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Deep Green: Ecological Trauma and Recovery

Background - 3 August, 2009
As a global community, we often appear as a dysfunctional family. We bicker constantly, the strong abuse the weak, and alleged leaders behave like addicts, unwilling to change the destructive habits that are destroying our home. As in any abusive relationship, the powerful proclaim a taboo against protest and vilify those who cry out as the crazy ones.

Rex Weyler

Ten million people in our human family starve to death every year. Children serve as slaves and wither in factories, making trinkets for the rich. On top of this horrific injustice, we daily devastate the only source of real wealth: the Earth itself. We lose fertile soil, discharge CO2 into the atmosphere, scatter toxins, turn grasslands into desert and create islands of plastic garbage in the sea.

Our governments and captains of industry shrug off the signs of dysfunction, and promise to 'change', to become 'more sustainable', like the alcoholic parent who promises to reform, but never does. Marketing geniuses dress up business-as-usual in a 'green' disguise - printing pictures of the Earth on plastic containers of detergent - to ease our worries. The sanctioned voices of the status quo assure us that all is well. As rivers die and species vanish, some in our global family watch in horror, others in denial.

Ecological psychology

A person today, whose senses remain alive, will experience trauma when witnessing the abusive exploitation of nature. They will cry out and try to fix the dysfunction. However, some people may suffer the trauma unconsciously, may not know what is missing in their life, may work in a technological environment for 50 weeks each year, and then flee into nature, where they can feel alive again, for a two week holiday.

Modern neuroses, so prevalent in industrial nations, can be traced to our separation from nature. The marvels and conveniences of technological society provide only a thin veneer over our natural being. We remain biophysical animals akin to ants and raccoons. Millennia ago, certain clever primates overwhelmed all other species by controlling fire and developing tools, winning hegemony over planet Earth. But, in our fundamental instincts, desires and reactions, we reflect a long evolution in the lap of nature.

Regardless of prevailing conceits, we retain learned patterns from 50 million years of primate evolution, 5 million years of hominid development, and 500,000 years of fire-bearing, tool-making hunter-gatherer culture. During this long genesis, humanity grew within the comfort and constraints of an intact ecosystem that supplied sustenance, vital lessons, wonder and a home. Watching that home fall under the blade of industrialism shocks our system, whether we know it or not.

Although modest and physically challenging, primal life offered benefits and shaped our nature. Early humans, like all animals, matured in stable communities with relatively secure food supplies. For millennia, families remained intact and children grew up watching parents work, surrounded by nature - the ultimate parent - learning lessons from the wilderness and from all creatures.

These natural comforts nourished us for 99.99 per cent of our ancestral development. Then, only a few thousand years ago, some humans began living in urban environments, relying on remote agriculture, specialist skills and the wiles of moneychangers. Within the last few hundred years, industrial culture has widened this separation from nature, divided families and destroyed communities, creating alienated individuals clinging to scarce jobs and rewarded with packaged food and entertainment, the 'bread and circuses' that Roman emperors bestowed upon the peasants.

In spite of our civilised ways, human psychology remains linked to our primal origins. As a result, we suffer the trauma of witnessing ecological abuse, watching wilderness obliterated, other creatures eradicated and the Earth diminished.

The capacity to feel

According to Kathy McMahon, a clinical psychologist who posts stories of environmental trauma on her Peak Oil Blues website, "We live in an insane culture. Rather than marginalise the cries for reform, we need to normalise the pain. Protest and concern are healthy reactions to loss and grief."

McMahon believes we study the wrong people; those traumatised by war, violence and environmental destruction. "We should study those who aren't suffering these symptoms, the so-called 'normals', who haven't allowed these horrible experiences to impact their daily lives. What sort of individual feels none of these things? Those who can't or don't feel the loss or who don't know why they are drinking and drugging themselves, that is the true tragedy." 

Psychologist Chellis Glendinning - in the book Off the Map and essays such as Recovery from Western Civilisation - describes the 'original trauma' of living in industrial society, the failure of technology and globalisation to provide essential comforts that nature and community once supplied. This loss, she explains, leads to addictive behaviour as people fill the void with consumption, drugs and fashions. She describes a 'desperate coping' manifested as addiction, anger, numbness and attempts to appear 'normal' by the standards of an insane culture.

A quarter of a century ago, ecological pioneer Paul Shepard examined natural alienation in Nature and Madness and other books. Shepard proposed that the deficient development of modern citizens has led society to the destruction of its habitat. Ancestral humans, he believed, acquired a healthy reciprocity with nature because young children experienced a mother always present, fathers with comprehensible roles, non-human beings in a primordial terrain, and deliberate adolescent initiation into adulthood.

