Ecological Collapse, Trauma Theory and Permaculture

October 29, 2005

Both permaculture design and research into the nature of psychological trauma were born out of a need to heal. A comparison of the two fields demonstrates an intrinsic similarity between the principles of permaculture and the principles of trauma theory. During the coming decades of declining net energy and ecological collapse, both will be vitally necessary to the survival of human communities and ecosystems.

It is not a coincidence that the conception, gestation and birth of permaculture occurred during the energy crises of the 1970s. As David Holmgren emphasizes in his Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability (2002), permaculture originated as a response to the needs of energy descent. The United States had passed its peak of oil production in 1970. Soon afterwards, geologists began to apply the bell curve pattern first observed by M. King Hubbert to global oil production. Those early predictions indicated that the global peak would occur in the mid-1990s (If not for the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, the prediction may well have come true). In addition, ecologists, such as the authors of the much-misunderstood 1972 study Limits to Growth, began to issue shrill warnings that the planet was headed towards ecological overshoot.

With the advent of $60 crude, many people are beginning to understand that the peak of world oil production is now at hand. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (2004) also makes it clear that human civilization has passed the limits of ecological overshoot and is now headed toward collapse unless we quickly pull back from those limits. The ecological footprint of humanity has now overshot global carrying capacity by more than 20 percent.

I have a very visceral understanding of overshoot and collapse. That is because I have experienced overshoot and collapse within my own body. I am a trauma survivor. This experience has given me the ability to understand our civilizational predicament in a way that people who have never experienced severe psychological trauma do not posses to the same degree.

During the same decades that permaculture was evolving, another field of research was also developing, the understanding of psychological trauma. As Dr. Judith Herman exposes in her landmark book Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence — from domestic abuse to political terror (1997), discovery and denial of the effects of violence on human beings, from abused children to soldiers on the battlefield, came and went in a repetition of decades-long cycles of awareness and dissociation. Feminists working with abused children and battered wives initiated the present state of awareness. However, it was the lasting psychological effects of combat on soldiers returning home from the Vietnam War that led to the first inclusion of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as an official psychiatric diagnosis in 1980. Researchers came to the realization that “shell shock,” “battle fatigue” and “battered wife syndrome” and other seemingly disparate conditions from the effects of incest to the experiences of people who had survived natural disasters were related human reactions to traumatic experiences.

The nature of ecological and civilizational collapse is quite similar to the effects of trauma on human beings. Ecological collapse is in fact an ecosystem-wide form of trauma. Obviously, the difference in scale between individual human beings and entire ecosystems and planetary-wide ecological and climatological processes creates differences, but the similarities are striking.

Furthermore, ecological trauma precipitates human trauma. As the inhabitants of ecovillages and other forms of intentional community are painfully aware, successful permaculture design must incorporate an understanding of human psychology. At the same time that society will be coping with a declining availability of energy and the collapse of important ecosystems, we must also cope with the psychological disintegration of human beings and the collapse of human societies. Healing one requires healing the other, too.

Finally, the healing of both psychological trauma and ecological trauma is remarkably similar. The principles of trauma theory are essentially the same as the principles of permaculture design.

Overshoot and collapse: the origin of trauma

Let’s begin by comparing definitions:

In the ‘60s and 70s, scientists began to grasp that the biological concepts of population overshoot and collapse applied to human civilization. Overshoot is the process of drawing down the Earth’s stocks of natural resources. This drawdown is eroding the Earth’s long-term carrying capacity by destroying the biological diversity, relationship connections and accumulated organic matter built up since the last great mass extinction 65 million years ago. As ecosystems around the world are undermined, as their webs of life are broken strand by strand, they become ever more vulnerable to collapse. Human civilization as we know it cannot survive planetary-wide ecological collapse.

