Becoming Indigenous to Earth


Image Credit: Christoffer Relander

(This essay adapted from Public Address given to  Sustainability Institute at Penn State in 2022)

I was compelled to walk away from a successful 25-year legal career in the environmental movement in 2012. It had become clear to me by then that our global society, and America in particular, was responding pathologically to the existential threat of global warming, and this pathology was reflected in the climate movement as well. What I was doing no longer made sense to me. I needed to search out the roots of this pervasive pathology, and to see for myself if there was any real hope for the human species. 

Based on my conviction that Western Psychology was an enabler of this pathology, I enrolled at the academic think tank that is the California Institute of Integral Studies to study this thorny problem. When I first began writing about the underlying psychology of the climate crisis, I was surprised to find that I was triggering both academics and scientists. I came to view the wide-ranging responses to my ideas as my field of research, as if I had America itself on the couch. 

During the course of this research, whenever someone would ask me about my own story, I’d deflect their questions, insisting that this wasn’t about me. I was determined to stay on point. My academic writing opened up a lot of doors to me, and I just wanted to keep walking through them until I found the answers I was looking for. I was on a quest, and the stakes could not be any higher.

Now, after a decade of cross-fertilization with so many amazing academics, scientists, psychotherapists, journalists, and systems thinkers, all of whom I feel so indebted to and in awe of, I have now concluded my inquiry. Cultural historian and “geologian” Thomas Berry said towards the end of his life that the human species is in trouble now “because we do not have a good story.” Much to my surprise, at the end of my decade-long quest to understand the pathology of our modern consumer culture, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of telling my own story, which lends itself so well to the new story that is waiting to be told in our ailing culture. 

This is my Gaian Dispensation. I am speaking up for our Mother.

The Generational Trauma of the Baby Boom

Trinity Detonation

I am a Mayflower child, a direct descendent of Chester H. Woodbury, who arrived on the second of three voyages that brought aggrieved settlers to this ‘new world’ across the Atlantic Ocean. I’m also the son of a WWII army vet – part of the so-called “Greatest Generation.” Which makes me,  of course, a baby boomer. 

Mea culpa. It is my generation that is most responsible for the climate crisis. And I’m as qualified as any of my cohorts to give our account. We came of age in the same decade that the climate crisis came to light, and we had the best chance of any generation to do something to avert the crisis. Many of us tried. But we have been failing for more than three decades. To understand why, it is necessary to understand the context of our story. Ours is a generation shaped by trauma.

My father survived two years in the brutal jungle warfare of the Philippines, only to be shipped to Nagasaki. He was one of the “Atomic Boys,” ordered to clean up the mess left behind by a sustained nuclear fusion reaction. As was the case with many of those boys, my father’s exposure manifested 30 years later as an appropriately named glioblastoma tumor, buried deep in his brain stem — an atomic bullet that traveled through time and space to find its mark. As if to reflect this folded warp in time, my dad’s final days were spent on the battlefields of jungle warfare, made vivid again to him in the final delirium that brain cancer often triggers.

What I submit to you is that this problematic lineage, a Mayflower child whose epigenetic code was rewritten in the hell scape of Nagasaki in 1945, qualifies me not only as an expert in generational trauma, but perhaps even more so, as a lived expert on colonialism and settler psychology. While my father was born in Cambridge, Mass – his patrilineage never having left New England in all those years – I myself am an exemplar of the American nuclear family. While I was conceived in Franklin, Pennsylvania, my family migrated to Chicago during my mom’s last trimester. I was born at the very apex of the baby boom curve (1957) to a Roman Catholic family of English, Irish and Swedish descent.

My story began in the flight paths of O’Hare Airport, the busiest in the world in that era, born the same year and in the sametown as the world’s first McDonald’s restaurant – Des Plaines, Illinois. If you can imagine a world with only one McDonald’s restaurant — the world I was born into — then you can appreciate the kind of frenetic exponential growth that has marked my life.

