By Carolyn Baker of Speaking Truth to Power.
We cannot be cured apart from the planet ~James Hillman~
In a world of unprecedented resource depletion, climate change, and economic catastrophe unseen since the Great Depression, each day manifests yet another reduction in energy, materials, services, opportunities, and funds for maintaining the status quo. We witness the almost moment-to-moment deterioration of every institution’s infrastructure, and the reality of the privatization of these entities becomes less and less unthinkable. But as peak oil and the collapse of industrial civilization intensify, even privatization will not be able to maintain the bulwark of systems dependent not only on gargantuan sums of money, but on fossil fuel energy and what are certain to be vastly underpaid personnel spread thinly across the substratum of a society in profound disarray.
For me, the topic of peak psychotherapy is not about wild speculation regarding the status of mental or other health care two decades from now. Will psychotherapy even exist, and if it does, what will it look like? We cannot answer that with certainty, but it is safe to assume that it will look very different from how it looks today and that however it looks in the future, it will be accessible to many fewer people than it is in present time—which may or may not be a good thing.
Most individuals who understand peak oil, climate change, and the ghastly economic realities of our time are likely to agree that access to health care as we have known it is rapidly vanishing. Yes, as collapse intensifies, alternative and natural healing techniques will abound. For some individuals, those methods will prove much more effective than allopathic medicine has been. For others, perhaps those who have suffered severe injuries or have advanced terminal illnesses, the absence of traditional health care will be fatal.
In any event, physical and mental health care as we know them today will probably not exist a generation from now. As humans cope with peak oil, they will attempt to acquire some form of energy to replace oil, and because they will not be able to do so, they will not have the products and services made possible by fossil fuel energy. As all students of peak oil know, there is no combination of energies on earth that can be implemented in time to avert a planetary energy crisis. Thus, the global infrastructure that has been operated on oil must eventually disappear. As the infrastructure disappears, humans will be forced to live differently. Likewise, as health care disappears, humans will be forced to heal differently. (Dr. John House’s article on health care in a post-peak world at Guy McPherson’s Nature Bats Last blog is especially relevant and useful.)
The Birth Of Psychotherapy
Psychotherapy, descendant of Sigmund Freud’s research, was born in the context of a burgeoning industrial civilization. Concepts such as neurosis, anxiety, cognitive dissonance, complexes, projection, and many more, became the tools of a trade that arose as a result of human beings attempting to come to terms with and make sense of the emotional turmoil within themselves evoked by the growth of industry and particularly urban industry. Distance from the land and dependence on people and places outside the city for resources appears to correlate with an increase in emotional distress during the industrial revolution and subsequent centuries.
The psychology of human beings who have never lived in cities, who inhabit limitless spaces of land, who do not abide in the milieu of sophisticated technology, and whose cosmology is interwoven with their relationship with the land is remarkably different from the psychology of individuals deeply entrenched in the urban industrial habitat. Considerable evidence suggests that disconnection from the land and the transplanting of humans from rural to urban environments in the 18th and 19th centuries contributed to the emotional turmoil in urban areas which gave birth to the science of psychology.
While native, indigenous societies of the twenty-first century have their own formidable challenges, having been directly or peripherally battered and undermined by industrial civilization, and while they should not be idealized as paragons of mental health, it is equally true that millions of inhabitants of industrial civilization have been drawn to indigenous traditions in recent decades and have discovered aspects of those traditions which resonate more fully with their deeper humanity than the values of industrial civilization. For some, it is as if their discovery of indigenous wisdom has allowed them to reclaim parts of themselves that they only vaguely realized were missing.
Emotional Repercussions of Collapse
In a world of collapsing institutions which is likely to become profoundly chaotic—a world where traditional physical and mental health care are no longer available to other than the very wealthy, we are likely to see an unprecedented level and severity of mental illness. What we are not likely to see are more resources and mental health professionals available to treat mental illness. In a milieu of privatization where mega-corporations are running the world and doing their best to contain the chaos, we may see innovative—and almost certainly nightmarish, techniques for containing “unruly” groups and individuals, but human beings are not likely to have access to psychotherapy as we have known it in recent decades.
So what do I mean by psychotherapy? One definition is: Psychotherapy, or personal counseling with a psychotherapist, is an intentional interpersonal relationship used by trained psychotherapists to aid a client or patient in problems of living. It aims to increase the individual’s sense of their own well-being. Psychotherapists employ a range of techniques based on experiential relationship building, dialogue, communication and behavior change that are designed to improve the mental health of a client or patient, or to improve group relationships (such as in a family).
As we know the profession today, therapy usually takes place in an office or consulting room where a trained therapist and a client sit together to engage in a confidential, professional dialog designed to promote emotional healing and well being. The therapist is either paid directly by the client, or is paid by the client’s insurance company for services rendered. Typically, client and therapist meet only in the therapist’s office at a specified time and for the duration of an hour or less. In most cases, the client has the option to end the therapeutic relationship at any time, as does the therapist, but generally, client and therapist work together for several sessions, perhaps for several months or years.
What I have just described is a rather typical arrangement as it occurs in a relatively stable society. But in a society in collapse, my description may be unrecognizable or laughably irrelevant. In a chaotic world where physical health care and doctors are not available, one may seek treatment from a nurse or another health care professional or even someone who has had little more than remote experience in the profession. It may be a world where nurses, radiology technicians, or physical therapists deliver babies, suture wounds, or even perform emergency surgeries. Medical emergencies and the lack of bona fide professionals may ultimately lead to extreme treatment measures and perhaps assistance from some of the most unlikely individuals.
