Collapse, Trauma Theory and Permaculture
permaculture design and research into the nature of psychological
trauma were born out of a need to heal. A comparison of
the two fields demonstrates an intrinsic similarity between
the principles of permaculture and the principles of trauma
theory. During the coming decades of declining net energy
and ecological collapse, both will be vitally necessary
to the survival of human communities and ecosystems.
It is not a coincidence that the conception, gestation and
birth of permaculture occurred during the energy crises
of the 1970s. As David Holmgren emphasizes in his Permaculture:
Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability (2002),
permaculture originated as a response to the needs of energy
descent. The United States had passed its peak of oil production
in 1970. Soon afterwards, geologists began to apply the
bell curve pattern first observed by M. King Hubbert to
global oil production. Those early predictions indicated
that the global peak would occur in the mid-1990s (If not
for the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, the prediction may
well have come true). In addition, ecologists, such as the
authors of the much-misunderstood 1972 study Limits
to Growth, began to issue shrill warnings that the
planet was headed towards ecological overshoot.
With the advent of $60 crude, many people are beginning
to understand that the peak of world oil production is now
at hand. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (2004)
also makes it clear that human civilization has passed the
limits of ecological overshoot and is now headed toward
collapse unless we quickly pull back from those limits.
The ecological footprint of humanity has now overshot global
carrying capacity by more than 20 percent.
I have a very visceral understanding of overshoot and collapse.
That is because I have experienced overshoot and collapse
within my own body. I am a trauma survivor. This experience
has given me the ability to understand our civilizational
predicament in a way that people who have never experienced
severe psychological trauma do not posses to the same degree.
During the same decades that permaculture was evolving,
another field of research was also developing, the understanding
of psychological trauma. As Dr. Judith Herman exposes in
her landmark book Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath
of violence — from domestic abuse to political terror
(1997), discovery and denial of the effects of violence
on human beings, from abused children to soldiers on the
battlefield, came and went in a repetition of decades-long
cycles of awareness and dissociation. Feminists working
with abused children and battered wives initiated the present
state of awareness. However, it was the lasting psychological
effects of combat on soldiers returning home from the Vietnam
War that led to the first inclusion of Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder as an official psychiatric diagnosis in 1980. Researchers
came to the realization that “shell shock,”
“battle fatigue” and “battered wife syndrome”
and other seemingly disparate conditions from the effects
of incest to the experiences of people who had survived
natural disasters were related human reactions to traumatic
The nature of ecological and civilizational collapse is
quite similar to the effects of trauma on human beings.
Ecological collapse is in fact an ecosystem-wide form of
trauma. Obviously, the difference in scale between individual
human beings and entire ecosystems and planetary-wide ecological
and climatological processes creates differences, but the
similarities are striking.
Furthermore, ecological trauma precipitates human trauma.
As the inhabitants of ecovillages and other forms of intentional
community are painfully aware, successful permaculture design
must incorporate an understanding of human psychology. At
the same time that society will be coping with a declining
availability of energy and the collapse of important ecosystems,
we must also cope with the psychological disintegration
of human beings and the collapse of human societies. Healing
one requires healing the other, too.
Finally, the healing of both psychological trauma and ecological
trauma is remarkably similar. The principles of trauma theory
are essentially the same as the principles of permaculture
Overshoot and collapse: the origin of trauma
Let’s begin by comparing definitions:
In the ‘60s and 70s, scientists began to grasp that
the biological concepts of population overshoot and collapse
applied to human civilization. Overshoot is the process
of drawing down the Earth’s stocks of natural resources.
This drawdown is eroding the Earth’s long-term carrying
capacity by destroying the biological diversity, relationship
connections and accumulated organic matter built up since
the last great mass extinction 65 million years ago. As
ecosystems around the world are undermined, as their webs
of life are broken strand by strand, they become ever more
vulnerable to collapse. Human civilization as we know it
cannot survive planetary-wide ecological collapse.
Limits to Growth says that, “Overshoot comes
from the combination of (1) rapid change, (2) limits to
that change, and (3) errors or delays in processing.”
Even so, collapse is not automatic: “Being past many
kinds of limits does not expose anyone to serious damage.