As a result of the Great Acceleration that began with Trinity and the Nuclear Family’s Baby Boom – which has only in the last decade been acknowledged as the beginning of the Anthropocene, big fish populations in all the world’s oceans have been reduced by a staggering 90%. Terrestrial wildlife populations have plummeted by nearly as much, about 80%. There are good indications that the world’s insect populations have plummeted by a similar amount in recent decades, and this is reflected in about a 30% decline in birds. 

All in the span of a single human lifetime! 

Between grazing arable lands and leveling rainforests to grow feed crops for them, Old McDonald’s cows have pretty much taken over the natural world during my lifetime. In fact, when I walked away from activism, I was fighting the pervasive effects of cows on public lands in the West, which are directly responsible for endangering about one of every five species. 

I certainly didn’t see THAT coming when I had my first hamburger, fries, and strawberry milkshake at Old McDonald’s restaurant in the summer of 1960.

It has become quite apparent that the 6th Mass Extinction is now well underway, with as many species going extinct in a single day now than would naturally go extinct in a decade’s time. But if we step outside of our anthropocentric, scientific-materialist bubble for just a moment, we can also see that there is a Great Dyingthat’s been happening in real time for at least the last 75 years.

This Great Dying, of course, coincided with the Great Petrochemical Acceleration, which resulted from the repurposing of the war industry after WWII, along with animal killing factories patterned after Hitler’s human killing factories – which now account for 70 Billion farm animal deaths per year under the most inhumane conditions. There is also the ongoing industrial plunder of the oceans, through intensive trawling, dragnets, and other ecologically devastating methods. Together, these developments represent the terrible machinery of the Great Dying.

At the beginning of my life, I found myself spell-bound every week by The Undersea World of Jacque Cousteau, which aired on Public TV during the 1960s. I even dreamed of becoming a marine biologist some day and exploring what then seemed like a vast, new frontier. 

Much closer to the end of my life now, I’m deeply saddened to learn that Cousteau’s worthy successor, the great American ocean scientist Sylvia Earl, spends all of the time at the end of her life traveling around the world, informing any politician who will listen that the oceans are dying, and she can find nowhere undersea now that is free from plastic waste.

The deeply felt sense of cumulative loss I have borne my whole adult life is what prompted me to name my viral 2014 paper “Planetary Hospice.”

In my own daily spiritual practice of grieving these cumulative losses, which sustains me in my advocacy of climate sanity and planetary well-being, I’ve found myself called on repeatedly over the last decade to counsel scientists, journalists, activists, and even psychotherapists struggling to cope with their own crises of grief, in all the many forms that grief can take. It’s a bit like being in the Belly of the Beast; that is, the beast of Western culture, waking up to the devastation it has wrought on it’s own home planet. And that daily grieving process, in turn, is what eventually opened me up —somatically and psychologically — to the experience of biospheric trauma.

If we were to let the oceans die, of course, we would shortly thereafter run out of oxygen — 70% of which is produced by the phytoplankton who are now being displaced in the water columns by micro plastics to such an extent as to cause whales to die of malnutrition. 

This is biospheric trauma — and I am not the only one who feels it deeply.

Indeed, I submit that the only way we would not feel the grievous wounding of a living, and now possibly dying, planet is if we’ve allowed ourselves to become dis-embodied — a kind of dissociative state in which we are detached from, and hovering above, our own somatic sense of the world. After all, we know as a matter of science now that we are all integral cells within the meta-organism that is Gaia. 

That condition of being disembodied, unfortunately, is another chronic symptom of the Great Acceleration, which has tended to separate us from the natural world both physically, with urbanization, and organically, by cutting us off from family farms and other more natural food sources. Our culture conditions men, especially, to live in our heads, cut off from our hearts and our somatic, or body, consciousness. Fortunately, this is changing – but while culture becomes increasingly sensitized, at the level of the individual it still requires real effort to de-condition and un-colonize ourselves. 

