August 28, 2012

Power and Pathology

The social and emotional costs of grappling with the issues of industrial collapse have been extensively documented by Kathy McMahon, a psychologist who focuses on issues of energy and collapse. She has characterized a typical set of reactions that people experience upon awakening to the cultural/ecological reality: shock, disbelief, insomnia, lack of focus, nostalgia of the present, shame, frustration, isolation, and depression.

McMahon calls the stigmatization of counter-cultural views “psychological terrorism: labeling and pathologizing a person’s emotional reactions when they are perfectly appropriate given the situation or threat that faces us.” To describe those who practice this terrorism, McMahon has coined the term “Panglossian Disorder”: The neurotic tendency toward extreme optimism in the face of likely cultural and planetary collapse.

Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas, has written extensively on topics as widely ranging as pornography & masculinity, racism and ecology. His passage on the psychology of collapse is worth quoting at length.

“I think not only leftists, but people in general, avoid these realities because reality is so grim. It seems overwhelming to most people, for good reason. So, rather than confront it, people find modes of evasion. One is to deny there’s a reason to worry, which is common throughout the culture. The most common evasive strategy I hear from people on the left is “technological fundamentalism”—the idea that because we want high-energy/high-tech solutions that will allow us to live in the style to which so many of us have become accustomed, those solutions will be found. That kind of magical thinking is appealing but unrealistic (Jensen 2010).”

Avoiding grim realities is a full-time job for many people in this culture. Confronting these realities means acknowledging that despite the heroic work of the mainstream environmental movement for the past decades, we are losing on every front. To quote Paul Hawken.

“Every living system on earth is in decline. There hasn’t been a peer-reviewed scientific paper released in 40 years that contradicts that statement.”

We face a truly horrific future: four degrees C warming by 2060, with the attendant droughts, floods, intensification of storms, accelerating species loss (some studies suggest 1/3 of all species will be lost by 2100), growing dead zones in the oceans - the list goes on and on. I was in Siberia in summer of 2010 with a group of climate scientists, and I saw the permafrost starting to thaw. This is only one of the most horrifying positive feedbacks, one among many: the dieback of Amazon and Boreal forests, the ice albedo feedback, shifts in monsoon patterns.

To move forward, we are going to need to peer ever deeper into the psychology of the culture, searching for new strategies and tactics and inspiring new levels of commitment. If we want a world that has more salmon every year than the year before, more songbirds every year than the year before, cleaner air and water and food every year than the year before, we are going to need to come up with serious strategies that address the oppressive power structures of civilization that are abusive, violent, and non-repentant. We must match the destructiveness of the culture with our determination to see it stopped.

Read Decisive Ecological Warfare, a strategy to match the scale of the problem with a realistic solution.

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