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"Climate Trauma": A new wellbeing challenge

Climate trauma is a new term coined by Zhiwa Woodbury to reflect the deepening existential crisis resulting from the “ever-present, ever-growing threat to the biosphere” (Woodbury, 2018). In this Anthropocene age, “human activity is the dominant influence on the climate and environment” (Anthropocene, 2024). The challenge with resolving climate change is that it creates trauma, and trauma triggers a fight, flight, or freeze response in humans – none of which are conducive to effective problem solving. Jungian and transpersonal psychologies hold keys to unlocking human ingenuity by addressing the problem at its traumatic roots.  

 

I’m convinced that each of us has a climate trauma story to tell. Mine happened in October 2017 shortly after the plane touched down in Fort McMurray, Alberta, a short flight from Calgary. This area of the planet is known as ground zero for oilsands exploration and production. At the time, I worked in Human Resources for Canada’s leading oilsands energy company as Payroll Manager in the Calgary head office and had never been to our operations site. I had recently inherited a large team of administrators and was excited to meet them and see our Fort Mac work site.

 

My excitement has an edge to it. Calgary is an oil and gas town, and you can hardly throw your resumé around without landing a job in the sector. I’ve always been a nature-lover, and over the past decade had become a hiker, too and spent most of my spare time deeply connected to the earth. I had come to terms with working for a company whose operations presumably harm the environment, but reconciled my inner conflict after deciding that it is up to individuals to change their behaviour. Supply always follows demand. We the consumer need to change our demands. Corporations are mandated to put the interests of shareholders first and pursue profits. Expecting them to change their behaviour is futile. With this resolution, I was able to absolve myself of responsibility for climate harm.

 

“I’ve arranged for a full site tour”. Stacey, the team lead of administrators exclaims when she arrives at the airport to pick me up. Near retirement, she has spent most of her career in this small northern Alberta city and is clearly proud of her community. Her excitement is infectious. While I don’t expect everything to be peachy, I am optimistic that much of what I’ve heard has been exaggerated.

 

Signs of the still blistering wounds from the devastating wildfires that tore through this area last year are everywhere as we drive into the city and pass the local brewery. “The owner claims their beer is the best in Alberta because they source the water for brewing directly from the Athabasca River without a filter” The comment is a little unsettling. We continue north and make our way through the apparently Fort Knox inspired security gates that encase the operations sites. A new thought about the need for such tight security is rattling around in my brain when the first shock wave hits. The vast, barren landscape resulting from oilsands operations is a stark contrast to the rich boreal forest immediately surrounding the area. It has the feel of mass destruction, perhaps not unlike what it looked like in Hiroshima after the first atomic bomb was unleashed in Japan. I wonder how Einstein felt about his role in developing the technology that created the bomb, but he didn’t pull the pin……

 

There is smoke, steam, and noise coming from various buildings. The site is peppered with enormous black tailings ponds, standing out like pock marks on light skin. A heavy, sinking feeling grows in the pit of my stomach. It dawns on me how dramatic my attitude has changed from excitement to dread in just a few minutes when suddenly, BOOM!! I nearly hit the roof of the ¾ ton truck we are touring in. “What was that” I ask in shock. Perhaps an environmental activist found their way inside and set off a bomb? “I don’t even hear them anymore”, says Stacey. “Every thirty seconds a canon shoots off over the tailings ponds to scare away waterfowl, so they don’t land on the deadly sludge. The stupid birds just can’t figure it out”. Thirty seconds later and BOOM! Fuck! She seriously can’t hear that? A dull throb, soon to be a pounding headache has just started knocking at the base of my skull.

 

The tour continues and I see the stomp print everywhere before arriving at the main administration building to begin work for the day. Before meeting with the team, we walk across to the extraction plant for the last stop of the tour. Narrow yellow lines mark the precise location where we can walk. DON’T step outside those lines I’m told, twice, because I can’t hear above the god-awful racket coming from the plant. I shudder about what might happen if I do step outside the lines when an alarm begins blaring. “Don’t worry about that one, it’s just the regular Wednesday test”. Jesus Christ! Is this a regular workday for my new team?

 

Visibly shaken, caffeine seems like the best short-term, permitted solution to get to through the day. I walk into the lunchroom to fill up my teacup and see something I have never seen before. The water for coffee and tea comes not from the sink or even a filtered tap in the sink, but from large blue filtered water bottles. Presumably, the water is not safe enough for human consumption, so they go to the effort of hauling countless jugs of water into every lunchroom on site to meet the daily consumption requirements. My headache is now the worst I’ve ever experienced.

 

The rest of the afternoon is no better as I sit through answers to my innocuous get-to-know-you question “tell me your fire story”. Each of my new team members regales their fire story revealing the trauma it caused even though not a single member lost their house in the fire. Emotionally and mentally exhausted from the day, I retreat to a nearby forest. There are some beautiful park settings around Fort McMurray, and I find just the right one to spend a few minutes meditating. Sitting cross-legged, inhaling the spruce aroma, calm settles in before eventually turning to alarm! One thing I’ve learned from my years in nature is that when you are very still in a forest, it comes alive. Feeling safe, the woodpeckers, robins, squirrels, and unidentified rustling sounds begin to emerge. But I hear absolutely nothing. Where are all the animals? I remember Rachel Carson’s “A Fable for Tomorrow” warned us of this outcome in the book Silent Spring (Carson, 1962) and it takes me deeper into a traumatic hole.

 

Back at the hotel, I climb into a hot shower to cleanse myself of this day. Toweling off in front of the mirror becomes the straw that breaks the camels’ back when I see my body has broken out in a full body rash. Environmental despair sets in and threatens to overwhelm me. Environmental despair is a new term to describe the “genuine accession to the possibility that this planetary “experiment” may fail” (Macy, 1979). Irrationally, I spend the evening polishing my resume and apply to several jobs. It’s not the right answer, but the coping mechanism feels good for the moment. By morning, a more realistic plan sets in to first begin inner work on my traumatic response to the situation before deciding on a long-term action plan.


Climate trauma triggers all past traumas – “personal, cultural, and intergenerational”, resulting in dissociative unresponsiveness (Woodbury, 2018). Climate change denial and absolving ourselves of responsibility for what organizations we support are examples of dissociative unresponsiveness. But is the answer to quit your job and look for a more ethical corporation? In our capitalistic society, it would be hard to find one that meets all expectations.

 

Carl Jung foresaw the dangers that awaited humanity, noting the greatest threat to humanity are humans (Jung C. , 1957). He felt the solution to the world’s problems would come if enough people did their inner work (Jung C. G., 1933). Change that starts within ripples outward. This statement is not meant to absolve corporations and governments from taking action to stop the immediate and present danger that faces humanity, nor is it meant to absolve each one of us as individuals. It is meant to create awareness that we, you and I, are the solution. The existential threats of today can only be resolved only once we address the underlying trauma. By addressing underlying trauma, our reactions become less instinctual, and we gain access to our innate creativity and ingenuity.


Authors note: This story reveals my tale of climate trauma. It is a personal, subjective account, shared solely for the purpose of sharing what climate trauma feels like. 

  

References

Anthropocene. (2024, June 27). Retrieved from Oxford Learners Dictionaries: https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com

Jung, C. (1957). The Undiscovered Self. Princeton University Press.

Jung, C. G. (1933). Modern Man in Search of a Soul. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Macy, J. R. (1979, June). How to deal with Despair. NewAge.

Woodbury, Z. (2018). Climate Trauma: Toward a New Taxonomy of Trauma. Ecopsychology.

 

 

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