by Susan Hyatt and Michael Carter, DGR Southwest Coalition
The environmental crisis consists of the deterioration and outright destruction of micro and macro ecosystems worldwide, entailing the elimination of countless numbers of wild creatures from the air, land, and sea, with many species being pushed to the brink of extinction, and into extinction. People who passively allow this to happen, not to mention those who actively promote it for economic or other reasons, are already a good distance down the road to insanity. Most people do not see, understand, or care very much about this catastrophe of the planet because they are overwhelmingly preoccupied with grave psychological problems. The environmental crisis is rooted in the psychological crisis of the modern individual. This makes the search for an eco-psychology crucial; we must understand better what terrible thing is happening to the modern human mind, why it is happening, and what can be done about it.
—Glenn Parton, “The Machine in Our Heads”
A thesaurus entry for “inhuman” includes cruel, brutal, ruthless, and cold-blooded. If one is merciless, callous, and heartless, one is the very opposite of human, the antithesis of what it means to be a standard example of Homo sapiens sapiens. If being human means we are for the most part kind-hearted, compassionate, and sensitive creatures, then the destruction of the planet—“the deterioration and outright destruction of micro and macro ecosystems worldwide…the elimination of countless numbers of wild creatures from the air, land, and sea,” goes against humanness. It’s a product of something against our nature, an anti-human system.
We propose a name for this system: civilization. While civilization connotes nurturing, safe, and supportive conditions synonymous with humanity itself, we maintain that the great paradox of this age is that civilization is the opposite of all these things. Civilization must consume whole biomes of living things—including humans—to concentrate the material wealth needed to support human populations too large to be sustained by their immediate surroundings. Because the planet’s resources are finite and there are no perpetual means of running the modern economy—no replacement for the fossil fuels needed for industry, no New World of topsoil to extract agricultural food from—we are living in a time when a single way of life, a particular cultural strategy is based on eventual total consumption. This culture isn’t widely perceived as being fundamentally reckless or harmful, but for our purposes here the negative effect of modern, industrial civilization on the biosphere is a given. Our aim is to examine the mental and emotional health of civilized people, how this drives the cultural strategy of civilization, and how those who oppose it might best fortify their mental and emotional defenses.
Individualism as Isolation
In the US, where most resource consumption takes place, the overarching importance of the individual is a hallmark myth. Not that US citizens don’t enjoy a comparable amount of political and personal freedom—though this is eroded day by day—but rather it’s a part of our national consciousness that US citizens are free to do what they wish within a very reasonable framework of Constitutionally balanced rules. The effect of being alone to fend for one’s self, though, has much more to do with insecurity and dependence than it does personal liberty.
By isolating individuals and glamorizing independence, people can then be easily groomed for fealty to power. We grew up pledging allegiance to a flag and can name the tune of the national anthem in three notes; more immediately most of us depend on someone else writing a paycheck for our sustenance. Nevertheless we like to think of ourselves as a nation of individualists. This is easy to believe. It allows us to feel good about ourselves regardless of accomplishment or character by the expedient of being born here.
Yet our material well-being requires a tremendous amount of power over other nations, peoples, and species; this power can only be exerted by institutions whose behavior isn’t governed at all by our own personal sense of justice or fair play. We have nearly no say in the conduct of states and corporations, and so long as we can pretend our inherent merit as US citizens, their conduct can usually be denied or ignored. They do our job, we do ours: that’s the American Way. Keeping this order is relatively easy; just laying claim to an abstract, inspirational word can suffice. The company responsible for the January, 2014 chemical spill in West Virginia’s Elk River was named “Freedom Industries.”
Nationalism is only an example of this wider condition. The arbitrary advantage of US citizenship can be compared to the advantages of being male, or white, or wealthy; they all depend onpowerful organizations that exist for their own reasons, and mine our lives for their power as surely as they mine mountains for coal. Notions of individual, national, race, or gender virtue serve their goals (of accumulating wealth and power) by masking our exploited condition with a sense of deserved good fortune. Those in power hide behind emotionally potent ideas like freedom that relatively privileged groups are eager to protect. It’s only chance to be born a white male American, yet plenty of them volunteer for militaries that supposedly defend freedom. Far fewer would volunteer to die for oil company profits, though many of them inadvertently do.
