11:32 am - Monday May 28, 2012

Living Earth

A variety of environmental problems now affect our entire world. As globalization continues and the earth’s natural processes transform local problems into international issues, few societies are being left untouched by major environmental problems.

living earthWe can identify three categories of environmental problems: natural disasters, technological catastrophes, and long-term environmental degradation. It is important to point out how these categories are increasingly overlapping. Many natural disasters, if not caused outright by human intervention, are worsened by human factors. Global warming seems to be causing an increase in hurricanes and their severity. Deforestation promotes floods and landslides because the natural buffers of the forests no longer absorb the rainfall they used to. Even the spread of human habitation increases the likelihood of the loss of property and life in natural disasters. So, the boundary between natural disasters and technological catastrophes is more blurred than before.

A. Natural disasters (e.g., floods, hurricanes, storms caused by natural processes)
1. Usually unpredictable (though there may be some short-term warnings), uncontrollable, destructive, acute, BUT they are expectable. While we cannot predict the next tsunami, forest fire, or tornado, we can expect they will occur. Furthermore, they tend to have a recognizable low point. With natural disasters, we generally know when the worst is over.
2. Factors in psychological effects of natural disasters include the event’s duration, intensity, low point. Equally important are a variety of personal and social coping skills, including personality style, adaptive skills, resilience, and social support.
3. Psychological effects: Short-term stress is common. Generally, chronic stress is rare. Often, increases in cooperation and social bonding are seen.
4. Natural disasters are part of the natural order. While they can be disastrous and while I do not wish to minimize this, I also wonder whether natural disasters are easier to integrate because they are part of the natural order. Is it possible that they even reinforce a kind of existential security?

B. Technological catastrophes, sudden, major toxic exposure (e.g., chemical and radioactive leaks, industrial accidents, e.g., Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, Bhopal)
1. Duration is variable. There may be long-term effects, there is often no clear low point, and victims have little control. There may be a lack of visible destruction and no closure since the long-terms effects are unknown and unknowable. Most people have low familiarity with these, and there is low predictablity. Basically, such catastrophes are NEVER supposed to happen, so when they do, people are not psychologically prepared for them.
2. Toxic exposure leads to both neuropsychological effects and stress effects. The belief in exposure leads to stress. In some cases, their low salience may lead to a denial.
3. Psychological effects: Compared to natural disasters, these effects are more severe, complex, longer-lasting, and likely to be chronic. They often increase interpersonal conflict.
4. Since they are not part of the natural order, I hypothesize that they increase existential insecurity.

C. Chronic, pervasive, long-term environmental degradation (e.g., air, water, noise, and light pollution; global warming). While there is some available theory, there is little research on these effects.  Some parallels can be drawn from research on the psychological effects of the threat of nuclear war. It is easy to hypothesize the following effects.
1. Psychic numbing, denial. CF, (Lifton’s research on Hiroshima & Nagasaki). This is by far the most common and visible effect.
2. Anxiety
3. Helplessness, depression
4. Alienation, the sense of not-belonging
5. Child development. E.g., the need for a positive future to enable an Ego-Ideal will have negative effects of child development.
6. Kahn has written about “generational amnesia,” the process of adjusting our expectations of environmental quality based on childhood experience. Each generation takes what it knew as “natural,” “clean,” or “pure” to be the acceptable standard, even though it is less natural, clean, and pure than conditions in previous generations. This amnesia allows a slow degradation of environmental quality.
7. There may also be a positive effect of recognizing and dealing with environmental destruction. It may be a call to awareness and service, existential authenticity, responsibility & empowerment (See Roger Walsh, STAYING ALIVE, and Joanna Macy’s Despair and Empowerment work in COMING BACK TO LIFE).

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