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Open letter to science editors


Richard Heinberg

If we consider mankind as a whole and substitute it for a single individual,
we discover that it too has developed delusions which are inaccessible to
logical criticism and which contradict reality. Investigation leads us to the
same explanation as in the case of the single individual. They owe their power
to the element of historical truth which they have brought up from the
repression of the forgotten and primeval past.


Our society is made up of vast numbers of traumatized individuals, and our
culture has come into being through a universally traumatizing process. The
outcome -today's technological civilization with its massive
psychopathologies and unending ecological disasters -is a collective
reflection of the traumatized personality.

My NameIs Chellis & I'm In Recovery
From Western Civilization"

The idea that civilization is fundamentally sick goes back at least to the
early Greeks. Closer to our own time, Sigmund Freud once asked: "May we not
be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural
urges, some civilizations or some epochs of civilization-possibly the whole of
mankind-have become 'neurotic'?" Unfortunately, Freud refused to follow out
the implications of this question, but other psychologists have picked up
where he left off. Carl Jung wrote of "politicosocial delusional systems"
having their roots in the collective unconscious; Wilhelm Reich believed that
civilization was swept up in an "emotional plague"; and Immanuel Velikovsky
theorized that humankind suffers collectively from amnesia and repetition

Still more recently, as it has become apparent that civilization is in the
process of profoundly and perhaps permanently impairing the biological
viability of the entire planet, a new discipline know as "ecopsychology" has
undertaken to expose the roots of civilization's omnicidal mania. Paul
Shepard's Nature and Madness (Sierra Club, 1982), Theodore Roszak's The Voice
of the Earth (Simon & Schuster, 1992), and Chellis Glendinning's My Name Is
Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization (Shambhalla, 1994) have
all underscored the idea that individual psychological dysfunctions may be
merely local eruptions of a collective insanity afflicting the entire
civilized world. The ecopsychologists say that so-called "advanced" human
societies are actually merely in an advanced state of some virulent cultural
psychic disorder, and that in order to heal ourselves individually, and to
restore our world to biological viability, we must find and treat the cause
of our common derangement.


Initially, as we seek to grapple with the idea of mass neurosis, we are
compelled to draw analogies with individual manifestations of psychic
distress. While a certain amount of caution is always required in
extrapolating from the individual to the collective (and vice versa), in this
case the method does yield some promising leads. There is, it seems, one
disorder whose symptoms in individuals closely resemble the irrational, self-
destructive attitudes and behaviors of civilized people acting together-a
disorder that is commonly seen in war veterans and in survivors of rape,
assault, abuse, or environmental disasters; psychologists call it post-
traumatic stress disorder.

The symptoms of post-traumatic stress include:

-vigilance and scanning,
-elevated startle response,
-blunted affect or psychic numbing (the loss of the ability to feel),
-denial (mental reorganization of the event to reduce pain, leading
sometimes even to amnesia),
-aggressive, controlling behavior,
-interruption of memory and concentration,
-generalized anxiety,
-episodes of rage,
-substance abuse,
-intrusive recall and dissociative "flashback" experiences,
-suicidal ideation, and
-survivor guilt.

Clearly, it would be absurd to argue that all civilized people, without
exception, suffer from each and every one of these symptoms. Nevertheless,
some symptoms do seem almost indisputably to characterize most members of
civilized cultures. When hunter-gatherers encounter civilized people, they
often remark on how the latter appear generally to be disconnected,
alienated, aggressive, controlling, easily frustrated, addictive, and
obsessive. But if civilization got its start as the result of mass trauma,
presumably that trauma would have occurred in the distant past; why, then,
would these symptoms appear in civilized people today, perhaps many millennia
after the fact?

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, in his studies of the long-term psychological
effects of the Hiroshima bombing in 1945 and the 1972 flood in Buffalo Creek,
West Virginia, concluded that disasters affect more than the immediate
victims; their impact is also transmitted to succeeding generations. Because
the aggressive, controlling behavior and episodes of rage exhibited by trauma
victims can inflict trauma on others-particularly, on children and other
close family members-post-traumatic stress can infect entire families, and,
conceivably, entire cultures.

It is not hard to catch civilized cultures in the act of passing trauma on
from generation to generation, though it is difficult to trace the chain of
abuse back to its ultimate origin. The instances are plentiful and,
occasionally, brutally plain. In her book For Your Own Good (Farrar, Straus,
Giroux, 1983), psychologist Alice Miller showed how the German people's
willingness, during the first decades of the twentieth century, to submit to
authoritarian domination and to participate with blind obedience in unprovoked
attacks against strangers can be traced in part to violent, authoritarian
pedagogical practices that were widely promulgated at the turn of the
century. And these practices in turn arose from previous generations of
"poisonous pedagogy." The infanthood authoritarian programming of the
generation that brought Hitler to power was merely a conspicuous instance of
a broader pattern: Child-rearing in Western civilization is typically and
systematically abusive in comparison with that among many "primitive"
peoples, particularly the hunter-gatherers. Miller notes that "the scorn and
abuse directed at the helpless child as well as the suppression of vitality,
creativity, and feeling in the child and in oneself permeate so many areas of
our life that we hardly notice it anymore." Anthropologists Colin Turnbull
and Ashley Montagu, and psychotherapist Jean Liedloff, have described and
analyzed in some detail how typical Western practices surrounding childbirth,
informal child-rearing, and formal education alienate the infant or child
from her body and its natural surroundings, suppress innate needs, implant
authoritarian messages, and undermine the sense of self-worth.

