Going Sane in a Crazy World

Going Sane in a Crazy World

Nearly everyone occasionally describes the human world as “crazy.” And, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that, as a species, we are indeed a little batty—from the often-indecipherable instructions on electronic products to the fact that you can’t get a job without experience, but can’t get experience without a job. However, humanity’s most glaring symptom of actual collective insanity is surely its unswerving drive toward self-destruction. 

For decades we’ve been overshooting sustainable levels of population, resource use, and pollution. In the 19th and 20th centuries, sources of cheap, concentrated, and storable energy—fossil fuels—enabled humanity to develop new technologies that, in turn, made it possible for us to travel further and faster, produce more food to feed an expanding population, and manufacture a stupefying array of new products. The rich got richer, most people got more comfortable, and the human population ballooned from 1 billion to 8 billion. The economy became a thing to be measured and studied; growth was the new goal and sign of success. 

However, Earth’s supply of raw materials and ability to absorb wastes has not grown; indeed, expanding our population and economy just means depleting resources and polluting nature faster. One result seems to overshadow many others: the functioning of Earth’s life-support systems is now threatened more than at any time in thousands, if not millions of years primarily due to fossil-fueled climate change. 

The consequences of our adoption of consumerist, growth-seeking industrialism will ultimately be a crash—hopefully only partial and temporary—of society and nature. That’s not a crystal-ball prophecy; it’s a mathematical near-certainty given the fundamental contradiction between the ways in which ecosystems work and the ways modern industrial societies work. In fact, the crash has already started (via climate change, resource depletion, and biodiversity loss) and will play out over the remainder of this century and possibly longer. 

Meanwhile, our crazy way of organizing human affairs has been normalized. It’s not hard to understand why. Organisms thrive on the ability to do things (metabolize, move, sense their environments, and process information), and doing anything whatever requires energy. Fossil fuels gave humans the biggest energy subsidy that any organism has enjoyed in all of evolutionary history. When we suddenly found ourselves able to accomplish far more things, we luxuriated in the benefits and took credit for them: progress, we assumed, was entirely due to human intelligence and ingenuity. We simply took energy and natural resources for granted. We developed ideologies according to which there are no environmental limits to growth, and there is no problem that human intelligence cannot solve. 

The result is a social system that denies ecological reality in myriad ways. And it is the social setting that largely defines what is considered “normal” thinking and behavior in individuals. But what’s the use of conforming to “normal” behavior within a crazy context? 

Of course, definitions of mental health don’t all turn upon whether we adhere to or defy cultural norms. Individual psychopathology, sometimes caused by stress, trauma, or neurochemical imbalance, often entails disability and suffering (for example, in cases of dementia or severe bipolar disorder), and can result in harm to others (in cases of schizophrenia or extreme narcissism). 

As humanity encounters serious impacts from its collective craziness, people whose mental health is already at risk will likely suffer more than others. But even otherwise psychologically stable people will be emotionally challenged as their eco-social context is disrupted or shattered.

In this article, we’ll explore ways to survive psychologically in a world that’s crashing on the shoals of ecological limits. Individual psychological resilience is valuable for its own sake. But it may also be essential to the bigger and more important project of creating a human world that’s actually sane—i.e., one that serves the long-term survival of our species within a healthy ecosphere.

Psychological Stresses in a Time of Polycrisis

The unraveling of Earth systems and human societies will impose psychological burdens on vast numbers of people throughout the remainder of this century. The following are some of these burdens:

Pre-traumatic stress disorder. Knowledge of impending global crisis can trigger persistent, debilitating fear or dread. Some mental health practitioners have labeled this condition pre-traumatic stress disorder, but the term is not widely accepted. Nevertheless, the condition is becoming more commonplace as people hear dire warnings about climate change. 

Pre-traumatic stress affects young people in increasing numbers. One 2022 study found that, among a pool of 10,000 youth and young adults from around the world, 59 percent said they were very or extremely worried about climate change, and about 67 percent said they were sad and afraid.

Tragically, some ecologically aware people are taking their own lives out of climate angst, and as a way to call attention to the issue.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Actual eco-social trauma can come in a multitude of forms, including hunger, heat, human-on-human violence, and destruction of homes and livelihoods by natural disasters. Despite the variety of harms to which people can be subjected, their psychological responses to trauma tend to display some commonalities, and these have been studied extensively

Symptoms of PTSD may include sleeplessness, nightmares, avoidance of situations that trigger memories of the trauma, heightened startle response, anxiety, or depression. As warnings about ecological collapse turn to reality, the numbers of victims and refugees will swell, and PTSD symptoms will likely become more commonplace.

