The Environmental Movement Has Failed

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The Environmental Movement Has Failed by Holly Truhlar

I’m sitting across from an environmental photographer. He’s been doing cause related photography for over 20 years. His photographs have been in National Geographic and the New York Times. He’s dedicated his professional life to social and environmental change.

And, he says solemnly, “There’s no doubt now, the environmental movement has failed.” He talks about sharing beautiful and tragic photographs that tell environmental and social stories. Putting together presentations that touch people, bring tears to audiences, and make people want to donate to environmental causes. But then, they walk away and often don’t look back.

“We have a problem with long-term engagement. We beat them over the head, shame them, out of $20 or $100, they may give it and and then they never engage again.” My first thought as a trauma-informed grief therapist: Yah, of coarse we don’t stay engaged. We’re not emotionally resourced for this shit. 

And by shit I mean grief-full, terrifying, and life altering on-going events. I mean looking at and sitting with the murders of people, animals, and lands for profit. I mean relating to children who don’t have clean air to breath, and people who don’t have safe water to drink. I mean watching entire ecosystems and populations be violently eradicated. I mean the experiences that will break our hearts and bring us to our knees if we truly feel them.

I am trained in a body-based trauma therapy that entails releasing trauma stored in the nervous system. It’s fascinating to do this work because the body doesn’t lie. It will shake and move in very distinct ways to resolve a trauma event. And, sometimes we get stuck—a client’s body stops moving through an event. It’s termed looping. When this happens I always have to go back and emotionally resource them. Once they’re more resourced, viola, we can complete the trauma event, and my client is a bit more regulated. Then they can start engaging in life a little bit more. (To be clear this is not a quick fix, this happens over the course of months after we have established a trust-full relationship.)

We live in a traumatized society with intergenerational wounding being passed down through parenting styles and epigenetics, as well as the overwhelming distress of industrialized life. And, all trauma contains grief. As a collective we can’t face the planetary crisis—the widespread injustices occurring everyday, the tyranny and collapse of empire—because we aren’t resourced to process the trauma and grief of it. In other words, we’re collectively looping. As it is now, there isn’t enough time and there aren’t enough spaces to grieve the depth of it all. No wonder people aren’t honestly looking at this. (And, it’s not by chance that every industrialized-complex in dominant civilization actively works to keep us disassociated and distracted from the reality of the situation—buying things and watching screens.)

No wonder the environmental movement failed—it failed to bring us together and offer spaces where we can be shattered. It failed to address how painful it is to live in a violent system setup to divide and exploit anyone and anything with less power and privilege (read domesticated, imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy). It failed to offer the tools and resources we all need to feel these traumas and losses. And, until we feel this—really carry the sorrow with us—we’re never going to be in right relationship with nature, ourselves, and each other.

Essentially, the environmental movement failed because it’s not big enough. It lacks both width and depth. It’s based on an old paradigm, existing within a system which separates us from each other and the wild. Rather than being born from our hearts and soul, and connected to the anima mundi—the Soul of the world—the environmental movement was conceived through the colonized mind. This limited mindset breeds hierarchy, supremacy, and solutions of force. Within this space, we continue to oppress and abuse because it’s what happened, is happening, to us and we aren’t capable, resourced enough, to radically take it on and transform it. So, we exile the parts of us that appear insane in this sociopathic culture—the parts of us that thirst for deep connection, weep for our personal and collective losses, and scream over the outrage and pain of our disembodied, dis-membered existence.

What we need now is to re-member in every sense of the word. We need to form intimate connection, secure attachment, with each other, and all that is. As in effective trauma therapy, we need to integrate our parts, both personally and collectively. It is only through this heartbreaking and painfully honest path that we will find salvation for our species. By bringing in and loving all our outcast parts, we stand a chance of salvaging our souls and speciating into the higher consciousness these times, this planet, requires.

As Charles Eisenstein has said, “The revolution is love.” It’s NOT an environmental movement—it’s an emotional and spiritual evolution requiring us to expand into the largest sense of Self we can. So, if we want our young people, our activists, ourselves to sustain (and we do), we have to engage in the largest conversation of our times. A conversation about love. A conversation about loss. A conversation about justice. And, a conversation deeply saturated with grief.