Limits to Growth says that, “Overshoot comes from the combination of (1) rapid change, (2) limits to that change, and (3) errors or delays in processing.” Even so, collapse is not automatic: “Being past many kinds of limits does not expose anyone to serious damage. … People learn to avoid them or minimize their consequences. For example, you test the water temperature with your hand before stepping into the shower.” Ecological overshoot occurs because feedback is delayed, or not noticed in time. For example, residents of affluent countries do not see the harm that their lifestyles cause in other bioregions and on other continents. The natural resiliency of ecosystems allows them to absorb a lot of abuse before they start showing signs of stress. Nature is not linear. Changes often occur suddenly and without warning as a population or system shifts to a new equilibrium state or collapses.

Many scientists are now saying that we have waited too long to pull back from the Earth’s limits, and that a certain level of collapse is now inevitable. Peak oil and climate change, especially, will likely lead to multiple political, social and economic crises. Furthermore, as we pass the global peak of oil production and begin the long decline down the far side of the peak over the next 20 years, human carrying capacity will plummet.

However, many people remain in deep denial about ecological degradation until a limit has been breached that directly affects their own lives. A fishery collapses and hundreds of fishermen are without a source of income. A person wakes up one morning and discovers that a sinkhole has developed in his backyard overnight due to years of overpumping from the local aquifer. Crude oil and gasoline prices suddenly shoot up and a family can no longer make ends meet. Because of our natural reluctance to face traumatic truths, global ecological collapse seems unthinkable to most people. The process has been gradual enough that culturally we do not yet have a sense of imminent emergency.

Joseph Tainter reveals in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies that the ultimate source of societal collapse, regardless of the trigger, is increasingly diminishing returns on societal investments in complexity. Government and business leaders try to fix the multiplying problems by applying the same old solutions — increasing size, increasing levels of bureaucracy, increasing military force, increasing social coercion. They don’t try taking a different path until it is too late. Limits to Growth says rather starkly that the problem with our accumulating ecological problems is not that any one of them are not solvable, given enough time and resources, but that their rapid accumulation risks overwhelming society’s collective ability to respond before real damage is done. In our case, our debt-based economic system requires continual, exponential growth to function. Hubbert recognized the incompatibility of our monetary system in an era of declining net energy 50 years ago.

The psychiatric definition of PTSD is a reaction to an experience of overwhelming trauma that is “outside the range of usual human experience.” However, Herman notes that, “Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life. … (T)raumatic events generally involve threats to life or bodily integrity, or a close personal encounter with violence and death. … According to the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, the common denominator of psychological trauma is a feeling of ‘intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation.’”

“Classic” PTSD refers to a single life-threatening experience, such a rape conducted under the threat of mutilation or death or a severe car accident, by a person who was previously healthy. Researchers such as Herman, however, realized early on that many people with PTSD symptoms had not experienced an immediately life-threatening event. Rather, they had experienced an accumulation of stressors that may or may not have been enough to constitute a “clear and present danger.” Just like ecosystems, people have the ability to endure years’ worth of trauma before showing visible signs of stress. Herman calls this form of PTSD “Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Other researchers refer to the condition as “Prolonged Duress Stress Disorder (PDSD)” or the clumsy “Disorders of Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified (DESNOS). Herman also considers Borderline Personality Disorder to be a form of Complex PTSD.

As with ecological overshoot, psychological trauma occurs because important physical or emotional limits have been breached. Stress has accumulated too rapidly to mitigate. Denial and delayed feedback often prevent a victim or witness from recognizing the danger. A parent may not be aware that a close family friend is sexually abusing his child. A student experiencing daily teasing and harassment in school may hear from teachers and parents, “Just don’t let them get to you.” A soldier in a combat zone may not have been severely injured and thus believes that he is immune to psychological problems. An emotionally abused spouse may believe that what she is experiencing isn’t even abuse.

Like a government attempting to handle a political crisis using the same strategies it has relied on for generations, a victim of overwhelming trauma may not seek help for years, instead relying on lifelong methods of coping. However, the accumulation of stress over months or years builds up, until finally the person has a psychological breakdown and slides into a deep depression or starts experiencing panic attacks. The symptoms of PTSD often arrive rather suddenly, weeks, months or even years after the traumatic experience.