Individuality is a valuable trait, especially in a culture devoted to cultivating oblivious consumer and sacrificial classes. But its value in overcoming blind conformity and vacuous rewards can become idealized as an end unto itself—individualism. When civilized power is essentially inescapable, a foundering ship, individuality seems to restore a sense of personal worth and even social sanity. Yet individuality is more like a life preserver than the sailboat of a sustainable and independent culture—perhaps useful, but doing little to affect the power over our lives. When it becomes indoctrinated as individualism, it can actually benefit those in power because of its mistrust of group belonging that stifles organizing. The demonizing of labor unions is a classic example.
Our mostly unrecognized dilemma is that we’re physiologically “primitive” social animals living under the rule of a dictatorial, isolating, extraction culture. Unless we are able to participate in it, we’re shunted into extremely uncomfortable conditions of poverty and wretchedness, scavenging the carcasses left by agriculture and industry. The authors, Hyatt and Carter, are relatively wealthy by global standards, with our access to the resources that civilization has up for sale. Yet we live mostly hand to mouth. There is very little in the way of socially stabilized security in our lives. If we stop working for a month or two the kitchen cabinets quickly empty; stop work for a while more and we’re evicted from our homes. Because we aren’t allowed to fashion a comfortable dwelling from the wild and freely hunt or gather our food, we must join in working for it, which means we must consume gasoline, industrial food, and electricity. None of these things will remain available forever. More urgently, there is about forty-one years of topsoil left, and without topsoil, there will be no food for anyone or anything. Ultimately, civilization has undermined all security, for everyone.
Human beings tend to want consistency, and their organizations tend to conserve the status quo. The idea of “behaviorally modern” humans, creatures on a progressive trajectory, has no real physical evidence. We are creatures of the Paleolithic, identical to people of at least 190,000 years ago. Our brains and bodies are those of people who hunted animals with stone-pointed spears and lived in clan or tribal groups. There was no spontaneous human revolution that changed that. Cities and the industries needed to support their regionally unsustainable appetites did not arise simultaneously from the sum of individual impulses for toil and control, but rather spread by resource warfare. What we see now is the global dominance of a single, war- and extraction-dependent social strategy. Paradoxically this seemingly unifying strategy instead isolates us, picking us apart from the close-knit and small scale cultures our ancestors evolved to form. Even if we’re lucky enough to have a close family or uncommonly good friends, we are all expected to more or less make it on our own. Our health can’t help but be affected by that dramatic change. It is critical for anyone working for social justice and sustainability to recognize this.
Defying Social Order
Because of the inherent injustice involved with work, where lower social and economic classes must be maintained to do dangerous or menial labor, it takes denial and silence to keep civilization running. Confronting social and environmental injustice necessarily begins with breaking denial and silence. This can be very hard to do, as anyone who has broken free of any abusive situation knows. Our own avoidance tendencies can be strong and impossible even to see, and our human animal selves shy from the fear of standing up to those with power over us. The elaborate structures of power now in place are so immense and deeply embedded that defiance of them seems ludicrous and foolhardy, the very definition of quixotic. The system’s many dependents and hired goons stand behind them, no matter how atrocious its actions. Attack Freedom Industries, you may as well attack freedom itself. So of course most people never will.
For those who are willing to fight back, anger at injustice can make us think we can defy unjust systems by social transgression, such as alcohol and drug abuse, promiscuity, petty crime, and other self-destructive practices. In reality, these are enactments of civilization which encourage us to hate ourselves and to reproduce our own subordination. Self-harm and isolated disobedience does the police work of oppression, essentially for free, as a kind of safety valve. Just as it’s too much for individuals to be burdened with systemic problems, defying social order is an overwhelming task for one person. Serious resistance requires a community, and a healthy community requires us to make internalized oppression visible. It is helpful to remember that many of our troubles aren’t our own fault, but are necessary creations of civilization, meant to keep us enslaved.