… People learn to avoid them or minimize their consequences.
For example, you test the water temperature with your hand
before stepping into the shower.” Ecological overshoot
occurs because feedback is delayed, or not noticed in time.
For example, residents of affluent countries do not see
the harm that their lifestyles cause in other bioregions
and on other continents. The natural resiliency of ecosystems
allows them to absorb a lot of abuse before they start showing
signs of stress. Nature is not linear. Changes often occur
suddenly and without warning as a population or system shifts
to a new equilibrium state or collapses.
Many scientists are now saying that we have waited too long
to pull back from the Earth’s limits, and that a certain
level of collapse is now inevitable. Peak oil and climate
change, especially, will likely lead to multiple political,
social and economic crises. Furthermore, as we pass the
global peak of oil production and begin the long decline
down the far side of the peak over the next 20 years, human
carrying capacity will plummet.
However, many people remain in deep denial about ecological
degradation until a limit has been breached that directly
affects their own lives. A fishery collapses and hundreds
of fishermen are without a source of income. A person wakes
up one morning and discovers that a sinkhole has developed
in his backyard overnight due to years of overpumping from
the local aquifer. Crude oil and gasoline prices suddenly
shoot up and a family can no longer make ends meet. Because
of our natural reluctance to face traumatic truths, global
ecological collapse seems unthinkable to most people. The
process has been gradual enough that culturally we do not
yet have a sense of imminent emergency.
Joseph Tainter reveals in his book The Collapse of Complex
Societies that the ultimate source of societal collapse,
regardless of the trigger, is increasingly diminishing returns
on societal investments in complexity. Government and business
leaders try to fix the multiplying problems by applying
the same old solutions — increasing size, increasing
levels of bureaucracy, increasing military force, increasing
social coercion. They don’t try taking a different
path until it is too late. Limits to Growth says
rather starkly that the problem with our accumulating ecological
problems is not that any one of them are not solvable, given
enough time and resources, but that their rapid accumulation
risks overwhelming society’s collective ability to
respond before real damage is done. In our case, our debt-based
economic system requires continual, exponential growth to
function. Hubbert recognized the incompatibility of our
monetary system in an era of declining net energy 50 years
The psychiatric definition of PTSD is a reaction to an experience
of overwhelming trauma that is “outside the range
of usual human experience.” However, Herman notes
that, “Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because
they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the
ordinary human adaptations to life. … (T)raumatic
events generally involve threats to life or bodily integrity,
or a close personal encounter with violence and death. …
According to the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, the
common denominator of psychological trauma is a feeling
of ‘intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and
threat of annihilation.’”
“Classic” PTSD refers to a single life-threatening
experience, such a rape conducted under the threat of mutilation
or death or a severe car accident, by a person who was previously
healthy. Researchers such as Herman, however, realized early
on that many people with PTSD symptoms had not experienced
an immediately life-threatening event. Rather, they had
experienced an accumulation of stressors that may or may
not have been enough to constitute a “clear and present
danger.” Just like ecosystems, people have the ability
to endure years’ worth of trauma before showing visible
signs of stress. Herman calls this form of PTSD “Complex
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Other researchers
refer to the condition as “Prolonged Duress Stress
Disorder (PDSD)” or the clumsy “Disorders of
Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified (DESNOS). Herman
also considers Borderline Personality Disorder to be a form
of Complex PTSD.
As with ecological overshoot, psychological trauma occurs
because important physical or emotional limits have been
breached. Stress has accumulated too rapidly to mitigate.
Denial and delayed feedback often prevent a victim or witness
from recognizing the danger. A parent may not be aware that
a close family friend is sexually abusing his child. A student
experiencing daily teasing and harassment in school may
hear from teachers and parents, “Just don’t
let them get to you.” A soldier in a combat zone may
not have been severely injured and thus believes that he
is immune to psychological problems. An emotionally abused
spouse may believe that what she is experiencing isn’t
Like a government attempting to handle a political crisis
using the same strategies it has relied on for generations,
a victim of overwhelming trauma may not seek help for years,
instead relying on lifelong methods of coping. However,
the accumulation of stress over months or years builds up,
until finally the person has a psychological breakdown and
slides into a deep depression or starts experiencing panic
attacks. The symptoms of PTSD often arrive rather suddenly,
weeks, months or even years after the traumatic experience.