People who develop symptoms of PTSD often experience an erosion of their long-term mental and physical health – their individual “carrying capacity,” if you will.

From this vantage point, ecological overshoot and collapse can be seen as a large-scale experience of trauma leading to Complex PTSD of Gaia herself.

There is a general pattern lurking behind these comparisons: A giant wave crashing into the surf. When a wave is out at sea, it is barely noticeable. As it travels closer to shore, however, the decreasing ocean depth causes the water to start piling up into a mound. The wave grows bigger and bigger. Finally, it reaches a breaking point – the weight becomes too great and the water folds over on itself and collapses.

Ecological and social collapse as a source of human trauma

Those of us living through this era must experience a life-long unfolding of ecological decline before our eyes. Every year, we get to watch as one more patch of forest is turned into another big box store and parking lot. There are more traffic noises and fewer bird songs outside our windows. We read the newspaper and learn that glaciers are fast disappearing and that more species have become extinct. Trauma research indicates that bystanders to trauma can get PTSD simply from the exposure to others’ suffering.

However, it is also our own quality of life that is slowly ebbing away as we lose species and habitats, as well as more intangible yet vitally important things like beauty, quiet and democratic participation.

In less affluent parts of the world, of course, the suffering is far greater: Mass migrations of environmental refugees have already begun, such as the inhabitants of Tuvalu, who are begging New Zealand to accept them as their small island disappears under the rising seas. There is an increasing frequency and severity of “natural” disasters due to climate change, deforestation and other causes of ecological shift and degradation. Resource wars are killing and maiming millions of people and tearing apart the social fabric of communities worldwide. Natural disasters, war and forced migration have long been known to be causes of PTSD.

When people are severely stressed, their social relationships become strained, leading to further stress. Trauma creates a “positive” feedback loop that becomes ever harder to reverse. When whole communities suffer from trauma, people develop a kind of mass-PTSD at the social level that makes it very difficult to heal. Alcoholism, domestic violence and other problems become rampant. Conflicts between groups become intractable as exemplified by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The two main symptoms of psychological trauma are intrusion alternating with constriction — that is agitation due to intrusive thoughts, feelings and images alternating with emotional numbing or depression. Many people have heard of PTSD “flashbacks.” Dissociation and withdrawal are less well understood, although knowledge of the extreme dissociation of people with Dissociative Identity disorder(formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder) is widespread.

It is easy to see these symptoms among environmental and social justice activists. We experience feelings of dread, anxiety, helplessness and fear over the symptoms of ecological and political collapse. We have apocalyptic daydreams and nightmares. Many of us also suffer bouts of burnout and depression.

Among the general American population, the symptoms of constriction tend to be paramount. People “cocoon” themselves in their homes, surrounded by their plasma televisions and stereos and computer games. When they leave, they often go to the virtual reality of a shopping mall. There is also widespread political apathy, even as our civil liberties are being taken away and American soldiers are dying overseas. Periodically, there is a burst of intrusive violence — a school shooting here, a mass killing in a shopping center there.

Psychological trauma, especially prolonged experiences of abuse at the hands of other human beings, usually leads to a loss of meaning and purpose. The bonds of connection between people have been broken. God did not intervene. Life is reduced to bare survival.

The residents of affluent countries are currently undergoing the beginnings of a similar questioning. In the United States, our meaning and purpose as a nation rests on a very specific notion of “progress” that cannot continue far into the era of energy descent. As the descent unfolds, and people are forced by circumstance to give up many parts of their lifestyles that they hold dear, the questioning of life’s meaning and purpose will only become more insistent. Our irrational belief that “God is on our side” will evaporate. It may take generations to reestablish a new cultural sense of meaning and purpose.

One of the worst aspects of witnessing ecological destruction is a sense of guilt and shame for our complicity. We, too, are perpetrators as we travel by motor vehicle or jet or accidentally eat a food item containing a genetically modified ingredient. Likewise, survivors of psychological trauma say that one of the most painful aspects of surviving human violence are their memories of when they feel they betrayed others in their desperation to survive: The torture victim who talks his way out of a beating, only to watch as another victim is chosen; The physically battered mother who was unable to prevent her spouse from beating her son; The concentration camp survivor who recalls stealing food from other hungry people in order to keep from starving to death.

