Most people suffer from a sense of moral failure over environmental matters. The mismatch between being told to change our light bulbs when the planet seems in free fall—melting ice caps, polluted water supplies, drought—creates a needling angst and anxiety. We know that we are in deep trouble, but feel that there is little we—or anyone—can do individually. Anne Karpf writing about climate change in the Guardian last year said “I now recycle everything possible, drive a hybrid car, and turn down the heating. Yet somewhere in my marrow I know that this is just a vain attempt to exculpate myself – it wasn’t me, guv.”
To fully acknowledge our complicity in the problem, but to be unable to act at the scale of the problem creates cognitive dissonance. And this “environmental melancholia,” results in hopelessness. It is not apathy we are feeling, but sadness that can be eased only with taking actions, mostly collective, scaled to the problems we face.
The moral failure and the inability to act leads to what some now identify as a moral injury, which is at the root of some post-traumatic stress disorders, or PTSD. The U.S. military has been investigating the causes of PTSD because the early interpretations of it being fear-based didn’t match what psychologists were hearing from the soldiers themselves. What psychologists heard wasn’t fear, but sorrow and loss. Soldiers suffering from PTSD expressed enormous grief over things like killing children and civilians or over not being able to save a fellow soldier. They discovered that at the core of much of PTSD was a moral injury, or a soul wound resulting from the dissonance between their actions and their moral code.
The moral injury stemming from our participation in destruction of the planet has two dimensions: knowledge of our role and an inability to act. Our culture lacks the mechanisms for taking account of collective moral injuries and then finding the vision and creativity to address them. The difference between a soldier’s moral injury and our environmental moral injuries is that environmental wounds aren’t a shattering of moral expectations, but a steady, grinding erosion—a slow-motion relentless sorrow.
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Environmental lawyer Bob Gough says that he suffers from pre-traumatic stress disorder. Pre-traumatic stress disorder is short hand for the fact that he is fully aware of the future trauma, the moral injury that we individually and collectively suffer, the effects on the Earth of that injury, and our inability to act in time. Essentially pre-traumatic stress disorder, the environmentalist’s malady, is a result of our inability to prevent harm.
Much of the environmental and health messaging speaks to individuals. Stop smoking, get more exercise, switch from incandescent to LED light bulbs, etc. Sure, we need to do all that we are able as individuals–that is part of preventing any further damage to the planet and our own souls. But that isn’t enough. These are not things we can address individually. We have to do them together.
Healing the moral injury we suffer individually and collectively from our participation in destruction of the planet will require strong intervention in all spheres of life. Actions like creating a Cabinet level office of the Guardian of Future Generations or 350.org’s campaign for colleges to divest of oil stocks, or revamping public transportation are beginning steps. Can we think of a hundred more bold moves to make reparations and give future generations a sporting chance? Our moral health, our sanity—and our survival—depend on it.