On May 11, 2019 our atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide surpassed 415 ppm for the first time since anatomically modern humans have walked on Earth. This milestone is the crowning achievement of centuries spent burning fossil fuels, cutting trees, and tilling soil, among other activities. These workings transform our world, making it warmer, shifting its precipitation patterns, and leading to extreme weather events. We are changing more than our planet’s climate, too. Our development, forestry, and agricultural practices alter global nutrient cycles, decimate biodiversity, and leave no region of the planet uncontaminated. Beyond these environmental issues, the gap between the rich and poor expands and the benefits that accrue from all of this, such as they are, concentrate in the hands of a relative few.
How did we get here? Are human beings a plague infecting this planet that must be eradicated to restore balance? Do we behave the way we do because human nature — our nature — is flawed? Is it our destiny to walk the path that leads, eventually, to collapse?
These are important questions. How we answer them dictates, in large part, our path forwards. It seems to me that if we assume our negative impacts result from impulses that are integral to human nature, the path we walk leads inevitably to despair and self-loathing. It was this realization that inspired me to look deeper and wonder if something else is at work, something invisible to most people and that begs to be named.
I wonder if the impulses that lead us to transform our world emerge from a profound sense of disconnection, one rooted in millennia of accumulated trauma. I use this essay to explore this idea, and invite you to scrutinize it along with me. The seed of this particular wondering was planted years ago when I first read Jack Forbes’ book Columbus and Other Cannibals. In it he describes wétiko, an infectious spirit driven by greed, aggression and selfish consumption that emerges from native lore and legend. I found Forbes’ characterization of the wétiko psychosis compelling, and as I learned more about the origins and impacts of trauma the connection between the two became clear. Sherri Mitchell‘s more recent book Sacred Instructions alludes to this link as well. I offer this essay to inspire curiosity, invite collaboration, and ultimately to help us all heal.
Stress and Trauma
To understand how disconnection and ultimately trauma created today’s world, we must first learn a bit about how our nervous system works. I offer here a brief description that I hope is thorough enough to be useful without burdening readers with unneeded details and jargon. The information I provide can be found in many places, but if you seek a single resource I recommend Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score as a useful starting point.
The human body is a complex thing, the whole of which is certainly more than the sum of its parts. Our bodies are made up of many interconnected systems, with our nervous system being the most relevant to this discussion. This system’s primary purpose is to keep us safe, and to accomplish this task it constantly scans our surroundings for potential threats. When it identifies one it triggers the release of hormones and neurotransmitters that prepare us to respond. ‘Stress’ is the catch-all term used to describe the sensations these biochemicals elicit as they act and interact within our bodies.
Stress, to be clear, is not trauma. Excessive amounts of stress can create trauma though, and it is useful for us to understand how this happens. Our nervous system can handle modest amounts of stress over longer periods, and significant amounts of stress for brief periods. We can endure the stress associated with a long walk or jog, and grow stronger because of it. We can also handle being stalked by the occasional lion and have evolved, over many thousands of years, mechanisms that let us calm ourselves after experiences like these so we may go on with our lives.
Problems emerge, however, when we find ourselves stalked by lions every day, or multiple times each day, with no hope of relief. These heightened experiences can overload our nervous system and cause trauma. I think of trauma as memory of an extraordinarily stressful experience that gets stuck in our body, ready to resurface when triggered in the present. When this memory resurfaces it activates the same instinctive fight, flight, or freeze responses our nervous system originally used to keep us safe. While these responses — perhaps running frantically, exploding with aggression, or dissociating if both of those options seemed pointless — might have been useful at the time, they may be detrimental or even dangerous now. Many associate trauma with surviving physical violence or a life-threatening event, but it can also emerge from less intense experiences such as prolonged fear or abuse.
Trauma manifests in many ways. Anxiety and depression are among its symptoms, both of which are increasingly prevalent around the world, even among the wealthy. Trauma can also show up as guilt or shame, emotional detachment, social isolation, aggression, fear, fatigue, or a litany of other symptoms. Those suffering from trauma might turn to substance abuse to numb their pain, or become impulsive or paranoid. They might take these behaviors to extremes, or exhibit them in more subtle ways so they can function in their day-to-day lives while suffering privately.
