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Mourning and traumas of the twenty-first century

As humanity moves into the huge, perhaps overwhelming, challenges of the 21st century, we carry with us a build-up of trauma from the events of the 20th century. As we address the threats we face – threats to livelihoods, to democracy, and to our ecological surroundings – we must also be mindful of a widespread need for emotional healing.


As more has been learned about trauma, more has also been learned about resilience. Why, when different adults are exposed to the same traumatic experiences, some develop the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and others do not. An individual who has in her or his life someone who can be trusted to be loving and supportive will have more resilience than one who has no such support. A child that suffers poverty and deprivation will be less likely to suffer reduced resilience to PTSD if he or she has grown up in a stable community of supportive people, whether or not they are blood relations

As humanity moves into the huge, perhaps overwhelming, challenges of the 21st century, we carry with us a build-up of trauma from the events of the 20th century. Consider the horrors of the Holocaust; the suffering in large parts of Europe and Asia during and after the two world wars; or the massacres directed by despots like Stalin, Pol Pot and the rulers of North Korea. Colonial rule in Africa was followed by conflict, disease and government oppression – that continent now has an enormous contingent of orphans who have lived through rape, violence and destitution. China also emerged from colonial status, experiencing the world’s largest famine, the madness of the Cultural Revolution, and now a new economic revolution that has lifted millions from poverty but tossed them into a market economy that pursues profit while trampling on human health and other rights, as well as on the health of the environment. In India the world’s second largest famine occurred while food was being exported from the hardest-hit regions – the result of a market operating without regard to human need. India has now caught up with China in the extent of pollution, and of pollution-caused illness and death. In Latin America, as in Africa, giant multinational corporations, supported by governments (including, significantly, that of the U.S.) have caused violent deaths along with severe environmental abuse.

The 20th was not the only century of human history marked by violence and famine, but it was unique in combining these with other vast changes. One was the extent of population growth, which has multiplied the number of people on the planet by about seven times over the last hundred years. Where population growth was most rapid, local systems were overwhelmed by the numbers of people to feed, house, and provide sanitation for. Demographic shock may also be related to cultural and social changes. In Japan, China, Italy, Russia and other countries where the birth rate has now dropped below the level needed to maintain the size of the population, there is a new struggle to find ways to care for a bulging population of elderly. In other places social turmoil occurs when intra- or international migration is a cause of rapid population growth – as in parts of Europe.

Another exceptional trend over the last three generations was the rapidity and the reach of technological change. Medical and sanitary advances allowed a much greater proportion of infants to live into adulthood. Technology has, of course, also been a major force for economic growth; over the last 70 or so years there has been a substantial shrinking of the percentage – and, by some measures, the absolute numbers – of people living in desperate poverty around the world. But economic growth itself has become increasingly toxic. The form it has taken in recent decades has greatly increased inequality, as information technology, robotics, and other innovations work through the market to amplify the rewards, or lack thereof, to winners and losers in the system. It has also contributed to prospects for ecological disasters that may turn back much of what we have known as progress in civilization. Regarding the terrifying prospect of global climate change it has been said that contemporary humankind is suffering from “Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder”.

Whether we squarely face what this will likely mean for the coming years, or whether we simply can’t bear to look at the facts, it is getting ever harder to avoid the gut-knowledge that the world is rapidly becoming markedly less beautiful, rich and generous to its human inhabitants. Tens of thousands of species disappear forever every year. Large coastal land areas will be submerged; diseases will multiply and spread; food from the oceans and the climate-stressed fields will be scarce; fresh water will be expensive or unobtainable for ever more millions of people; environmental refugees will swell the ranks of unwelcome migrants; and armed conflicts will reach many people who had assumed they were safe. Armed fortress living will be increasingly common among the rich, and will doubtless create some areas of relative security, but the people inside will be their own prisoners.

Next to climate change, another outstanding source of widespread 21st -century trauma is the growing feeling that at least 99% of the people are largely helpless before the power of the giant corporations. Government in the United States is, to a terrifying extent, controlled by big agro business, big pharmaceuticals, and big petrochemicals. Slightly less obvious, because they don’t produce anything tangible, are their enablers – the global consulting firms – and the final skimmers of profits, in the financial industry. These, in various combinations, continue to be major forces in toppling or raising various governments around the world – never to the benefit of the people.