In cases of severe trauma in infancy or childhood, the victim may experience
dissociation, culminating in multiple personality disorder. Extraordinary
abuse-especially from primary caregivers-overwhelms the child's ego. To keep
from being psychologically annihilated, the child hypnotizes herself into a
trance, while a secondary personality emerges to take the abuse. Over time,
several-even dozens-of discrete personalities may develop, each with its own
personality and ways of thinking and feeling.

Can a whole culture be dissociative? Native peoples often note that civilized
people typically act at cross-purposes to their stated ideals (for example,
talking about justice and mercy on Sunday morning, then practicing murderous
pillage the next day). It is as though the colonial European has a divided
self: "White man speaks with forked tongue." And Western civilization seems
to glory in the splitting process: God is pitted against Satan, mind against
body, subject against object, spirit against the flesh, angelic virtue against
animal instincts, and so on. Most of these distinctions appear extreme or
even nonsensical to members of non-Western cultures, whose very languages
usually reflect more inclusive, less categorical patterns of thought. Colin
Ross, a multiplepersonality researcher, says that Western culture has promoted
the "executive ego self" to the exclusion of others. This executive ego is
arrogant, intolerant, overly logical, and anti-intuitive. Ross writes: "A
cultural dissociation barrier has been created and reinforced, the purpose of
which is to keep other part selves suppressed, out of contact and
communication with the executive self, and relegated to second-class status
in the mind."

People suffering from post-traumatic stress often develop addictions as a way
to control psychic pain. Addiction is an out-of-control compulsion to fill
an inner sense of emptiness with substances like alcohol or food, or with
experiences like falling love or gambling. In The Guru Papers: Masks of
Authoritarian Power (North Atlantic, 1993), Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad see
addiction as an unconscious revolt against an inner authoritarian. If
civilized people do have inner authoritarians, implanted through abusive
child-rearing, it stands to reason that they might collectively exhibit
addictive behaviors as a way of rebelling, as well as to distract themselves
from pain and to fill inner voids. Historian Morris Berman writes:
"Addiction, in one form or another, characterizes every aspect of industrial
society ... Dependence on alcohol (food, drugs, tobacco ...) is not formally
different from dependence on prestige, career advancement, world influence,
wealth, the need to build more ingenious bombs, or the need to exercise
control over everything." It should be noted that Berman is not merely
offering a cynical commentary on our society's more egregious failures, using
the word "addiction" metaphorically; he is pointing to specific addictive
symptoms that are not shared by many traditional cultures, particularly those
of hunter-gatherers, wherein the compulsive search for wealth, power,
novelty, and gadgetry is, if not completely unknown, certainly comparatively

Trauma victims frequently suffer from psychic numbing-the decreased ability to
feel joy or sorrow, or to empathize with the feelings of others. Native
peoples wonder how civilized Europeans can treat other humans, and the
animals, trees, and land, with such unfeeling indifference. Of course, the
relentless monetization and compartmentalization of our society are partly to
blame: trees and animals have ceased to be magical beings and have become
instead "economic resources"; people have ceased to be members of a community
and have become instead "workers" or "consumers," "national allies" or
"enemies of the state." Nevertheless, the questions arise: Why is it that
people in Western society have failed to put brakes on tendencies to turn
empathic relationships into abstract, manipulative ones-even when these
tendencies are clearly out of control and acting to the detriment of people's
own fundamental interests? Could it be because the population is already
numbed to some extent by some ancient trauma, the destructive energy of which
has been passed along from generation to generation through abusive

Now, up to this point we have simply stated a hypothesis. Even if it is a
reasonable one, it lacks any sort of proof. How would we go about supporting
it with evidence? One way would be to examine human societies that have been
subject to horrific disasters in recent times, and see if the traumatized
survivors responded collectively by developing the sorts of symptoms we have
listed, and whether these symptoms led to permanent social change. Another
would be to search for evidence of an ancient trauma that might have been
capable of producing multi-generational effects.


Anthropologist Colin Turnbull's The Mountain People (Simon & Schuster, 1972),
is a classic, poignant study of the Ik-a hunting and gathering people of
west-central Africa who had been driven from their former hunting grounds by
the creation of a new game preserve. While the Ik were not the victims of a
natural disaster per se, they were nevertheless experiencing the equivalent
of a catastrophe-slow starvation due to the loss of their means of

Previously, the Ik had lived the way most hunter-gatherers do. Hunters,
according to Turnbull, "frequently display those characteristics that we find
so admirable in man: kindness, generosity, consideration, affection, honesty,
hospitality, compassion, charity and others. This sounds like a formidable
list of virtues, and so it would be if they were virtues, but for the hunter
they are not. For the hunter in his tiny, close-knit society, these are
necessities for survival; without them society would collapse." As for the Ik
themselves, "we have the remnants of past traditions, customs and beliefs,
and something of their own oral tradition, all of which indicate that they
were ... an easy-going, loosely organized people whose fluid organization
enabled them to respond with sensitivity to the ever changing demands of
their environment. There is ample evidence in their language that they once
held values which they no longer hold, that they understood by 'goodness' and
'happiness' something very different from what those words have come to mean

