“The climate catastrophe to come is traumatically affecting, whether in its micro and macro manifestations, in the threat it poses to existing ways of life, in its upending of entrenched understandings of the workings of the world, or in the injury it is doing to particular lives and wider ecologies. It works on ecologies and bodies alike as a kind of wounding, one not simply or solely to the everyday stuff of biological life but to the very constitution of experience and expression.”
This rather ominous assessment comes not from the dystopians at the Dark Mountain Project, but rather from a recent research article published in the Duke University Press journal Environmental Humanities entitled “Climate Trauma, or the Affects of the Catastrophe to Come” (Richardson, M. 2018). Many sociocultural thinkers are now beginning to view the social upheavals around the world in this Trumpian era through the lens of trauma. For example, the best-selling addiction and recovery author Dr. Gabor Maté recently characterized the recent rash of hate-crimes and mass shootings in the U.S., against the backdrop of the opioid epidemic, as a “manifestation of a society that is ill, disconnected, and traumatized.”
But if we assume that Trump, Brexit and Yellow Vests are symptoms, rather than causes, of what’s really going wrong in the world, as progressives generally maintain, then what is it, exactly, that has us so collectively traumatized? Does the answer to this question suggest a path of recovery? Or are we doomed only a century after the first world war to spiral down into yet another “war to end all wars” maelstrom?
In the lead article of the forthcoming issue of the peer-reviewed journal Ecopscychology, which the publishers are making freely available now, in advance of publication, I suggest that what we have been referring to euphemistically as “climate change” is actually a new and unprecedented form of collective trauma. Climate Trauma. If simply reading this assessment elicits a kind of panic in your heart, such that you reflexively want to reject the idea out of hand and exit this portal, that is the normal normal response to someone being informed for the first time that they may be suffering from trauma. Take a deep breath, continue reading – I promise to offer you an alternative to opioids before taking my leave from this page.
Here is the climate paradox: scientists have been informing us repeatedly, since at least 2009, that our situation is quite dire. If we do not take drastic action, under the best case scenarios we are condemning our progeny to an impoverished world, while under the worst the future will not include human beings.
And yet, as the climate prodigy Greta Thunberg sternly points out, we do nothing.
The Paris Accords were a hoax. Even if they were implemented, they would assure an average increase of over three degrees celsius. But of course, in reality nothing was changed by our Parisian fling. Greenhouse gas emissions continue at an accelerating pace. With a few promising exceptions, the climate crisis continues unabated. Einstein famously observed that “[w]e can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” And yet we have continued to address the crisis mostly in political, scientific, and technological terms, while we stand benumbed in real time witnessing the melting of arctic sea ice and permafrost, the bleaching of the world’s coral reefs, the disappearance of insects, birds and wildlife, and the angry extremes of weather anomalies.
Last year, Harvard climate chemist Dr. James Anderson was awarded a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to climate science, which include bringing the ozone hole to the world’s attention at a time when politicians still listened to scientists. In his acceptance speech at the University of Chicago, Dr. Anderson warned that unless we stop burning fossil fuels in the next five years we are going to go extinct. Let that sink in for a moment.
Our instinctive response to trauma in real time falls along three limbic pathways: fight, which in this case would appear as “he must be mistaken;” flight, which here would involve either distracting ourselves or self-medicating; and, fright, which is a kind of mental paralysis. Any one of these strategies prevents the information from dropping into our heart, where we can actually feel the grievous loss inherent in that assessment. And so, while perhaps disturbed, we do nothing. We view the problem as “out there” somewhere, not a personal crisis. If we’ve accepted this assessment at the gut-level of feeling, by contrast, then we will suffer a kind of personal crisis, and resolve to do anything we can to safeguard the future. Collectively, unfortunately, most of us fall along one of the avoidance pathways.
So how to explain this paradoxical conundrum of these periodic, urgent life-and-death calls from the scientific community with no appropriate and effective social and cultural responses?
In psychology, dissociation is the term used to describe anything from mild detachment from our immediate surroundings to a more severe kind of detachment from our physical and emotional experiences – a disconnect of our heads from our hearts. Dissociation is most often rooted in trauma, and has been described as “the human capacity to mentally escape an insufferable reality” (White 2015).
