi, our unborn, indwelling nature. By seeing ourselves apart, we cut ourselves off from our own human nature. On a collective scale, this can only lead to crisis, and Mother Earth is reflecting that unnatural self back to us in dramatic fashion, doing her very best to slap some sense into us.
The Emerging Quantum World View
This seamlessness between planet and psyche is the conclusion of the new movement in psychology that arose in response to the crisis itself: Ecopsychology, an extension of Deep Ecology into Western psychology, which can best be appreciated as psychology with “eco” (our home) substituted for ego (our tormentor). It has accurately been called “psychology in the service of life.” A stark contrast to the development of psychology in the West, which could just as easily be called psychology in the service of death – thanatos, or Freudian psychology.
Stated simply, from the ecopsychological perspective, 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 (that’s ego talking, not body and not heart).
This idea of ‘mass psychosis’ 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! Because only awareness of this problem is capable of neutralizing it’s deadening effects. The path from climate perdition to climate redemption is paved with self-awareness, honest reflection, and humility. You know – all the traits that are punished in a capitalist world order! We are called to serve a world in which no good deed goes unpunished!
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 at least 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 a disintegrating food chain, and threatening all life on the planet. As the Pope makes clear 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 in your heart? Do you sense its urgency in your gut?
We are witnessing the dawn of what geologists and other scientists are now calling the Anthropocene Age. Yes, it’s true – the Holocene epoch that began approximately eleven millennia ago, an age that saw the rise of human civilization itself, has ended. Didn’t you get the memo? 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 pathological president 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.” And that splitting has directly led to this great unravelling and our schizophrenic acting out. It is admittedly a big problem, but not insurmountable. Without trying to treat it, it is highly unlikely we as a species or culture will rise to the challenge of rising seas and increasing economic and social displacement.
“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?)
Let’s Do The Time Warp Now!
There is another imposing problem in trying to frame this global discussion – a type of cognitive disorder: we humans are caught in a climatic time warp. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever confronted before… and it’s killing us. 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?
The truth of the matter is 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 climate canvass right 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, right? And psychologically, that presents quite a dilemma when it comes to causes whose effects lay four decades in the future, a tomorrow 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 the prospect of future losses. Instead, we turn away.
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. Let’s not congratulate ourselves for that, though. 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 kind of terrifying time warp, isn’t it? Can you see now how dissociated behavior is rewarded by this natural phenomenon, which separates the truth and consequences of our actions from our actual decision making — by four decades?!
Trouble Ahead, trouble behind
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), and that emissions keep increasing with every broken heat record — is a question of (ahem) hot debate. Now we see vast methane emissions adding to the chaotic cocktail, thanks to arctic warming that is outstripping the rest of the globe and triggering permafrost bog fires in Greenland, and similarly alarming ‘feedback loops’ in the system. (Permafrost Fires?! Really?)
The ocean’s role in all this is an unfathomable scientific mystery that continues to reveal the magnitude of our scientific hubris in increasingly startling ways. And yet, it is because of the oceans that we can confidently say, apart from all the political hype on all sides, that the window for avoiding an eco-catastrophic future closed in 2014. Oops! Oh, you missed that memo, too? What, you were expecting the corporate press to provide fair warning? Warming oceans are locked in for centuries to come now, don’t you know, and if the food chain breaks and life beneath the waves suddenly crashes into one large watery graveyard, we will be left whistling past our own mass graveyard. There are even some scientists who speculate that near term human extinction is now more than just a mere possibility.
After all, about half the oxygen we breathe is produced by life in the ocean.
Now there’s a scary thought – I mean, fact. And once this accelerating climate train runs completely off the tracks, the mayhem is likely to spiral out exponentially in ways we will be powerless to impede or control. (Pause here for reflection on reader’s favorite scene from The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones). That is the gravity of the existential crisis that underlies widespread depression, existential angst, increasing suicide, and pandemic substance abuse. It’s as if your mother was being suffocated in the next room, and maybe your dying baby is crying in the corner, while you’re trying to figure out your taxes at the dining room table.