Forced to pursue an unfamiliar agricultural life in the mountains separating
Uganda, Sudan, and Kenya, on land unable to support them, the Ik had changed
profoundly. In less than three generations, they had become a handful of
scattered hostile bands interested only in individual survival. They had
abandoned compassion, love, and kindness for the sake of mere existence.
Turnbull: "Economic interest is centered on as many individual stomachs as
there are people, and cooperation is merely a device for furthering an
interest that is consciously selfish ... In present circumstances they are
highly disputatious and given to much acrimonious fighting ... They have
replaced human society with a mere survival system that does not take human
emotion into account ... " Children were put out of the family at age three
or four; old people were sent away to die alone. "The ideal family,
economically speaking and within restricted temporal limitations, is a man and
his wife with no children. Children are useless appendages, like old
parents. Anyone who cannot take care of himself is a burden and a hazard to
the survival of others ... Such interaction as there is within this system is
one of mutual exploitation. That is the relationship between all, old and
young, parent and child, brother and sister, husband and wife, friend and
friend ... They are brought together by self-interest alone..."

Turnbull sees clear parallels between what has happened to the Ik suddenly, in
a matter of years, and what has happened to Western civilization gradually,
over several centuries. Today, "The very old and the very young are
separated, but we dispose of them in homes for the aged or in day schools and
summer camps instead of on the slopes of Meraniang [one of the mountains of
the Ik]." Turnbull points to "our cutthroat economics, where almost any kind
of exploitation and degradation of others, impoverishment and ruin, is
justified in terms of an expanding economy and the consequent confinement of
the world's riches in the pockets of a few."

The most extensive survey of the psychological effects of mass trauma yet
published is Lewis Aptekar's Environmental Disasters in Global Perspective
(G.K. Hall, 1994). Aptekar compares studies from traditional, "developing,"
and "developed" cultures; he also explores the aftermaths of many kinds of
disasters-including chronic disasters (droughts, famines), quick onset
disasters (floods, fires, storms, earthquakes), and human-induced disasters
(wars, toxic chemical spills, nuclear plant meltdowns). The findings he
reviews are complex and varied, and researchers whose work he cites have come
to differing conclusions. There is some controversy, for example, on a point
central to the present discussion: Do the psychological effects of disasters
persist for years, perhaps generations, or are they only transitory? After a
thorough study of researchers' conflicting views, Aptekar concludes that
discrepancies in observations probably arise from differences in the nature
and severity of the disasters, the presence (or lack) of a social support
system, the degree to which the environment returns to its pre-disaster
state-as well as from differences in research methods (different studies of
victims of the same disaster sometimes produced different results).

Aptekar first dispels misconceptions about people's immediate responses to
disasters. Looting and panic are rare; instead, people more frequently
display behavior that has a clear sense of purpose and is directed toward the
common good (tragically, officials who believe that social chaos inevitably
follows disasters often delay warning communities of impending crises because
they wish to avoid a panic). Nor do people flee from disaster sites; rather,
they tend to remain. In addition, outsiders usually enter the area in order
to help survivors or to search for family members, producing what has come to
be known as the "convergence phenomenon."

While Aptekar describes post-traumatic stress disorder and cites the work of
researchers who have found its symptoms among disaster victims, he cautions
that "the idea that it is common for disaster victims to develop ... post-
traumatic stress disorder ... should be questioned." Symptoms seem to appear
only after the severest disasters, and in cases where victims are directly
and personally affected. "The victims who show the greatest psychopathology
are those who lose close friends and relatives." Not all of the symptoms
occur immediately, and reactions may appear years afterward, especially on
anniversaries of the disaster. Gradually, people tend to distort their
memory of the event, forgetting parts of what happened and minimizing its
impact and their reactions to it

Children appear to be particularly vulnerable after a disaster. "Galante and
Foa documented the aftermath of an extremely destructive earthquake that
struck the mountainous region of Lombardy, Italy on November 23, 1980 ...
Right after the earthquake the children demonstrated extreme signs of apathy
and aggression." Girls tended to be more affected than boys. (Aptekar notes,
"Perhaps the girls were more aware of their feelings than the boys.") Boys
had a greater tendency to react with aggression.

Meanwhile, adverse reactions in adults can be so severe that disaster victims
"pass fear and insecurity onto their children-even those yet to be born-by
replacing in their child-rearing a sense of a secure world with a fearful

One of the early pioneers in the study of disasters, Samuel Prince (whose work
was published in the early 1920s), was convinced that disasters inevitably
bring social change. Subsequent work has tended to confirm Prince's
conclusions. Basing his speculations on his study of the aftermath of a large
ammunition explosion aboard a ship in the harbor at Halifax, Canada, Prince
hypothesized that disasters may cause changes in technology and culture in a
society; and that after disasters, differences between social classes tend to

Sociologist Max Weber wrote that disasters tend to produce charismatic
leaders-an observation that has been confirmed in various cultural settings.
In nonindustrial societies, according to Aptekar, "Before a disaster,
traditional local leaders are important; but as the society adapts to the
changes brought about by a disaster, new leadership skills are needed." When
pastoral Somali nomads were forced by drought to assume a sedentary
agricultural way of life, "their once pastoral democracy was converted to a
severe hierarchy of social status; cooperative leadership changed to
leadership by domination ..."

