Ecological Trauma and Common Addiction


From Rex Weyler: “In In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, Gabor Maté concludes that ‘A hurt is at the center of all addictive behaviors . . .’ (2009). In this paper, I will discuss a specific vector for trauma, ecological trauma, and its relationship to widespread addictive behavior.

. . . For most of the world, for billions of workers, indigenous communities, and poor, ecological trauma persists as a feature of daily life. ‘The poor are not those who have been “left behind” [by industrialism],’ Vandana Shiva, Indian physicist and ecologist, points out, ‘they are the ones who have been robbed’ (2005). The wealth accumulated in Europe and North America has been plundered from the natural world, from the oceans, forests, and mines, leaving behind depleted landscapes and traumatized communities. The process of recovery from this trauma may help protect and restore the lost wildness in our world and in ourselves.

Climate Crisis as Symptom

. . . in 1991, humans were increasing atmospheric carbon at the rate of about 0.5 ppm each year. Today, in 2017, after 26 years of climate conferences, the global community is increasing atmospheric carbon at the rate of about 3.6 ppm per year, seven times faster than at the time of the first climate meeting.

This little story of geopolitical incompetence is comparable to an alcoholic battling a bottle-per-day habit: The alcoholic begins therapy to ‘cure’ the addiction. After 26 years of therapy, the patient is drinking seven bottles of alcohol per day, and still promising to ‘get better.’ The extensive team of therapists feel optimistic: ‘We’re making improvements.’

As absurd as this sounds, this precisely represents the state of the world’s climate ‘progress.’ Industrial nations appear addicted to carbon fuels (coal, oil, gas), continually promise to change, pledge to reduce oil consumption, hold meetings to discuss it, while continually increasing consumption. By all measure, this pattern appears as pathological addiction.

Like the victim who remains in cohabitation with an abusive spouse, the global community appears caught in a double bind, as described by Gregory Bateson and his colleagues (Don D. Jackson, Jay Haky, and John Weakland at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto, 1956) sixty years ago. For the abuse victim, the double bind may be: (1) stay and suffer abuse, or (2) leave and face poverty and loneliness, possibly separation from one’s children, or simply fear of the unknown. For society, the double bind may appear as: (1) keep consuming and burn the Earth, or (2) slow consumption and face hunger, poverty, or fear of the unknown.

We may also recognize – as Catherine Bateson recalls in the film of Nora Bateson, An Ecology of Mind: A Daughter’s Portrait of Gregory Bateson (2011) – that ‘the pathology is in the system.’ When treating addiction or other social dysfunction, one may find that the pathology does not rest in the disruptive child, in the self-harming teen, or in the addicted adult, but rather pervades the entire family system, and thereby the entire social system in which the family lives, embedded. The child acting out at school may be the systemic alarm, not the source of dysfunction. Likewise, the rise of a vocal environmental movement over the last half-century, even apparent anti-social activism, arises as a response to a pervasive social pathology.

Indeed, as a global community, we appear as a dysfunctional family. Public discourse digresses into rant and manipulation. The strong abuse the weak, and alleged leaders behave like addicts, unwilling to change the destructive habits that degrade others and our home, the Earth itself. As commonly witnessed in abusive relationships, the powerful proclaim a taboo against protest and vilify those who cry out, labeling them as the crazy ones. And thus, a third link in the chain of abuse that begins with a double bind, and which correlates to acute mental breakdown and schizophrenia: The taboo against speaking about the trauma, in conformity with the positions of Sandra Butler (1978), Michel Foucault (1978 [1976]), Eviatar Zerubavel (2007). We witness this today in the vilification of environmentalists as alleged ‘terrorists’ or anti-capitalist ‘subversives,’ or as ‘pessimists,’ who refuse to believe in the promise of technology and wealth to solve our problems.

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. Women are kidnapped and distributed around the world like common cargo in shipping containers. Indigenous people are driven from their land. On top of these horrific injustices, we daily devastate the only source of real wealth: Earth itself. Every day, we lose fertile soil, discharge CO2 into the atmosphere, scatter toxins, level forests, 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. Marketers dress up business-as-usual in a ‘green’ guise – 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. We may make every effort to enjoy the blessings of this life and bring comfort and hope to others, but we cannot wish away the darkness. As rivers die and species vanish, some in our global family watch in horror, some remain unaware, and others defend themselves with denial.

