We humans have been destroying environments and eradicating species throughout our history. When some of our ancestors arrived in the Americas over 10,000 years ago, they wiped out at least 70 genera of large mammals and literally millions of animals — including ground sloths, camels, wild pigs, and several species of horses. Not much seems to have changed since then. According to the Global Footprint Network:
Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year.
However, this time around we may literally shop ourselves to extinction.
We are a migratory species. Early in our evolutionary history our ancestors left Africa in search of new theaters for survival. The strait of Bab el Mandeb at the southern tip of the Red Sea was the launching point for journeys into Asia and then eventually Europe, Australia, and the Americas. Some say drastically changing environments necessitated our wanderings (including the eruption of Toba, a volcano in Sumatra). Others point to competition for resources that naturally occurs when an environment is stretched beyond its supportive limits. Whatever the reason for our itinerant beginnings, we have thrived as a species through our capacity for altering environments to fit our needs, often without concern for the viability of the natural world that sustains us. Like fickle lovers (or spoiled children), we have a habit of taking from Earth what we want, walking away when our needs are no longer met, confident there will always be greener pastures.
What compels us? Do our genes push us along? Could the driving force be more banal, like all the bacteria inhabiting our bodies? More than 500 different species of ‘good’ bacteria hitch a ride on the average person, filling up over 100 trillion cells — much more space than the ‘natural’ components that make up a human body. The vast majority of these critters aren’t harmful, and most are quite communal, sharing responsibilities with the host body in order to keep it healthy and functioning.
Bacteria also act like a migratory species. Even when a bacterium is in an environment that meets all its needs — just the right temperature, plenty of food — it will still make excursions outside its little paradise to make sure there isn’t a sweeter deal somewhere else. Are we led unknowingly in the direction of the needs of the bacteria in our body? I don’t really think so, but I do believe bacteria have a lesson to teach us.
Constantly checking for better environments is a great strategy if in your species’ evolution there were frequent, and relatively rapid, environmental collapses. In these conditions, the propensity for migrating as well as having the capacity to exploit a variety of environments would be highly adaptive survival skills. Yet tying human evolution to surviving catastrophes implies, at least in part, we have evolved for surviving traumatizing circumstances.
Given our unrestrained devouring of our planet, I imagine an unconscious drive at work, although I hesitate proposing the source is genetic, thereby suggesting the drive is outside our control and one we will inevitably follow (even to our demise). Rather, more akin to bacteria, I imagine a repetition compulsion catalyzing our migrations and consumption of planet Earth. A repetition compulsion is the unconscious tendency of putting oneself in circumstances reminiscent of an earlier unpleasant, or even traumatic, experience. Sigmund Freud originally described the repetition compulsion in his book, Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Freud became interested in the repetition compulsion because it seemed to defy his ideas about the pursuit of pleasure. He hypothesized repeating behaviors associated with unpleasant or even threatening events creates opportunities for integrating those experiences, perhaps even reaching a preferred outcome.
Freud’s focus on the repetition compulsion was originally framed by his reflections on the relational dynamics with caregivers that a child learns early in life and which become unconscious blueprints for later relationships. Yet the notion also applies to the tendency to recreate circumstances or behaviors associated with a past traumatic event in an effort to ‘master’ the original trauma. Today repetition compulsions associated with traumatic events are seen as attempts at integrating the dissociated and fragmented memories that result when the body and psyche became overwhelmed by trauma. (I talk more about how this occurs here).
One way to end the repetition compulsion is to finally reach what sensorimotor psychotherapist Pat Ogden described as an “act of triumph” (a phrase originally coined by Pierre Janet). Ogden’s sensorimotor psychotherapy is developed on the premise that when people are provided a safe environment that supports reflective awareness (e.g., therapy) they can begin to identify actions they would have used to defend themselves, such as blocking a strike or shoving away an attacker (so-called acts of triumph). By examining what our bodies wanted to do in the face of threat, we realign with natural defense responses, potentially ending the compulsion towards behaviors, defenses, and feelings that keep traumatic stress activating both psyche and soma — and triggering unconscious, compulsive actions.
