Categories Archives: Alienation & Mental Health

We’re Finished. Now What?

By Will Falk

Yury Malkov / pixmule.com

I don’t know how to write this, but it looks like humanity is finished.

Many of us know it in our hearts. We watch as civilization marches us to the edge of the cliff. We look around to find most governments refusing to implement the radical shifts needed to save us and killing those who fight back against these governments. We are searching for the serious resistance movement we have needed for the last sixty years while nothing materializes. Even though we have invented a million reasons why we’ll be saved like the belief in technology or a faith in economics, we know what is happening.

Of course, this culture is suspicious of the implications of any easily observable phenomenon that is not stamped with the approval of the currently dominating priesthood – I mean – scientific community. And, even the scientists have known our doom for decades.

Guy McPherson, University of Arizona Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources and Ecology, predicts human extinction by 2030 and keeps an up-to-date climate change summary on his website Nature Bats Last (http://guymcpherson.com/2013/01/climate-change-summary-and-update/). McPherson keeps track of positively reinforcing feedback loops set into motion by climate change. These feedback loops are the great multipliers of climate change. Once in motion, they are virtually impossible to stop and they all lead to a planet that cannot support human life. The first feedback loop was observed in 2010 and in just four years McPherson’s list has grown to include 30 self-reinforcing feedback loops.

Brilliant Australian biologist Frank Fenner says the writing is on the wall. (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/frank-fenner-sees-no-hope-for-humans/story-e6frgcjx-1225880091722)

And John Davies, writing for the Arctic Methane Emergency Group, says we’re at the beginning of a runaway greenhouse event that will kill off humans by 2040. (http://guymcpherson.com/2013/01/climate-change-summary-and-update/)

In short, we’re screwed.

***

These words have been beating at the box of denial I built inside myself for too long. The bruises that have come from too much silence are too uncomfortable for me to maintain my silence any longer.

Let the knowledge sink in. Let it weigh on your shoulders. Let it pull you to the ground for a second and rub your face in the dirt of reality. Let it kick you in the gut and double you over with plain truth. Let it boil the acid in your stomach until you’re sick with honest anxiety.

Think about what happens when a loved one dies. Think about the emotional and spiritual energy it takes to overcome the tragedy. Think about the sleepless nights, the numb feeling at the funeral, and the horrible dreams that follow you for years after their death.

Now, think about what will happen when all your loved ones die.

These are the dark times we live in. Everywhere I go people tell me that the truth is just too depressing. Many don’t disagree with me, but they say it’s all too much to face.

There are plenty of people who will deny the truth. Frankly, it’s too late for them. There are people who will accept the truth, then throw up their arms, and opt to party their remaining days away. I cannot understand this. I cannot understand how even if there only exists the tiniest of chances to succeed we wouldn’t use all our power to try.

I am not writing to the truth-deniers or the partiers. I am writing to those of you who still possess enough empathy to defend what you love, but who may be caught in the grips of depression.

***

I am intimately familiar with the overwhelming paralysis of depression.

I began my professional career as a young public defender determined to combat the destructive forces in the so-called criminal justice system. I came face-to-face with institutional racism and colonial violence.

I set as many cases for trial as I could. I pushed the envelope with unorthodox arguments whenever I thought it wouldn’t hurt my clients. I argued with my boss about office-wide tactics. I beat my head against the wall. I pushed Sisyphus’ rock up the hill. Just as Audre Lorde pointed out when she said “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” it quickly became apparent that nothing I did working with the state-sanctioned tools made available to me as a public defender would be effective in combating the state’s oppression.

Eventually, I developed a severe case of depression after spending several weeks preparing for a trial only to have it foiled by an unprepared prosecutor. The judge ignored my speedy trial demand, which resulted in my client sitting in jail for another 60 days on misdemeanor charges for which he was not yet convicted. The depression overcame me.

I came home from dinner with friends. I ground up a couple sleeping pills with the butt of a kitchen knife and snorted them to dull the pain inhering to what I was about to do next.

I filled up a glass of water, thinking about how good water tastes and briefly looking at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Then, I downed the entire bottle of sleeping pills.

I’ve been recovering for the last year and on a path of self-discovery more intense than I could have imagined.

What have I learned? Two things.

First, depression, no matter how bad it hurts, on its own is just a feeling – and feelings cannot kill you.

Don’t get me wrong. You can kill you. You can take too many pills and die. You can develop cancer from pollutants introduced into the air, the water, or the soil by corporations hellbent on turning the world into a profit, and die. You can stand in the way of a police officer when he comes to remove you from your home when you can’t pay rent, be shot, and die.

But, in each of these examples it will ultimately be physical and material forces that produce your death. It will not be a feeling or emotional state.

Which brings me to the second thing I’ve learned, and that is there really is only one medicine for depression: Action. Action that changes material conditions.

No matter how many therapists I talk to, no matter how many psychiatrists I see, and no matter how many anti-depressants I take, the only way to push through the grey fog of depression is to act. To get out of the grey fog of depression, you have to stand up and blow the fog away or travel to a new locale where there is no fog.

Action is particularly effective against depression when your actions can literally change the conditions producing the depression. If an abusive relationship is causing depression, leaving it works best. If a bad job is causing depression, finding a new one works best. If the destruction of the world is causing depression, stopping the destruction works best.

I understand that there are some situations producing depression that we have no control over. No matter how we act, we will not bring a dead child back to life. No matter how we act, we cannot erase an act of violence done to us in the past. Action, however, is still helpful. The path to recovery for a parent who loses a child might involve counseling other parents who have lost children. The victim of violence might find the strength to beat depression in advocating for other victims.

***

We started with the fact that humans are probably going extinct and it is causing widespread depression.