The loss of comfort and protection within a healthy ecosystem appears in modern human psychology as stress, trauma, and addiction. Individuals may feel an emptiness that they cannot name, a paucity that they cannot describe, a mysterious loneliness. Addictions tend to appear as attempts – conscious or unconscious – to fill this emptiness, this craving for something in our animal nature that remains unfulfilled, unsatisfied . . .

The Capacity to Feel

‘We live in an insane culture,’ writes Kathy McMahon (2017, March), a clinical psychologist, who posts stories of environmental trauma on her Peak Oil Blues website. ‘Rather than marginalize the cries for reform, we need to normalize the pain. Protest and concern are healthy reactions to loss and grief.’ McMahon believes we study the wrong people, those traumatized 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?’ . . .

Psychologist Chellis Glendinning – in her two books, My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization (1994) and Off the Map: An Expedition Deep into Empire and the Global Economy – describes an ‘original trauma’ from the failure of technology and globalization to provide the essential comforts that nature and community once supplied. This loss, she explains, leads to addictive behavior 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 century ago, ecological pioneer Paul Shepard examined natural alienation in The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game (1973) and later in Nature and Madness (1992), and other writings. Shepard proposed that a deficient development of modern citizens has led ecological destruction. 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 observes, industrialized cultures have abandoned nature and divided families, leading to arrested development among its citizens. Poorly matured adults, Shepard says, harbor an infantile duality between themselves and nature, fear the organic world, and attempt to fulfill childish fantasies with patriotism, fundamentalism, social status or, as these inevitably fail, with addictions. Like Glendinning and McMahon, Shepard saw the symptoms of this ‘childhood botched,’ in massive therapy, escapism, and addiction to intoxicants. He described our ‘increasing injury to the planet’ as a ‘symptom of human psychopathology.’

What Shepard warns the readers in Nature and Madness (1992, p. 17), ‘the only society more frightful than one run by children, as in Golding’s Lord of the Flies, might be one run by childish adults.’ We witness these ‘childish adults’ among the leaders of our modern, industrial world, addicted to money, power, prestige, intoxicants, and sex.

The Enablers

Addicts and abusers typically deny their actions, make promises about changing, and reward enablers, those intimidated into silence or enticed to lend support with 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.’ Why do victims remain with their abusive, addict partners or parents? Because they get some pay-off, even if the benefit is a misguided sense of security from the dark unknown beyond the relationship.

The status quo resists change by marginalizing and ridiculing the whistle-blowers . . . Citizens accept the hypocrisy because they too are addicted to the benefits, the money, power, prestige, and economic growth that perpetuates the trauma.

Politicians and journalists justify and enable ecological destruction because they owe some allegiance to the status quo, to the abusive father in the form of the corporate elite. Like the abused woman who makes excuses for her alcoholic mate, enablers believe they get something out of the arrangement, afraid of a divorce from the domineering power structure.

As in a dysfunctional family, enablers remain invested in the status quo, even as the unfilled promises sabotage genuine efforts to establish meaningful change. We have witnessed similar sabotage during those 26 years of climate conferences that produced no reductions in carbon emissions. Typically, the addict claims a desire ‘to change,’ but fails to act. Individuals may feel trapped in co-dependency with these social systems, and may resort to addictive self-medication to help cope with the despair . . .


As ecological trauma contributes to addiction, ecological reunion may serve as a means of recovery. 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.’ Like Glendinning, 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.’

We need wildness to find that full, thriving human. We will not find it in the products of our own cleverness, but in the breathing, heart-pumping life around us, the wildness that forged our cells and our instincts . . . Humanity, in the grips of addiction and on a path to destruction, requires an intervention. To be aware means to be active in this intervention.

Addictions always manifest within a meta-system of embedded dynamic systems, a family system, a social system, and an ecological system. The ultimate meta-system, as far as we know, is the universe, which is the ecosystem writ large. We are natural beings, as all others. When our place within these embedded systems feels unhinged, stressful, or traumatic, our private biophysical system, our body-mind system, attempts to rebalance. Self-medication – alcohol, cocaine, or shopping and sex – arises as vain attempts to rebalance. We don’t know how to escape from our social co-dependency, so the mind attempts to numb the pain. The ‘anti-social’ radical, the anarchist, or the crazy artist, are also attempting to rebalance the systemic dysfunction.

