CH. 4. CLIMATE CATHARSIS: GRIEVING THE LOSS OF OUR NATURAL SELVES

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“Suddenly, there was an enormous flash of light, the brightest light I have ever seen or that I think anyone has ever seen. It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way into you. It was a vision which was seen with more than the eye. It was seen to last forever. You would wish it would stop; altogether it lasted about two seconds.”

~ Isador Isaac Rabi, relating his memory of the Trinity Test.

When we split the atom, we split ourselves psychologically from the world soul – much like severing the natural umbilical cord that connected us collectively to our mother, Earth. We assumed the role of creators, taking dominion over nature itself, and failed the Trinity Test by unleashing hell on Earth with our new power. This induced a kind of collective trauma in our shared psyche, a ‘developmental trauma’ that set off a chain reaction in our relationship to the natural world and led inexorably to the present existential crisis we face.

Of course, it is not really possible to completely cut humans off from human nature. We have always been, and will always be, interdependent with and ‘inner-connected’ to anima mundi. It is perhaps more accurate to say that the sudden trauma of detonating the atom bombs represented a ‘rupture’ in that primordial relationship. This trauma induced a kind of collective amnesia in our collective consciousness by which we forgot that we are all related, and that the Earth upon which we were unleashing these destructive forces was itself sacred.

After that brightest light anyone has ever seen ‘pounced’ and ‘bored’ its way into our collective psyche, after that instant when the self-proclaimed ‘destroyer of the worlds’ recounted that all the witnesses knew the world would never be the same, how did we actually change? More to the point, how did we as a body politic respond psychosomatically to that cutting of our collective umbilical cord?

We fell asleep…

Welcome to The American Dream

After World War II, there was a fundamental shift in the way we Americans lived our lives. Prior to the war, we had been a largely rural, mostly agricultural country populated by small family farms and farming communities, the backbone of our country, and dotted with a few big cities here and there, where all the commerce and industry was concentrated. Life was simple. Very quickly after the war, America was converted into a largely urban/suburban country sprawling out into the formerly rural areas.

Supermarkets replaced small ‘mom and pop’ grocers, butchers and bakeries. We doubled our country’s population in only fifty years, less than the span of a single life, and today over 70% of us live in one of nearly 500 urbanized areas. That represents quite a radical transformation!

But the single most significant feature, the iconic symbol of the advent of the American Dream after the advent of the atomic age, was… Suburbia – artificial, man-made environments that were neither city nor country, and where nature itself was a direct product of our own design. We replaced wood with plastic in this brave new world. Even more telling, we replaced the warmth and softness of a mother’s breast with plastic bottles, artificial nipples, delivering formulas instead of natural milk.

This post-war, post-nuclear, post-natural period when the American Dream took hold of us can also be seen as the Golden Age of Anxiety, which surged through us for a couple of decades, abetted by the growing availability of Valium and other anti-anxiety medications – not to mention the continuing omnipresence of hard liquor and loose availability of sleeping pills. Anxiety is really the first mental health trend we see as a result of living a life divorced from nature, and it makes perfect sense when you think about it. We had lost something really important. Something essential and integral about us seemed to be missing, but we didn’t know what it was in our conscious mind – and there was tremendous social pressure to ‘conform,’ so we weren’t able grieve that loss even if we wanted to.

Unintended Consequences

Gradually, from the mid-60s onward, our collective awareness of something being amiss shifted from a growing imbalance with nature, which was relatively easy to suppress, to an awareness of the increasing ecological devastation our new life was wreaking. Around this time, too, anti-depression prescriptions had begun to supplant anti-anxiety drugs. This signals the beginning of the second stage of grieving.

Depression is often characterized as a form of suppressed anger. Though we were not yet fully aware of the global scope of our impacts, it was becoming quite clear that the planet was paying a steep cost for our lovely, plastic-wrapped dream. We regressed from simply being apart from the natural world to actually waging ecological warfare half-way across the world.