Do we or do we not have control over the extinction of humans? Are there actions we can take that will stop the extinction?

I do not know. I want to think that if we could topple civilization right now, if we could knock down the dams, stop the mining, tear up the pipelines, and blow up the power stations, we still might have a fighting chance.

But, there’s a sense that the question doesn’t matter. I asked you earlier to let the feeling of our desperate situation wash over you. I asked you to consider the deaths of your loved ones. The truth is the problem is even scarier than the death of our loved ones. The problem is the destruction of a livable planet. The problem is the destruction of everything, because without a livable planet we have nothing.

So, I ask: Who among us can sit idly by while our loved ones are doomed to death – while everything is doomed to death – and not act with every ounce of our power?

Action is still possible. And once you start, you’ll begin to feel better. I promise.

 

Will Falk moved to San Diego from Milwaukee, WI where he was a public defender. His first passion is poetry and his work is an effort to record the way the land is speaking. He feels the largest and most pressing issue confronting us today is the destruction of natural communities. If he is not writing in the parklet in front of Caffe Calabria in North Park, he is somewhere in the desert.

Restoring Sanity, Part 2: Mental Illness as a Social Construct

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Susan Hyatt and Michael Carter, DGR Southwest Coalition

In 2004 the World Health Organization ranked Major Depressive Disorder as the leading cause of disability in the US among people aged fifteen to forty-four.  MDD afflicts about 14.8 million adults, 6.7 percent of the U.S. population aged eighteen and older in a given year.[1]  The US National Institute for Mental Health estimates that one in four US adults “suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder.”[2]  Many see only one way out: nine in ten suicides—33,000 total in one year in the US alone—had one of these disorders.[3]  How can we explain this?  If the life of privilege and material wealth in the US and other consumer nations is so desirable that every living thing must pay the price for it, why kill yourself to escape it?  What if statistics like these were taken seriously, as a sign of preventable social malaise, not human frailty?  Suppose someone cared enough about all this misery to uncover a cause, and take steps to alleviate some of this pain.  Might that look like the same effort to end poverty, global warming, and the extinction crisis?

Sorting through these questions takes a lot of effort.  It’s hard to excise cultural training from our minds, banish it from our hearts, and fight it in the material world.  In our last essay,[4] we proposed naming the problem: civilization.  Civilization is thought to be synonymous with humanity, but we insist that it is not.  Instead, it is simply one of many possible cultural strategies, one that enables settlements too populous to sustain locally.  It requires agriculture, which itself can never be sustainable because it destroys topsoil.  To continue, civilization must constantly expand with economic and military domination, and will eventually consume the whole of the earth.  Virtually all injustice and environmental destruction is caused by this system.  Because of its total dominance over our lives, regardless of economic or social class, civilization is also the basis for our mental and emotional conditions.

To confront something so abstract and immense is very difficult, mostly because the required will is destroyed by the isolation, loneliness, and hopelessness this power structure creates in the first place.  The most destructive demand is perhaps work—the need to spend the majority of our waking time acquiring food, shelter, and any other necessities.  This is far more exertion than, say, when bird builds a nest and searches for seeds; it requires economic coercion, a way to police the workforce and the unemployed, and constant investments of effort unprecedented in the history of our species.  We didn’t invent this system and most of us wouldn’t willingly participate in it, given an authentic, noncoercive choice.  Yet we are still beings who make mistakes, can be emotionally volatile, and are prone to crippling addictions.  Just as civilization dictates our food, shelter, and productivity, it also explains our personal troubles and prescribes solutions.  These solutions generally serve the needs of civilization—of productivity—not people.

Disease Modeling and the DSM-5

It is widely believed that depression is a disease, a chemical imbalance in the brain.  Though this is only a theory with no physical evidence, it provides the basis for much of the available treatment.  The American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) classification handbook, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Volume 5, or DSM-5, lists eighteen disorder categories, such as depressive disorders, schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders, anxiety disorders, trauma- and stressor-related disorders, gender dysphoria, substance use and addictive disorders, and obsessive-compulsive and related disorders.

Under these headings are more specific diagnoses, like “oppositional defiant disorder,” which is a “frequent, persistent pattern of angry/irritable mood, argumentative/defiant behavior, or vindictiveness exhibited over the course of at least six months, and with at least one non-sibling, and should exceed normal behavior for the individual’s age, gender and culture.”[5]  Since the APA is not interested in reforming culture, the categories outlined in the DSM-5 are by design things that are wrong with people.  Disorders, diseases, pathologies—however they’re labeled, they are considered problems of the individual, not society.  When someone is diagnosed with a mental illness, they are burdened with an authoritative, biased decision about what it is and how to treat it.

Commenting on the institutional view of depression as an illness best treated with medications, psychologists Allan Leventhal and Christopher Martell note that “psychiatry has a strong incentive to believe in the disease model and in the efficacy of drugs.  The pharmaceutical industry, like all corporations, has capital as its bottom line with the need for executives to report profits to investors.  Not only do we maintain that the disease model has created confusion by accounting for human distress as ‘medical illness,’ the increasingly corporate structure of the health care system, including pharmaceutical and managed care companies, has often favored profit over people.”[6]  The baseline isolation of the dominant culture makes us vulnerable to medical modeling, since it’s easier to explain away emotional pain as having a physical cause than to discuss it openly.  Leventhal and Martell point out that additionally, behavioral change is hard and psychotherapy “rarely progresses in a straight line.”[7]  The shortcut of a pill is an appealing alternative.  Rather than truly helping people to heal from the effects of negative experiences, disease modeling can create lifelong “mental patients” with a firmly embedded concept that they have something permanently wrong with them.