Cognitive dissonance. Living with cultural messages that are contradictory or hard to reconcile (“life in modern industrial societies is the pinnacle of evolution”; “we are destroying the planet”) takes a toll on psychological health. People who experience the discomfort of cognitive dissonance often deal with it by avoiding certain subjects, or by mentally delegitimizing anyone who calls attention to the dissonance. 

Awareness that society is on a treacherous path is inherently a source of cognitive dissonance. It can lead people to question their own sanity or that of people they disagree with, or cause them to adopt spurious explanations (“conspiracy theories”) for cultural or ecological stress. (Some of my colleagues at Post Carbon Institute have a podcast dedicated to navigating this dissonance through dark humor and companionship.) As such explanations proliferate and gain adherence, societal consensus will tend to disintegrate, advancing the conditions for generating even more cognitive dissonance. 

Grief. The coming Great Unraveling will entail losses that are personal, cultural, and/or ecological. Many people will lose loved ones in tragic circumstances. Others will feel a sudden or increasing absence of familiar life circumstances as whole communities crumble. Still others will feel grief for the loss of nature—including forests and wildlife. Significant loss naturally brings feelings of grief, and unexpressed grief can make us numb, depressed, and ineffective. 

Guilt and projection. Many people will feel some degree of personal responsibility for socio-ecological unraveling, having spent their lives participating in and benefiting from fossil-fueled consumer culture. Feelings of guilt can be helpful if they lead to self-examination and positive behavior change. However, persistent, unaddressed guilt can lead to depression. Even if one doesn’t feel personally responsible for the Great Unraveling, survivor’s guilt—which is common in the wake of wars and lethal natural disasters—can be debilitating.

Some people try to shed feelings of guilt through the well-known psychological process of projection, in which negative feelings about oneself are displaced toward others. Projection could in turn lead people to seek villains and scapegoats for eco-social collapse, thereby further weakening social systems and leading to still more trauma.

Anger and rage. Losses and threats to one’s wellbeing often arouse anger, which can turn to violence. When this happens to many people at once, rage can reverberate through the collective psyche of a mob, leading individuals to do destructive or cruel things they would never do on their own. And violence typically leads to even more trauma.

Psychological Resilience: Resources

In light of these challenges, there is increasing need for resources for individuals and communities to build psychological and emotional resilience. These resources should include trained therapists, formal research, literature for both practitioners and laypeople, and infrastructure such as regional clinics—as well as organizations that bring people together to solve problems or provide mutual aid, and popular media content that spreads awareness about climate and mental health. 

Developing psychological resilience, especially as it relates to climate change, is a new but quickly growing field of study. As part of the Deep Dive that Post Carbon Institute is offering on building emotional resilience, we will be providing a curated list of books, workbooks, and podcasts on emotional and psychological resilience.

Deep Dive: Building Emotional Resilience

  • Panel event with renowned experts (live and recorded)
  • Live discussion hosted by Good Grief Network
  • 2 recorded interviews with emotional resilience experts
  • 3 articles by Richard Heinberg and Rachel Donald
  • Additional curated resources

As useful as self-help books and podcasts may be, in many instances they are no substitute for trained personal help. Fortunately, there is now a Climate Psychology Alliance in North America that maintains an updated Climate-Aware Therapist Directory. (There is also a Climate Psychiatry Alliance; the two organizations work closely together.)

In reading the growing literature on psychological resilience, it is hard to miss the presence of a Buddhist thread (notably in the books of Joanna Macy, Kaira Jewel Lingo, and Susan Bauer-Wu). Some people may find this Buddhist connection surprising or off-putting, but for those with a knowledge of Buddhism, it makes perfect sense. While Buddhism has some elements of religion (mythology and hagiography), its main goal has always been the alleviation of suffering through expansion of consciousness and compassion. In America, a statistically significant number of psychotherapists have Buddhist training

The other main thread in the literature is the findings of psychological research. Over the past few decades, some psychologists have specialized in studying the impacts of wars and natural disasters, as well as the recovery process afterward. Such findings will gain increasing relevance as eco-social unraveling proceeds. (See “Research on the Psychological Effects of Natural Disasters,” available as part of the emotional resilience Deep Dive materials.) 

Research has also focused on what enables some people to bounce back from adversity more readily than others, and to continue functioning at a high level.

Advice for Building Emotional Resilience

Psychologists have found that a person’s level of psychological resilience is based on brain chemistry, life experiences, and learned skills. We have at least some ability to regulate all three causes. While we can’t change our early life experiences, we can change how we think about them and, to an extent, how they continue to shape us. 