People who develop symptoms of PTSD often experience an
erosion of their long-term mental and physical health —
their individual “carrying capacity,” if you
From this vantage point, ecological overshoot and collapse
can be seen as a large-scale experience of trauma leading
to Complex PTSD of Gaia herself.
There is a general pattern lurking behind these comparisons:
A giant wave crashing into the surf. When a wave is out
at sea, it is barely noticeable. As it travels closer to
shore, however, the decreasing ocean depth causes the water
to start piling up into a mound. The wave grows bigger and
bigger. Finally, it reaches a breaking point — the
weight becomes too great and the water folds over on itself
Ecological and social collapse as a source of human
Those of us living through this era must experience a life-long
unfolding of ecological decline before our eyes. Every year,
we get to watch as one more patch of forest is turned into
another big box store and parking lot. There are more traffic
noises and fewer bird songs outside our windows. We read
the newspaper and learn that glaciers are fast disappearing
and that more species have become extinct. Trauma research
indicates that bystanders to trauma can get PTSD simply
from the exposure to others’ suffering.
However, it is also our own quality of life that is slowly
ebbing away as we lose species and habitats, as well as
more intangible yet vitally important things like beauty,
quiet and democratic participation.
In less affluent parts of the world, of course, the suffering
is far greater: Mass migrations of environmental refugees
have already begun, such as the inhabitants of Tuvalu, who
are begging New Zealand to accept them as their small island
disappears under the rising seas. There is an increasing
frequency and severity of “natural” disasters
due to climate change, deforestation and other causes of
ecological shift and degradation. Resource wars are killing
and maiming millions of people and tearing apart the social
fabric of communities worldwide. Natural disasters, war
and forced migration have long been known to be causes of
When people are severely stressed, their social relationships
become strained, leading to further stress. Trauma creates
a “positive” feedback loop that becomes ever
harder to reverse. When whole communities suffer from trauma,
people develop a kind of mass-PTSD at the social level that
makes it very difficult to heal. Alcoholism, domestic violence
and other problems become rampant. Conflicts between groups
become intractable as exemplified by the Israeli-Palestinian
The two main symptoms of psychological trauma are intrusion
alternating with constriction — that is agitation
due to intrusive thoughts, feelings and images alternating
with emotional numbing or depression. Many people have heard
of PTSD “flashbacks.” Dissociation and withdrawal
are less well understood, although knowledge of the extreme
dissociation of people with Dissociative Identity disorder
(formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder) is widespread.
It is easy to see these symptoms among environmental and
social justice activists. We experience feelings of dread,
anxiety, helplessness and fear over the symptoms of ecological
and political collapse. We have apocalyptic daydreams and
nightmares. Many of us also suffer bouts of burnout and
Among the general American population, the symptoms of constriction
tend to be paramount. People “cocoon” themselves
in their homes, surrounded by their plasma televisions and
stereos and computer games. When they leave, they often
go to the virtual reality of a shopping mall. There is also
widespread political apathy, even as our civil liberties
are being taken away and American soldiers are dying overseas.
Periodically, there is a burst of intrusive violence —
a school shooting here, a mass killing in a shopping center
Psychological trauma, especially prolonged experiences of
abuse at the hands of other human beings, usually leads
to a loss of meaning and purpose. The bonds of connection
between people have been broken. God did not intervene.
Life is reduced to bare survival.
The residents of affluent countries are currently undergoing
the beginnings of a similar questioning. In the United States,
our meaning and purpose as a nation rests on a very specific
notion of “progress” that cannot continue far
into the era of energy descent. As the descent unfolds,
and people are forced by circumstance to give up many parts
of their lifestyles that they hold dear, the questioning
of life’s meaning and purpose will only become more
insistent. Our irrational belief that “God is on our
side” will evaporate. It may take generations to reestablish
a new cultural sense of meaning and purpose.
