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Bandy X. Lee M.D., M.Div.

Environmental Violence as Collective Suicidality

Protecting our habitat is a prerequisite for health.

To corrupt or destroy the natural environment is an act of violence not only against the earth but also against those who are dependent on it, including ourselves.” - Wendell Berry

We could argue that environmental violence is the most urgent societal disorder of the day, as it continues to increase in its capacity to bring about our extinction. Given the crucial importance of the environment to human survival, the disproportionate lack of concern in the face of scientific warnings of catastrophic changes, especially when humans have been instigators of these changes, may amount to collective suicide.

When we speak of environmental violence, we are referring to the direct damage to the environment by humans, but also the violent response from the natural world as a result of human degradation of the environment and the violence humans do to one another because of their effects on the climate. We need to recognize that damage to the environment is a human issue, for our survival is at stake, along with that of other species; the planet itself will continue. Our apparent unconcern about it, demonstrated by the major pushback we see against changing our behavior to rectify the problem, is an indication of how much we need a global and societal psychiatry that can help interpret and treat the pathological tendencies of humankind as a whole.

Human beings have been degrading the environment and causing climate change since the mid-twentieth century by burning fossil fuels like coal and oil, which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2013). Greenhouse gases and aerosols affect climate by altering incoming solar radiation and outgoing infrared radiation that are part of the earth’s energy balance (European Environment Agency, 2015). Global warming on the part of humans is a major form of environmental violence not only because of scale but also because of the degree to which the sharing of benefits and consequences are unequal. Also, it threatens all life on earth and is thus a form of self-directed violence. The failure to change our behavior, not to mention recognize our contribution to climate change, constitutes a part of environmental violence.

We are now dangerously close to being too late to avoid climate catastrophe. Irreversible damage has already begun. The greatest uphill battle, however, is not in a lack of knowledge or conflicting scholarship but in political will (Giddens, 2009). The question now is whether we will refrain from political maneuverings and embrace the few imperfect options we have left.

The year 2016 was the hottest on record (U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA], 2017a), and according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NASA, 2017b), seven of the ten warmest years fell in the 2010s and nine of the ten since 2000. Rajendra Pachauri, former chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who accepted the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize alongside Vice President Albert Gore, stated that, unless we begin to make fundamental reforms by 2012, we can expect to watch the climate system spin out of control. NASA scientist James Hansen, who was the first to blow the whistle on global warming in the late 1980s, has said that we must stop burning coal by 2030 (Crist, Rinker, and McKibben, 2009).

Global warming has both direct and indirect consequences. Some direct consequences are heat waves, droughts, floods, expanding deserts, rising sea levels, the disappearance of plant and animal species, diminished food production, and a generally catastrophic impact on the survival of vast populations around the planet (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2010). Indirect consequences of climate change include mass migrations, wars over depleted resources, and the exacerbation of sectarian tensions (Zhang, Brecke, Lee, He, and Zhang, 2007), together with profound health consequences in the form of physical harm, psychological stress, trauma, anxiety, and depression (Berry, Bowen, and Kjellstrom, 2010; McMichael, Woodruff, and Hales, 2006).

The U.S. president, who dismissed human-caused climate change as a “hoax” and claimed in January that polar ice was not melting even as temperatures rose above freezing in the dead of winter, has led the most anti-environment administration in recent memory. His team has scrubbed mentions of climate change from government websites, pushed scientists off advisory boards, and made the U.S. the only nation on the planet to reject the 2015 Paris agreement on global warming (Holden, 2018). Now, ahead of the enormous Category 4 Hurricane Florence about to hit the East Coast, he tries to celebrate his administration’s response last year to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, calling it “a fantastic job,” even though it killed up to 3000 people—if not more—making it the deadliest storm in U.S. history (Democracy Now, 2018).

Global warming does not stay within the countries causing it. Major damage and displacement due to climate change disproportionately affect those who live in the Global South because of climatic vulnerability as well as poorer infrastructure and emergency-response readiness. As a consequence, those who have contributed the least to the problem and have the fewest resources to deal with it will suffer more of its negative repercussions (Mohai, Pellow, and Roberts, 2009). At the same time, there is no accountability on the part of the corporations and governments of the Global North that have benefited most from the system of high consumption and the export of toxic waste and environmental damage that have contributed the most to human-generated climate change (Agarwal and Narain, 1991). Unlike behavioral violence, which is site-specific, environmental violence has both localized and global impacts, such as air and water pollution, which can migrate from one country to the next.

Climate justice calls for attention to the issues of social justice, equality, human rights, and the historical responsibilities for climate change that underlie the current climate crisis (Page, 2007). But perhaps important to face is the stark reality that environmental violence is not a matter of a difference of opinion or priorities, but a matter of life or death—and whether we will all live together or die together.


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About the Author

Bandy Lee, M.D., is a forensic psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine and project group leader for the World Health Organization Violence Prevention Alliance.  She also authored the textbook Violence.