The wave of rebellion that began on the Berkeley campus in 1964 crested and then broke with the deposing of the paranoid establishment president in 1974. Arguably there was a sea-change in our culture at that time as well, or at least a lull. We began in earnest to clean up our waterways and the air we breathe, we abolished the draft, the human potential movement took hold, and we even elected a conscientious farmer as president!

President Carter accurately diagnosed our country’s psychological condition, characterizing it as a “national malaise” (Fr. mal [bad] aise [ease]). He attempted an intervention for our oil addiction, and even installed solar panels in the White House! Unfortunately, our response was to recoil with collective emotional reactivity.

Mourning in America

As we began to emerge from the tumult of the Viet Nam war, Watergate, the energy crisis brought on by the OPEC oil embargo, and the prolonged Iranian hostage crisis, things took a drastic turn right (right turn?) around 1980. Denial of something fundamentally out of balance was powerfully reinforced. In fact, it was practically enshrined in Reagan’s campaign ad announcing it was now Morning in America. Not coincidentally, our base level awareness of anima mundi entered an entirely new and previously inconceivable phase, a phase for which we were not equipped by evolution.

Beginning in the early 1980s we became aware, for the first time ever, of an existential threat to life as we know it from our own mundane daily routines. Suddenly we were asked to believe that our hairspray was opening a giant hole in the shield that protects us from the sun’s harmful radiation. It wasn’t long at all before diseases related to the weakening of our biological immune defense systems began dramatically increasing, and were even warned to avoid direct sunlight!

Welcome to the bargaining stage of grief. How to secure a future for oneself and one’s family in a world of ever-increasing threats? This marked the beginning of a near-pathological, brazenly narcissistic hoarding of wealth. Just as The Godfather had embodied the barely suppressed anger of the 70’s, Gordon Gecko, in the popular movie Wall Street, captured the country’s mood in the 80’s and 90’s: “Greed is good.”

‘The Great Unravelling’

Obviously, the dysfunctional social strategy represented by the obsession with personal and national security that emerged during the bargaining stage of our repressed climate grief is not compatible with the well-being of the individual psyche. At the collective level, our awareness progressed from the simple dawning of an existential threat in the ‘80s – the idea that we as a species could actually somehow threaten the continued existence of life on this planet just by doing what we do – to actually carrying out that threat.

This is yet another critical progression in the seriousness of our social psychosis. 

After two decades of fruitless bargaining, beginning around the time of the new millennium we became increasingly aware that: the Sixth Great Extinction is underway, with wildlife populations already cut in half in just a few decades; that the cumulative absorption of carbon by our oceans over the course of the entire Industrial Age has irreparably altered their chemistry, and threatening to break critical links in the food chain; that extreme weather events are becoming the norm. Perhaps most troubling of all, it’s all happening at an accelerating pace that consistently outstrips the climate scientists’ predictive models, with regular revelations of unforeseen results. Worse yet, all of this is happening at a time when our political system has completely broke down.

The depression stage of grief kicks in as death draws near and one realizes that no amount of bargaining is going to avoid the inevitability of a terminal diagnosis. Of all the stages of grieving over our lost connection to mother Earth, this is far and away the stage we are least equipped to deal with. It is becoming quite clear that the Anthropocentric Extinction may well end up turning into another ‘Great Dying,’ swallowing the human species in its terrible toll.

Nobody wants to think about that!!

Look around you… Think about it…

Have we ever been more distracted as a people?

We have become a culture of distraction. Its a perfect strategy, really. As long as you never actually have to think about things, you can keep depression at bay in perpetuity. It seems, culturally speaking, we have a choice between endlessly distracting ourselves, numbing ourselves out, alternating between the two, or numbing ourselves out at the same time as engaging in distractions. Ask the average American consumer why they don’t keep up on the news that matters most, or follow the political discourse, and what is the response you are almost certain to hear? “It’s too depressing.”

Which is kind of true, isn’t it? Of course, there is another way. A way free from the compulsive need to distract and numb ourselves until we die. Stage 4 is not necessarily terminal. We are transitioning (slowly) from depression to the final stage of climate grief, and the only one that cannot be repressed…

ACCEPTANCE.

