CLIMATE TRAUMA & RECOVERY: The Radical Compassion behind the Green New Deal

Zhiwa Woodbury
Melting Men. 2010. Nele Azevedo.

I am the messenger bearing the news of our collective Climate Trauma to this world in distress.

So far, nobody has taken a shot at me.

In fact, the reception has been rather welcoming and almost without exception supportive. My peer-reviewed paper in the professional journal Ecopsychology has been downloaded over 6,000 times since being published last Spring — a rather startling amount of interest for a wonky academic paper — and has landed me in the top 99.3 percentile of researchers worldwide on the academic clearinghouse website, Academia.edu. This fall, noted spiritual teacher and modern mystic Thomas Hübl will be leading a 9-day online symposium on collective trauma, prompted in part by the publication of my paper.

It seems that naming the beast disguised and concealed by the vernacular of “climate change” induces a feeling of relief for most people, and is met with a knowing recognition and an intuitive understanding that shifts others’ perspective in the same way it has shifted my own during the course of my climate journey. Try it on…

Climate Trauma… (pause)

It resonates at the deepest level of our Psyche. It somehow strikes a harmonious chord. It even sparks an inchoate lumen of universal empathy.

And it startles in stark contrast to the subtle reassurance of the phrase “climate change,” or even the safer euphemism that has suddenly surfaced, “climate anxiety.” Of course, everything changes, and we are all anxious about the future. There’s a pill for that.

Not so reassuring, however, to acknowledge that all is trauma in this man-made age.

And yet it is trauma that is driving civilization off the proverbial cliff in this hooked-up, 24/7 maxed-out age. Fight it, fear it, or flee it, the climate crisis is the sword of Damocles that hangs menacingly over the heads of all life on Earth. Call it by its name. Then recovery is knowable.

Acknowledging the phenomenon of Climate Trauma holds the potential to completely change the narrative of the climate crisis in a way that just happens to lend a clear moral impetus to the Green New Deal and the Five Freedoms . It is a happy coincidence, if not kismet, that the journal Ecopsychology published an advance copy of my peer-reviewed paper “Climate Trauma: Towards a new taxonomy of Trauma” on the very morning that the Green New Deal was unveiled. Grist Columnist Eric Holthaus, who has covered the climate crisis for many years, sensed the synergy of this conjunction immediately. As he put it:

There’s a new vein of psychology that is starting to analyze climate change from the perspective of a massive, shared trauma, and its conclusions are profound: “Climate Trauma” can only be addressed by naming the enormity of what we’re facing. Only then can we process how we feel about it, and move forward together, to solutions.

The Green New Deal is still a work in progress, and it’s going to take sustained effort to make sure the future it promises doesn’t leave behind those who are being most affected by climate change. But as long as those pushing for radical policy change keep directly confronting the scale of the problem, it’s going to be easier to bring even more people on board.

See: How Climate Trauma led to support for bold action (Feb. 12, 2019).

That same week, conservative thinker Andrew Sullivan wrote about Climate Trauma on his weekly blog for NY Magazine, the same publication David Wallace-Wells (“Uninhabitable Earth”) writes for. Like Holthaus, Sullivan instantly grasped the pregnant possibilities of changing the narrative from the current, ineffectual ‘climate change’ to the more impactful paradigm of Climate Trauma:

We’re used to seeing the challenge of marshaling political support for radical climate measures as a struggle against ignorance, denial, greed, or the inability of human beings to confront an abstract threat in the future that doesn’t overwhelm them now… But we may be underestimating what the constant drumbeat of news about the accelerating sixth great extinction has been doing to us psychologically.

In fact, we are all living through this collective trauma… But this collective trauma is never-ending. It’s a 9/11 all the time…

Think about that for a second. If jetliners continued to crash into skyscrapers every day, we’d fucking do something about it, wouldn’t we? We wouldn’t just say “Oh, accidents happen.” Well, guess what? The warming of the oceans has been calculated to be the equivalent of adding the heat of an atom bomb every second. There lies the hidden horror of Bret Stephens’ casual dismissal of the urgency of the climate crisis with this single disarming sentence in the Sunday NYTimes:

“Climate change is change, not doom.”