Might this not be an apt description of our collective incapacity in the face of Climate Trauma? If so, to paraphrase Dr. Maté’s thinking, the cure for the crisis can be found closer to the wound. For it is only unacknowledged trauma that prompts us to act out in ways that make the problem worse. If what we have been calling “climate change” is, in fact, an unprecedented form of trauma that is prompting us to act out in such perplexing ways as questioning the validity of facts themselves, then there is tremendous potential for societal and global healing in simply bringing awareness to the nature of our collective wounding. As anyone who has walked a 12-step path will tell us, awareness is a powerful elixir.
So this begs the question: are we really dealing with a new kind of trauma? How do we understand that term? And more to the point, what is the cure?!
The Greek word trauma, or wound, referred exclusively to bodily insult or injury, and it’s still used that way in the medical profession. In more recent times, however, ‘trauma’ has also come to be understood in the distinct sense of a wound not on the body – but in the mind: “The word trauma is used to describe experiences or situations that are emotionally painful and distressing, and that overwhelm people’s ability to cope, leaving them powerless…” (Muhammad).
According to Dr. Judith Herman, author of what the NY Times called “one of the most important psychiatric works to be published since Freud” – Trauma and Recovery (1992) – traumatic events are characterized by their ability to “overwhelm the ordinary human adaptation to life” as well as “the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.”The Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry identifies the common denominator of psychological trauma as a feeling of “intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation.”
Thus defined, how is it possible not to see the climate crisis as a form of trauma? How have we missed this? As Benjamin White so succinctly put it, what we are dealing with here is “the greatest trauma on the grandest scale.” The entire biosphere is now under a sustained and grievous assault. And we humans are ourselves an integral part of that biosphere. As Carl Jung first showed, we are also psychologically connected to the natural world we co-evolved with – human nature is inextricably bound up with nature itself. So whether we suppress it or not, if our planet is being grievously wounded, that is bound to have profound psychological effects on each of us.
Wall or no wall, in other words, there is no excepting humans from the intensifying global assault on the life-support system we share with all that lives and breathes. The global climate crisis needs to be acknowledged as an entirely new and unparalleled kind of trauma, an unfolding cascade of unnatural (or at least anthropogenically-generated) events and conditions that are placing unprecedented, almost unfathomable – but clearly fatal – stressors on the entire biosphere.
The implications for this new psychological theory are far reaching, forcing us to re-think all that we have learned about trauma in the past century. For example, consider the observation that “[a]ll the subtle and insidious forms of trauma are pervasive and, when experienced chronically, have a cumulative impact that can be fundamentally life altering” (Muhammad). All categories of trauma dynamically interact, so that it is not possible to understand any without understanding all.
One of the key insights in dealing with the destructive role trauma plays our lives, our communities, and in the world, is that because of the somatic and cultural tendencies to enfold traumatic experiences into the fabric of our lives, whenever we experience a new trauma, all our past traumas become present. This appears to be as true of cultural and inter-generational trauma as it of personal traumas.
Unlike other forms of trauma, Climate Trauma is ever-present and menacingly pervasive. Such a continuous form of trauma would thus be expected to trigger all our past cultural and inter-generational (or “epigenetic”) traumas. Patriarchy? Check – the Me-Too and Time’s-Up movements. Slavery? Black Lives Matter, the new lynching monument, and prisons as warehouses. Civil War? Monument removals, hate crimes, and the rise of white supremacists. Genocide? Standing Rock and the related indigenous “protector” movements. 9-11? Endless unjustifiable wars in the Arab world, blind patriotism, and Islamaphobia. And of course at the individual level we have the opioid crisis, chronic technological distraction, and increasing rates of suicide.
Yes, clearly, we are all being triggered by Climate Trauma, and this constant triggering is forcing us to face up to difficult truths that we have in the past tended to sweep under the rug. As Naomi Klein so presciently observed, This Changes Everything – real solutions will not come on the climate front without simultaneously reconciling other pressing social issues. From a sociocultural standpoint, climate trauma is related to cultural trauma is related to epigenetic trauma is related to individual trauma – like the nested layers of a Russian doll.