None of trauma’s symptoms or effects promote healthy relationships. They all undermine, to varying degrees, a person’s capacity to connect to their emotions, desires, and sensory experiences, and to those of other people. Their growing isolation might also lead them to disconnect from the emotions, desires, and sensory experiences of others throughout the more-than-human world. This detachment leaves a void filled by the apathy and even contempt so often shown for the environmental and social issues I alluded to earlier.
It is easy for me to envision an insidious feedback loop emerging here. When people suffer from trauma, it leads to disconnection. This disconnection, among other impacts, undermines their capacity to build the deep, intimate, soothing relationships that might help them heal past trauma and avoid becoming further traumatized. The absence of these relationships makes healing difficult, and poorly-regulated nervous systems make it easier to accumulate more trauma in the future. You have likely heard that ‘hurt people hurt people’. It seems reasonable to me that trauma begets more trauma.
The repercussions of this are as pervasive as they are profound. Could human beings engage in wars against other human beings without the ability to ‘other’ them, a habit that, to my mind, seems solidly rooted in trauma-induced disconnection? Could we enslave people, commit genocide, or tolerate abject poverty without this disconnection? Could we pollute our air, land, and water, hunt for sport, clear-cut forests, or idly sip a martini as we read about climate change and islands of plastic garbage in the Pacific Ocean?
I believe the answer to all of these questions is no. This leads me to question the often-held assumption that the warming, polluted world we live in, rife with political instability and social unrest, owes its existence to a flawed human nature. I think it instead owes its existence to a human nature dehumanized by a deep disconnection that traces its roots to trauma.
Trauma and the Cultural Body
Trauma alters individual people’s behavior, but it does more than that. It can also change which of our genes are expressed. These changes in gene expression occur when chemical tags are added to or removed from genes, and while the tags are not permanent they can be passed on to future generations. Because genes code for proteins and other biomolecules, changes in gene expression can have far-reaching physiological impacts and can even influence people’s behavior. Whether by accident or by design, our physiology allows for the behavioral symptoms of trauma to be passed from one generation to the next. Trauma passed on this way is often referred to as intergenerational or ancestral trauma.
If you descend from survivors of violence, persecution, or environmental catastrophe, the epigenetic imprints of those experiences might show up as behaviors that impact your life even though you were not yet born. Resmaa Menakem, in his book My Grandmother’s Hands, explores how this plays out with respect to racialized trauma in the United States. Silvia Federici details the horrific persecution faced by certain European groups in her book Caliban and the Witch, offering hints of the trauma that might affect those of European descent.
Because trauma changes individual people, it also changes the cultures those individuals are part of. A practical definition of ‘culture’ might include the language, customs, arts, and beliefs of a particular group of people that provide them with a unique sense of identity. Cultural somatic therapist Tada Hozumi coined the term ‘cultural body’ to refer to the collective experience of a group of people who share a similar culture. When individuals accumulate trauma, this shifts their behavior. As the behavior of increasing numbers of people within a culture shift, perhaps towards greater anxiety, isolation, or aggressiveness, these behavioral shifts become normalized and reinforced within the culture.
When a cultural body normalizes symptoms of trauma — anxiety, aggression, and disconnection from both other people and the more-than-human world — it invites and even compels people to assert power over their social and environmental landscapes with little regard for the consequences. The workings of a deeply traumatized cultural body are, I believe, what we witness when we read about the many challenges we face in today’s world. This cultural body rose to prominence over a long span of time, pushing less aggressive and ultimately less-traumatized cultural bodies to marginal areas or, in some cases, simply exterminating them. Its dominance now stands largely unchallenged except from the margins, and it remains oblivious to the fact it threatens its own existence.
Societies with healthy cultural bodies relied upon a variety of practices that, among other purposes, prevented and even healed trauma. These practices took many forms, and helped people discharge stress faster than it accumulated despite the inevitable injuries, illnesses, conflicts, death, and stalking lions that were part of their everyday lives. To the degree they were successful, these practices allowed people to avoid trauma and maintain a healthy, resilient, adaptable cultural body. Other practices likely emerged to heal trauma that had already been experienced. These were borne of the reality that, like excrement, trauma happens and must sometimes be dealt with after the fact.