Clearly, we need to change the narrative of the climate crisis in a way that is in accord with the urgency of the Green New Deal.

We can conclude from the encouraging reception by both liberal and conservative thinkers that Climate Trauma (& Recovery) has the power to do just that. To change the narrative. As someone said on Twitter —

#ClimateTrauma is a thing.

Just to be clear at the outset, this radical new proposition is not really “my idea” — as some are saying. I’ve merely elevated its importance in a way that places it in context. In fact, the first use of the term was in a book called Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction, by E. Ann Kaplan, in which she theorizes about something called “Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” While Dr. Kaplan’s book was prescient, there is no longer anyting anticipatory about Climate Trauma — it is our present reality.

I really am just the messenger here, giving voice to an idea whose time has clearly arrived. The beast that is Climate Trauma emerged from a series of conversations between myself and the Boulder climate psychologist and psychotherapist Carolyn Baker, author of Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths for Turbulent Times, and host of The New Lifeboat Hour podcast. We’d begun examining “the unseen elephant in the room” of every conversation today, whether on the therapist’s couch or around the kitchen table. While I got busy soliciting peer review for an academic paper on the topic for the journal Ecopsychology, Carolyn was actually talking to mental health professionals about the phenomenon. As she explained it to them:

The elephant in the room that is not seen in the United States or in Canada or in most parts of the world is the trauma we experience each day as even a small part of us feels consciously or unconsciously the gargantuan loss of our ecosystems, the loss of species, the loss of each other, and the loss of our own souls.

And she was just as surprised by the reception she received then as I have been by the reception my writing on the subject has received since. Listen to how she describes her experience at that professional conference:

I concluded my remarks by emphasizing that it is impossible to talk about mental health without talking about climate trauma and conscious cultivation of resilience in every aspect of life. What is more, climate trauma is an existential crisis — the most severe crisis humanity has ever faced.

Contrary to my concern that people might be “turned off” or leave feeling engulfed in despair, the feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive. One person remarked that they expected to leave in despair but actually left feeling hopeful. I did not ask them to define “hopeful,” but I assume that for that person and others in the audience, the challenge to commit to a life of reconnecting with one’s deep inner wisdom, reconnecting with others, and reconnecting with Earth quite naturally redefined the word “hope” and automatically offered the inspiration we all seek to pursue in the age of extinction.

And here’s the surprising thing - shocking really, to a lifelong attorney advocate and relatively new to the field of ecopsychology. Since my paper was made available in peer review, I’ve heard from scholars, practicing clinicians, psychotherapists, and activists from every walk of life over the past several months, and I’ve yet to get any negative feedback. In fact, word is quickly spreading, and bright, more articulate people are starting to advance the ball.

Okay, full disclosure, early on there was that one disgruntled alarmist who termed it an “involuted mind-fuck” — but he was obviously in despair, so we’ll listen to what he was feeling instead of what he was saying! In fact, we’ll just have more compassion for him, because you see THAT is actually the result of our acknowledging the enormity of Climate Trauma.

And this is what I want to get across to you here. This is what I’ve really learned from all this. I’m not going to try to allay your skepticism over the thesis and synthesis of Climate Trauma — you’ll have to read my paper for that. Instead, I’m just going to try to appeal to your humanity here, to spell out why it matters to accept this idea, and then let it sink in to your psyche.

It’s the least I can do. I’m an ecopsychologist, after all!

Acknowledging Climate Trauma is not the solution to the climate crisis, but is rather a badly needed accelerant that provides the kind of personal and moral imperative that has been largely missing from the narrative of this crisis to date. It takes what has been seen as an external threat ‘out there’ somewhere and makes it very personal.