While your brain chemistry is largely determined by genetics, it can be altered somewhat by what you eat. A healthy diet of whole foods and minimal refined sugar can help your brain work optimally. Of course, millions of people also turn to pharmaceuticals to alter brain chemistry, with widely varying results.

Your habitual behavior can make you more or less psychologically resilient. If you find that you are easily depressed, then don’t spend hours each day glued to a computer, closely following the unraveling of global ecological and social systems. Feelings of depression are not a character flaw; they’re warning signs that you need to take care of yourself and seek help.

Being able to cultivate emotional resilience is different from being an optimist. Research has shown that resilient people realistically assess risks and threats; studies suggest that in some ways pessimists can have the advantage. What seems to distinguish resilient people is their use of successful coping techniques to balance negative emotions with positive ones, and to maintain an underlying sense of competence and assurance.

Regardless of your baseline temperament, you can make yourself more psychologically resilient through practice. The main things to work on are communication and problem-solving skills, the ability to manage strong impulses and feelings, and the ability to make realistic plans and to take the steps necessary to follow through with them. 

At the same time, relationships with others are crucial, so make sincere efforts to stay tight with family members, friends, and co-workers. Tell the truth and be a trustworthy friend.

After a loss, take time to grieve and look at the experience as an opportunity for self-discovery. Spend time in nature: gardening is a good excuse. And get plenty of exercise, as sedentary existence increases your likelihood of feeling depressed. If you don’t already have one, explore the possibility of cultivating a creative outlet (music, art, dance, theater) that you can pursue in the company of others. Self-work in these areas can help you develop a positive self-concept as well as confidence in your own strengths and abilities. 

These recommendations are easier said than done. Learning new behaviors, especially ones that entail changing habitual emotional responses to triggering events, can be difficult. The most effective way to do this is to find a way to associate a neurotransmitter reward with the information or behavior being learned. For example, if you are just beginning an exercise regimen or learning a musical instrument, continually challenge yourself to make incremental improvements that are just barely within your reach. This activates the dopamine reward circuits in your brain.

In many Indigenous societies, the maintenance of individual and collective psychological health was at least partly the business of the shaman—the wounded healer, the connector of worlds. Many shamanic cultures used mind-altering plants therapeutically. Arguably, in today’s far more complex societies, the shamanic role is filled at least somewhat by trained psychotherapists, who are rediscovering the usefulness of psychedelic therapy in the treatment of psychological trauma.

Making a Sane World Together

The authors of the works on psychological resilience in our Deep Dive curated resource list all appear to agree on one point: keeping your cool while the world burns is useful, but only up to a point. What’s even more important is that we work to minimize the destruction of nature and society and build a saner world.

Work can be therapeutic, especially if it comes with a sense of purpose. If you engage in community climate action, food system localization, and the regeneration of ecosystems, you’re likely to meet interesting people and feel useful. For many years we at PCI have been assisting in the formation of ongoing communities of reflection and practice such as Transition Initiatives. If that strategy makes sense to you, but you don’t have a Transition group close by, you might take the Think Resilience course and then host a discussion group in your school, home, or public library.

Devoting your time to protecting endangered species and ecosystems can be fulfilling, but it can also be heartbreaking, because your work may be undone by the next disaster or change of government (Thomas Jefferson is reputed to have said: “In the environment, every victory is temporary; every defeat permanent”). Nevertheless, loss and heartbreak are inevitable parts of life. Numbness and inaction may seem to promise psychological safety, but they rob us of the experiences that make life meaningful.

You might find it inspiring to devote some of your time to envisioning what a truly sane society would actually look like. The study of anthropology can be helpful in developing a cultural imagination, and the best futuristic fiction can also be of use. Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 classic novel, Ecotopia, inspired innumerable countercultural experiments in its time; more recently, Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future (2020) have helped large numbers of readers imagine a realistic best-case world to come.

The poet Antonio Machado wrote, “We make the path by walking.” If our goal is a durable, beautiful, fair, and compassionate society, then our means of achieving it must be consistent with those ends. Above all, strive to act in ways that serve collective survival and evolutionary success. Practice ways of peaceful conflict resolution while recognizing the natural limits that are likely to stir conflict in years to come. 

Maintaining sanity and emotional resilience in a global society that is collectively becoming ever-more unhinged is a daily practice with both demands and rewards. If you commit to that practice, you will not only be more prepared to face the challenges that lie ahead, but you may be better placed to contribute to the welfare of the people around you, and perhaps even that of future generations and other species.

Image: Adobe Stock

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