Collectively, if we are lucky, the climate crisis is our mid-life breakdown. We are each being called upon to act out this ‘myth’ (mythic in the original sense of ultimate spiritual truth) in our own unique ways, which will eventually translate into a collective regeneration in spirit.

This is the safe harbor we can return to again and again in our psyche after getting battered around a bit by the breaking open of our wounded hearts. Things may seem awfully dark now, and appear to be getting darker all the time. But we should not be afraid of the dark. As the old saying goes, it is always darkest before the dawn.

Let us embrace this darkness with great compassion, and welcome new light into our hearts.

(c) 2015 Zhiwa Woodbury: No reproduction of this and related pieces without express authorization from the author

 

Ch. 3: RADICAL INTERDEPENDENCE: The Rise of a New World View

Sun Moon Yin Yang

The deep taproot of this existential crisis we are facing, reflected in runaway climate change, is ultimately a spiritual problem. As Naomi Klein rightly points out in her book This Changes Everything:

“Any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of worldviews.”

Our worldview is no longer harmonious with the world itself. We have fallen out of balance with nature, and it seems like we cannot get up. At the same time, if we do not recover our balance with nature, if we do not harmonize our world view with the natural world, then every attempt to solve the climate crisis will just lead to unintended consequences that only serve to perpetuate the crisis.

Splitting the atom may have severed our connection to nature at its root, but this split was conceived in philosophy hundreds of years ago, with the revolutionary influence of a French philosopher famous for not trusting his own senses. The wrong step that Rene Descartes took, and in so taking led all of humankind down the wrong path, is today referred to as ‘Cartesian Dualism.’ Simply put, it is the monstrous idea that there is me – in here – and all of nature out there. This is the divisive seed that mushroomed three centuries later in a cloud over the White Sands Proving Ground, and began a chain reaction that has been reverberating in our collective psyche ever since…The notion that man somehow stands apart from nature!

The very idea of a consumer society, which is based on objectifying animals as “commodities” and exploitation of natural resources to the point of exhaustion, would not be feasible without this world view of Cartesian duality. We would not be perpetrating the world’s 6th Great Extinction, and we would not be confronted with this existential climate crisis.

Slowly, but surely, the dualistic and materialistic views from scientism that have been handed down to us through the ages from Descartes are being replaced by a much more radical and naturalist view of the world that everyone and every ‘thing’ is interconnected and interdependent.

It necessarily follows from this new worldview that the climate crisis is a crisis of relationship. Our relationship to the Earth, to nature. And since we are actually a part of nature, and not apart from it, this really all comes down to how we relate to ourselves — which depends of course on how we think about ourselves.

A spiritual crisis is playing out in our psyche, and manifesting on the world stage.

Ecopsychology represents a paradigm shift for Western Psychology – a revolution in the way we think of ourselves psychologically that has been made necessary by Western Psychology’s failure to contribute in a responsible way to the existential crisis we are facing at this pivotal point in human history. Ecopsychology presents a radically different view of humans naturally being. As Mary Gomes has so eloquently put it:

“Ecopsychology has emerged over the past several years as an intellectual and social movement that seeks to understand and heal our relationship with the Earth. It examines the psychological processes that bond us to the natural world or that alienate us from it…. We need to uncover ways to heal the culture as well as the individuals who live in it. Ecopsychology is essentially about becoming cultural healers.”

Adopting and integrating this revised world view is a critical first step in assuming personal responsibility for climate change and our children’s future. It is as if we are being asked by the Earth to evolve just a little bit quicker if we want to survive within her forgiving body. To break the dualistic habits of our conditioned minds takes a little effort – the conscious effort of re-minding ourselves again and again to see things as they really exist, as referent points in a beautiful web of relations, and not the way we have been conditioned to think of things as objects to be possessed and consumed.

Consistent with this expansive view of human beings, Carl Jung saw the psyche as ‘pure nature.’ He himself explored an in-between realm where psyche and matter are one:

“This world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence… a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related.”