After years of studying cultural trauma, climate trauma came as a revelation to me. It was the respected Inuit leaderSheila Watt-Cloutier who first pointed out, in a 2016 Ted Talk, that human trauma and climate trauma are one and the same trauma. However, I remained  unaware of her contribution when I wrote another paper that quickly became viral, and helped change the narrative around ‘climate change’ in a more constructive way: “Climate Trauma: Towards a New Taxonomy of Trauma” (2019). It’s important after the fact to give credit to an Indigenous woman health care provider for being first to give voice to the phenomenon of climate trauma. 

As noted, I separately came to the same conclusion while looking through the clarifying lens of culturaltrauma for an explanation of our pathological unresponsiveness to this existential crisis. Indeed, through that broad lens it becomes quite clear that something shifted archetypally in our culture after Trinity, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

In my research on cultural trauma, I learned about soul wounding — an Indigenous concept that arises out of our relationship with nature. In a special edition of the journal Ecopsychology edited by Craig Chalquist and Linda Buzzell, I quoted psychologist Eduardo Duran’s understanding of soul wounding, which has obvious relevance to our situation today:

When the earth [is] wounded, the people who are caretakers of the earth also are wounded, at a very deep soul level. Earth wounding speaks to the process whereby people become destructive to the natural environment and disturb the natural order.

See: “The Climate Crisis & the Cosmic Bomb” (2015).

But that was hardly the end of my inquiry. As Trump ascended to the White House, as the Mother Country withdrew from the European Union, and as the MeToo movement was followed in quick succession by Black Lives Matter and the uprising at Standing Rock, it became painfully evident to me that cultural trauma was not alone sufficient in explaining the unprecedented scale of trauma that we and all other life forms on the planet are now feeling, experiencing, and acting out. 

The most obvious reason for this is that cultural trauma is concerned with traumatic events like Kennedy’s assassination, or more recently the attack on the twin towers, while the trauma we have been experiencing in recent decades is pervasive, continuous, and clearly accelerating. It finally hit me as a ‘bathtub revelation’ that this was a new and superordinate form of trauma — what psychologist Benjamin White characterized in the “Long Emergency” edition of Ecopsychology as “the greatest trauma on the grandest scale” (Vol. 7, No. 4, “States of Emergency: Trauma & Climate Change” Dec. 2015).

I am now able report to you, my dear intrepid readers, that I have reached some salutary conclusions from my decade-long exploration of the vexing psychology that underlies our climate crisis. I’ve set these forth in some detail in a new book that I’m making freely available, entitled Climate Trauma, Reconciliation & Recovery(2022). But I wish to share them in a more personal way with you now, in what will effectively be my last word on the topic. This Gaian dispensation will serve as my testament at this pivotal moment in time. 

How We Got Here

As a privileged descendent of five centuries worth of colonialism, 

as a survivor of generational trauma that is written in my genes, as someone who has been processing my climate grief daily for more than a decade (trained at Zen Hospice), and on behalf of the settler class that still dominates the world today, and is wholly responsible for the world’s great peril, I find myself compelled by morality, by jurisprudence, and by the grave exigencies of our present circumstance to confess – on behalf of my people – to the two most significant and traumatizing violations of the natural order ever committed by any culture in human history: 

First and foremost, we made the horrific mistake of presuming that we were superior in every way that matters to the Indigenous peoples whose land we have appropriated everywhere in the world. That includes, of course, the First Peoples here in the Americas, who had thrived here for about twenty-five thousand years before my forbears arrived at Plymouth Rock just five hundred years ago. We called them ‘unredeemed savages’ — much like the Indigenous people we imported from Africa as chattel.

“Savage” is defined as “a fierce, brutal or cruel person.” Nobody has been more fierce in their quest for riches, or more brutal and cruel in their treatment of human beings, than we Christian settlers have been. Especially in the harsh light of all the systemic moral failings of the world’s largest churches that have been documented in the past few decades, humility and the edicts of Christianity itself demand that we admit this world-shaping, fundamental error in judgment. 