At the very least, some kind of Malthusian contraction seems inevitable for humanity in the foreseeable future. That is always the outcome of exponential population growth once a species outstrips its resources. Did I mention there were only 2.9 billion of us when I was born? And the ‘collateral damage’ of losing whole other species of charismatic mega-fauna – Orangutans, Rhinos, Giraffes, Elephants, Tigers, Whales, Sharks, Bears, Bison, ad nauseam – seems to be more likely than not in our children’s lifetime.
I Am The Climate Crisis
As alluded to already, but worth returning to now in sober reflection, one of the key revelations of Carl Jung, Theodore Roszak, and pretty much all indigenous people (that is, people who still live close to nature) lies at the heart of ecopsychology, and holds a key to re-solving and surviving the coming climate catastrophe: our individual and collective psyches are umbilically connected to the Psyche of the living Earth herself, referred to since time immemorial as our Mother – a natural life-source, not a natural resource – and grounded spiritually in what leading ecopsychologist Andy Fisher refers to as one flesh: “All phenomena interweave as a single cloth or ‘common tissue’ [that] are mutually informative in their commingling with one another… because they are of the same elemental stuff.”
This worldview can be traced back to Plato, and to the father of Western psychology, William James, as well, and has now essentially been proven by quantum physicists – like the Nobel laureate who pursued the union of physics and psyche with Carl Jung, Wolfgang Pauli, or the father of quantum physics, Werner Heisenberg: “The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine, and thereby determine the texture of the whole.” [from Ricard & Thuan, “The Quantum & the Lotus” (p. 72). For a more “natural” metaphor, consider physicist Thuan’s own description: “The world is like a vast stream of events and dynamic currents that are all interconnected and constantly interacting” (p. 278)].
Of course, this worldview stands in direct opposition to the scientific materialist worldview that has given rise to consumerism and commodification at the expense of sustenance and spirituality – the Cartesian objectification of life and nature. But in our hearts we know which world view is true, and which one (Mammon!) deceives. Since nothing exists as it appears, after all, objectification and reification both turn out to be rotten at their core. This simple realization gives rise to great compassion and caring.
The importance of this emergent, life-affirming world view during this time of immeasurable peril is no coincidence. We must embrace it and foster it with all our collective might. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, the kinds of grievous losses we are experiencing now, and the existential crisis that we have brought upon ourselves by attempting to shape the world in our image, affect us all at the base level of consciousness, the very ground of our being. They give rise to our common psychological distress, our shared mental illness – our dis-ease with the direction of our lives, our society, and our world.
What does it mean to be human in a world with no tigers, elephants and bears? OH MY!
There is a reason that the current drug epidemic involves abuse of pain killers. People are hurting in increasingly desperate ways! Even scientists have begun to experience heightened levels of depression and despair. By contrast, most consumers are doing their best to repress any grave issues of cause and effect in the anthropocentric world we are actively and passively creating for our children, while politicians, corporations, and increasingly centralized mass media continue to do everything in their power to prop up the illusion of the American Dream. This was really brought home when, in response to our distress over the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (which we are still acting out), George W. Bush went on national TV to inform us: “Americans must shop.” That was such a perfect response! The system depends on our consent and willing participation. But that dream we’ve been sold as the cause of happiness is actually a veritable heat engine that is feeding us an endless supply of disempowering jobs, mind-robbing distractions, and spirit-numbing pharmaceuticals, in order to grease its squeaky wheels of consumption and destruction.
Just as in the “Great America” of the 1950s – that golden age the most traumatized among us have naively mythologized – everyone is so busy today 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 finally admit something is terribly amiss. No wonder we pine for the age of “Father Knows Best”! The main difference between then and now is that we’ve ‘progressed’ from numbing ourselves out to the point of careless indifference with liquor and valium, to completely sedating ourselves with anti-depressants and opioids – to the point of ‘accidental’ suicide and death.