This is not, however, meant to invalidate or minimize the pain of those afflicted with depression, or any of the various conditions outlined by the DSM-5.  Though neither of the authors have ever experienced severe depression, we have both felt the dismal, seductive edges of it.  We have never taken psychiatric medications, though we’ve both spent a lot of time in various methods of therapy.  Fortunately we both found relief, in Carter’s case from moderate depression and chemical dependency, and in Hyatt’s, from post-traumatic stress disorder.  Carter’s daily thoughts of suicide—though never any attempts—were related to routine decisions and habitual, repetitive thinking, not a disease.  He needed no medications, but rather a new approach to managing his thoughts and actively engaging with situations and relationships.  Hyatt was offered supplemental anti-depressants as a matter of course for a completely unrelated autoimmune disorder, on the assumption that depression is an expected result of a distressing medical diagnosis.  Refusing the drugs, she lived with her feelings instead of chemically suppressing them.  They taught her their lesson and eventually passed.

There is no doubt that psychiatric drugs can be helpful in some situations.  But the often-lifelong prescription of a substance chemically related to rocket fuel[8] is something to be scrutinized.  That antidepressants are commonly found in drinking water[9] should also be reason to reconsider them.  Medicine is a lucrative business, and treatments are prescribed by doctors who may be strongly influenced by the primacy of pharmaceuticals in the medical industry (including education); these factors are often lost on those who can barely gather the energy to leave their darkened rooms.

Identifying the cause of the misery is hard, perhaps impossible—there may never be a way to disprove the disease hypothesis—but that doesn’t mean that other hypotheses can’t be made, and successful, non-drug treatments can’t be found.  As the Coalition for DSM-5 Reform, critics of the manual and its approaches, point out: “…clients and the general public are negatively affected by the continued and continuous medicalization of their natural and normal responses to their experiences; responses which undoubtedly have distressing consequences which demand helping responses, but which do not reflect illnesses so much as normal individual variation.”[10]

The Coalition also alleges that the DSM-5 misses “the relational context of problems and the undeniable social causation of many such problems,” and that the “[diagnostic] criteria are not value-free, but rather reflect current normative social expectations.”  In other words, if a psychiatrist says you have a problem, that’s a subjective judgment based on cultural conditions—for example, that most people are obedient to power.  To treat our feelings—of depression, of defiance, of hopelessness—as strictly physical or biological conditions to be chemically erased if uncomfortable is to dishonor our instincts.  There are other, durable solutions that don’t involve the unknown risks and unpleasant side effects[11] of psychiatric drugs.

Redefining Healthy Behavior in a Toxic System

Depression indicates a serious lack of confidence in a worthwhile life, a powerlessness over one’s prospects.  It is not so much the opposite of happiness but of vitality.  Leventhal and Martell propose that depression “is the result of life events, negative responses to life events, avoidance of negative emotion, and the limitations on life that avoidance creates.”[12]  There are even some mainstream notions that depression may actually be beneficial.  One 2012 health magazine article reports that symptoms of depression may be evolutionary adaptations that force people to focus on problems and solve them.  J. Anderson Thomson, MD, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, compares depression to pain, a signal that part of you needs help.  If the pain is bad enough, you will cry out, a call for help from others.  Depression may also be a way of calling for help.  “Depression tells you there’s a problem, tells you where the problem is, stops business as usual, and signals others that you are in distress,” explains Thomson.[13]

It is helpful to remember that our lives are arranged by institutions that are based on power, not care, and psychiatry is one of them.  The aim of power is to control—by force or coercion, or even better for us to control ourselves.  For example, labels affect our behavior; if we think our brain is imbalanced or defective, we will tend to behave that way.  If we consider ourselves diseased, we’ll act diseased, and may instinctively isolate ourselves from others.  Buying into the disease label for depression can exacerbate the problem by driving our isolation deeper and fostering a desperate faith in drugs.

Behavior that is considered normal by civilization—predatory self-interest, say—is considered insane outside of the context of civilization.  This behavior is created by the denial of basic human nature, such as a desire to feel a part of a mutual-interest culture.  If we consider the idea that many symptoms of so-called mental disorders are natural responses of our minds and bodies to an unhealthy, isolating social system, we can then redefine healthy behavior outside of civilization.  We can start to make a conscious effort to reconstruct healthy behavior, remembering that the definitions of healthy, normal, and abnormal behavior have been made by those who have power over us.  We can begin to work according to our interests and not theirs.  We can reclaim control over our lives and restore confidence and trust in our human nature.

Susan Hyatt has worked as a project manager at a hazardous waste incinerator, owned a landscaping company focused on native Sonoran Desert plants, and is now a volunteer activist.  Michael Carter is a freelance carpenter, writer, and activist.  His anti-civilization memoir Kingfisher’s Song was published in 2012.  They both volunteer for Deep Green Resistance Southwest Coalition.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Allan M. Leventhal and Christopher R. Martell, The Myth of Depression as Disease: Limitations and Alternatives to Drug Treatment, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2006.

American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013.

