The Trauma Exposure Response of a Climate Justice Activist

January 2016



Hurricane Sandy

Credit: USFWS. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Barry and I were taking a walk in a nearby woods the other day. It was December, but it was unseasonably mild. “I love these woods,” I said as we walked. And then I thought, “I wonder how long they’ll be here.” I pictured a stand of dead and dying trees, unable to adapt to the changing climate. A bird chirped. It was a beautiful sound. “I love birdsong,” I thought. And then I thought, “How long will there be birdsong?” We walked along in silence.


I think I’ve become quieter lately on these walks with Barry. I’m not thinking any less, but I’m keeping my thoughts more to myself. I used to blithely say pretty much whatever popped into my head. I’d see a red-headed woodpecker and comment on its beauty. And then I’d wonder aloud if that species would survive the Sixth Great Extinction we are currently in. Or I’d be thinking about an article I’d recently read about the destabilization of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the potential for several additional feet of sea level rise as a result. I’d mention that the world’s most important coastal cities – New York, Boston, Shanghai, and so many more – will eventually be drowned by a relentlessly rising sea caused by warming oceans and melting glaciers. In case Barry wasn’t aware. Or in case he’d forgotten from the last time I mentioned these things.

You can get a sense of how much fun it might be taking a walk with me as I provide a running commentary on the impending demise of the world as we know it and the concomitant risks to human civilization. Add in the venting of my outrage at the recalcitrant troglodyte politicians who refuse to acknowledge the validity of human-caused climate change, let alone do anything about it … and you might wonder why lines have not formed of people wanting to take walks in the woods with me.

It’s good to be aware of what’s going on in the world, but I suppose one can be too aware. I think I am probably too aware for my own good. Or perhaps I just haven’t yet figured out how to deal with all this awareness and at the same time live a reasonably happy life. My awareness of climate change and quite how catastrophic it could get if we don’t quickly get our act together has seeped into all the cells of my body; it has pervaded my consciousness; it weighs on me like a leaden blanket.

I can no longer look at a beautiful coastline without thinking that it will be gone – or moved further inland – by century’s end. I can no longer look at a forest without wondering what will become of it as the climate changes. I can no longer proceed through an entire day without worrying about what kinds of stormy, inhospitable weather the future climate holds; or imagining a world in which it is dangerous to be outdoors because it is just too hot for humans; or picturing the dying oceans and the vast swathes of parched and barren future earth that will no longer support agriculture; or mourning all the precious species that will soon be extinct. Not. One. Single. Day.

You might be thinking that these thoughts are “alarmist.” Certainly that’s what the climate deniers would say. But it’s probably not what the climate scientists and scientists in related fields would say, since my fears are based largely on their warnings of what is within the realm of possibility – and, in many cases, likelihood – if we do not address the problem quickly enough.[1]

Back before we won the Keystone XL pipeline fight, James Hansen, who was head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies until 2013, wrote about what would happen if we exploited all that oil and continued on a “business as usual” path:

“If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”[2]

Or, as environmentalist and climate change activist Bill McKibben more succinctly put it, “It’s not that the scientists are alarmists – it’s that the science is alarming.”[3]

Whether the apocalyptic scenarios I envision actually come to pass will depend largely on whether humanity can get its act together quickly enough to stave off catastrophic climate change. Our lackadaisical attitude over the last quarter century has not helped, and it is now a race against time – a race that most of our politicians on the right have not yet even entered. It’s as if there’s a clock in my head, and I can always hear the ticking of time going by as we fail to respond to the crisis quickly enough.

By coincidence – or perhaps not a coincidence at all – my son gave me a book for Christmas titled, “Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others.”[4] It talks about the “trauma exposure responses” of those who work with traumatized people – victims of domestic abuse, abused children, the homeless, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and others. And, as the subtitle says, it’s about the need to “care for self while caring for others.”

