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)
I have a confession to make: I hate climate change.
It is not change — it’s chaos, it’s mayhem. According to the International Energy Agency, it is mass migration and mass mortality. Calling what we are doing to the planet “change” is like calling the Ebola virus a “sniffle.”
With the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere still accelerating, UN environment chief Erik Solheim 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.”
Why not call it what it is? Climate trauma. According to Judith Herman, M.D., author of Trauma and Recovery (“One of the most important psychiatric works to be published since Freud,” according to the NY Times), 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.”
How is our continual assault on the biosphere - which we happen to be inseparable from - not trauma? According to psychotherapist Benjamin White, “climate change seems to embody a trauma response on a grand scale — the greatest trauma on the grandest scale.”
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 calling climate trauma “change” or “warming,” and we must stop viewing it as just another political issue to be ranked in public opinion polls along with the economy, terrorism, assault rifles, abortion, and transgender bathrooms. Climate Trauma 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 a mere economic concern.
Even more remotely, it is tempting for we consumers to view climate trauma from inside our espresso-foam bubble as yet another ‘problem’ for science and technology to catch up with - like cancer, nuclear waste, or quantum computers - 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.
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 that threatens to forever break the food chain, turn the oceans into watery graveyards, and eliminate all the charismatic mega-fauna of the world, from giraffes and hippos, lions and tigers, to polar bears and penguins, grizzlies and bison.
What is it that is causing us to consign all future generations 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? Is there no cure, doctor?
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. It took the world until the 19th Century to reach a billion people. That tripled by the time I came along. It’s doubled since then. There is nothing linear about this kind of growth. From Mother Earth’s perspective, we are more like a cancerous growth gnawing away at her guts then some frolicking children giving her joy.
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 since then as a kind of modern-day Don Quixote, tilting at the windmills of federal forest, wildlife, and grasslands mismanagement - with a license to sue. These experiences eventually drove me back to school to study the psychology of the climate crisis — our Freudian death wish playing out across the world’s only stage of consequence, the formerly natural world.
Bernie represented our last best chance to save this, the last best place, and somehow that popular anti-establishment movement with birdies landing on lecturns begot… Trump, T-Rex, a factory chicken farmer in charge of our national forests, and EPA Chief Scott Screw-it!
What a national hissy fit!
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, represents a frantic call for help from a depressed culture that is borderline schizophrenic. 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 reprehensible ways imaginable. It all makes for an entertaining distraction, perhaps, but this 24/7 Reality TV script that passes for high culture these days is inflicting grievous harm on us, our communities, our children, and myriad others.
Somebody… stop us.
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.
In truth, what is happening out there in the world today 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. Stated simply, the climate crisis could not be coming from any deeper “in here.”
I am having a climate crisis here!
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.
Let this existential crisis, with all its cultural tentacles, be our personal 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. 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 wall-building politics, endemic substance abuse, widespread depression, hoarding behaviors and gated communities, military fetishes, breakdowns in social order, nationalism, sexism, racism — all of these escalating cultural 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.
Pope Francis maintains that the climate crisis is asking each one of us what it means to be human. 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. It is a crime against humanity and a crime against nature that we continue to play out in unspeakable ways.
As the 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.