Awais Aftab, MD, MBBS, “Mental Illness vs Brain Disorders: From Szasz to DSM-5,” Psychiatric Times, February 28, 2014, http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/dsm-5-0/mental-illness-vs-brain-disorders-szasz-dsm-5#sthash.hA4QwWSp.wptbyJ4M.dpuf

Bruce E Levine, “Psychiatry Now Admits It’s Been Wrong in Big Ways – But Can It Change?” Truthout, March 5, 2014, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/22266-psychiatry-now-admits-its-been-wrong-in-big-ways-but-can-it-change

Ethan Watters, “We Aren’t the World,” Pacific Standard, February 25, 2013, http://www.psmag.com/magazines/magazine-feature-story-magazines/joe-henrich-weird-ultimatum-game-shaking-up-psychology-economics-53135/

John Read, Claire Cartwright, and Kerry Gibson, “Adverse emotional and interpersonal effects reported by 1829 New Zealanders while taking antidepressants,” Psychiatry Research, February 18, 2014, http://www.psy-journal.com/article/S0165-1781%2814%2900083-3/abstract

Madeline Vann, MPH, medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH, “Is Depression Good for You?” Everyday Health, April 4, 2012, http://www.everydayhealth.com/depression/is-depression-good-for-you.aspx

Michael G Conner, “Privileged Children at Greater Risk,” InCrisis, December 13, 2008, http://www.crisiscounseling.com/Articles/PrivilegedKidsAtGreaterRisk.htm

Endnotes


[1] “The Numbers Count: Mental Disorders in America,” National Institute for Mental Health, accessed February 8, 2014, http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-numbers-count-mental-disorders-in-america/index.shtml#Intro

“The global burden of disease: 2004 update, Table A2: Burden of disease in DALYs by cause, sex and income group in WHO regions, estimates for 2004,” The World Health Organization, accessed February 6, 2014, www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/GBD_report_2004update_AnnexA.pdf

[2] Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Walters EE. Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of twelve-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry, 2005 Jun;62(6):617-27.

[3] “More than 90 percent of people who kill themselves have a diagnosable mental disorder, most commonly a depressive disorder or a substance abuse disorder.  The highest suicide rates in the U.S. are found in white men over age 85.  Four times as many men as women die by suicide9; however, women attempt suicide two to three times as often as men.”  “The Numbers Count: Mental Disorders in America,” National Institute for Mental Health, accessed February 8, 2014, http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-numbers-count-mental-disorders-in-america/index.shtml#Intro

[4] Susan Hyatt and Michael Carter, “Restoring Sanity, Part 1: An Inhuman System,” Deep Green Resistance Southwest Coalition, February 6, 2014, http://dgrsouthwestcoalition.org/2014/02/06/restoring-sanity-part-1-an-inhuman-system/

[5] American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013, pp. 461–480.

[6] “Americans [spend] 200 billion dollars a year on prescription drugs.  In 2001, while the median net return for all other industries was a little more than 3 percent of sales, it was more than 18 percent for the drug companies.  Dr. Angell points out that the combined profits of the 10 drug companies listed in the Fortune 500 was more than the cumulative profits of the other 490 companies listed…these companies spend more on marketing and administration than on research and development.”  Allan M. Leventhal and Christopher R. Martell, The Myth of Depression as Disease: Limitations and Alternatives to Drug Treatment, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2006, p. 27-28.

[7] Ibid, p. 28.

[8] Ibid, p 34.

[9] Harvard Medical School, “Drugs in the water,” Harvard Health Publications, June 2011, http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Health_Letter/2011/June/drugs-in-the-water

[10] “Summary of Concerns Regarding the DSM-5 as Currently Proposed,” Coalition for DSM-5 Reform, accessed February 17, 2014, http://dsm5-reform.com/summary-of-concerns-regarding-the-dsm-5-as-currently-proposed/

[11] “[Researchers] concluded that neither [tri-cyclic antidepressants and SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors)] demonstrated greater efficacy than placebo in the treatment of depression for children and adolescents.  Yet until recent alarming reports on the induction of suicidal behaviors by SSRIs, prompted by the urging of the drug industry, primary care doctors and pediatricians increasingly prescribed antidepressants to children and adolescents.  Between 1988 and 1994, there was a three- to fivefold increase in antidepressant medication treatments for children ages 2 to 19.”  Allan M. Leventhal and Christopher R. Martell, The Myth of Depression as Disease: Limitations and Alternatives to Drug Treatment, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2006, p. 44.  Other side effects of the medications include sexual dysfunction, increased agitation and homicidal urges, diarrhea, nausea, insomnia, and headaches (pp. 51-52).

[12] Ibid, p. 131.

[13]  Madeline Vann, MPH, medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH, “Is Depression Good for You?” Everyday Health, April 4, 2012, http://www.everydayhealth.com/depression/is-depression-good-for-you.aspx

The article suggests “7 Ways Depression Makes You Stronger”: You’re a better problem-solver; you learn how to cope; you have better relationships; you’re more compassionate; you buck stress; you’re a realist; you can detect deception. “‘Depression is part of the design of human nature, and just because it’s painful doesn’t mean it’s bad or without its uses,’ Thomson says.”

Restoring Sanity, Part 1: An Inhuman System

  Screenshot of Amanda Todd's YouTube video, My story: Struggling, bullying, suicide, self harm posted before her suicide in October 2012.


Screenshot of Amanda Todd’s YouTube video, My story: Struggling, bullying, suicide, self harm posted before her suicide in October 2012.

Susan Hyatt and Michael Carter, DGR Southwest Coalition

The environmental crisis consists of the deterioration and outright destruction of micro and macro ecosystems worldwide, entailing the elimination of countless numbers of wild creatures from the air, land, and sea, with many species being pushed to the brink of extinction, and into extinction. People who passively allow this to happen, not to mention those who actively promote it for economic or other reasons, are already a good distance down the road to insanity. Most people do not see, understand, or care very much about this catastrophe of the planet because they are overwhelmingly preoccupied with grave psychological problems. The environmental crisis is rooted in the psychological crisis of the modern individual. This makes the search for an eco-psychology crucial; we must understand better what terrible thing is happening to the modern human mind, why it is happening, and what can be done about it.