In an attempt to discover the sources of warfare in human society,
anthropologists Carol and Melvin Ember compared 186 mostly nonindustrial
cultures and found a strong correlation between disasters and armed conflict.
In most instances, war seems not to have been brought on by the actual
scarcity produced by the disaster, but the fear of having no food as a result
of an unpredictable recurrence of catastrophe. This led some groups to
attack others in an effort to store enough to guard against scarcity. Then,
the anticipation of being invaded increased each group's fears of others.

Disasters may also bring changes in work habits, gender roles, and kinship
patterns. Studies of Pacific island cultures by Firth (1959), Schneider
(1957), and Spillius (1957) point out that (in Aptekar's words) "the
progression of societies from traditional ways to those of the developing
world is greatly speeded up by environmental disasters." Again, Aptekar:
"Among the !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari desert, drought now determines where
and how they live. Among the Navajo, alliances between kin and family groups
changed as a result of drought. Because of drought the Tikopia of the South
Pacific rescheduled their adult initiation ceremonies to occur much later,
thus introducing what for them was a new developmental phase of life:
adolescence. After an earthquake the Inca of Huarez, Peru, moved from a local
bartering economy to an urban service economy. Typhoons on the island of Yap
caused Yapians to abandon their traditional values and adopt a European
lifestyle. Because of Typhoon Ophelia the people of the Micronesian island of
Ulithi changed the food they ate, the style of homes they lived in, their
habits of work, the way men and women related to each other, their form of
government, and even their religion."

In "developed" (i.e., highly civilized) cultures, patterns of reaction are
somewhat different. In many instances, impacts are minimized because of the
almost immediate availability of elaborate aid and support systems. Yet
disaster researcher Benjamin McLuckie hypothesized (in 1977) that "the higher
the society's level of technological development, the more vulnerable it
would be." That is because people in developed countries live in large
population centers and rely on sophisticated technologies, so that there is a
possibility of their being vulnerable to a large-scale collapse of
interlocking systems of transportation, communication, water supply, and food
distribution. It is worth noting, in this regard, that most civilizations
seem to fall because of human-made disasters.

Indeed, civilization itself can be seen as a disaster-in-progress,
traumatizing people as it destroys nature, relentlessly preparing the way for
its own demise. The social effects noted two paragraphs above, quoted from
Aptekar, are the same sorts of effects that vast numbers of human beings are
experiencing now as a result of technological and economic change.
Traditional modes of work, patterns of subsistence and nutrition, social and
family relationships, religious ideas and practices, and common values are all
vulnerable to the ravages of "progress."


In history, effects become causes: wars beget wars, which beget political,
economic, and social changes that may later lead to still more wars. The
search for ultimate causes is nearly always frustrating. However, natural
disasters are sources of change that come from outside the human social system
and that are capable of introducing influences unimaginable in a closed human

But then, is there any such thing as a closed human system? Of course, there
is not: all societies are highly dependent on soil, climate, and ecology. A
change of a few percent in the Sun's output of energy would bring every human
culture to a dramatic end.

Civilization appears in many respects to be a pathetic and futile attempt to
create the feeling of a closed human system. Agriculture partially unlinks
humans from wild nature; the division of labor unlinks people from the
process of agriculture (leaving only their dependence on its products); and
cities and technologies psychologically unlink people from their environment
in manifold ways. People become ever more dependent on complex social and
technological systems; their dependence on wild, natural systems persists, but
is forgotten and hidden from view. Could this compulsion to escape external
influences by substituting artificial systems under human control have
originated as a collective strategy to elude the ravages of natural
disasters? As we have seen, in many-but not all-cases, survivors of disasters
and civilized people alike ...

-show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder
-pass psychological dysfunctions onto their children
-tend more frequently to undertake basic changes in values, lifestyle,
and social
organization, and
-are more warlike

... than people who live in traditional societies that have not experienced a
major disaster within the past few generations.

As yet we have left many questions unanswered. The most obvious of these is
simply, Can we identify the original trauma? No less significant, however,
are two others: How do we go about treating collective trauma?, and, What is
the significance of this discussion in the present, as our own society lurches
toward a human-made disaster of unprecedented scope?


There are two classes of possible causes of civilization's original trauma:
events that stemmed from human agency, and ones that did not. And of the
latter-causes that arose beyond the human sphere-there are also two types:
endogenous (those that resulted from processes operating within Earth's
systems) and exogenous (those triggered by an agent beyond Earth).

It is theoretically possible that at least some of civilization's ancient
psychic wounds were self-inflicted. Freud believed that humanity's original
trauma was the Oedipal crisis, in which sons in the primeval cave typically
killed their fathers in order to possess their mothers. However, no
archeological evidence has ever been found to suggest that this actually
happened, on even a small scale. A much more plausible scenario is that at
the end of the Pleistocene-roughly 11,500 years ago-human beings allowed their
populations to exceed the carrying capacity of the land and brought on
starvation through overhunting.