. . . Breaking the cycle of abuse, trauma, and addiction requires a radically new relationship with society and with the more-than-human world. ‘It is no measure of health,’ wrote Jiddu Krishnamurti forty years ago, ‘to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.'”


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  1. I could see this coming two decades ago. The merging of personal trauma and victimhood to climate change.

    Where it ends up is not where you think it will. Instead it ends up with millions of unhappy depressed people being coached into hating a million other people for feeling just a little bit less unhappy. The million who merge trauma to the idea of “the world” being traumatized are at risk of using this notion of the territory of “the world” as if it is their sole empire. So that if a leaf fall in Botswana at an unseasonal hour suddenly that is a crime because it is trauma of a personal sort deliberately masterminded to traumatize one individual living thousands of miles away. What this can cause is similar to how a shipping magnate who lives thousands of miles away from a plantation can feel ENTITLED to react to a person they have never met merely if that person does not stoop to a new morality that says they are evil if they do not treasure the fallen leaf.

    I was in a store and in a hurry. A man serving at the cash point was slow. I was aware of my judgemental irritation at him. I then realised why this occurs. When you get ill with a sore gut you feel instant annoyance at your gut for disappointing your day. You bicker at it. You feel no compassion for your gut. You make little attempt to thank it or excuse it or forgive it for upsetting your day. When we are babies we go out exploring the world after first exploring our Zen consciousness. Our bodies are used as tools to probe and explore the world. If the world frustrates us the boundary between our body and the world barely registers, something unpleasant has disappointed us and so we must yell. As I stood in the store it occurresd to me that I was regarding the staff member as if an erring extention of my body’s wish to move smoothly through the world. And so I treated the poor fellow as if he were my sore gut or sore arm or sore foot. He became a dismissed part of me that I felt “should” be functioning to my advantage. He was a part of my extended sense of irritable body and as with my body I felt “entitled” to tut tut and grump at him. But where did I come by this sense that he and I SHOULD be functioning smoothly and flawlessly? Where did I learn to treat my body and the world as extention of my body so impatiently? Where did I learn that if my gut is sore it HAS TO CHANGE RIGHT NOW or it is lazy and selfish and deliberatly ruining my day? When did I lose my newborn curiosity for the real world? A curiosity that does not assume it knows what the world is or who the people in the world are? A curiosity that is not “entitled” but demands nothing. When humans live with humans who demand nothing of them they thrive. Instead humans live in moral prisons that insist they immediately comply like they are mere extentions of another person’s body. They become told it is “they” who HAS TO change and change instantly, and they are told they must to save “the world”.

    I can think of few humans who do not have an inner pressure born of stress, to make “the world” as controlled and obedient as they think their own body has to be. The ill body is traitor to pristine health they think. But illness is a language that expresses an adjustment is needed. So illness is useful as a guide. To not listen to the out of control body but rather give it a lecture on why it SHOULD not be as it is is to not listen to how the body is trying to heal itself by itself. When humans treat other humans as if they are mere disobedient extentions of their own body, and that therefore the people should be under control, humans fail to let the body of the real world be the many millions of ways it is. This not letting people of the world be the many ways they individually freely choose to be cycles back as a great sickness in humanity. It becomes a sickness of hostility to other apparently out of control beings.

    The impetus to control can muster crowd appeal by painting control as a lesson from a religious wish to “save order” in what is beyond control.

    We DO need to attend to climate change and we DO need to apply remedies to those places affected by it. We need to do it like a parent needs to attend an ill child in a hospice. It may do nothing to attend lovingly to what has become hurt by climate change but love is never nothing. Lack of global love is what caused climate change. Which is why a hateful way of attending to hurt world will only intensify the catastrophe. Look at the rubble of cities in warzones to see how much hatred helps anything.

    The traumatized have a special role to play in global healing. But their voices may be drowned out by supposdly traumatized feudal emporers full of an impulse to control the world and shouting about a leaf falling in a forest in Epping or Normandy or Germany.

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  2. As one of the “too truthful,” “insightful” – but misdiagnosed and defamed as – “crazy artists.” I do agree, “It is no measure of health, to be well adjusted to a sick society.”

    And living in a “pedophile empire,” with multiple systemic child abuse covering up industries (psychology, psychiatry, my former religion’s pastors and bishops, the CPS system, et al), would most definitely qualify as a sick society.

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