And it just so happens that we are culturally acting out the very kind of Truth & Reconciliation process that is known to be effective in resolving collective traumas, as we saw most poignantly in South Africa in the wake of Apartheid. Viewed in the clarifying light of this new narrative framework, the Green New Deal is not just seen as some progressive dream or even a plank in a party platform. Founded on the visionary Five Freedoms, it is nothing less than a moral imperative for charting out a path of recovery from Climate Trauma. As Kate Aranoff and others so eloquently stated when the GND was unveiled: “Enemies of climate action warn of totalitarian dullness, while the fossil industry commits crimes against humanity to maintain the privileges of a few. The point of a Green New Deal is to build the opposite: a colorful democracy for all, to live through sun and storm.”
With increasing awareness of the pervasive scope, depth, and interrelatedness of the climate crisis, we would be wise to now begin viewing everything else through the more personal and heartfelt lens of interconnected traumas – from weather anomalies to political crises and polarized dysfunction, from the threat (and memory) of nuclear war to the absence of songbirds and honey bees on our nature walks, from apocalyptic developments in the Mid-East to the latest Star Wars movie. How could anyone with a reasonably realistic, educated world view not be haunted by the perpetual specter of Climate Trauma when considering fundamental life and identity choices – like whether to bring children into the world, what to choose as a career, whether to even attend school, or when and where to settle and raise a family? The challenge of acknowledging and processing any trauma is dependent on our seeing a path of recovery towards a more meaningful existence than what we see reflected in our culture and societies today.
As White puts it, trauma “distorts our ability to see our world clearly, to relate to it as it is,” since it “lurk[s] beneath a veil of power or competence or behind a complex network of unconscious dissociative processes” – such as endless growth and the unrealistic expectations of the American Dream that politicians and advertisers alike continue to urge upon all good consumers. But as citizens, we know in our hearts and minds that endless consumption and mindless waste is no longer sustainable or moral, and that the perpetual growth of capitalist society is clearly at odds with leaving our children a better life in a more perfect world. Even the Pope gets this. But as artists and activists keep asking, when are we going to wake up?
Most of us in the developed world feel ourselves trapped in a lifestyle that exploits, and is driven by, our limbic responses to trauma: fight, fright, and flight. It is the residue of our past traumas, both personal and familial (intergenerational), that keeps us paralyzed in hyper-vigilant states of denial and dissociation. We find ourselves increasingly incapable of coping with the emotional overwhelm of the times we inhabit, resulting in record levels of depression and demoralization, which is afflicting ever-younger age groups, and growing levels of despair in the older generations who are most responsible for this mess.
There is a path out of this social malaise. As Herman notes, holding trauma honestly and openly in community “is a precondition for the restitution of a sense of a meaningful world… Helplessness and isolation are the core experiences of psychological trauma. Empowerment and reconnection are the core experiences of recovery.” Climate Trauma suggests a narrative framework for progressing from our present widespread feelings of powerlessness to new and empowering ways of relating to ourselves, our communities, and the natural world which we must revive.
By acknowledging Climate Trauma as the force that is triggering our cultural and personal traumas, bringing them to the surface in ways that demand reconciliation, we begin to appreciate these various social movements not as distractions from the urgent work we are doing on the climate front, but rather as necessary components of a broader social upheaval that is actually bringing disparate cultural threads together, removing the psychological barriers to effectively addressing the climate crisis, and uniting us in a common purpose – a greater cause that is without political precedent – rather than dividing us along the lines of demographic special interests exploited by jaded politicians and demagogues.
By bringing increased awareness to the inhibiting role Climate Trauma has been playing in this social upheaval, we begin to see others falling somewhere along the spectrum of traumatized human beings, rather than viewing them as hate-filled rivals. Reconciliation of the cultural traumas underlying all our social movements can now be seen as both a moral imperative and necessary to our survival. And the oppressed supermajority can now begin to more fully appreciate the broad, systemic changes that must accompany the ultimate reconciliation of our fractured relationship with natural world, this living planet.
As Naomi Klein observes, “the urgency of the climate crisis could form the basis of a powerful movement, one that would weave all these seemingly disparate issues into a coherent narrative about how to protect humanity.”
Recovery from Climate Trauma can be actualized on the healing path of cultural truth and reconciliation. The good news is, we’ve already begun following this path. And we can find solace in the knowledge that in the chaotic profusion of our interconnected world, profound and lasting change always happens slowly, slowly – and then all at once.
Let us choose to heal our trauma together. For a future to be possible.