It is also possible that some non-human agent was responsible for the
catastrophe(s) that led humans to domesticate themselves. Likely non-human
candidates of an endogenous nature include earthquakes, floods, fires,
volcanoes, and climate change. Possible exogenous culprits include wayward
comets or asteroids.

How do we go about determining which (if any) of these possible non-human
sources of trauma might have been the actual one? Naturally, we should
consider the evidence-of which there are again two kinds: material and

The material evidence of ancient catastrophes includes ice cores, lake bed
cores, tree rings, topographical anomalies, and fossils. From these,
scientists have deduced that for the past 2.5 million years our planet has
been on a climatic roller coaster-a general cooling trend featuring Ice Ages
that come about every 100,000 years and last 90,000 years or so, during which
temperatures fluctuate wildly, leading to intervening warmer periods of a few
thousand years. We are in one of those warm periods now. It was during these
past 2.5 million years, according to evolutionary biologists, that humankind
evolved, our brain increasing in size fourfold.

During the last 120,000 years (encompassing the most recent Ice Age) there
have been roughly 20 sudden and drastic cooling and warming episodes,
averaging one every 6000 years. The end of the last Ice Age occurred about
11,500 years ago; not long afterward, humans in some areas began the process
of domestication. Like the beginnings and endings of the Ice Ages that
preceded it, the close of the most recent glacial period came suddenly, and
it brought devastation in its wake. Sea levels rose by some 300 feet over
the course of centuries. Hundreds of species were extinguished, including (in
America alone) the camel, mastodon, mammoth, ground sloth, giant peccary and
giant beaver, dire wolf, short-faced bear, mountain deer, and saber-toothed
cat. Some paleontologists believe that human beings hastened a few of these
extinctions through overhunting.

Also, the Earth's magnetic field has apparently reversed its polarity some 20
times during the past 4 million years-most recently, about 12,500 years ago
in the so-called Gothenburg flip. There seems to be some correlation between
extinction episodes, climate change, and geomagnetic reversals. It is not
clear whether climate fluctuation causes field reversals (through changes in
the volume of ice at the poles), or field reversals causes climate change
(via volcanic activity or a collapse of the ionosphere and ozone layer), or
whether both are produced by cosmic collisions.

Clearly, the Earth was not a quiet place during the time Homo sapiens was
evolving. But what about the period when civilization was emerging? More
recent global climate spikes (not as severe as the ones 40,000 and 11,500
years ago) occurred at around 8000 B.C.E., 6000 B.C.E., 3100, B.C.E., and 1100
B.C.E. A climatological fluctuation known as the Little Ice Age lasted from
1200 to 1800 C.E., and was made even worse for parts of that period by
volcanic eruptions that clouded the atmosphere and lowered temperatures
worldwide for years at a time (1783 was the year of the "dry fog," while 1816
was known as "the year without a summer"). Localized floods, earthquakes,
violent storms, and volcanic eruptions known to have occurred during the past
10,000 years are far too numerous to list here, and it seems likely that
archeologists and geologists have discovered and interpreted evidence of only
a fraction of such disasters that actually took place.

Many of these events may have been endogenous in nature. But in the case of
global climate change-and, possibly, field reversals-extraterrestrial factors
may have played a role. In the early 1980s, astronomer Fred Hoyle
hypothesized that the Ice Ages (and other abrupt climate shifts as well) could
only have been brought on by collisions of Earth with asteroids or comets.

In the year 536, according to tree-ring measurements, just as many of the
civilizations of the period were suffering major setbacks, there was a sudden
worldwide decline in tree growth that lasted about 15 years. Since Greenland
ice cores show no signs of large-scale volcanic activity for that time, the
most likely explanations are comet impact or cosmic dust. British
astronomers Victor Clube and Bill Napier have calculated, on the basis of
observed cratering rates on the Earth and Moon, that we should expect the
collision of a meteor or comet "of several megatons energy to occur somewhere
on Earth every 200 years or so." Further, "a few dozen sporadic impacts in
the tens of megatons, and a few in 100 to 1000 megaton range, must have
occurred within the past 5000 years." Comet collisions don't always leave an
obvious crater: the comet that struck near Tunguska, Siberia in 1908 (if,
indeed, it was a comet) is estimated to have weighed 1000 tons; its fiery
above-ground explosion flattened trees for miles in all directions but left no
crater. We should expect an impact of similar energy about every 20 years on
average; but, given that two-thirds of incoming meteors or comets fall into
the oceans, one of similar size is likely to strike land only about once every
60 years.

Of course, the kinds of collisions we are talking about would have been
awesome spectacles-giant fireballs streaking across the sky accompanied by
thunder and lightning, leaving huge serpentine trails, blotting out the Sun
with their smoke or turning night into day, and culminating in explosions
comparable to the simultaneous detonation of hundreds of hydrogen bombs.

In short, the physical evidence shows unequivocally that our planet is
disasterprone, but it does not point to a single dramatic event that would
have traumatized humankind once and for all. Rather, the possible sources of
trauma are all too plentiful.