Most people alive today are part of deeply disconnected and traumatized cultural bodies, and as a result we continue inflicting harm on others, both within the human world and beyond. As we do this, we numb ourselves to the realities of the world we create. We numb ourselves to the oppression, to the inequality, to the environmental devastation, and even to our longing for, as Charles Eisenstein so eloquently writes, the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. I suspect that somewhere in the deep recesses of our collective memory there remains a recollection, however faint, of a cultural body that was deeply and unambiguously well, one that supported its people, relieved their anxieties, and healed their trauma. The future belongs, in my view, to those who dedicate their lives to searching for and expanding that residual wholeness.
Facing the Traumacene
Some people call the era we live in the Anthropocene. This label centers the dominant presence we, as human beings, have on our planet. Perhaps dominance is not the best word here. Destructive might be more fitting, though it will surely rouse the ire of those who live in denial of the profound impacts our traumatized cultural body has on the world in which we live.
The term ‘Anthropocene’ accomplishes another task worthy of note. It hides the fact that not all human beings, living or dead, contributed to the aforementioned destruction equally. Some, including those who coined the term in the first place, live within a cultural body that contributed far more than others, and continues to do so. Another more practical shortcoming is that it focuses our attention on the symptoms of our traumatized cultural body rather than their root cause, and provides no path forwards besides one leading to the despair and self-loathing I noted earlier.
I prefer to call this era the Traumacene to center the cause of the destructiveness and domination rather than its symptoms. At one level the cause is disconnection, and beneath that level festers trauma accumulated over countless generations of conflict and hardship that our grieving practices failed to heal. By centering the cause, we also name a path forwards: healing our individual and cultural trauma. While this path is by no means easy and may invite us to flirt, from time to time, with the despair and self-loathing we would rather avoid, know these are but stopping points on a longer journey rather than endpoints in themselves.
The resources I mention throughout this essay offer some approaches to healing trauma. This task, in my view, must be the heart and soul of activism in this modern day. Sure, we must resist oppression, fight poverty, and thwart the pipelines, clear cutting, pollution, and relentless commodification of the world in which we live. But these endeavors treat symptoms of our predicament, not its underlying cause. They provide for us yet another distraction from deeper work, and an excuse to lash out against the evil ‘other’ with intent to harm and punish. If we allow these distractions to devour all of our time and energy, we fail future generations in a profound way. We must find a way through this anger and pain to a place where, as Lyla June Johnston writes, humanity can fall in love with itself once again.
Despite the sense of urgency this essay conveys, we must take this slowly. Trauma demands we reopen old wounds and work with potentially ancient stress and pain. A hallmark of trauma work is that if we try to do too much too fast, we might unintentionally reinforce the trauma and its emergent symptoms rather than soothe and release them. Trauma therapists refer to the art of slowly processing trauma as titration, a term borrowed from chemistry that describes mixing reagents together slowly to bring about a desired reaction. As tempting as it might be to confront our cultural and personal trauma en masse, this approach would likely do more harm than good.
As I close this essay, I am left with a few more wonderings. First, what practices might we revive or create to aid our endeavor of healing trauma? What does it mean to engage in activism that holds the realities of the Traumacene close to heart, front and center? Finally, and perhaps obviously, what does the future hold for us as a collective, as a cultural body? These, in my judgement, are questions worthy of our consideration.
Realize that it took us thousands of years to get where we are, and we will not build a better world overnight. The path of healing trauma promises to be a long one. We must find the slow, steady pace that will allow us to reach the finish line, and we will surely stumble over despair, self-loathing and other obstacles along the way. Perhaps I will see you on the path.
The ideas in this essay percolated in my mind for years before a conversation I recorded with Tada Hozumi for my Healing Culture Podcast inspired me to write them down. They first emerged as a brief post I offered in a couple Facebook groups. The overwhelmingly positive response inspired me to write this essay, and I am grateful for the supportive feedback and goading I received from many different people. I also owe much to those whose works I mentioned in this essay, and to many I have chatted with about this over the years. Finally, I am grateful for the financial support I receive from my patrons on Patreon, which helps me carve out time for endeavors like this. Patrons can download PDF and audio versions of my essays, read by me. Thank you all!