One of the worst aspects of witnessing ecological destruction
is a sense of guilt and shame for our complicity. We, too,
are perpetrators as we travel by motor vehicle or jet or
accidentally eat a food item containing a genetically modified
ingredient. Likewise, survivors of psychological trauma
say that one of the most painful aspects of surviving human
violence are their memories of when they feel they betrayed
others in their desperation to survive: The torture victim
who talks his way out of a beating, only to watch as another
victim is chosen; The physically battered mother who was
unable to prevent her spouse from beating her son; The concentration
camp survivor who recalls stealing food from other hungry
people in order to keep from starving to death.
We have to try to remember that trauma usually occurs because
one is unable to escape. Traumatic situations limit our
choices. That is why they are traumatic. Complex PTSD is
the result of prolonged trauma in a situation of captivity.
We see this sense of captivity today on a mass scale: suburbanites
speak of not being able to escape “the rat race.”
Those tied to degrading jobs and long commutes fantasize
about moving away to the country. After last November’s
U.S. presidential election, many American progressives fantasized
about moving to Canada (a few actually did so, including
people I know). However, while it is possible to minimize
the damage we do to ecosystems and other human beings, we
can’t escape Planet Earth, visions of extraterrestrial
emigration not withstanding.
Patterns of healing
A brief comparison of the process of healing from PTSD and
the process of healing from ecological/social collapse demonstrates
that they are remarkably similar. The principles of trauma
therapy and the principles of permaculture design share
the same basic outline.
To begin with, psychological research shows that it is nearly
impossible to heal from past trauma if one is presently
in a traumatic situation. For example, a battered wife cannot
heal from the effects of child abuse until she gathers the
strength to leave her marriage.
Therapists who specialize in treating survivors of trauma
say that we must be gentle with ourselves. We are trying
to heal the Earth and heal our own psychological and political
traumas at the same time. This is not an easy task. It has
never been tried before on such a large scale. We don’t
know if it can be done. We must accept that human beings
Permaculture design begins with a clear understanding of
natural limits. Good design works within those limits to
create functional ecosystems.
Political prisoners, unlike most victims of human violence,
have often had time to prepare themselves for withstanding
the eroding effects of captivity and isolation on the personality.
They teach one another in prison how to survive the trauma
with as few lasting psychological effects as possible. Their
memoirs often describe what they have learned in great detail.
Those of us living through this era of ecological and social
trauma can learn from them how to fortify ourselves to survive
these troubling times.
Trauma survivors learn to make some sort of meaning out
of their experiences, to take useful lessons about life
away from what is otherwise a hopeless and degrading situation.
The process can take many years, but eventually an alteration
in one’s perceptions does occur.
In the Winter 2004–2005 issue of The Permaculture
Activist, Richard Zook speaks to the new opportunities
present after a catastrophe in his article, “Catastrophe
as Opportunity.” Zook is a survivor of the catastrophic
Hondo fire of 1996 that destroyed the Lama Foundation outside
Taos, New Mexico. He says that, “In many ways catastrophe
is the epitome of the permaculture principle, ‘the
problem is the solution.’ This principle is about
our relationship to what we perceive.”
The existence of trauma survivors demonstrates that it is
in fact possible to survive. People do heal from abuse,
rape, torture and grief. There are still Romans in Rome
and Mayans in the Yucatán. During the earth’s
previous mass extinctions, some species survived to carry
on the evolution of life on earth.
Permaculture design also incorporates a sense of “deep
time.” While collapse returns a system to a less complex
level of functioning, we know that ecological succession
and evolution will continue on a geological time scale,
if not on a human one. Forests will recover. Accumulations
of humus and water and minerals will occur over eons. The
web of life will eventually repair itself.
Likewise, surviving trauma also involves making a commitment
to healing. Likewise, the prime directive of permaculture
is its ethical system of Earth care, people care and sharing
the surplus. Only by making this commitment to caring for
one another will we ever manage to heal the Earth and its
Herman describes the three steps to healing from PTSD as
Safety, Remembrance and Mourning, and Reconnection.
Survivors cannot begin to heal until they have established
a basic level of physical and psychological safety.