On the other hand, Shepard explains, industrialised cultures have abandoned nature and divided families, leading to an arrested development. Poorly matured adults, Shepard says, harbour an infantile duality between themselves and nature, fear the organic world, and attempt to fulfill childish fantasies with patriotism, fundamentalism or social status. Like Glendinning and McMahon, Shepard saw the symptoms of this 'childhood botched' in massive therapy, escapism, and intoxicants. He described our 'increasing injury to the planet' as a 'symptom of human psychopathology'.

"The only society more frightful than one run by children, as in Golding's Lord of the Flies," Shepard wrote in Nature and Madness, "might be one run by childish adults." 

The enablers 

Addicts and abusers typically deny their actions, make promises about changing and reward adult enablers, those intimidated into silence or enticed into support by a share of power's rewards. 

McMahon believes that 'normal' acceptance, denial and even support for ecological destruction "isn't just misguided silliness, but financial self-interest. Most citizens are invested in or dependent on the lie," she says. "A lot of money is riding on the insanity of depleting and destroying the biosphere."

The status quo resists change by marginalising and ridiculing the whistle-blowers. "Thus the media stereotypes of people concerned about ecological issues," explains McMahon, "calling them names such as 'Carborexics" or 'gloom and doomers,' creating a phony disorder in people driven to fear because they witness the abuse of the Earth."

Bush administration lawyers Jay S. Bybee and John C. Yoo, who crafted rationalisations for torture, are typical enablers. For their contributions, Bybee earned a lifetime federal judge appointment and Yoo a professorship at the University of California. When the American Psychiatric Association published a statement against torture, the American Psychological Association 'decided' against such a statement. The US military rewarded the psychologists with grants and contracts denied to the outspoken psychiatrists.

The US Waxman-Markey climate bill demonstrates how an addict creates the impression of change while feeding the habit. The bill, just passed by the US House of Representatives, features free pollution permits for the biggest polluters and loopholes to help avoid genuine emissions reductions. Although scientists now estimate humanity must cut emissions by 50 to 80 per cent of 1990 levels to avoid climate disaster, the US legislation suggests cuts of 4 per cent. Even so, the New York Times praised the bill as 'the most ambitious energy and global warming legislation ever debated in Congress', a true statement that conceals the failure and superficial pretence.

Al Gore applauded the bill 'a crucial step'. Joseph Romm, a physicist and climate expert, wrote, "How can I reconcile my climate science realism, which demands far stronger action than the Waxman-Markey bill requires, and my climate politics realism, which has led me to advocate passage of this flawed bill? The short answer is that Waxman-Markey is the only game in town." Romm adds, "If Waxman-Markey becomes law, then I see a genuine 10 per cent to 20 per cent chance of averting catastrophe."

Would you accept a 10 per cent chance of avoiding catastrophe for your children? Romm, Gore and the journalists at the New York Times are smart people, and perhaps they think this slim chance is the best they can do for the human family. However, they are also deeply invested in the status quo. Like the abused wife who makes excuses for her alcoholic husband, they appear afraid of a divorce from the domineering power structure. 

Al Gore, for example, is a principle in the venture capital fund, Generation Investment Management, along with David Blood and other alumni from Goldman-Sachs, the company that engineered the junk mortgage derivatives bubble and every other major pump-and-dump scam in America since 1920. They are positioned to make a lot of money from carbon trading deals, the next big stock market bubble. Will the company do any good? Maybe. Will it save the Earth? Probably not. It will it make a few very wealthy people wealthier and stimulate consumption. The point is, these enablers are invested in the status quo power structure and economic system responsible for reckless consumption and ecological overshoot of the planet. They will protect the abusers. Their support for the watered down, corporate-friendly, reality-denying Waxman-Markey bill shows their loyalty to the dysfunctional power brokers.

In practical fact, the US legislation will sabotage efforts to establish meaningful change at the Copenhagen climate conference later this year. A 10 per cent chance of averting catastrophe provides scant comfort to our children.


Chellis Glendinning writes, "the ultimate goal of recovery is to refind our place in nature ... to feel, to come alive, to come out from under the deadening of the machines and the mechanistic worldview." Paul Shepard found hope in the fact that, "Beneath the veneer of civilization … lies not the barbarian and the animal, but the human in us who knows what is right and necessary for becoming fully human."

Shepard saw recovery through rediscovering this 'full and natural human'. He wrote that to rebuild healthy adults, children must be born in gentle surroundings and grow up exposed to a rich non-human environment. A healthy youth must experience juvenile tasks, use simple tools, and learn 'the discipline of natural history'. Finally, adolescents must learn the 'metaphorical significance' of natural phenomena and experience the 'ritual initiation and subsequent stages of adult mentorship'.

Humanity, on a path to destruction, requires an intervention. As Jiddu Krishnamurti wrote in the 1970s: "It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society."

- RexWeyler

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