Ecopathologies: The Trauma of Climate

Although this post can be read alone, it might make sense to read it in sequence. The previous posts can be found here and here. I have at least two further posts planned in this sequence.

Ecopsychopathology: Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder

In 2012 a psychiatrist and United States National Wildlife Federation published a study on the psychological effects of climate change. The report is full, considered and features some pragmatic words of advice around “awakening” people to existential threat of ecological collapse and discusses how ‘psychology can help us understand what ignites an environmental consciousness and steers it into action’ (Coyle and Susteren, 2012). It also details how woefully unprepared the US psychiatric system is for the escalating psychological fallout of climate change. Nature is about to unlock all our repressed and hidden madness.

One of the authors of the report, forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren, has coined the term “pre-traumatic stress disorder” to discuss the effects on the psychological state of the scientists, academic and their assistant who are gather, analysing and reporting on the hard data of climate change. In an interview from September of this year, Van Susteren explained the term as ‘what I see. It’s what I live. It’s what I see others living’. In a story in Grist we are told that

“It’s an intense preoccupation with thoughts we cannot get out of our minds,” Van Susteren says. And for some, it’s a preoccupation that extends well outside of the office. “Everyday irritations as parents and spouses have their place, they’re legitimate,” she says. “But when you’re talking about thousands of years of impacts and species, giving a shit about whether you’re going to get the right soccer equipment or whether you forgot something at school is pretty tough.”

What’s even more deflating for a climate scientist is when sounding the alarm on climatic catastrophes seems to fall on deaf ears. “How would that make you feel? You take this information to someone and they say they don’t believe you, as if it’s a question of beliefs,” says Jeffrey Kiehl, senior scientist for climate change research at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. “I’m not talking about religion here, I’m talking about facts.

The 2012 report also details the effects that studying climate change is having on these researchers. An example comes from a researcher who has invested 10 years studying one coastal reef:

It’s gotten to be so depressing that I’m not sure I’m going to go back to this particular site again because I just know I’m going to see more and more of it dead, and bleached, and covered with brown algae (Coyle and Susteren).

Climate science as thanatology. The investigation of marine ecosystems become the assessing of a graveyard. Encounters with a dying a ecology: the local material eco-collapse as the causal occasion for the neuropsychological one. You go to work to find your dream job of charting the vibrancy of life revealing to you only death and the promise of more death- of extinctions. Powerless witness to the violence of the demonic will to live,  you are a mortuary attendant and morgue worker for the world. You passively register the dying off the Earth. And no one listens. No one cares.

Another report, this time from Esquire:

Among climate activists, gloom is building. Jim Driscoll of the National Institute for Peer Support just finished a study of a group of longtime activists whose most frequently reported feeling was sadness, followed by fear and anger. Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a practicing psychiatrist and graduate of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth slide-show training, calls this “pretraumatic” stress. “So many of us are exhibiting all the signs and symptoms of posttraumatic disorder—the anger, the panic, the obsessive intrusive thoughts.” Leading activist Gillian Caldwell went public with her “climate trauma,” as she called it, quitting the group she helped build and posting an article called “16 Tips for Avoiding Climate Burnout,” in which she suggests compartmentalization: “Reinforce boundaries between professional work and personal life. It is very hard to switch from the riveting force of apocalyptic predictions at work to home, where the problems are petty by comparison.

The despair is easy to understand if we consider that reputable climatologists like Paul R Ehlrich are providing us information that leads them to conclude that

The evidence is incontrovertible that recent extinction rates are unprecedented in human history and highly unusual in Earth’s history. Our analysis emphasizes that our global society has started to destroy species of other organisms at an accelerating rate, initiating a mass extinction episode unparalleled for 65 million years. If the currently elevated extinction pace is allowed to continue, humans will soon (in as little as three human lifetimes) be deprived of many biodiversity benefits. On human time scales, this loss would be effectively permanent because in the aftermath of past mass extinctions, the living world took hundreds of thousands to millions of years to rediversify. (Ehlrich et al. 2015)

At the risk of overloading this post with quotes culled from elsewhere, the same Esquire article manages to report some of the most worrying data regarding my generation, and the kids coming up after me:

A 2007 poll of more than a thousand middle schoolers found that almost 60 percent feared climate change more than terrorism, car crashes or cancer. Roughly the same percentage thought more needed to be done to combat the threat, and more than 40 percent reported that concern about climate change occasionally occupies their minds.

“Unlike adults who can put their heads in the sand … kids are very aware of what’s going on,” said Chris Saade, a North Carolina-based psychotherapist, in a 2014 interview with The Globe and Mail. “Children often ask me questions that we, as adults, try to evade: ‘What is going to happen to the human race?’ ”

Most of the middle schoolers from 2007 are now in their early 20s. For a generation that was born after the Cold War and came of age in the Anthropocene, to what extent does climate fear persist into young adulthood?