Based on that erroneous projection of our own shadow selves, we savage white Christian Europeans ruthlessly carried out a massive genocide of Indigenous tribes, their cultures, and their well-established ways of living symbiotically on the land. To state the obvious, we were quite wrong to do so. The five percent of terrestrial lands still in the control of Indigenous peoples contains more than eighty percent (80%) of the biodiversity left on planet Earth. Those Indigenous peoples were right all along in pretty much every way that mattered when it comes to how humans are meant to live in relationship with the natural world. 

They were right, and we were wrong. As a retired lawyer, I can assure you it is an open and shut case. No need, really, to bring us before the International Criminal Court at the Hague.

Second, we made the terrible mistake at the end of WWII of deciding that we, the American victors — by successfully splitting the atom and mimicking the sun’s fusion here on Earth, Prometheus-like — now controlled the basis forces of the universe. We Prometheans, in other words, who opened Pandora’s Box and unleashed the sun’s wrathful fury here on Earth — effectively ending the 11,000 year Holocene Era, and launching us headlong into the disastrous Anthropocene.

As the Pulitzer prize winning poet James Agee noted in TIME magazine at the end of WWII, splitting the atom brought us “inescapably into a new age in which all thoughts and things were split – and not in a controlled way.” Or, as the contemporary writer and artist David Price has observed, this “assumption of separation and superiority to Creation has fostered a pathological civilization. We actually attack nature with poisons and machines as if it were our natural enemy.” 

This madness, we think, is superior to actively nurturing biodiversity in balance with Nature?

Over 2000 nuclear detonations later, we have yet to relinquish this unholy dominion, this pretense of providence over Mother Nature: even as She now begins to re-assert Her own dominion over us – with unnatural floods, fires, droughts, and storms; and, even knowing full well now that She holds the keys to our long-term survival as a species, as it is only through widespread ecological restoration that we can begin the necessary task of drawing down excess carbon from the atmosphere.

We cannot recover from this systemic trauma without reconciling our erroneous ways. Speaking to you now as a Panpsychologist with a doctorate degree in jurisprudence, we must collectively acknowledge and begin to make amends for these two particularly grievous mis-steps, which remain deeply embedded in our social systems and encoded in our culture. Otherwise, there can be no hope for the future of our civilization. 

You see, these twin sins sit like fatty tumors at the heart of our climate crisis today, clogging up our sociopolitical arteries and forestalling us from taking the actions we all know to be urgently needed for our children to have a future worth living. So let us begin by unpacking these “original sins” just enough to guide a dialogue over climate and biospheric trauma, to break the taboos, and perhaps arrive together at an appropriate embrace of planet Earth – what I have come to think of as “holisitic indigeneity.” This simple acknowledgment is a critical first step in Gaia’s and our healing process.

According to physicist and Jungian analyst Andrew Fellows:

Perhaps the surest historical predictor of the impending collapse of a civilization is hubris, which in our case sums up all that is most actively dysfunctional in our present attitude to the other-than-human world… We are unable to let go of the heroic attitude that has brought us unprecedented material comfort and security, but now threatens us with the opposite.

Gaia, Psyche & Deep Ecology (Routledge, 2019).

Holistic indigeneity begins with the kind of radical humility embodied in my confessions above, and in relationship with the two most aggrieved communities: First Peoples everywhere, who have their own, uniquely instructive indigeneity; and, of course, our life source, Mother Earth or, as both ancient Greeks and modern scientists call Her, Gaia. 

The reason that acknowledging our shared trauma in relationship with Gaia is so crucial is because experience teaches us that unacknowledged trauma retains power over our agency, our power to respond to situations as they arise. The sum of our unacknowledged traumas is now preventing us from taking collective action in response to what is an overwhelming threat. Modern science views our world and the universe itself as a process of flowing information – a world that is always ‘in formation’ rather than fixed and static. Traumas effectively block that flow of information, such as the somatic feedback loops between humans and the larger meta-organism in which we find ourselves organically integrated. 