We have to try to remember that trauma usually occurs because one is unable to escape. Traumatic situations limit our choices. That is why they are traumatic. Complex PTSD is the result of prolonged trauma in a situation of captivity. We see this sense of captivity today on a mass scale: suburbanites speak of not being able to escape “the rat race.” Those tied to degrading jobs and long commutes fantasize about moving away to the country. After last November’s U.S. presidential election, many American progressives fantasized about moving to Canada (a few actually did so, including people I know). However, while it is possible to minimize the damage we do to ecosystems and other human beings, we can’t escape Planet Earth, visions of extraterrestrial emigration not withstanding.

Patterns of healing

A brief comparison of the process of healing from PTSD and the process of healing from ecological/social collapse demonstrates that they are remarkably similar. The principles of trauma therapy and the principles of permaculture design share the same basic outline.

To begin with, psychological research shows that it is nearly impossible to heal from past trauma if one is presently in a traumatic situation. For example, a battered wife cannot heal from the effects of child abuse until she gathers the strength to leave her marriage.

Therapists who specialize in treating survivors of trauma say that we must be gentle with ourselves. We are trying to heal the Earth and heal our own psychological and political traumas at the same time. This is not an easy task. It has never been tried before on such a large scale. We don’t know if it can be done. We must accept that human beings have limits.

Permaculture design begins with a clear understanding of natural limits. Good design works within those limits to create functional ecosystems.

Political prisoners, unlike most victims of human violence, have often had time to prepare themselves for withstanding the eroding effects of captivity and isolation on the personality. They teach one another in prison how to survive the trauma with as few lasting psychological effects as possible. Their memoirs often describe what they have learned in great detail. Those of us living through this era of ecological and social trauma can learn from them how to fortify ourselves to survive these troubling times.

Trauma survivors learn to make some sort of meaning out of their experiences, to take useful lessons about life away from what is otherwise a hopeless and degrading situation. The process can take many years, but eventually an alteration in one’s perceptions does occur.

In the Winter 2004–2005 issue of The Permaculture Activist, Richard Zook speaks to the new opportunities present after a catastrophe in his article, “Catastrophe as Opportunity.” Zook is a survivor of the catastrophic Hondo fire of 1996 that destroyed the Lama Foundation outside Taos, New Mexico. He says that, “In many ways catastrophe is the epitome of the permaculture principle, ‘the problem is the solution.’ This principle is about our relationship to what we perceive.”

The existence of trauma survivors demonstrates that it is in fact possible to survive. People do heal from abuse, rape, torture and grief. There are still Romans in Rome and Mayans in the Yucatán. During the earth’s previous mass extinctions, some species survived to carry on the evolution of life on earth.

Permaculture design also incorporates a sense of “deep time.” While collapse returns a system to a less complex level of functioning, we know that ecological succession and evolution will continue on a geological time scale, if not on a human one. Forests will recover. Accumulations of humus and water and minerals will occur over eons. The web of life will eventually repair itself.

Likewise, surviving trauma also involves making a commitment to healing. Likewise, the prime directive of permaculture is its ethical system of Earth care, people care and sharing the surplus. Only by making this commitment to caring for one another will we ever manage to heal the Earth and its peoples.

Herman describes the three steps to healing from PTSD as Safety, Remembrance and Mourning, and Reconnection.

Survivors cannot begin to heal until they have established a basic level of physical and psychological safety.

As permaculture designers, safety is also our first task: We must help to provide safety for people in a time of scarcity and conflict and safety for rare and essential ecosystems and endangered species. Some permaculturists are working to establish monastery-like oases to protect human knowledge in the form of books, manuscripts, artwork and
audio-visual recordings as well as essential biological resources such as seed banks.