The suicide epidemic is a stark reflection of the climate crisis, an acting out of the larger, ecocidal culture. And we have a whole economy now based not on producing shiny new things, as in the 1950s, but rather on distracting ourselves with endless ‘soft’ consumption and meaningless pursuits. Pokémon Go? Really?? 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. The dreaded “post-truth” era of alternative facts and fake news.
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, enabling if not causing global-scale displacement and disruption of both natural and human systems, and spewing forth pervasive social pathologies masquerading as political debate and business as usual. 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, from the political scapegoating of vulnerable minorities to the 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.
What does it mean to be human in an unraveling world?
Brothers and Sisters! Can we at least admit that we have a problem? That it is not so simple as ‘us and them’ anymore? Can we be adult enough, even, to concede that we the people may even BE the problem?
This cultural psychosis that is now so rampant has got to be our wake-up call. We have to take ownership of this mass psychosis, and not just reflexively externalize it anymore. We are projecting our collective shadow, which none of us is innocent of, and labeling it “Donald Trump” (or “Hillary Clinton”). We are labeling it “Global Capitalism,” and we are labeling it “Climate Change.”
Pogo was right. This world is our mirror.
Rx: Natural Awareness
The road to recovery for our climate, for our planet, and for our children’s children thus begins with admitting that we have a nature problem. Not just in the collective sense, but in each one of our lives, personally. Some have begun labeling it NDD: Nature Deficit Disorder, though I think it runs even deeper than that. SADD. It is a moral crisis, a spiritual crisis, a crisis of human nature reflected in the natural world. It impairs our families, it is lurking in our communities, and it threatens to sever all social ties. Crazy politics, substance abuse, depression, hoarding behaviors, gated communities, military fetishes, breakdowns in social order, nationalism – all of these modern phenomena are – like chaotic weather, flooding, and wildfire – symptoms of this mental disorder, not problems to be viewed in isolation from each other.
A clear and present danger exists, and we’re all exhibiting classic fight, flight, or freeze symptoms. We’re all acting out, each in our own ways. And we can only tackle this disorder in relationship – with one another, in community, and with ourselves – because it is at root a disease of relationship.
For me, being human means cultivating and exhibiting the best qualities of human nature. Compassion, awe, caring, sharing, love, respect, wisdom, humility. For myself, for others different than me, for animals (even the ones we eat), and for nature itself. Human nature is sacred, it is humane, and it arises naturally from cultivating awareness, freed from distractions. What is not humane in our behaviors in relationship to ourselves, one another, and the natural world, what is devouring that world and threatening our life support systems, that by definition is not human nature.
Its a question of individual ethics writ large. For what is left of human nature when humans are engaged in a constant (un-winnable) war with nature? That is a war with ourselves. And it is a crime against humanity we continue to play out in unspeakable ways, such as in Syria and Yemen. I know people still tend to demonize human nature, going so far as to suggest that warring with one another is part of our nature – but it’s not. If war was natural, why would so many who experience it first hand be so traumatized by that experience? No, as H.H. Dalai Lama says, “war is monstrous.”
We are obliged to end this war with ourselves within ourselves, within our families, within our communities, on social media, by demanding it from corporate media – and from there it will filter upward into the realm of polity. It us up to all of us to end this constant decades-long assault on human nature that we have all enabled, and to lead our leaders home or ask them to get out of the way.
Fortunately, we have newly established models we can follow. Defend the Sacred. Become a Protector.
If we ‘the takers’ will only humble ourselves, recovering our sense of sacred spirituality, then Indigenous wisdom can lead the way toward truth and reconciliation, with each other and the planet – naturally.
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 Ecopsychology Now! Connect with him on FaceBook by following Planetary Hospice.
This article/illustration was first published in Unpsychology Magazine, the Climate Minds anthology, 2018 – available from www.unpsychology.org