No great leap of faith is required for us to accept the idea that the world has a soul, and that we are and have always been connected to that world soul – whether or not we have recently forgotten it in Western culture. Anima mundi cries out to us now to reunite with her, as a mother would to her wayward children. As the late, great Jungian psychotherapist James Hillman put it, after concluding that he found the pathology of the world soul reflected in our own pathology:

“The world, because of its breakdown, is entering a new moment of consciousness:  by drawing attention to itself by means of its symptoms, it is becoming aware of itself as a psychic reality.”

Let us put this in more personal terms. Anima Mundi, the natural world, because of our split from her, is entering a new conscious relationship with us. By drawing attention to herself by means of the climate crisis, she is becoming aware of herself (and forcing us to do the same) as a psychic reality.

She is calling us home…

(c) 2015 Zhiwa Woodbury: No reproduction of this and related pieces without express authorization from the author

Ch. 2: The End of Life As We Know It

Syrian food line

It is not possible to address the psychological dimensions of climate chaos, or to propose realistic reparations, without first confronting the scope and extent of the problems we are facing. This is especially true when those problems by their very nature must grow worse before they can be adequately addressed, which happens to be the case with a systemic, ‘time-release’ problem like climate change.

The real ‘inconvenient truth’ – one that is rarely brought up in discussions of climate change – is that there is approximately a forty year lag-time between global emissions (what we do) and climate impacts (what we experience). In other words, the record average temperatures of the last decade are a consequence of emissions from the 1960’s, and that the acceleration in climate changes we are now witnessing is locked in till at least 2050. As if this was not itself alarming enough, there has been as much CO2 emitted since 1970 than during the entire period of the Industrial Age before 1970.

Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University and a member of the IPCC, recently stated that a two degree celcius (3.2F) rise in average global temperature is already ‘baked in,’ thanks to the time lag, which in itself will cause substantial changes to ecosystems and large scale transformations of the biosphere, such as loss of the coral reefs. Thus, as reported in the New York Times, as climate negotiators prepare for the talks in Paris later this year:

“The objective now, negotiators say, is to stave off atmospheric temperature increases of 4 to 10 degrees by the end of the century; at that point, they say, the planet could become increasingly uninhabitable.”

So we know that things are going to get at least twice as bad as they are right now in the short term, and it is looking like they are going to get a lot worse than that in our children’s lifetimes. Now you might think to yourself things don’t really seem all that bad right now, apart from a freak storm now and then and unusual heat waves and cold snaps. So before going any further in this assessment, let us ask ourselves what we know about the impacts of climate change in the world right now.

All we really need to know is what we can see happening right now, before our collective eyes, which is a great extinction unfolding. Nearly half of all wildlife has been wiped out during the short time in which our global population has doubled. The oceans are in deep trouble. 

This, to me, means that it is abundantly clear that life as we have come to know it and think of it is ending. And we are just at the beginning of this process. From the standpoint of a global population of humans and all other species, that is tantamount to the kind of terminal diagnosis that triggers hospice care for an individual. There is no reason to go any further than that, as it is definitely a terminal condition for many species, and as it implies a tremendous amount of human suffering that we would be well advised to begin preparing to alleviate as much as possible right now.

I actually believe that adversity brings out the best in human beings — and this is going to be the greatest adversity that we have ever faced. Therefore, it is going to bring out something better in us than we have ever known we are capable of. 

The concern is neither with saving nor condemning the world during this time of great dying and grieving, or needlessly speculating about our uncertain future. Instead, the over-riding, if not sole, concern is to alleviate the suffering attended with these most unfortunate times we find ourselves living in. That is the essence of compassionately responding to our climate in crisis. But in order to be effective caregivers, it is first necessary to process our own repressed grief over the rupture between humans and nature that began with the splitting of the atom, and has been escalating ever since. And that is the concern of the rest of this book.

 (c) 2015 Zhiwa Woodbury: No reproduction of this and related pieces without express authorization from the author