Safety also requires stability, which on ecological and social levels includes climate stability, ecosystem restoration and healing the fabric of human relations to reestablish relatively stable human communities. The word permaculture itself means stability and permanence.

In addition, safety requires the reestablishment of a sense of control over one’s own life. Psychological trauma takes away control from the victim — it is the lack of control that leads to someone being unable to escape from a traumatic situation. Bioregionalists understand this principle well. They know that healthy societies must be organized at the local level. Participatory democracy requires face-to-face interactions with your neighbors. Decentralization of economic, social and political life will also allow us to exercise local control over the extraction and harvest natural resources and ensure that the harvests are sustainable.

Furthermore, safety includes protection from exploitation. Forcing people to do things against their will is one definition of abuse. Survivors of prolonged trauma at the hands of other human beings often come to believe that they must become someone else in order to survive.

“The traumatic event thus destroys the belief that one can be oneself in relation to others,” says Herman.

One of the things that initially drew me to permaculture was its principle of working with the forces of nature and the inherent characteristics of all living beings. “Wow,” I thought, “a system of design where no one, whether human or non-human, is forced to do anything against their will. One can be oneself in relation to others.”

“In the second stage of recovery,” says Herman (Remembrance and mourning), “the survivor tells the story of the trauma. She tells it completely, in depth and in detail. This work of reconstruction actually transforms the traumatic memory, so that it can be integrated into the survivor’s life story.”

I find this process remarkably similar to modern attempts to construct new societal myths that incorporate the notions of ecological collapse and restoration, of war and peace and of modern beliefs in growth and progress versus ecological and cultural stability. In traditional societies, mythology is also the process of creating and retelling stories — stories of loss and redemption, stories of suffering and healing, cautionary tales of greed and ignorance and the necessary restorative actions required to heal the fabric of human and non-human relations.

There is a catch here: many people don’t want to know what is going on in the world because it is simply too painful and they feel helpless to make meaningful change. When activists try to tell people what is happening, we are often turned away and told that no one wants to hear “pessimistic” news, even if we also present optimistic alternatives like permaculture. Environmentalists are like the Greek goddess Cassandra, who was condemned by Apollo to foretell the future but not to be believed.

Likewise, PTSD sufferers also frequently find that no one wants to hear their story of trauma because that would prevent the listener from pretending that the universe is a fair and just place where everyone gets what they deserve.

“The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable,” says Herman.

However, healing from trauma requires the presence of empathetic listeners. We must all develop the capacity and social support systems necessary to help us listen to one another’s stories.

Finally comes the stage of Reconnection. Survivors of trauma must reestablish healthy relationships with other human beings by developing a renewed sense of trust. Survivors cannot heal in isolation. “Recovery can take place only within the context of relationships,” says Herman. Ecopsychology extends this context to the need for human beings to emotionally and spiritually reconnect with the rest of nature. In other words, personal relationships and community building are the keys to healing.

Of course, this principle is at the very core of permaculture design. Permaculture is about the reestablishment of webs of mutually beneficial relationships. Relationship is the very definition of permaculture, ecology and community.

As a trauma survivor heals, she breaks out of her isolation and begins to reengage with the world. Finding a survivor mission, a renewed sense of meaning and purpose to her life, is often vitally important to recovery. As activists, our survivor mission is nothing less than the establishment of a new human culture based on harmony with the rest of nature. Many of us have dedicated our lives to this cause. Our experiences of ecological trauma have given us a desire to prevent further suffering.

Permaculture was designed to create that “soft landing” that we hope will happen. We do not know what will come after us, but while we are here we will make every attempt to heal the world on its way down — together.

David Baldwin’s Trauma Information Pages ( is one good source of information on the psychological effects of traumatic stress.

Lisa Rayner is a peak oil and social justice activist. She is the author of the book “Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A Permaculture Approach to Home Gardening Above 6,500 feet in Arizona, New Mexico, Southern Colorado and Southern Utah.” She also is the founder of Flagstaff Post Carbon Outpost.

Tags: Education