The Long Disaster: Ecotherapy as Emergency Medicine

The growing field of emergency psychotherapy is doing an increasingly important job of helping people cope with trauma. As environmental conditions around the world worsen, we need to combine this work with eyes-open awareness of the nature of the escalating traumas we are experiencing, plus an understanding of "the Waking Up Syndrome" -- the psychological stages people go through as they begin to realize what's really happening to their world and their lives.

James Howard Kunstler calls these worsening conditions "The Long Emergency" because the traumas we now face aren't just one-time disasters like a beating, rape, fatal disease or even a single hurricane or oil spill. They just keep coming.

I don't think that therapists or the general public have truly awakened to the shocking reality of our rapidly devolving circumstances. This awareness alone could be an important psycho-educational healing tool in helping people who are suffering from multiple shocks make sense of what's happening to them.

The residents of the Gulf oil spill areas are now experiencing a multi-year series of ongoing disasters with no end in sight. Without a broader understanding of the underlying context for these shocks (the end of cheap fossil fuels driving unsafe drilling practices, global climate change altering weather patterns, etc.) it's easy to remain bewildered, attack loved ones, become depressed -- or turn understandable rage outward towards the immediate causes of the misery: corporate villains and the political system.

Not that there aren't plenty of legitimate reasons for rage against greedy, conscience-free oil companies and politicos! But uninformed political rage can be a very dangerous thing, leading to yet further disasters.

My proposal is that all emergency personnel be trained to understand the wider context for the escalating series of traumatic shocks hitting not only our country but countries all around the world. In order to provide real help rather than temporary Band-Aids, we need to become profoundly aware that everything is connected: the environment, our food systems, family life, community and political life, the weather, jobs and the economy. As Herman Daly once reminded us: "The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment."

We also need to accept that growing numbers of environmental refugees now exist in the US as well as in other countries around the world. How can we help them put their lives back together? And if they can't rebuild or resume their occupations (e.g. fishing) where they are, where can they go? Who will help them make sense of it all and assist them in taking the actions they need to take to recover?

Perhaps what we're now dealing with should be called "The Long Disaster" -- and all of us need to come to grips with what's happening and how we're going to help each other survive and thrive in spite of the multiple shocks resulting from our own collective inability to live in harmony with the rest of nature.

The Gulf may be facing another bad hurricane year, on top of what they've already endured, so there is an urgent need for us to get smart quick. A sustainable world is no longer an option, but a practical necessity.

For more information...
"The Waking Up Syndrome" (
"The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century" by James Howard Kunstler