If we as a people, as a culture, and as a species hope to recover, in time, from these pervasive, unprecedented and existential traumas, then we need to reconcile ourselves with these self-evident truths – which trigger our own generational traumas – and find some kind of justice, or balance, in all of our relations. Because of the stakes involved, we cannot afford to aim any lower than that.

Who’s Ultimately Responsible For This Mess?

In pivoting now towards the cure for this collective pathology, I need to mention one other mistake we’ve made that is holding us back — and in this case by ‘we’ I’m referring to climate activists especially, but also the roughly seventy percent (70%) of the public that shares our concerns for the future. This may prove to be even more controversial than anything else I have to say. To put it bluntly, we’ve been looking to the wrong people to solve the climate crisis for us – namely, politicians, scientists and business leaders – based upon a fatally flawed model of climate responsibility. 

That model is called “distributed responsibility,” and is consistent with our default notions of legal liability, or the idea that blame can be apportioned. The difficulty in applying this model to a problem as large as the climate crisis is that the actions of individuals are then seen not to make any difference. 

This misapplication, in turn, has produced the paternalistic attitude of the climate movement that those in power must save us from the consequences of our own way of living — rather than actually changing the way we live. Over time, this has become a model of irresponsibility: none of us are responsible for the crisis because all of us are. 

If that sounds familiar, it should -Hannah Arendt first identified it as “the banality of evil” to explain how everyday people end up participating in something as monstrous as the machinery of the Holocaust. It is not that different than our participation in the machinery of Climate Change. With this way of thinking, we invest too much authority (e.g. ‘hope’) in our leaders, and it ends up making beggars of scientists, activists, children and Indigenous people. And somehow it is rarely, if ever, questioned.

The appropriate model we need to be promoting as activists is an ethic of ‘shared responsibility’ for the climate, which is explained by Professor Allen Thompson, a research fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, in the 2012 book he helped edit, Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change. See, e.g.: Ch. 10, “The Virtue of Responsibility for the Global Climate.”

Instead of looking backwards in time with a view towards assessing blame for the mess we’re in, the ethic of shared responsibility is forward looking. It focuses mostly on what we are not doing to respond to the crisis — at every level — individual, community, and society.  

All hands on deck, in other words.As this is an existential threat, a climate emergency. With shared responsibility,  nobody is off the hook, no matter the actions they’ve already taken, until the crisis is resolved. 

Guilt and shame have no place in this ethic of shared responsibility, either. Instead, the onus is placed on all of us, as consumers and as citizens, to exercise whatever powers we have to respond to the climate and biodiversity crises — including the still largely untapped power of consumer demand — which powers of course are inextricably linked with our daily lifestyle choices. 

How Do We Get Out of This Mess?

And so, on these twin foundations of radical humility and shared responsibility for the global climate, I submit that we are now being called by our Mother to createa new kind of indigeneity that will, over time, restore proper relations with Nature, with Indigenous Peoples, and with ‘All Our Relations’ – a phrase that Native American Ecopsychologist Leslie Gray calls “a prayer and a cosmology in one breath.” 

We are relational beings, after all, and this is clearly a crisis of relationship through-and-through. In my book, I propose that this post-modern, holistic indigeneity is the long-term cure for our climate trauma. And, because it shares core values with those Indigenous cultures that are still in proper relationship with the natural world, holistic indigeneity can serve as a cultural bridge between their grounded wisdom and our lofty ambitions. A foundation, in other words, for a shift in collective consciousness towards a new, ecological civilization that will one day be worthy of the name “Anthropocene.” 