The author extends this to people who “care for” the natural world as she also considers “the profound levels of trauma exposure among people in the front lines of the environmental movement – those fighting to stop the juggernaut of global warming and those who strive desperately, in the face of mounting losses, to ward off the extinction of countless species of plants and animals.”[5]

Like Vance Vredenburg, an ecologist specializing in amphibians, who tells what it’s like to watch helplessly as hundreds of species of amphibians have gone extinct.

“Extinction is really forever. I can’t stress how much weight that puts on my life. … It’s that feeling of despair and sense that we’ve got to do something! This is the last breath of air and you’ve got to do everything you can, or you’re not going to make it back up to the surface. It’s like this not just for me, but for everyone in my field. And you don’t want to live life that way all the time.”[6]

You might say, “Who cares? It’s just a bunch of frogs and toads.” Well, if you don’t think amphibians have inherent worth, you might be more distressed if you understood their important places in the food webs of which humans are ultimately a part. And, of course, it’s not just amphibians that are in danger.

It’s as if, with each extinction, a cut is made severing one of the links in a food web; as more and more cuts are made to more and more food webs, whole ecosystems become increasingly unstable.

I think most people don’t appreciate quite how interconnected – and fragile – the natural world can be. I think they don’t realize quite how many ways, and how relentlessly, humans are trashing the biosphere. Climate change is the result of just the “grandest” of these assaults. If you pollute strenuously enough for long enough in a finite space – and, as big as it is, the earth is finite – you can indeed eventually make your habitat uninhabitable. I think many people forget or were never really aware of quite how much humanity depends on the biosphere in which we have evolved.

There are important parallels between caring for traumatized people and caring for a “traumatized” natural world. If you are not aware of the victims of domestic violence, or the abused children, or the homeless or the survivors of wars who are dealing with PTSD – if you don’t know about these traumatized people or you know of them only “from a distance” – you are unlikely to be deeply affected by their wounds. But if you care for them – if you see them up close, day after day – it’s hard not to be affected.

And similarly for the conservationists who watch the environmental degradation up close and personal and feel helpless to stop it.

“We’re talking about people who are on the daily front lines of the planet, and they see the planet being affected in catastrophic ways, with a speed that crosses a threshold of manageability. They don’t have an escape. It all just gets too big.”[7]

We are “traumatizing” the fragile biosphere on which we depend, and I’ve made the mistake of learning all about it. I do what I can, but the problem is so big. It can be overwhelming. And it’s existential. It’s not just that I care about the natural world; it’s that I care about people. I want humanity to have a livable future.

And therein lies a crucial difference between dealing with traumatized people and dealing with our “traumatized” earth. If you’re dealing with other people’s traumas, you can go home at the end of the day and remind yourself that it’s their traumas and not your trauma. That’s not to say it’s easy to see other people’s traumas up close, and it’s not to diminish their traumas. But if you don’t solve the problems of traumatized people, those problems do not have to become your problems. With climate change, we are inflicting the “trauma” on the biosphere and thus – because we are part of and dependent on the biosphere – on ourselves. We don’t have the option to “go home at the end of the day and remind ourselves that it’s someone else’s trauma and not ours.”

You might say that it’s future people’s traumas and not ours. It’s certainly true that, while the effects of climate change are already being felt[8], the current level of impact is nothing to what is predicted for future generations. But, for me, the fact that we are inexorably on the path towards catastrophic climate change[9] (unless we somehow manage to get off that path) is blurring the distinction between my “trauma exposure response,” as a climate justice activist, and experiencing trauma myself.

Even before external events become truly and catastrophically problematic, the biosphere’s “trauma” is becoming my own personal trauma. It’s as if there’s a gigantic meteor barreling toward the earth. Most people go about their daily business unaware or unconcerned. But I can’t take my eyes off that meteor. I can’t not see it. I want other people to see it too, because we need to mobilize as many people as possible to avert catastrophe; but I hesitate to call their attention to it, because I don’t want them to become traumatized too.

