Monday, January 18, 2010

In defense of eco-neurosis

Fish Lake in Central British Columbia, one of two lakes to be turned into toxic mine waste cesspools. Photo Georgia Straight.

A friend recently forwarded me two links on the topic of ecological neurosis. The first one describes the case of couples who try to do the right thing for the environment but only succeed in jeopardizing their marriage. The second one reports on a growing number of viewers of the movie Avatar who are so enamored with the natural beauty of the fictitious planet Pandora, that they have trouble reconnecting with the reality of everyday life and develop suicidal tendencies as a result.

I recommend both links.

My friend was implying that there is something seriously wrong with the Western middle class when they allow themselves to binge in the coziness of self-centered eco-depression, in spite of the obscene wealth that they enjoy compared to, say, the people of Haiti. And he certainly has a point.

Nonetheless, I responded back to him expressing my strong disagreement. There is nothing wrong, I said, about people being neurotic in the face of today’s ecological destruction. If anything, feeling neurotic and depressed about the sixth wave of mass extinction, the depletion of our oceans, agribusiness-driven mass deforestation, the torture of animals inside factory farms, and of course the effects of climate change, is a sign of profound sanity.

At just about the same time, another friend forwarded me the following link which reports that BC’s Environmental Assessment Office has performed its duty admirably once again. It has diligently rubber-stamped yet another industrial project which will forever wipe out a unique natural ecosystem. This time, it’s an open-pit copper and gold mining project in central BC which requires the transformation of two pristine trout-bearing lakes into cesspools to store mine tailings, rocks, and toxic chemicals. Ten thousand years from now when the mine has long been abandoned and the memory of the mining company’s very name has been erased from humanity’s records, those two lake ecosystems will still be destroyed. If you don’t feel neurotic after reading such news, there is a chance you are losing touch with reality and you may want to have your head examined.

I myself have been struggling with eco-neurosis for many, many years. Keeping my sanity, let alone my positive thinking ability, in this constant avalanche of catastrophic environmental news, is a daily struggle. And yes, my marriage sometimes feels the strain of my neurosis (I hereby officially apologize to my wonderful wife) and yes, I sometimes ache for the overwhelming digital beauty of planet Pandora (which my neurosis has so far required me to visit twice).

My insanity has been compounded in recent years by the realization that ecological protection and social justice are one and the same struggle against the world’s elite class and its neoliberal iron grip over the planet. Marxist analysis, in particular, has helped me understand how the capitalist mode of production has thrown 4/5 of the world’s population into bondage and misery and has precipitated the world’s ecosystems into rapid collapse. It helped me realize that in this equation, I am personally both a victim of class exploitation, and an accessory to and beneficiary of the West’s imperialist plundering of the world. Realizing that Haiti was a food self-sufficient country 30 years ago, and would still be today had it not been for Bill Clinton and the IMF’s dismantling of its local agriculture to make way for US subsidized grain imports, does nothing to restore my inner psychic balance.

The feeling of powerlessness in the face of such crushing forces and intractable inner contradictions, is overwhelming. If I didn’t feel emotionally compromised and schizophrenic after such a realization, I would have to be either dead or comatose. Thank goodness for my neurosis. It means I’m still alive.

The trick, of course, is to channel my insanity – which I realize is in itself a contradictory project – so it can be transformed into a positive sentiment, such as anger toward the system, and into positive action, such as taking part in the upcoming social revolution, which I sure hope to see before I die. My friend, himself a hardcore Marxist, kindly responded to my dissenting remarks with this comment:

“I think the real problem [of eco-neurosis] emerges when concern over an issue becomes personally self-destructive instead of focusing the energy on the external, broader political-social transformations necessary and even more importantly on the possibilities that are opening up, either latently or actually.  

As you can probably tell, I have dealt with my own serious concerns about ecological problems by externalizing instead of internalizing, and recognizing that they were subordinate to the bigger questions of global equality, of both the real physical social-technical-economic, and even more importantly, of the global political power that will be necessary to fully attain the former.”

Eco-neurotics of the world, you are sane. Unite!



  1. yes ivan i was taken with pandora as well having watched it last night

    it reminded me of my time living in a tent in the mountains of kobe with a beautiful japanese girl and also of eagleridge i was happy to see that the hero of the movie jumped up on the escavator! (and wisely jumped back down into the forest)

    the best cure for ecological neurosis is of course to find your own little pandora or build one

    my little greenspace project up the street has been giving me a lot of peace of mind... you know that feeling you get when you digging around the moist earth and can smell the fresh air through the trees?

  2. I am as wowed by your words as I was the second time I too saw Avatar.

    By the way, neurosis is not the same as a psychosis, and the word has been dropped as meaningless by the psychiatric community. It's plain-language definition is a "disorder" characterized by symptoms such as insecurity, anxiety, and indeed--as you said--depression.

    In other words, perfectly normal, given a true understanding of our current world. Better yet, I'd call it a "disorder" characterized by a heightened sense of awareness of place and time, almost the exact opposite of a psychosis, and certainly no disorder.

    In contrast to our normal and highly functional response to our environment, it is the establishment that is psychotic, believing they can keep raping our earth, and its people, without consequence of any kind. Yes, that is indeed dillusional, a true break with reality.

    Do not fear, as Transition is coming. It may have taken racial minorities and non-land-holders hundreds of years to gain the vote, and women another several decades, but Gaia and mobs of us "neurotic" people--like the final battle scene in Avatar--are stepping forward to save what we can.

    Each battle lost, like a great tree going up in flames, is a wake-up call.

    Join my latest crusade at Village Vancouver, as the Transition Town movement comes to BC: Village Vancouver is just now riding our dragons out to the neighbouring tribes to join our cause.

    But our battle is not simply "against them," but within ourselves. For our own humanity is to blame, our own over-consumptive and unsustainable behaviour, in almost everything we do. It is the duty of each and every one of us to reduce, reuse, recycle, relocalize, and reconnect.

    We are poised for Transition and for a great unleashing; Vancouver will have a place in the centre of it all.

    There is no better time to be alive, and to be in touch with Gaia.

    Randy Chatterjee

  3. I typed in "eco depression" tonight and stumbled upon this site. Lately, I find it very difficult not to sink into total despair. Knowing that I am not alone does offer a bit of comfort. I have three teenagers; they come home from school talking about melting glaciers and Fukushima. Pipeline projects are underway. The media is more interested in football than the fact that we have hit the wall, environmentally speaking. I wish someone could tell me that having children wasn't a mistake. I feel so bloody sorry for them because they're scared. A piece of Arctic ice the size of Alberta vanished in one month. Is that front page news? To not be depressed about all of this is a sign of insanity, in my opinion. Sometimes it seems as if the whole world is insane; our political leaders certainly are. Anyway, thanks for this - I appreciate it.