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Moral Injuries and the Environment: Healing the Soul Wounds of the Body Politic

By Carolyn Raffensperger I have a hypothesis about the lack of public support for environmental action. I suspect that many people suffer from a sense of moral failure over environmental matters. They know that we are in deep trouble, that their actions are part of it, but there is so little they or anyone can do individually. Anne Karpf writing about climate change in the Guardian said this: “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. Renee Aron Lertzman describes this as “environmental melancholia”, a form of hopelessness.  It is not apathy.  It is sorrow. The moral failure and the inability to act leads to what some now identify in other spheres as a moral injury, which is at the root of some post-traumatic stress disorders or ptsd.

The US military has been investigating the causes of soldiers’ 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, which author Ed Tick calls a soul wound.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “[e]vents are considered morally injurious if they "transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations". Thus, the key precondition for moral injury is an act of transgression, which shatters moral and ethical expectations that are rooted in religious or spiritual beliefs, or culture-based, organizational, and group-based rules about fairness, the value of life, and so forth.”

The moral injury stemming from our participation in destruction of the planet has two dimensions: knowledge of our role and an inability to act. We know that we are causing irreparable damage. We are both individually and collectively responsible. But we are individually unable to make systemic changes that actually matter. The moral injury isn’t so much a matter of the individual psyche, but a matter of the body politic. 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 soul wounds aren't a shattering of moral expectations but a steady, grinding erosion, a slow-motion relentless sorrow.

My environmental lawyer friend 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.

James Hillman once wrote a book with Michael Ventura called “We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s getting Worse.” In it Hillman said that for years people would go into a therapist and say “the traffic in L.A. is making me crazy” and the therapist would say “let’s deal with your mother issues.” Hillman said “deal with the traffic in L.A.”

So much of environmental or health messaging speaks to us as individuals.  "Stop smoking, get more exercise, change your light bulbs."  We take on the individual responsibility for the moral failure.  Sure, we need to do all that we can as individuals--that is part of preventing any further damage to the planet or our own souls.  But that isn't enough.  We all know it.  We have to overcome our assumption that the problem is our mother issues (or the equivalent) and deal with the traffic in L.A., climate change, the loss of the pollinators.  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.