Allow me, then, to very briefly identify those other core values that can naturally flow from a re-orientation towards radical humility and shared climate responsibility. There are seven of them, and each one follows from the others:

  1. RECIPROCITY ~ this is an attitudinal shift grounded in gratitude and acknowledgement of our interdependence with the natural world.
  2. SIMPLICITY ~ a complement to reciprocity by which we take only what we need and leave the rest, in a spirit of giving.
  3. HOLISM ~ this is an integral worldview grounded in Gaia theory, ecology, quantum physics, and our organismic relationship to Earth.
  4. ANIMACY ~ borrowing from Robyn Wall-Kimmerer, this linguistic orientation follows from holism, and grants being-ness to what we have up until now objectified as living ‘things.’ 
  5. RELATIONALITY ~ the takeaway from quantum physics is that there ARE no things in the world, there are only relations, and thus we must stop objectifying every living thing and nature herself. 
  6. BIOPHILIA ~ a love of life and the living world which supports a more symbiotic relationship between humans and Gaia, and includes such initiatives as promoting alliances with keystone species in the restoration of degraded ecosystems.
  7. And finally, ENTHEOGENEITY ~ the recognition, based upon Indigenous wisdom and personal experience, that certain plants directly plug us into Gaia’s superior organic intelligence.

That’s the idea of holistic indigeneity, in a nutshell. As the Indian philosopher and physicist Dr. Vandana Shiva emphatically states:

“All of us are indigenous members of Earth Community equally – there is no higher placement of a master over another – and it is high time for all of us to become Indigenous again.”

Collapsarianism!

In anticipation of pragmatic concerns, a note on paradigmatic change is in order. Historically, there has been a significant, decades-long lag time between scientific acceptance and the resulting shift in our worldview of theories like Copernicus’ solar system, Einstein’s theory of relativity and, most recently, quantum theory,

Quantum theory is now being assimilated during a time of unprecedented climate chaos, which is reflected in all the unresolved collective traumas that are driving social justice movements and geopolitical conflicts. We need to embrace this chaos, this traumasphere, because chaos theory teaches that out of all this disorder, there is an opportunity to make a quantum leap to a higher valence of social order — what I’ve referred to above as an ecological civilization.

In the meantime, we’re confronted with this tsunami-sized wave of human potential for sudden change. How do we collapse that wave at a global scale? IPCC Nobel laureate Karen O’Brien has published an invaluable guide to this process of quantum social change, appropriately titled: You Matter More Than You Think (2021).

After reading Karen’s book and thinking long and hard about this thorny issue myself, and after a wealth of interaction with Indigenous thinkers and healers, I’ve come to the conclusion that Gaia theory is the only catalyst capable of collapsing that global wave and producing a new world order.

It is no coincidence that Gaia theory — the scientific idea of a living, self-regulating planet — is emerging at the very time we’ve learned She is dying at our hands. We do not have the luxury of decades to assimilate Gaia theory into our worldview. The startling discoveries of plant cognition, of mother trees, and of mycelium layers of mycorrhizal intelligence should be enough to convince us that the higher intelligence we’ve been looking for in the universe has been right here in front of us all along. 

As leading ecologists and proponents of the One Earth Climate Model posit, once we enlist Gaia as our ally in the climate crisis — instead of treating her as our slave — only then will we turn the corner and begin to change the climate in a good way. 

In Ecopsychology they say we are living in a time between myths. The old myth of endless material progress, the American Dream, has died, and a new myth has yet to emerge to take its place. I’ve long been of the opinion that, given the urgency of our situation, it is incumbent upon the field of Ecopsychology itself to identify that new myth. And to his credit, eco-philosopher Charles Eisenstein does a good job of identifying a new story in his latest book on the climate crisis, Climate: A New Story (2018).

But more recently, it occurred to me that if our myth is dead, and if our old myth is what created the existential threat in the first place, then perhaps it is incumbent upon all of us to look to the still-living myths of the First Peoples for guidance. Those myths are richly relevant, and can help inform our own path of indigeneity.

And so, in that spirit, allow me to conclude by sharing with you the wise counsel of  Chief Arvol Looking Horse, from the Standing Rock Tribe of Lakota Nation: 

“In our prophecies they say we are now at the crossroads: we either unite spiritually as a global nation, or face chaos, disasters, sickness and tears from our relatives’ eyes.”

1 Comment

  1. I do look forward to reading the whole book! It sounds deeply related to the book I am writing, still searching a title but might include the phrase “together with all beings”. Completely different path. I’d love to be in touch.

    Shodo Spring

    Like

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