When we speak of the forces that have, to a greater or lesser extent, taken over and degraded the public realm, we cannot leave out the roles of the intelligentsia and the media. The economics profession has played a large role in defining the “free market” as the great bulwark against the kinds of overweening government that were to be found in the Soviet Union – or in the United States. These disparate government types were bizarrely lumped together as Milton Friedman and his allies, with support by the Koch brothers and other beneficiaries of petrochemical money, fed the market solutions message to the public via Fox News, right-wing radio, and the like. As though the markets that come closest to the “free” ideal preached by Friedman and his popularizers are dominated by small businesses, not by giant corporations.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, in their 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, do an excellent job of describing how the public was given a false picture of science, especially that of climate change. The petrochemical industry has used bad science and clever marketing to cast doubt on the need for urgent action against climate change.

It is important to add, to the reasons for widespread trauma in the modern world, the experience of discrimination, which is liable to create and perpetuate a lifelong trauma for those who suffer it. This includes Blacks in much of the world; Jews, over a long history; native peoples, wherever their lands have been taken over by a more powerful set of newcomers; and women and girls in those places where their inferior status leaves them subject to violence, without recourse. The above does not exhaust the topic of trauma in the 21st century, but it may make it easier to understand its scope.

Included in a feeling of trauma is often a wish to find an enemy. There is indeed an enemy of all humankind – a cluster of enemies; and they can be identified. Humanity’s real enemies today – those who stand against addressing the huge difficulties that face the world – include “experts” that insist you have to choose between governments and markets, as well as governments that are hostage to a cluster of powerful, very rich actors. Humanity’s enemies today are the giant corporations that profit in the short term from business as usual while diverting attention from the huge difficulties that face the world – most of all, climate change, inequality, discrimination, and corruption of democracy. Much of humankind shares the traumatizing knowledge that large forces are doing great harm to our livelihoods, our families, and our beloved places. The mourning is interpreted and acted on in a wide variety of ways. Some of the ways are violent, including what we call terrorism; some are beautiful, such as the marches of January 21 of this year, around the world; and some are designed (as I believe the Trump vote was) to create disruptive change. There are grounds for finding common cause among many of those who feel a crying need for a fairer, kinder, safer world.

Can we imagine such a better world? In order to address the great social and ecological challenges we face, we need, for sure, better, more effective government, freed from the chokehold of money. In the U.S. this requires campaign finance reform, along with voter registration and education efforts, to overcome the suppression of voting by the underprivileged. Perhaps even more critical is to get control over the contracting-out system whereby private contractors, hidden from public view, now outnumber the federal civilian workforce by 3 or 4 to 1.9.

We also need a very different, very lively market sector, dominated by small businesses, many of them locally grounded, including various socially responsible modifications of profit maximizing capitalism, such as cooperatives and Benefit Corporations. Large corporations could again (as was the case in the 19th century) be held to charters that spell out their contract with the people. A re-chartering movement is probably as important in this realm as campaign finance reform is for the restoration of responsive government. Reforms to markets and governments are necessary so that both institutions can work on behalf of the vast number of people who are economically insecure, increasingly left out of the existing systems.

While technology is filtering away jobs, fewer people can be funneled into the specialties of the future. What will be needed, however, is more of the care work that for most of human history has been underappreciated and underpaid – when paid at all. Societies will need to address how the fruits of technology-enhanced productivity can be apportioned among all the people, while acknowledging the critical work of the core economies of households and communities.

Such a market, such a government, such a society would need to work together in recognition of planetary limits. In order to more equitably share the Earth’s finite resources, cultural shifts are required, to elevate the values of cooperation and compassion over competition and greed-defined success. Right now, in opposition to any such possibilities, the forces that are determined to reap short term profits, regardless of long-term harm, have strong allies in President Trump and his team; but it is not just this president who is the cause of so much harm and loss, in this century of loss. The votes for Trump, and for others like him, in other countries, have their seeds in the trauma of a past and a future of loss. As we address the threats we face – threats to livelihoods, to democracy, and to our ecological surroundings – we must also be mindful of a widespread need for emotional healing.

** This paper is dedicated to the memory of Dr Richard Rockefeller, who alerted me and many others to the prevalence and implications of trauma in the modern world.

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