As permaculture designers, safety is also our first task:
We must help to provide safety for people in a time of scarcity
and conflict and safety for rare and essential ecosystems
and endangered species. Some permaculturists are working
to establish monastery-like oases to protect human knowledge
in the form of books, manuscripts, artwork and audio-visual
recordings as well as essential biological resources such
as seed banks.
Safety also requires stability, which on ecological and
social levels includes climate stability, ecosystem restoration
and healing the fabric of human relations to reestablish
relatively stable human communities. The word permaculture
itself means stability and permanence.
In addition, safety requires the reestablishment of a sense
of control over one’s own life. Psychological trauma
takes away control from the victim — it is the lack
of control that leads to someone being unable to escape
from a traumatic situation. Bioregionalists understand this
principle well. They know that healthy societies must be
organized at the local level. Participatory democracy requires
face-to-face interactions with your neighbors. Decentralization
of economic, social and political life will also allow us
to exercise local control over the extraction and harvest
natural resources and ensure that the harvests are sustainable.
Furthermore, safety includes protection from exploitation.
Forcing people to do things against their will is one definition
of abuse. Survivors of prolonged trauma at the hands of
other human beings often come to believe that they must
become someone else in order to survive.
“The traumatic event thus destroys the belief that
one can be oneself in relation to others,” says Herman.
One of the things that initially drew me to permaculture
was its principle of working with the forces of nature and
the inherent characteristics of all living beings. “Wow,”
I thought, “a system of design where no one, whether
human or non-human, is forced to do anything against their
will. One can be oneself in relation to others.”
“In the second stage of recovery,” says Herman
(Remembrance and mourning), “the survivor tells the
story of the trauma. She tells it completely, in depth and
in detail. This work of reconstruction actually transforms
the traumatic memory, so that it can be integrated into
the survivor’s life story.”
I find this process remarkably similar to modern attempts
to construct new societal myths that incorporate the notions
of ecological collapse and restoration, of war and peace
and of modern beliefs in growth and progress versus ecological
and cultural stability. In traditional societies, mythology
is also the process of creating and retelling stories —
stories of loss and redemption, stories of suffering and
healing, cautionary tales of greed and ignorance and the
necessary restorative actions required to heal the fabric
of human and non-human relations.
There is a catch here: many people don’t want to know
what is going on in the world because it is simply too painful
and they feel helpless to make meaningful change. When activists
try to tell people what is happening, we are often turned
away and told that no one wants to hear “pessimistic”
news, even if we also present optimistic alternatives like
permaculture. Environmentalists are like the Greek goddess
Cassandra, who was condemned by Apollo to foretell the future
but not to be believed.
Likewise, PTSD sufferers also frequently find that no one
wants to hear their story of trauma because that would prevent
the listener from pretending that the universe is a fair
and just place where everyone gets what they deserve.
“The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish
them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social
compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning
of the word unspeakable,” says Herman.
However, healing from trauma requires the presence of empathetic
listeners. We must all develop the capacity and social support
systems necessary to help us listen to one another’s
Finally comes the stage of Reconnection. Survivors of trauma
must reestablish healthy relationships with other human
beings by developing a renewed sense of trust. Survivors
cannot heal in isolation. “Recovery can take place
only within the context of relationships,” says Herman.
Ecopsychology extends this context to the need for human
beings to emotionally and spiritually reconnect with the
rest of nature. In other words, personal relationships and
community building are the keys to healing.
Of course, this principle is at the very core of permaculture
design. Permaculture is about the reestablishment of webs
of mutually beneficial relationships. Relationship is the
very definition of permaculture, ecology and community.
As a trauma survivor heals, she breaks out of her isolation
and begins to reengage with the world. Finding a survivor
mission, a renewed sense of meaning and purpose to her life,
is often vitally important to recovery. As activists, our
survivor mission is nothing less than the establishment
of a new human culture based on harmony with the rest of
nature. Many of us have dedicated our lives to this cause.
Our experiences of ecological trauma have given us a desire
to prevent further suffering.
Permaculture was designed to create that “soft landing”
that we hope will happen. We do not know what will come
after us, but while we are here we will make every attempt
to heal the world on its way down — together.
David Baldwin's Trauma
Information Pages is one good source of information
on the psychological effects of traumatic stress.