In a June 2015 Pew poll, 51 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 rated climate change a “very serious” problem, compared to 47 percent of those 30 to 49, 44 percent of those 50 to 64, and 41 percent of those 65 and over. Fifty-one percent may seem a slim majority, but in light of what we know about human psychology, it’s actually quite striking. A 2009 report on climate-change psychology by the American Psychological Association explains that people tend to underestimate the danger of events perceived as having a “small probability.” Climate risks, which are believed by many to be uncertain, far off in the future, or occurring in remote parts of the planet, should follow this logic.

Yet a majority of millennials rate the threat as very serious. While polls shed some light on young people’s concern levels, no large qualitative surveys exist to illuminate the depth of their worries or how the emotional impact of climate change influences their life choices.

Gillian Calderwell has listed the symptoms of pre-traumatic stress on her own blog: anxiety and stress, fear and hopelessness, the sense of “living in a parallel universe” – ‘Don’t people see that we are headed straight off a cliff?’- and depression, irritability and anger. It is all too easy to imagine that in these situations people suffer intrusive images of apocalypse: the desertification of the earth, the boiling away of the oceans, a desiccated, husk of a lifeless world. At its extreme edge this is the vision of the future that has led to advocates of near-term human extinction such as Michael Ruppert to kill themselves. The mad black environmentalist suicide-priest of the NTHE movement is Guy McPherson. While McPherson’s data has been the subject of controversy and he is usually painted as an irresponsible hysteric, it seems like spending any amount of time with the psychological literature gives his words an existential weight. For instance, he is quoted as saying:

We’re human animals, and I know animals require habitat to survive…when there is no ability to grow food or secure water, humans will exit the planetary stage. [-It is worth reading the full article, titled “Suicidal Environmentalism”].

Enter the retro-futurist nostalgia of space capitalism and terrestrial escape. Red Mars for everyone!
Speaking from my own first-person perspective, I have been sunk into exactly these symptoms myself. It is impossible to genuinely attempt to cognize the full horror of catastrophic climate change without lapsing into this pre-traumatic despair. I have spent time wilted and enraged and shredding my nerves, unable to float along with daily living, and seriously questioning the sanity of all those whose politics does not or cannot begin to mitigate the worst near-term effects of such an unprecedented disaster of such an enormous scale.

As a final quote I want to take the most basic definition of Post-Traumatic Stress. Here is Wikipedia’s take on PTSD as

a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock, typically involving disturbance of sleep and constant vivid recall of the experience, with dulled responses to others and to the outside world.

Driving me onward here is the question- what is it to experience an anticipatory psychopathology in which the effect precedes the cause? In this strange new landscape time itself appears to appear in a psychotic or demented form that defies the typical phenomenology of temporal linearity, contorting the principle of sufficient reason into a hideous and bizarre shape, effectively ruining its organization of experience as such? How can one experience the psychic effects of events that have not yet taken place in that experience? Far from being a simple matter of fear of a wave about to crash is it possible that pre-traumatic stress disorder enacts a psychosis at the very core of human cognition? Is this the outcome of our self-mutilating striving after knowledge we are ill evolved to handle?

These questions are haunted by the image of the scientist who is driven to suidice by her research into that which has not yet happened but is nonetheless happening.

In the next post in the sequence I plan to look briefly at the phenomenology of pre-traumatic stress disorder and a couple ways we have attempted to cognize catastrophe without falling prey to it. I also plan to return to Lovecraft in another post, before concluding the sequence by examining this disturbing psychotic temporality of pre-trauma.

Coyle, K. and Susteren, LV. 2012. The Psychological Effects of Global Warming: And why the US Mental Health System is not Prepared. Here.

One response to “Ecopathologies: The Trauma of Climate

  1. i wouldn’t underestimate the powers of horror that can come on the neurotic side of the spectrum, i think to some degree this sort of speculation by the researchers (most of whom still hold outdated theories of “denial” instead of grasping cog-biases) is almost wishful thinking in so much as there are probably very few folks (i’ve yet to meet any) who are so fixated on climate change, wish instead of asking people poll questions about climate change in the abstract (in general) they had instead taken a closer look out how they live day to day to see if there were any signs of their stated beliefs about the coming collapses in circumstances (the rest of life really) where they weren’t being directly asked about it.
    one of the things about climate change is that while its effects will be total it doesn’t register in every aspect of human-being, partly because it is just getting going but mostly because of the kinds of focus/attention that we embody.

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