—Glenn Parton, “The Machine in Our Heads”

A thesaurus entry for “inhuman” includes cruel, brutal, ruthless, and cold-blooded.  If one is merciless, callous, and heartless, one is the very opposite of human, the antithesis of what it means to be a standard example of Homo sapiens sapiens.  If being human means we are for the most part kind-hearted, compassionate, and sensitive creatures, then the destruction of the planet—“the deterioration and outright destruction of micro and macro ecosystems worldwide…the elimination of countless numbers of wild creatures from the air, land, and sea,” goes against humanness.  It’s a product of something against our nature, an anti-human system.

We propose a name for this system: civilization.  While civilization connotes nurturing, safe, and supportive conditions synonymous with humanity itself, we maintain that the great paradox of this age is that civilization is the opposite of all these things.  Civilization must consume whole biomes of living things—including humans—to concentrate the material wealth needed to support human populations too large to be sustained by their immediate surroundings.  Because the planet’s resources are finite and there are no perpetual means of running the modern economy—no replacement for the fossil fuels needed for industry, no New World of topsoil to extract agricultural food from—we are living in a time when a single way of life, a particular cultural strategy is based on eventual total consumption.   This culture isn’t widely perceived as being fundamentally reckless or harmful, but for our purposes here the negative effect of modern, industrial civilization on the biosphere is a given.[1]  Our aim is to examine the mental and emotional health of civilized people, how this drives the cultural strategy of civilization, and how those who oppose it might best fortify their mental and emotional defenses.

Individualism as Isolation

In the US, where most resource consumption takes place,[2] the overarching importance of the individual is a hallmark myth.  Not that US citizens don’t enjoy a comparable amount of political and personal freedom—though this is eroded day by day—but rather it’s a part of our national consciousness that US citizens are free to do what they wish within a very reasonable framework of Constitutionally balanced rules.  The effect of being alone to fend for one’s self, though, has much more to do with insecurity and dependence than it does personal liberty.

By isolating individuals and glamorizing independence, people can then be easily groomed for fealty to power.  We grew up pledging allegiance to a flag and can name the tune of the national anthem in three notes; more immediately most of us depend on someone else writing a paycheck for our sustenance.  Nevertheless we like to think of ourselves as a nation of individualists.  This is easy to believe.  It allows us to feel good about ourselves regardless of accomplishment or character by the expedient of being born here.

Yet our material well-being requires a tremendous amount of power over other nations, peoples, and species; this power can only be exerted by institutions whose behavior isn’t governed at all by our own personal sense of justice or fair play.  We have nearly no say in the conduct of states and corporations, and so long as we can pretend our inherent merit as US citizens, their conduct can usually be denied or ignored.  They do our job, we do ours: that’s the American Way.  Keeping this order is relatively easy; just laying claim to an abstract, inspirational word can suffice.  The company responsible for the January, 2014 chemical spill in West Virginia’s Elk River was named “Freedom Industries.”

Image credit: Ty Wright for the Washington Post

Image credit: Ty Wright for the Washington Post

Nationalism is only an example of this wider condition.  The arbitrary advantage of US citizenship can be compared to the advantages of being male, or white, or wealthy; they all depend onpowerful organizations that exist for their own reasons, and mine our lives for their power as surely as they mine mountains for coal.  Notions of individual, national, race, or gender virtue serve their goals (of accumulating wealth and power) by masking our exploited condition with a sense of deserved good fortune.  Those in power hide behind emotionally potent ideas like freedom that relatively privileged groups are eager to protect.  It’s only chance to be born a white male American, yet plenty of them volunteer for militaries that supposedly defend freedom.  Far fewer would volunteer to die for oil company profits, though many of them inadvertently do.

Individuality is a valuable trait, especially in a culture devoted to cultivating oblivious consumer and sacrificial classes.[3]  But its value in overcoming blind conformity and vacuous rewards can become idealized as an end unto itself—individualism.  When civilized power is essentially inescapable, a foundering ship, individuality seems to restore a sense of personal worth and even social sanity.  Yet individuality is more like a life preserver than the sailboat of a sustainable and independent culture—perhaps useful, but doing little to affect the power over our lives.  When it becomes indoctrinated as individualism, it can actually benefit those in power because of its mistrust of group belonging that stifles organizing.  The demonizing of labor unions is a classic example.

Our mostly unrecognized dilemma is that we’re physiologically “primitive” social animals living under the rule of a dictatorial, isolating, extraction culture.  Unless we are able to participate in it, we’re shunted into extremely uncomfortable conditions of poverty and wretchedness, scavenging the carcasses left by agriculture and industry.  The authors, Hyatt and Carter, are relatively wealthy by global standards, with our access to the resources that civilization has up for sale.  Yet we live mostly hand to mouth.  There is very little in the way of socially stabilized security in our lives.  If we stop working for a month or two the kitchen cabinets quickly empty; stop work for a while more and we’re evicted from our homes.  Because we aren’t allowed to fashion a comfortable dwelling from the wild and freely hunt or gather our food, we must join in working for it, which means we must consume gasoline, industrial food, and electricity.  None of these things will remain available forever.  More urgently, there is about forty-one years of topsoil left,[4] and without topsoil, there will be no food for anyone or anything.  Ultimately, civilization has undermined all security, for everyone.

Human beings tend to want consistency, and their organizations tend to conserve the status quo.  The idea of “behaviorally modern” humans, creatures on a progressive trajectory, has no real physical evidence.[5]  We are creatures of the Paleolithic, identical to people of at least 190,000 years ago.[6]  Our brains and bodies are those of people who hunted animals with stone-pointed spears and lived in clan or tribal groups.  There was no spontaneous human revolution that changed that.  Cities and the industries needed to support their regionally unsustainable appetites did not arise simultaneously from the sum of individual impulses for toil and control, but rather spread by resource warfare.[7]  What we see now is the global dominance of a single, war- and extraction-dependent social strategy.  Paradoxically this seemingly unifying strategy instead isolates us, picking us apart from the close-knit and small scale cultures our ancestors evolved to form.  Even if we’re lucky enough to have a close family or uncommonly good friends, we are all expected to more or less make it on our own.  Our health can’t help but be affected by that dramatic change.  It is critical for anyone working for social justice and sustainability to recognize this.