We should next consider cultural evidence bearing on the nature of the

While some mythologists (such as Joseph Campbell) have maintained that ancient
myths contain no reliable historical data whatever, I have argued elsewhere
(in Memories and Visions of Paradise Quest 1995) that " ... anthropologists
and archeologists have uncovered many instances in which myths do
unquestionably conceal [or reveal!] elements of historical fact"; there I
cited the examples of the Klamath Indians' memory-based myth of the origin
Crater Lake, and Aboriginal Australian Dreamtime stories that feature animals
that have been extinct for some 10,000 to 15,000 years.

Every mythologist knows that tales of ancient catastrophes of one sort or
another constitute an extremely widespread and common genre. Examples range
from the biblical story of the Deluge to Plato's account of the destruction
of Atlantis; from South American myths of universal destruction by fire and
water to the aboriginal Australian depiction of the end of the Dreamtime.
Many cultures-including the Chinese, Hopi, Greek, Aztec, Iranian, and Indic-
recall a series of four or five World Ages, each ending in catastrophe. Many
catastrophe myths ascribe responsibility for these calamities to human beings.

If we were to attribute some historical truth to such myths, we would, I
think, conclude from them (as from the physical evidence) that more than one
catastrophe traumatized ancient humanity. Since many cultures viewed comets
and other unusual celestial phenomena with extraordinary dread, we might also
conclude that at least some of these catastrophes had an exogenous source.
And since many myths blame the people themselves for catastrophes, we should
leave open the possiblity that some disasters were humanly caused.

The first of these conclusions finds support in other fields. In individual
psychology, the effects of trauma seem most severe and long-lasting in cases
not of singular, but of repetitive abuse or injury. And the Embers' findings
on the origins of violence (cited earlier) likewise suggest that if civilized
humanity's destructive tendencies arise from post-traumatic stress, the
source would likely have been a series of disasters occurring at
unpredictable intervals.


It appears that humankind has had a trying childhood. And just as some abused
children cope with adversity by plunging themselves into intellectual or
creative activities, perhaps humanity as a whole has done something similar.
Neurobiologist William Calvin, in his The Ascent of Mind: Ice Age Climates and
the Evolution of Intelligence (Bantam, 1990), suggests that it was by
matching wits with frequent climate changes that our early ancestors learned
to develop their capacities for language, culture, technological innovation,
and ethics.

For biologists, the evolution of modern Homo sapiens constitutes one of the
greatest of mysteries. We differ from the apes in a hundred ways: language,
accurate throwing ability, concealed ovulation, dramatically increased brain-
to-body size ratio, different hand anatomy, lack of body hair, descended
larynx, flatter face, smaller teeth, and so on. It is not so difficult to
explain how one or another of these developments could have occurred in a
couple of million years, but all of them taken together constitute virtually a
miracle of evolutionary transformation. Calvin suggests that we look to only
a few basic causes, of which each would have had multiple effects. For
example, if early humans spent much of their time living in open savannas,
this might account for our transition to seed eating and our upright posture.
And if we spent another phase of our development foraging for food along
shorelines, living partly in water, this might explain features we share with
the aquatic mammals-our subcutaneous fat, salt-andwater wasting kidneys,
tearing, and descended larynx, among others.

But what of brain size and intelligence? Calvin suggests that repeated,
drastic climate fluctuations were the motivating factor, acting as a kind of
evolutionary "pump" encouraging change in certain directions: "[W]e look at
the back-and-forth Ice Ages and see in them not just overblown winter but a
way of amplifying the effect of the wintertime natural selection ..."
Calvin's hypothesized winter-specialized hominid subtype-which would have
relied more on hunting, and therefore would have developed better throwing
skills than its more tropical cousins-would have expanded its population
during warmer boom times in order to take advantage of ice-free land; when
the ice returned, the hunters would simply have moved south. With each
warm/cold fluctuation, the winter-specialized types would have grown to
constitute a greater percentage of the overall hominid population.

Calvin suggests that it was through juvenilization that these versatile
hunters developed bigger brains for making, aiming, and throwing projectiles.
The juveniles of most mammals have a bigger brain/body ratio than adults, as
well as flatter faces and smaller teeth. If, in a given population, puberty
gradually occurs earlier, somatic development will be cut short, and after
many generations the adult population will acquire juvenile characteristics.
Calvin argues that the alternation of harsh and hospitable climates during the
past couple of million years encouraged early maturity: during boom times
"there [was] a race to fill up newly available 'job slots' afforded by an
environment able to feed more mouths." When the ice returned, juvenile body
features were retained. And once brain size had grown, new uses were quickly
found for all this new gray matter-such as the invention of language and

Calvin emphasizes that there is still a lot to account for and that the
problem is complex-"So much brain enlargement in 2.5 million years is awfully
quick by the standards of evolutionary biology"-and he admits that his
explanation may not be the final one. An alternative theory he doesn't
mention is that human beings are the result of genetic experiments on the
part of extraterrestrials. This suggestion is admittedly beyond the pale of
conventional scientific thinking, but it is really not so far-fetched in light
of ancient myths about culture-heroes and creator gods, and modern UFO
sightings and abduction accounts. If the ET genetic-experiment hypothesis
turned out to be true, it would not deny the role of catastrophes in the
shaping of human culture and consciousness, but it would surely add a bizarre
twist to the story.

