Sunday, April 27, 2014

Trauma-sensitive environmental work

Many of us understand and have directly experienced trauma -- generally defined as the emotional response to overwhelming and often terrifying experiences -- in some form in or another. From growing up in abusive or addiction-ridden homes, suffering with serious illness, having been in or witnessed accidents or violent crimes, lost jobs, lost loved ones, and the many other ways in which trauma plays out in our very human lives, we get it on some level. We get the wounds trauma can leave, both visible and not. Some of us have actual scars and others the leftover remains of anxiety, depression, dissociation, grief, insomnia, violence, flashbacks, or bodily pain. And, we also see the ways in which healing is possible -- how we find resources, sometimes where we least expect them, and how we pull together in community with generosity, compassion, and love.

While the topic of trauma is vast, my interest here is discussing it in the context of environmental work, where we already understand that, for example, people who experience natural disasters can be deeply traumatized. Particularly when we think of distinct, "acute" events like Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. or the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, where the number of people killed or left homeless and mourning is almost unimaginable, trauma is a large and obvious concern. As somewhat of an aside, I find it very interesting that one of my favorite books on trauma, by Philip Bromberg, uses tsunami as a metaphor for healing in psychoanalysis.

I do not want in any way to diminish the deep trauma (or subsequent healing) that can accompany large-scale, devastating events like natural disasters. I would, however, like to highlight something I think it has taken a little longer to recognize, which is that there is also a kind of chronic trauma happening around environmental change, both individually and collectively. And, while it impacts all of us, there seem to be particular ways that it can impact those of us that to lesser and more degrees deal with it every day as environmental practitioners.

Before I get too far on this topic, it feels necessary to acknowledge that trauma and the way we experience it is not monolithic -- it can differ across and within individuals, communities, cultures, and events, and part of gaining sensitivity to it is deeply understanding these nuances. The word trauma itself carries a long history of being associated with weakness and shame that unfortunately can still make it feel like a unwelcome label, though thankfully that continues to change. For an excellent description of this history, and many other relevant points, I suggest reading Craig Zelizer's recent article on trauma-sensitive peace-building.

With all these caveats, I continue to feel that recognizing the potential existence of ongoing, cumulative trauma is important in environmental practice. Daily you can, and I do, read any number of articles about the damaged state of the world, and daily you can read any number of laments about how many articles like this there are. Some of us also work directly with individuals and communities impacted by environmental disasters and conflicts. And while many people are expressing what I see as signs of trauma from exposure to material and circumstances that can make us feel scared and vulnerable, practitioners, myself included, can also miss the invitation to deepen our own sensitivity to the contextual trauma we work in, and to appreciate how it contributes both to how we work and how we feel about our work as researchers, communicators, or advocates. I am deeply curious about how we contend with digesting, processing, and ultimately creating something (also known as curating!) out of this complexity without falling apart, at least without tools to put ourselves back together. And, ultimately, I am interested in how that process also changes the work.

There is no doubt that the past five years have brought incredible change to the world -- economically, environmentally, demographically, relationally. In my own life, during this short time, I have experienced extreme job insecurity, an excruciatingly sudden divorce and other psychically manifesting heartbreaks, and packed up and moved across the country twice (after having done so multiple other times). And, I am no stranger to trauma to begin with. I have done *a lot* of healing work, and yet, these kinds of events can shake me to the core at times, and make me forget all I have learned. And many folks obviously experience much worse. This is the context in which we practice these days -- one in which people's lives, including our own, have been deeply shaken in ways that are not necessarily visible.

As I have written about, I have spent the past few months live tweeting a slow moving natural disaster, and have seen my own urges to really filter the kinds of things I want to highlight and amplify change vastly. On some level I am deeply sensitive to this issue of further traumatizing people in what is already a traumatizing situation. But, I am also sensitive to how paternalistic it can be, and not in a good way, to feel so protective over the grand "we." Who am I to judge what information people should be exposed to? I can barely tell for myself, much less anyone else. And, yet, I do know that I struggle deeply with not wanting to perpetuate old stories of, for example, water wars and divisiveness, while also wanting to acknowledge that I do in fact work in the context of what many who have been at it for a long time call an intractable conflict over water issues.

At this point recognizing that I increasingly find myself in settings where myself and others can be in varying states of trauma over a confluence of environmental, economic, and social challenges feels meaningful. It can vastly change the ways in which we want to practice and communicate -- for example, listening and compassion begin to take center stage. If we take seriously the psychological components of environmental work, I have no doubt it will ultimately reshape the work itself.

In my next post I will talk about some of the tools for dealing with trauma related to environmental work individually -- like contemplative practice and self-care. And, after that I will try to tackle some approaches to relational or collective trauma work.

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  1. Faith, a beautiful piece. It is a pleasure to read such honesty and deep commitment to grappling with these profoundly difficult questions. I constantly struggle with the ideas of how we witness and experience environmental trauma, communicate about it in order to affect change, and try to not lose hope or become paralyzed by the scale and magnitude of these issues-how do we stay effective and psychologically healthy in the midst of a field of work that can be overwhelmingly sad. Thank you for exploring this topic- its so important.

    1. Thanks for reading Deb. Your one sentence description beautifully captures what I was trying to say in ten! Even though these are such challenges issues to deal with, they are less so with good company.