Defying Social Order

Because of the inherent injustice involved with work, where lower social and economic classes must be maintained to do dangerous or menial labor, it takes denial and silence to keep civilization running.  Confronting social and environmental injustice necessarily begins with breaking denial and silence.  This can be very hard to do, as anyone who has broken free of any abusive situation knows.  Our own avoidance tendencies can be strong and impossible even to see, and our human animal selves shy from the fear of standing up to those with power over us.  The elaborate structures of power now in place are so immense and deeply embedded that defiance of them seems ludicrous and foolhardy, the very definition of quixotic.  The system’s many dependents and hired goons stand behind them, no matter how atrocious its actions.  Attack Freedom Industries, you may as well attack freedom itself.  So of course most people never will.

For those who are willing to fight back, anger at injustice can make us think we can defy unjust systems by social transgression, such as alcohol and drug abuse, promiscuity, petty crime, and other self-destructive practices.  In reality, these are enactments of civilization which encourage us to hate ourselves and to reproduce our own subordination.  Self-harm and isolated disobedience does the police work of oppression, essentially for free, as a kind of safety valve.  Just as it’s too much for individuals to be burdened with systemic problems, defying social order is an overwhelming task for one person.  Serious resistance requires a community, and a healthy community requires us to make internalized oppression visible.  It is helpful to remember that many of our troubles aren’t our own fault, but are necessary creations of civilization, meant to keep us enslaved.

The contrived circumstances we live under are full of paradoxes and confusion; it’s easy to fall into despair and apathy.  The dominant culture that is consuming the world—and any chance of a sane and intact society—demands our time and loyalty, and it’s far easier to give them up than to fight.  A paradox that can help is realizing we must take care of ourselves to be ready and able to take care of anything or anyone else.  This seems counter to the impulses of altruism that often drive activists, but it really isn’t.  Warriors must eat, they must have some sense of support and approbation; if this doesn’t come from their toxic society, it must come from somewhere else.  The energy, endurance, and courage it takes to stop a coal mine cannot itself be mined from our bodies and spirits, leaving us empty, but rather must be cultivated and maintained as living things.

In his early years of activism, Carter spent a great deal of time and money fighting National Forest timber sales in a conservative Montana community where environmentalists were mostly ridiculed and hated outright.  His colleagues were scattered and remote, usually also alone.  He believed himself an appeal-writing machine, and fueled his effort with alcohol and a carbohydrate-heavy vegetarian diet.  Eventually the pressure and isolation exhausted his ability to keep up his work, and the self-abuse didn’t become visible for years.

Civilization, based on power-over, undermines our sense of self and our meanings for existence.  Nearly every child is raised in some form of domestic captivity under civilization, and many continue to be victimized by control and dominance, resulting in what psychiatrist Judith Herman calls Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD).[8]  Traumatic events make us question basic human relationships; we lose a sense of belonging, and our lives fill with stress and loneliness.  Women in this culture often experience further trauma as the victims of male violence.  In Hyatt’s case, male violence left her with undiagnosed PTSD for over three years; the medical industry offered pills and relaxation techniques to cover up the symptoms.  This is the typical solution offered by modern medicine: one that blames the individual and isolates us further.  No one has to be passively victimized by institutional pressure, though; people can be responsible for themselves, for the predictable consequences of their actions and choices.  This doesn’t mean anyone has to take on what isn’t theirs—a recovery plan that favors pharmaceutical companies, for instance.

A healthier strategy is to value our response to trauma.  The symptoms of PTSD, such as avoidance, emotional numbing, self-blame, and helplessness, are reasonable reactions to an inhuman system.  PTSD sufferers have been so traumatized that we often blame ourselves for our symptoms.  Active resistance reduces the feeling of despair and helplessness.  Resistance even reduces the feeling of humiliation brought on by toleration of abuse and the humiliation in feeling we are to blame for the trauma.  Recovery requires that we retell our trauma stories and engage with a healthy community, which can be hard to find.  Support groups such as Al-anon and Alcoholics Anonymous may be a helpful place to start.

Remember that civilization is the root cause of trauma.  By contrast, non-coercive cultures have few mental health disorders.  Bruce Levine notes that “Throughout history, societies have existed with far less coercion than ours, and while these societies have had far less consumer goods and what modernity calls ‘efficiency,’ they also have had far less mental illness. This reality has been buried, not surprisingly, by uncritical champions of modernity and mainstream psychiatry.”[9]

Building a resistance to fight for social justice and sustainability might begin with attentive self-care and a dignified, gentle, and supportive culture.  In the essays that follow, we’ll examine the effects of civilized society on mental and emotional health, and explore ways of bolstering our health and well-being so we may ready ourselves to fight.  Addiction, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder are all conditions Hyatt and Carter have personally experienced and emerged from intact.  It is our hope that our history and study will aid resisters in their own personal engagement and public struggle, that they may emerge intact and successful.

John Trudell said, “We understand the pollution of the air, of the water, we understand the pollution of the environment has come from this plundering and mining of the planet in an irresponsible manner.  But you think about every fear, every doubt, every insecurity, every way that we ever beat ourselves up inside of our own heads — that is the pollution left over from the mining of our spirit.”  As activists, we must question not only the logic of a culture that consumes its own future—eradicating the soil, water, and atmosphere needed for life—we must question the system and culture that leads to addiction, abuse, and hopelessness; the destruction of our very living self.