It’s easy to sink into feelings of helplessness, of hopelessness, the feeling that “any issue I work on, any awareness I raise, is just such an insignificant drop in the massive bucket of impending crisis,”[10] as an environmental scientist quoted in the book so eloquently put it. These feelings are my trauma exposure response. This book came not a moment too soon.

I will try to hang on to hope and to stay active in the fight, while I learn how to care for myself while caring for the earth. In the meantime, perhaps I need to try harder to divert my attention away from climate change for a while to less catastrophic topics – like our growing plutocracy, or the descent into lunacy of a once-great political party, or gun violence in America, or the unspeakable police brutality towards African Americans. Anyone want to go for a walk with me?


[1] There is, of course, uncertainty about just how bad things might get, since we’re talking about a climate regime under which humans did not evolve and have never before lived. However, I believe most of the things that concern me – e.g., the rising seas, the dying oceans, the vast swaths of land that will no longer be able to support agriculture, the dangerously increased variability of weather, and the mass extinctions of species – are all things that have been well researched and documented in the scientific literature and are not particularly speculative at this point. See, for instance, the latest IPCC report: I discussed this, and provided additional references, in my essay, “Are Political Climate Change Deniers Committing a Crime Against Humanity?”:



[4] Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk, Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. San Francisco. 2009.

[5] Ibid, pp. 5-6.

[6] Ibid., p. 58.

[7] Victor Pantesco, a “researcher of trauma’s impact on conservationists and biologists,” quoted in Trauma Stewardship, p. 48.

[8] While it isn’t possible to prove that climate change “caused” “super storms” like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or Hurricane Sandy in New York, or the extended drought in California or many other extreme weather events around the world, I think most climate scientists see the “fingerprints” of climate change on such events – i.e., they think climate change is increasing the likelihood of such extreme events and will increase their frequency in the future.

[9] By most accounts, we are currently on course to substantially exceed the 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees F) warming that is considered “safe.” There are many references for this. See, for example:;

[10] This is a quote from environmental scientist Karen Stade, see Trauma Stewardship, p. 49.


5 comments on “The Trauma Exposure Response of a Climate Justice Activist

  1. Frank Dixon says:

    Ellen Thanks for sending me this. A publisher just two days ago agreed to read my new book which is an environmentalist/activist commentary entitled “Francis and Spinoza : re-casting the Pope’s wisdom.” The book is, of course, a masterpiece of reasoned challenge. 🙂 We shall see. Frank Date: Tue, 12 Jan 2016 20:10:15 +0000 To:

    • ellen post says:

      Frank, between your book and my essays, I’m sure we’ll save the world. 😉 Let me know when your book comes out and how I can get a copy. I look forward to reading it.

  2. Leslie Wharton says:

    Ellen — This is beautiful. It brings to mind the very different but somehow analogous ancient Greek tragedies. Fortunately, for the very reason that it is not yet too late, we can feel frustration rather than helpless, passive agony. The play has not reached its final act, and it may not turn out the be a tragedy after all. In the meantime, I’ll be happy to walk with you — whether in the woods or on the streets in demonstrations — and, yes, we might just manage to pull planet earth out of its deep dive before the final crash of self-destruction. Leslie


    • ellen post says:

      Leslie, thanks for your comment — and particularly the reminder that “the play has not reached its final act.” I really need to be reminded of that from time to time. And thanks for the offer to “walk with me.” “Walking with” you and the other wonderful people I’ve met in the climate justice movement helps keep me going.

  3. dougmolitor says:

    Hang in there, El. A quarter of a century ago, when I was writing ‘Captain Planet’, I foolishly thought that all the environmental awareness that resulted in a kids’ cartoon show about saving the Earth would surely bear fruit by now. Instead, America is just beginning to wake up to the threats. That’s how Congress can have science committees run by people who disbelieve science. Our generation is still massively ignorant. But the kids you and I raised, and the generation who watched Captain Planet when it was in first-run, are now voting. And they don’t doubt the science. Fingers x’d, and enjoy your walks. You’re still walking the walk.

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