Emotional Healing In A Chaotic World
Collapse will unfold in myriad ways throughout the world which at this time we cannot foresee with certainty. What is certain, however, is that in many places, panic, terror, grief, despair, depression, rage, paranoia, and a plethora of other emotional responses will pervade and overwhelm families and communities. It’s safe to assume that the rate of suicides and emotional breakdowns will increase dramatically. The absence of services for children and the elderly will leave many in those age groups totally vulnerable or having to fend for themselves.
My sense is that similar to the transition in physical health care in a collapsing world, “psychotherapy” will take forms exceedingly different from how it is now practiced. I imagine a world replete with many more blatantly troubled people than we are presently witnessing even in these tough economic times. Today, the overtly mentally ill are incarcerated in the very few mental hospitals that still exist, but are more often among the homeless, and the average middle class American encounters them briefly and infrequently, if at all. An intensely unraveling world will result in more overt mental illness than is currently obvious, and it is unlikely that those with some degree of emotional stability will be able to avoid the ubiquitous presence of troubled souls in their midst.
Many people consciously preparing for collapse are arming themselves in order to protect themselves and loved ones from “the crazy people.” While I support efforts to protect oneself by any means necessary, I would also ask: Do you plan to shoot every troubled person you encounter? Today, we have the “luxury” of ignoring emotionally unstable people in our environment. We can give them a couple of bucks or a beer and walk away. In a collapsing world, we may not have that option. And the real truth is that the “emotionally unstable” person may be any of us—or a loved one.
My work for the past decade has been about helping people prepare emotionally and spiritually for collapse, and I believe that mastering certain intra-personal skills is extremely useful in doing so. What is also true is that learning basic skills in discreetly reading other human beings in terms of body language, facial expression, and honing one’s intuition, as well as practicing listening skills and learning how to be fully present with another human being may prove not only valuable but necessary. I emphasize this because some of the most “unlikely” individuals may find themselves in the role of “psychotherapist” in a collapsing world. “Therapy sessions” may occur in the middle of the night with two individuals or a group of folks sitting on the ground or in a pile of rubble, and the only “therapy fee” will be “paid” in the form of barter.
But “talk therapy” is hardly the only treatment for emotional distress and may become even less so in a post-peak world. Over the course of the past three decades, the discipline of ecopsychology has evolved, emphasizing that “there is a synergistic relation between planetary and personal well being; that the needs of the one are relevant to the other”—a concept echoing the quote from psychologist, James Hillman, at the beginning of this article.
I believe that the science of psychology erupted during the nineteenth century specifically because humans became increasingly disconnected with the land and found themselves emotionally overwhelmed with life in cities and the attendant values inherent in the paradigm of industrial civilization. Mounting evidence in subsequent centuries and in the twenty-first century reveals that when humans are given the opportunity to consciously immerse themselves in nature, emotional distress is mitigated. Especially instructive is Martin Milton’s “Waking Up To Nature: Exploring A New Direction For Psychological Practice”(2009)
In his 2011 article “Redefining Sanity,” Brian Alger states that “Ecopsychology embraces the essential task of healing our relationship with the Earth and with life itself. Ecology is at its core the study of interconnectedness, the exploration of relationships, and the synthesis of belonging. Psychology is the study of the workings of the human mind and how we think, feel, and behave. Ecopsychology is the confluence of ecology and psychology and proposes that the path to healing the mind is the very same path to healing the Earth; that is to say, the human mind is inseparable from the natural world. The landscape, terrain, weather, plant life, and animal life that surround us are as essential to the development of the mind as are thoughts, emotions, and behaviour.”
Thus it may be that in a post-collapse world, dialog, supplemented by guided immersion in nature will offer healing and restoration for individuals feeling overwhelmed by fear, grief, anger, despair, or other emotions resulting from acute or chronic trauma.
My work more recently has focused on emotional resilience in the face of trauma and loss in order to prevent emotional overwhelm as collapse unfolds. To reiterate: Collapse will manifest with varying levels of severity in different places, and in some venues, it will be sudden and terrifying. In other places, it will play out slowly, over time, nevertheless evoking more protracted sensations of loss, disorientation, depression, and despair. Moreover, the extent to which our natural surroundings will remain intact is also unknown. Immersion in the natural environment, while ideal for its salutary benefits, may or may not be possible. However, whatever remnants of the natural world are available in a post-collapse world, they must be protected for everyone’s benefit and skillfully utilized for eco-therapeutic purposes.
Yet another aspect of emotional healing in a post-peak world is the simple act of creating beauty. In all discussion of collapse preparation, I include this as a necessity, not merely an option. We have only to reflect on the history of our species to notice a plethora of examples of the restorative and healing effect of poetry, art, music, storytelling, dance, and theater on the human soul. The more dire our circumstances, the more salutary these expressions of beauty have proven for human beings.
As part of our preparation, I encourage people to consider creating regular community poetry salons where poems can be shared, perhaps followed by sharing music, story, and other artistic expressions which encourage people to express a full repertoire of feelings and celebrate their creativity and vitality. If we become comfortable with this practice in present time, it is likely to evolve quite naturally, or perhaps even feel necessary, as collapse intensifies.
A world departing from industrial civilization and its values will undoubtedly be a world in chaos, regardless of whether the transition occurs suddenly or slowly. Two things are certain: (1) The transition will be emotionally disruptive and in some cases traumatizing. (2) The methods to which we have become accustomed for addressing emotional upheaval are not likely to be available to us in a collapsing world.
It is unlikely that psychotherapy as we have known it over the past three decades will be a viable option for the majority of humans on earth in a post-collapse world. Nevertheless, pathways of emotional healing and well being are likely to evolve out of necessity and foresight. Psychotherapy as we have known it may very well become a relic of a distant past, but as long as humans exist on earth, so do their options for emotional healing through interconnectedness with each other and with the earth, deepened and nourished by co-creating ever-new forms of beauty.