And making the climate crisis personalin the same way that the climate prodigy Greta Thunberg models for all us adults — IS the solution. The only way we will finally resolve the climate crisis is by changing the way we relate to ourselves, our traumas, to all we perceive as others, and to the natural world we have been traumatizing at least since the advent of the Industrial Age. We know this about trauma — it arises in relation to unnatural events, and the path of recovery is also necessarily relational.

Currently, with the climate change narrative as our backdrop, we tend to see the crisis through a lens of politics or science, right? The result is that the more we learn about the gravity of the situation, the more ANGRY we become with politicians and, if we’re activists, our political opponents. This causes us to adopt lousy tactics of shaming our politicians and trying to scare our opponents.

News flash: it’s not working!

Now lets change our lens to one of Climate Trauma. The entire biosphere is under assault. All life is threatened. And because Climate Trauma is a “superordinate” form of trauma, meaning that all other forms of trauma are subordinate to this pervasive and continual, growing threat, it is triggering all of our traumas.

And I don’t just mean personal traumas here. I mean cultural, epigenetic (inter-generational), and yes, personal traumas.

What happens when all of our traumas are triggered at the same time? Well, look around you. Consider the state of the world.

So the first point of this new narrative is OF COURSE Donald Trump!

OF COURSE MeToo! OF COURSE Black Lives Matter! OF COURSE Civil War monuments and white supremacists! OF COURSE Standing Rock and the rise of the water protectors! OF COURSE endless wars and mindless chants of USA! USA! And OF COURSE our government is broken!

As Bob Dylan sang at the start of all this “Everything is broken.” Or, as the spoken word artist Kate Tempest puts it, “Europe is lost. America — lost.”

This is all reflecting unresolved trauma back at us, and because we don’t see it as such, we continue to act out in harmful patterns. But this is also the first phase of what I am calling a Cultural Truth & Reconciliation Movement. The difficult “Truth” phase. So instead of despairing over the unprecedented levels of chaos and tumult we find ourselves submerged in, we all need to begin by acknowledging that “Hey, EVERYONE is traumatized, and we ALL deal with trauma in different ways.”

This represents a critical shift in perspective. Suddenly, instead of seeing those who disagree with us as monstrously insensitive and ignorant, instead of continuing to shout at them across this unbridgeable political chasm, we begin to see them as maybe more traumatized than we are or, alternatively, less equipped by their life experiences to DEAL with all this trauma.

This is a shift from anger to compassion, from demonizing people to maybe loving them in spite of their inability to cope.

Suddenly we find ourselves standing on common ground — even if it is constantly shifting beneath our feet. Suddenly it is not so much a political issue or a scientific and technology issue — it is a spiritual issue, a relational issue. And just as suddenly, a light appears at the end of this long, dark tunnel we’ve been stumbling through.

The path of recovery is relational. It happens in community with others. And unlike the overwhelm of unacknowledged trauma, facing up to our shared Climate Trauma is empowering.

Consider how spontaneously a movement like “MeToo” arises, and how quickly it changes the way we relate, both culturally and in our communities and work places.

What changed?

We simply brought a new level of AWARENESS to a system of iniquity that has existed for pretty much ever — Patriarchy. It bears repeating here: it is awareness that places us on the path of recovery from trauma. It is lack of awareness that keeps us trapped in destructive patterns of behavior.

Do not underestimate the transformative power of awareness when it comes to resolving our sociocultural problems. What will change if we are in fact the perpetrators and victims of Climate Trauma, and we bring awareness and acceptance to this relatively new and totally unprecedented global phenomenon?

Everything. With apologies to Naomi Klein, this changes everything.

So this shift in perspective, I think, can open up a path out of our deadly, decades-long inertia. The Five Freedoms that form the foundation for the Green New Deal are a perfect expression of the kind of Reconciliation that needs to follow this Truth phase we’ve been caught up in.

Once we get past this alternative truth stage, that is.

Zhiwa Woodbury

Written by

Earth advocate, eco-attorney, ecopsychologist, author of “Climate Sense: Changing the Way We Think & Feel About Our Climate in Crisis,” Dharma practitioner.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade