“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.
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…
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