The contrived circumstances we live under are full of paradoxes and confusion; it’s easy to fall into despair and apathy. The dominant culture that is consuming the world—and any chance of a sane and intact society—demands our time and loyalty, and it’s far easier to give them up than to fight. A paradox that can help is realizing we must take care of ourselves to be ready and able to take care of anything or anyone else. This seems counter to the impulses of altruism that often drive activists, but it really isn’t. Warriors must eat, they must have some sense of support and approbation; if this doesn’t come from their toxic society, it must come from somewhere else. The energy, endurance, and courage it takes to stop a coal mine cannot itself be mined from our bodies and spirits, leaving us empty, but rather must be cultivated and maintained as living things.
In his early years of activism, Carter spent a great deal of time and money fighting National Forest timber sales in a conservative Montana community where environmentalists were mostly ridiculed and hated outright. His colleagues were scattered and remote, usually also alone. He believed himself an appeal-writing machine, and fueled his effort with alcohol and a carbohydrate-heavy vegetarian diet. Eventually the pressure and isolation exhausted his ability to keep up his work, and the self-abuse didn’t become visible for years.
Civilization, based on power-over, undermines our sense of self and our meanings for existence. Nearly every child is raised in some form of domestic captivity under civilization, and many continue to be victimized by control and dominance, resulting in what psychiatrist Judith Herman calls Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). Traumatic events make us question basic human relationships; we lose a sense of belonging, and our lives fill with stress and loneliness. Women in this culture often experience further trauma as the victims of male violence. In Hyatt’s case, male violence left her with undiagnosed PTSD for over three years; the medical industry offered pills and relaxation techniques to cover up the symptoms. This is the typical solution offered by modern medicine: one that blames the individual and isolates us further. No one has to be passively victimized by institutional pressure, though; people can be responsible for themselves, for the predictable consequences of their actions and choices. This doesn’t mean anyone has to take on what isn’t theirs—a recovery plan that favors pharmaceutical companies, for instance.
A healthier strategy is to value our response to trauma. The symptoms of PTSD, such as avoidance, emotional numbing, self-blame, and helplessness, are reasonable reactions to an inhuman system. PTSD sufferers have been so traumatized that we often blame ourselves for our symptoms. Active resistance reduces the feeling of despair and helplessness. Resistance even reduces the feeling of humiliation brought on by toleration of abuse and the humiliation in feeling we are to blame for the trauma. Recovery requires that we retell our trauma stories and engage with a healthy community, which can be hard to find. Support groups such as Al-anon and Alcoholics Anonymous may be a helpful place to start.
Remember that civilization is the root cause of trauma. By contrast, non-coercive cultures have few mental health disorders. Bruce Levine notes that “Throughout history, societies have existed with far less coercion than ours, and while these societies have had far less consumer goods and what modernity calls ‘efficiency,’ they also have had far less mental illness. This reality has been buried, not surprisingly, by uncritical champions of modernity and mainstream psychiatry.”
Building a resistance to fight for social justice and sustainability might begin with attentive self-care and a dignified, gentle, and supportive culture. In the essays that follow, we’ll examine the effects of civilized society on mental and emotional health, and explore ways of bolstering our health and well-being so we may ready ourselves to fight. Addiction, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder are all conditions Hyatt and Carter have personally experienced and emerged from intact. It is our hope that our history and study will aid resisters in their own personal engagement and public struggle, that they may emerge intact and successful.
John Trudell said, “We understand the pollution of the air, of the water, we understand the pollution of the environment has come from this plundering and mining of the planet in an irresponsible manner. But you think about every fear, every doubt, every insecurity, every way that we ever beat ourselves up inside of our own heads — that is the pollution left over from the mining of our spirit.” As activists, we must question not only the logic of a culture that consumes its own future—eradicating the soil, water, and atmosphere needed for life—we must question the system and culture that leads to addiction, abuse, and hopelessness; the destruction of our very living self.