Still, let us assume that Calvin's explanation (or something like it) is
right: Catastrophe and trauma (via sudden, drastic climate changes at
unpredictable intervals) have led us to become intelligent tool users. But it
seems they have also planted seeds of alienation and distrust within our
vastly enlarged brains. Perhaps, as Paul Shepard suggests in Nature and
Madness, in additional to physiological juvenilization we have also undergone
a stunting of our psychological development. Civilization, according to
Shepard, produces people who are incomplete, infantile-self-absorbed "adult
children" who tend to be dependent on parental authority figures.

Deep down we seem to believe that the gods are angry at us. What have we done
wrong? We must be flawed, sinful children who deserve the gods' (our
parents') wrath. Nature is cruel and chaotic. We must defend ourselves,
propitiate the gods, and make sure we have a surplus for when the next
disaster strikes.


The matters we have touched on are complex and raise many questions. Let us
briefly consider three of the most obvious ones.

Problem: Why would only a few cultures react to catastrophes by developing
civilizations? After all, most human cultures, historically, have maintained
modest hunting-and-gathering, horticultural, or pastoral ways of life. Were
these people not traumatized? If not, why not? If they were, why did they
respond differently?

Possible solution: Even in the case of global disasters-climate change and
comet impacts-the effects would not have been geographically uniform.
Moreover, it is entirely possible that distinct cultural groups would have
been predisposed to handle trauma in varying ways. It is true that some
cultures have maintained a much greater sense of harmony with nature than
have others; however, evidences of collective psychopathology are not unique
to Western civilization: in nearly every culture it is possible to point to
some institution, rite, or taboo that could have had its origin in mass
psychological trauma.

Problem: Why were no other animals similarly affected? Why didn't horses,
monkeys, squids, and parrots develop big brains, technology, language, and
cultural neuroses?

Possible solution: Perhaps they were affected, but responded differently.
The creation myths of many cultures speak of a time (before the catastrophes)
when the animals were less aggressive or fearful and when a universal harmony
prevailed throughout nature. Of course, such myths need to be regarded with
healthy skepticism, but they may hold some kernel of historical truth. In
most higher animals, behaviors are scripted by instinct, while in humans (for
reasons William Calvin may be partly able to explain) culture has largely
usurped instinct's role. If traumatic stress caused at least some humans to
develop dysfunctional cultures, then it is possible that the same stressors
caused at least some animals to develop dysfunctional instincts. The
lemmings' suicidal boom-and-bust population behavior is one possible example.

Humans' unique responses to stress may be traceable partly to their unique
brain structure. In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the
Bicameral Mind (Houghton Mifflin, 1976/1990), Princeton psychologist Julian
Jaynes anticipated Calvin in suggesting that "it is possible for the brain to
be ... reorganized by environmental changes." With the Ice Ages came the
development of language, and with language came the invention of an analog
inner world of words, paralleling the behavioral world "even as the world of
mathematics parallels the world of quantities and things." Jaynes argued
that, in its early stages, the use of this new linguistic ability was split
between the brain's hemispheres: the right hemisphere spoke to the left, and
its voice was interpreted as being that of a god. This bicamerality may have
served to obviate the stress of decision-making during times of environmental
change. But later, during the early historical period, as civilizations were
developing, the bicameral organization of the human mind began to collapse.
This, says Jaynes, was partly due to the invention of writing: once the words
of the gods were written, they became silent and could be turned to or
avoided at will. But disasters also played a role: "The second millennium B.C.
was heavy laden with profound and irreversible changes. Vast geological
catastrophes occurred. Civilizations perished. Half the world's population
became refugees. And wars, previously sporadic, came with hastening and
ferocious frequency..." The gods fell silent, and left-brain-dominant humans
were left to fend as best they could. The result was the dawn of rational
self-consciousness, of alienation and anxiety, and of a condition in which
"we have become our own gods."

Problem: I have suggested that the traumatic energy of ancient disasters is
passed along from generation to generation via civilized child-rearing
methods. If so, we might expect the post-traumatic stress symptoms evident
in civilized populations to gradually dissipate over the centuries and
millennia, or at worst to remain constant. Yet we now face humanly generated
social and ecological problems of unprecedented scope and severity. Why
would these problems be increasing, if they are the effects of some ancient

Possible solution: It may be that civilization is (or can be) a progressive
social disease. In individuals, a progressive disease is one in which the
body's natural defense systems are overwhelmed or subverted; rather than
improving, the patient becomes sicker and sicker.

Civilization progressively re-traumatizes itself-not only through child-
rearing practices, but through economic inequality and poverty, environmental
destruction, alienation from nature, and war. Thus as civilization
"advances," the effects of the original trauma are magnified. Add to this the
impact of natural disasters that have occurred in relatively recent times-
such as the Black Death in medieval Europe, in which nearly one third of the
population was wiped out, and which may have helped prime the European psyche
for witch hunts and bloody colonial exploits.

