Race, Trauma, and Climate Change

Elizabeth Allison ’03 M.A.R., ’03 M.E.M.

Since at least the 1950s, scientists, policymakers, and oil companies have understood the threats of climate change to human society and the future of life on Earth.1 During this time, oil producers have engaged in obfuscation and disinformation campaigns to downplay the demonstrable hazards of continued fossil fuel production.2

Meanwhile, policymakers have been unable to make significant headway in slowing the pace of climate disruption. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence – despite the fact that low-lying and coastal communities now experience flooding from rising seas, farmers battle intensified droughts and storms, and migrants flee from various countries in part because of worsening environmental conditions – many in the US remain resistant to the scientific consensus.

A History of Denial

Beyond the disastrous effects of deliberate disinformation, the psychological dynamics of trauma offer another way of understanding this stubborn refusal. Though a detour into psychology may appear to lead us away from the climate change debate, I argue that it is only by unpacking the historical foundations of collective trauma – and analyzing the role of denial in American history – that the dominant power structure can begin to understand the refusal to address ecological issues that are right in front of us.

The founding of the US involves at least two cataclysmic collective traumas that have yet to be fully addressed: 1) the genocide of Native Americans; and 2) the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans. These monumental epochs of suffering are pushed into the past in the minds of many, yet they remain unresolved. Building on the calls for reparations by thinkers like Ta-Nehisi Coates3, and the insight into the intersectionality of oppressions of Kimberlé Crenshaw4, I suggest that the persistence of unaddressed historical trauma has prevented us from addressing climate change as creatively and forcefully as the crisis demands.

A Psychological Loop

Psychological trauma theory explains how an individual who has experienced trauma continues to rehearse and repeat the trauma in the absence of psychological reckoning. The unconscious repetition of the trauma feels compelling and unavoidable to the individual caught in it. Like Freud’s “return of the repressed,” the individual gets caught in a loop of psychological repetition, playing out the trauma over and over again in an effort to find a way out of past harms.

New understandings of the effects of intergenerational trauma show how past wounds continue to influence present wellbeing.5 Individual trauma on a mass scale may give rise to collective historical trauma that wears on the psyches of both oppressed and oppressor. As a society, Americans are caught in a systemic cycle of colonialist oppression and domination, in which African Americans, Native Americans, and people of color more generally are controlled and exploited in different guises, from slavery, genocide, and dispossession, to contemporary mass incarceration and murders. These dominarepetitions keep us all – descendants of victims and perpetrators – mired in the horror and shame of historical traumas, preventing us from moving forward collectively on any number of urgent issues.

Deficits of Empathy

The oppression of Native and Indigenous peoples and Africans has required a tremendous suppression of compassion over the centuries. Indigenous and African peoples were constructed as nonhuman, undeserving of compassion or concern. In cutting off this feeling of empathy, colonists suppressed their own humanity, and taught themselves and their descendants to ignore and suppress feelings: Emotions were understood to be misleading and unreliable, irrelevant for decision-making. Those who expressed emotion – children and women – were untrustworthy narrators of their own experience, and needed to be taught to adopt rational, emotionless, “objective” thinking.

The environmental historian Carolyn Merchant has traced the rise of Western science in Europe’s early modern era.6 During this time, the earth itself, which had been viewed as a nurturing and beneficent being, came to be seen as insentient “dead” matter that could be used for any purpose that humans desired. No longer was mining – invading Earth’s body – forbidden out of fear of injuring her or raising her wrath. Mining was now allowed because soil and minerals were only material with no purpose of their own, available to serve human ends. A new scientific sensibility emerged – disinterested, objective – that regarded the planet in a more detached or disconnected way. From this “death of nature,” it was a short intellectual step to see other humans in an instrumentalist, ultimately disposable manner in order to justify the economic aims of those in power, paving the way for slavery and genocide.

The suppression of empathy for others left a mark of trauma on both the oppressed, whose lives and families and trajectories were obliterated, and also on the oppressor, who had to actively suppress human connection. By denying the damage the instrumentalist worldview imposed on both the oppressed and the oppressors, white Americans7 have failed to grapple with a core part of our identity and have remained mired in a cycle of shame and repression. The unspeakable acts of historical trauma give shame immense power.8

With history walled off from daily life and consciousness, trauma claims too much unconscious attention and energy. American politics recapitulates the harms of the past in endless cycles of recrimination and denial. Intergenerational trauma gobbles up coping mechanisms, leaving little psychic energy for creative adaptation to new circumstances.

On the environmental front, the ongoing suppression of empathic emotion prevents descendants of oppressors from acknowledging – and truly feeling – the damage that our fossil fuel-intensive lifestyle imposes on all life. Adopting the stance of disinterested science and economic rationality hampers the capacity for empathy with others, human and nonhuman, hurt by climate change. Moving forward requires looking back, reckoning with the suffering inherent in the founding of the US, and investigating ways to bring about justice and reparations. This process will free up emotional and intellectual energy to face the fresh crises of the new century.

Voices of the Churches

The church knows something about brokenness, repentance, and the healing that can come from seeking forgiveness. This is the time for churches to take a leadership role in bringing to light the ongoing injury caused by the colonialist mentality, and helping congregants reckon with their disparate positions in a society that values some lives more than others. A reckoning would begin to repair the fabric of American society.

Such a reckoning, conducted alongside critical technological and policy innovations to reduce carbon emissions, would help work through some of the anger and shame that keeps so many locked away in isolated individualism. Recognizing and confronting the legacies of pain and shame would free up energy to address the climate crisis directly and fearlessly and connect ecological devastation to the original deficit of empathy. Greater recognition of the knowledge traditions of Indigenous and African societies could provide new insights about living with respect for the natural world.

The current moment requires the gifts of everyone on the planet. Addressing climate change without worsening social inequities is the largest challenge humanity has ever faced. We need to tap into every insight, try every experiment to find ways of living in greater harmony on a thriving planet. Five hundred years of colonialism, and 70 years of hyper-consumptive capitalism, have brought ruin to the planet. Rather than following the dominator pathways of the colonialist mentality that have failed us again and again – a common definition of insanity – more inclusive thinking would reconceive existing power structures and honor suppressed insights about ecological resilience carried in cultures around the world. With action necessary on climate change, and just over a decade to decarbonize the global economy, dominant structures must recognize the urgent necessity of repenting past harms and seeking to make amends through reparations, and then moving forward collectively to co-create a flourishing future.

Elizabeth Allison, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ecology and religion at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where she founded and chairs the graduate program in Ecology, Spirituality, and Religion. Her research and teaching explore connections between religion, ethics, and environmental practice, with particular attention to biodiversity, waste, ecological place, and climate change. She is a graduate of the joint degree program between YDS and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.


1 Nathaniel Rich, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” New York Times, Aug. 1, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/ interactive/2018/08/01/magazine/climate-changelosing- earth.html. Accessed 2/22/2019.

2 Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury, 2010).

3 Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014. https://www.theatlantic. com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-forreparations/ 361631/. Accessed Feb. 26, 2019.

4 Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Issue 1, Article 8. http:// chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8. Accessed Feb. 26, 2019.

5 Gabor Maté, When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection (John Wiley & Sons, 2003).

6 Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (HarperCollins, 1980).

7 I write as a white, middle-class, academic woman who speaks, primarily, to similarly situated people.

8 Brené Brown, Daring Greatly (Avery, 2012).