Susan Hyatt has worked as a project manager at a hazardous waste incinerator, owned a landscaping company focused on native Sonoran Desert plants, and is now a volunteer activist. Michael Carter is a freelance carpenter, writer, and activist. His anti-civilization memoir Kingfisher’s Song was published in 2012. They both volunteer for Deep Green Resistance Southwest Coalition.
 Madhusree Mukerjee, “Apocalypse Soon: Has Civilization Passed the Environmental Point of No Return?” Scientific American, May 23, 2012, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=apocalypse-soon-has-civilization-passed-the-environmental-point-of-no-return
“Has Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Already Arrived?” University of California—Berkeley, as reported in Science Daily, March 5, 2011, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110302131844.htm
These are only approximately representative examples; many more can be found with the most casual perusal of the daily news. Because it’s so continual and overwhelming, it tends to escape public attention.
 “While the consumer class thrives, great disparities remain. The 12 percent of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent.” “The State of Consumption Today,” Worldwatch Institute, January 8, 2014, http://www.worldwatch.org/node/810
 Stephanie McMillan, “Strengthen Collectivity: Combat Individualism,” New Ideas Proletarian Ideas, March 30, 2013, http://koleksyon-inip.org/strengthen-collectivity-combat-individualism/ for further reading on the subject of individuality and individualism.
 John B. Marler and Jeanne R. Wallin, “Human Health, the Nutritional Quality of Harvested Food and Sustainable Farming Systems,” Nutrition Security Institute, 2006, accessed January 13, 2014, http://www.nutritionsecurity.org/PDF/NSI_White%20Paper_Web.pdf
 “There are no such things as modern humans, Shea argues, just Homo sapiens populations with a wide range of behavioral variability. Whether this range is significantly different from that of earlier and other hominin species remains to be discovered. However, the best way to advance our understanding of human behavior is by researching the sources of behavioral variability in particular adaptive strategies.” John J. Shea, “Homo Sapiens is as Homo Sapiens was: Behavioral Variability vs. ‘Behavioral Modernity’ in Paleolithic Archaeology,” Current Anthropology 2011; 52 (1): 1, as reported in Science Daily, February 15, 2011, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110214201850.htm
John J. Shea, “Homo Sapiens is as Homo Sapiens was: Behavioral Variability vs. ‘Behavioral Modernity’ in Paleolithic Archaeology,” Current Anthropology 2011; 52 (1): 1, http://www.jstor.org/stable/full/10.1086/658067
 “Fossil Reanalysis Pushes Back Origin of Homo sapiens,” Scientific American, February 17, 2005, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=fossil-reanalysis-pushes
 Thomas B. Bramanti, W. Haak, M. Unterlaender, P. Jores, K. Tambets, I. Antanaitis-Jacobs, M.N. Haidle, R. Jankauskas, C.-J. Kind, F. Lueth, T. Terberger, J. Hiller, S. Matsumura, P. Forster, and J. Burger, “Europe’s First Farmers were Immigrants: Replaced Their Stone Age Hunter-gatherer Forerunners.” Science 2009, DOI: 10.1126/science.1176869, as reported in Science Daily, September 4, 2009, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090903163902.htm
This is one reference among many that underscores that agriculture and the cultures it supports did not “arise” worldwide as of some spontaneous awakening, but rather was spread by conquest.
 “What happens if you are raised in captivity? What happens if you’re long-term held in captivity, as in a political prisoner, as in a survivor of domestic violence?” Judith Herman, M.D. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Basic Books, 1997. See pages 74-95 for more information on captivity and C-PTSD.
 Bruce Levine, Ph.D., “Societies With Little Coercion Have Little Mental Illness,” Mad in America, August 30, 2013, http://www.madinamerica.com/2013/08/societies-little-coercion-little-mental-illness/