The idea that our psycho-social disease may be a progressive one is
disturbing, of course. Even worse is the realization that we are infecting
and killing our only potential therapists-the primal cultures of the world,
who appear to have been less traumatized than ourselves, or at least to have
found more sensible ways of coping with their wounds. If we cannot look to
them to save us from our own folly-and, realistically, we have no right to
expect them to do so-then we must learn somehow to heal ourselves.


How would one go about treating an entire culture for post-traumatic stress?
The difficulties involved are considerable-especially in a chronic case, or
one in which the society in question doesn't want to be treated. It is
difficult to know even where to begin, given a "patient" so huge, powerful,
and deranged as our contemporary global civilization. Such a task may
actually be impossible. But perhaps we can heal ourselves and one another
individually, at least to some degree, and thereby plant the seeds of a new
sane and biologically benign culture. In order to do so, it would seem vital
that we familiarize ourselves with what is presently known about individual
trauma treatment and recovery.

In cases where the original trauma is long past, the most important aspect of
treatment seems to be the recollection and emotional processing of the
traumatic event. Whether humankind as a whole can recall events millennia
ago is problematic; it seems more feasible for individuals to bring to mind
and face the specific ways in which they were taught-beginning at birth-to
throttle their wildness and conform to a contorted system of beliefs and
behaviors. A therapist or therapeutic community is often helpful in this
regard-assuming that the purpose of therapy is not seen as being merely to
help the patient adjust more successfully to society as it presently is.

Another step in recovery is to learn to feel our repressed grief and rage-as
well as our repressed joy. Chellis Glendinning, Buddhist scholar Joanna
Macy, environmental educator Annie Prutzman, and others have suggested ways
to safely uncork the vessel of our dammed-up emotions via psychodrama and

It is also possible to benefit from techniques used in shamanic cultures for
the reintegration of nature and psyche. Primal peoples resort to prayer,
dancing, drumming, and purification rites in order to restore the wholeness
of individual, community, and nature. While mere imitation of such rites may
constitute a kind of cultural theft, we may nevertheless find similar ways of
working in small groups to call upon ancestors, spirits, and natural forces
to assist us in our healing.

Recovery may not penetrate past the surface layers of consciousness without
significant, deliberate lifestyle changes. As long as we are utterly
dependent upon civilization it is difficult for us to see its influences with
any objectivity, or to forge a new relationship with the natural world. And
disconnecting from the civilizational system-via natural home-building,
growing or gathering much of one's own food, and providing for other needs
with a minimal use of money-tends to induce feelings of basic self-worth and

Independence from the system need not be seen as abandonment of
responsibility, however. Often a member of a dysfunctional family will stay
in the abusive situation in order to try to fix it from within. In cases
like this, a therapist will usually counsel the individual to leave, since it
is only from a secure position outside the abusive situation that one can
have a positive impact on those still within it. Perhaps something similar is
true with respect to individuals awakening to the dysfunctionality of
civilization: we can be of more help to other people if we are not entirely
dependent on the system that is progressively reproducing its woundedness.
Then our activism is grounded not just in anger and pain, but in knowledge of
workable alternatives.

It may be possible to forge a path toward sustainable culture only so far in
one lifetime. Perhaps our greatest responsibility, therefore, is to explore
whatever routes we can, go as far along them as we can, and then pass on
whatever we have learned. Children growing up in-or under-the dominant
culture today are inevitably subject to nearly constant trauma, some forms of
which are extremely sophisticated and seductive. Unless some young people
are provided with effective tools for self-defense, self-expression,
exploration, and creativity, and examples of what it is to be a relatively
free and happy human, the way ahead looks bleak.


Of course, every sane person would wish to avert another disaster; everyone
hopes that civilization can somehow quickly reform itself so that we don't
have to face massive starvation and ecological devastation in the coming
century. But it would be foolish to ignore the implications of current
trends. The likelihood is that those of us who will be around in the early
decades of the next century will experience a catastrophe of one sort or
another first-hand-either one that is humanly caused or an "act of God" whose
effects are experienced far more severely as a result of population density
and the interconnectedness and vulnerability of civilization's systems of
transportation, communication, food delivery, and political control.

How will people respond? According to Lewis Aptekar, victims of humanly
induced disasters often show more stress than victims of natural disasters
because of the perceived need to find parties to blame. Whatever the
eventual circumstances, it seems certain that groups in differing geographic
areas, and in differing economic conditions, will react in dissimilar ways.
In the case of a breakdown of communication and control, those who are more
dependent on high tech will likely suffer much more than those who are still
somewhat accustomed to locally filling their own basic needs. Over the short
term, we are likely to see acts of extraordinary heroism alongside extreme
examples of opportunism and stupidity. But what about the long-range

If human beings are re-traumatized, will they develop even stranger cultural
neuroses than the ones they already exhibit? Or will at least some of us
learn from the experience? The fact that we are now coming to understand how
the human psyche typically deals with trauma is cause for hope: perhaps a
significant number of people will experience civilization's crisis as a
catharsis that will reach all the way to the roots of our ancient, irrational
fear of nature, and help us learn to live in peace with the Earth, with one
another, and with ourselves.

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