Susan Hyatt has worked as a project manager at a hazardous waste incinerator, owned a landscaping company focused on native Sonoran Desert plants, and is now a volunteer activist.  Michael Carter is a freelance carpenter, writer, and activist.  His anti-civilization memoir Kingfisher’s Song was published in 2012.  They both volunteer for Deep Green Resistance Southwest Coalition.


[1] Madhusree Mukerjee, “Apocalypse Soon: Has Civilization Passed the Environmental Point of No Return?” Scientific American, May 23, 2012,  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=apocalypse-soon-has-civilization-passed-the-environmental-point-of-no-return

“Has Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Already Arrived?” University of California—Berkeley, as reported in Science Daily, March 5, 2011, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110302131844.htm

These are only approximately representative examples; many more can be found with the most casual perusal of the daily news.  Because it’s so continual and overwhelming, it tends to escape public attention.

[2] “While the consumer class thrives, great disparities remain. The 12 percent of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent.”  “The State of Consumption Today,” Worldwatch Institute, January 8, 2014, http://www.worldwatch.org/node/810

 [3] Stephanie McMillan, “Strengthen Collectivity: Combat Individualism,” New Ideas Proletarian Ideas, March 30, 2013, http://koleksyon-inip.org/strengthen-collectivity-combat-individualism/ for further reading on the subject of individuality and individualism.

 [4] John B. Marler and Jeanne R. Wallin, “Human Health, the Nutritional Quality of Harvested Food and Sustainable Farming Systems,” Nutrition Security Institute, 2006, accessed January 13, 2014, http://www.nutritionsecurity.org/PDF/NSI_White%20Paper_Web.pdf

 [5] “There are no such things as modern humans, Shea argues, just Homo sapiens populations with a wide range of behavioral variability. Whether this range is significantly different from that of earlier and other hominin species remains to be discovered. However, the best way to advance our understanding of human behavior is by researching the sources of behavioral variability in particular adaptive strategies.”  John J. Shea, “Homo Sapiens is as Homo Sapiens was: Behavioral Variability vs. ‘Behavioral Modernity’ in Paleolithic Archaeology,” Current Anthropology 2011; 52 (1): 1, as reported in Science Daily, February 15, 2011, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110214201850.htm

John J. Shea, “Homo Sapiens is as Homo Sapiens was: Behavioral Variability vs. ‘Behavioral Modernity’ in Paleolithic Archaeology,” Current Anthropology 2011; 52 (1): 1, http://www.jstor.org/stable/full/10.1086/658067

[6] “Fossil Reanalysis Pushes Back Origin of Homo sapiens,” Scientific American, February 17, 2005, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=fossil-reanalysis-pushes

[7] Thomas B. Bramanti, W. Haak, M. Unterlaender, P. Jores, K. Tambets, I. Antanaitis-Jacobs, M.N. Haidle, R. Jankauskas, C.-J. Kind, F. Lueth, T. Terberger, J. Hiller, S. Matsumura, P. Forster, and J. Burger, “Europe’s First Farmers were Immigrants: Replaced Their Stone Age Hunter-gatherer Forerunners.”  Science 2009, DOI: 10.1126/science.1176869,  as reported in Science Daily, September 4, 2009, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090903163902.htm

This is one reference among many that underscores that agriculture and the cultures it supports did not “arise” worldwide as of some spontaneous awakening, but rather was spread by conquest.

[8] “What happens if you are raised in captivity? What happens if you’re long-term held in captivity, as in a political prisoner, as in a survivor of domestic violence?” Judith Herman, M.D.  Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror.  New York: Basic Books, 1997.  See pages 74-95 for more information on captivity and C-PTSD.  

[9] Bruce Levine, Ph.D., “Societies With Little Coercion Have Little Mental Illness,” Mad in America, August 30, 2013, http://www.madinamerica.com/2013/08/societies-little-coercion-little-mental-illness/

Free Will – Derrick Jensen

Derrick Jensen

It is almost impossible to talk about free will without talking about insanity. Most of us are by now, of course, almost completely insane.

Force is an expensive and inefficient way to exploit. This is as true on the grand social level as it is on the familial. From the perspective of those in power, it’s more desirable to get those you exploit to participate in their own victimization.

One way this can happen is through mystification, where an exploiter convinces victims that the violence is their fault. The abusive father, for example, might tell his children he would not have hit them had they sufficiently cleaned the dishes. This serves the function of causing the children to focus on cleaning the dishes instead of attending to the inexcusable violence of their father. Perhaps more importantly, it convinces them that if they can only be good enough at reading and responding to their abuser’s everchanging wants, they might not get beaten. The question as it relates to free will becomes: if they clean the dishes obsessively and perform every other obeisance, all without him beating them anymore, are they then doing these of their own free will?

We can ask similar questions about the actions of black people facing the threat of lynching. If you are a poor black farmer, having seen your neighbor hanging long-necked from a bridge, if you give up your crops or farmland to white farmers, are you doing so of your own free will?

In 1957 in Montgomery, Alabama, four Ku Klux Klan members kidnapped Willie Edwards, Jr., beat him, took him to a bridge, and forced him at gunpoint to jump. Faced with the choice between certainly being shot and possibly surviving the fall, did Willie Edwards, Jr., jump of his own free will?

Note that we’ve slid across some sort of boundary here, from victims convinced of their own culpability to the elimination of choice such that it actually becomes in the best interests of the victims to choose the lesser of two very great evils. They are now not merely convinced they should participate in their own victimization; they are forced to.