Our inability to stop devouring Earth may be that we have failed to identify the cultural equivalent of acts of triumph, and so we instead act as if our survival depends upon compulsive consumption. Us humans inhabit our cultures very much as we do our bodies. Like bacteria, we too have learned the advantage of repetitively searching for better environments. Yet how we search (and destroy) has lost its adaptive benefits, and seems more the result of the intergenerational transmission of trauma than a biologically determined behavior.
We don’t have to look deep into the past to understand the traumatic impact of forced migrations on humans. Currently over 65 million people are living as refugees (2016), typically living in deplorable conditions. Their feelings of uncertainty, fear, and deep sense of injustice will be transmitted to next generations, although not necessarily by their DNA, and more likely through their emotions.
Children are foremost emotional beings. They breathe in their caregivers’ emotions as naturally as they take in the air around them. Us adults do not need to express our fears and desires to children for them to sense our feelings. Even when our emotions are split off from our conscious awareness as a result of overwhelming traumatic events — situations that we are afraid to re-experience — children will feel the effects of the ghosts that continue to haunt us. And what we cannot consciously express we evoke in others, enact in our relationships, and embody. These evocations, enactments, and embodiments are often dissociated from our awareness; nevertheless they are transmitted — especially to the dependent child learning how to orient to the world.
The needed act of triumph for our increasingly aimless wandering and consumption may be a collective mourning for a lost sense of place that could securely ground us in the world and in ourselves. Perhaps we unconsciously continue to evoke the dream of the Garden of Eden, a Mother Earth that always provides for us — a dream we unconsciously try to fulfill through a compulsive consumption of her resources. As Paul Shepard observed, “we suffer for the want of that vanished world, a deep grief we learn to misconstrue.” Our destructive entitlement of Earth’s resources is the repetition compulsion that bears witness to the felt sense of loss; nevertheless, consumption fails to create the security longed for. Like the impact of war, the trauma of lost security preoccupies us as a compulsive need to right a felt sense of being wronged — even if the wrongdoer is Earth’s natural shifts — her grief and her efforts to birth something new in the natural cycle of life and death.
‘Good’ bacteria, with their repetitive checks for better environments, act on their need for safety. Yet they also balance their searches with respect for the needs of their current host, keeping the body alive, even care-taking in a symbiotic quest for survival. Indeed, we identify bacteria as pathological and as diseases when they fail to respect the principle of symbiosis. Like ‘good’ bacteria we could learn to be curious about the conditions of nearby niches, all the while practicing sustainability in our own backyards. Yet to live in such a state of balance and healthy survival may require identifying the acts of triumph that will release us from our compulsive need to consume.
In The Red Book, CG Jung chronicled his own healing journey and reconnection with lost parts of himself. There he wrote, “Turn your anger against yourself, since only you stop yourself from looking and living.” This turning towards ourselves to learn the nature of our unconscious drives seems an important first step. Yet rather than turning anger “against yourself,” it is often much better to just witness how the emotions we cannot let ourselves feel are instead enacted, evoked, and embodied. Often just by witnessing without acting we can begin to grieve lost parts of ourselves, including the losses we have inherited from our ancestors.
In The Red Book Jung also made the distinction between being and becoming. This distinction is central to a shift away from compulsive consumption, which is tied to a desire to become someone other than who one is — often in conditions others than the reality in which one lives. There is peace in acceptance. As Jung remarked, “Everything is riddlesome to one who is becoming, but not to one who is.”
There is no shame in committing to one’s survival. However, without awareness of what compels our compulsive consumption we are not surviving. Rather, we are being consumed by haunting fears, specters of past traumas we try to ignore by blindly shopping our way to extinction.
Freud, Sigmund. 1920/2010. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Translated by James Strachey. Seattle, WA: Pacific Publishing Studio.
Jung, Carl G. 2009. The Red Book: Liber Novus. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Ogden, Pat, Kekuni Minton, and Clare Pain. 2006. Trauma and the Body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Shepard, Paul. 1982. Nature and Madness. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Weisman, Alan. 2007. The World Without Us. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).