There are extreme political ramifications to this reduction in choice. One of the most brilliant things the Nazis did was to coopt rationality, and to coopt hope. They created circumstances such that at every step of the way it was in the Jews’ rational best interests not to resist. Would you rather get an ID card, or resist and possibly get killed? Would you rather take a journey on a cattle car, or resist and possibly get killed? At each step, choices have been reduced such that the victims participate “of their own free will.”

I experienced the process not long ago, with consequences much less severe. An airport security agent ran her fingers beneath the waistband of my pants. I asked what she was doing.

She responded, “This is for your safety and the safety of others.”

“You putting your hand inside my pants doesn’t make anyone safer,” I said.

“Flying is a privilege, not a right. If you don’t like it, stay home.”

I began to disagree, and she motioned to a nearby cop. I had a plane to catch, and so I had a choice: I could make a scene and possibly get arrested, or I could get the hell out of Austin, Texas. I got the hell out of Austin, Texas.

But to choose, to really exercise free will, you must also have the opportunity to not choose. Willie Edwards Jr did not have the opportunity to not choose. Nor, for the most part, do most of us. Would you like to vote Republican or Democrat? (Note that even not voting does not protect you from the outcomes of the vote.) Would you like to work for ibm or Microsoft? Try leaving the wage economy and becoming a hunter-gatherer. Try, as a community, not allowing those in power to have access to – that is, exploit – your landbase, and then the rest of us can take bets on how long before the tanks roll in, and how long until it’s you hanging long-necked from a bridge.

Before we move to the terminal stage of this process there’s one other condition we need to talk about. One of the most common and necessary steps taken by an abuser in order to control a victim is to monopolize the victim’s perception. That is one reason abusers cut off victims from family and friends: so that in time victims will have no standard other than the abusers’ by which to judge the abusers’ worldviews and behavior. Behavior that would otherwise seem extraordinarily bizarre (How crazy is it to rape one’s own child? How crazy is it to toxify the air you breathe?) can then become in the victim’s mind (and even more sadly, heart) normalized. No outside influence must be allowed to break the spell. If the abuser is able to mediate all information that reaches the victim, the victim will no longer be able to conceptualize that there is any other way to be. At this point the abuser will have achieved more or less total control.

This is, of course, the point we have reached as a culture. Civilization has achieved a completely unprecedented and nearly perfect monopolization of our perception, at least for those of us in the industrialized world. Nearly all of our sensory input is mediated by our fellow civilized. I’m typing these words sitting in a manufactured chair staring at a manufactured computer screen, listening to the hum of a manufactured computer fan. To my left are manufactured shelves of manufactured books, written by human beings. Civilized, literate human beings, who write in English (languages, many of them indigenous, are being destroyed as quickly as all other forms of diversity, and to as disastrous an effect). To my right a window leads to the darkened outside and reflects back to me my uncombed dark hair surrounding the blur of my own face. I’m wearing mass-produced clothes, and mass-produced slippers. I do, however, have a cat on my lap. All sensory inputs save the cat originate in civilized humans, and even the cat is domesticated.

Stop. Think about it. Every sensation I have comes from one source: civilization. When you finish this paragraph, put down the magazine for a few moments, and check out your own surroundings. What can you see, hear, smell, feel, taste that does not originate in or is mediated by civilized human beings? Frogs singing on a Sounds of Nature CD don’t count.

This is all very strange. Stranger still – and extraordinarily revealing of the degree to which we’ve not only accepted this artificially imposed isolation, but have actually turned our insanity into a perceived good – is the way we’ve made a fetish and religion (and science, for that matter, and business) of attempting to define ourselves as separate from – even in opposition to – the rest of nature. Civilization isolates all of us, ideologically and physically, from the source of all life. We do not believe trees have anything to say to us, nor stars, nor coyotes, nor even our dreams. We have been convinced that the world is silent save for civilized humans.

Try this: take a moment and attempt to conceptualize nonownership of land. That is, an end, abrupt or otherwise, to the right of a few to force other people to pay for the right to actually exist on the planet (it’s called rent). Having been fully enculturated, perhaps you cannot even imagine nonownership of land, or see how the power to control access to land is maintained through a combination of social convention and force. You may, if you are a member of the police or military, or just a good citizen, kill to protect the right of land ownership, even to your own detriment. This is how it can also begin to make sense that those in power have the right to toxify the planet. If you’ve been sufficiently enculturated, you may refuse to recognize that there has ever been any other way to be, and you may, once again, oppose those who oppose this toxification. This is how we can come to believe that production is more important than human or nonhuman life.

You can list your favorite delusion.

Free will at this point becomes almost meaningless, because by now the victims participate of their own free will – having long-since lost touch with what free will might be. Indeed, they can be said to no longer have any meaningful will at all. Their will has been broken. Of course. That’s the point. Now, they are workers. They are productive members of this great and benevolent structure of civilization that brings good to all it touches. They are happy, even if this happiness requires routine chemical assistance. There is no longer any need for force, because the people have been fully metabolized into the system, have become self-regulating, self-policing.

Welcome to the end of the world.

Fortunately, however, there do still exist people – mainly the poor, people from nonindustrialized nations, and the indigenous – who still have primary connections to the physical world. And fortunately, also, the physical world still exists, and all of us can at the very least reach out to touch trees still standing in steel and concrete cages, we can see plants poking up through sidewalks, breaking cement barriers that don’t quite keep them from feeling the sun. I would hope we can learn from these plants and ourselves break through our barriers. I would hope we can see or feel our way to remembering what it means to be a free human being – we certainly must remember deep deep in our flesh and bones and organs – and to remember the joy that can come from standing on our own hind legs, from saying No! I do not know if free will can be entirely eradicated. I do know that it remains in some of us, as crazy as the system makes us all, as much as we have come to tolerate.

 

Original article by Derrick Jensen, published by Adbusters May 2003