Visionary Science, Ethics, Law and Action in the Public Interest

Moral Injuries and the Environment: Healing the Soul Wounds of the Body Politic

Carolyn Raffensperger

By Carolyn Raffensperger

I have a hypothesis about the lack of public support for environmental action. I suspect that many people suffer from a sense of moral failure over environmental matters. They know that we are in deep trouble, that their actions are part of it, but there is so little they or anyone can do individually. Anne Karpf writing about climate change in the Guardian said this: “I now recycle everything possible, drive a hybrid car and turn down the heating. Yet somewhere in my marrow I know that this is just a vain attempt to exculpate myself – it wasn’t me, guv.”

To fully acknowledge our complicity in the problem but to be unable to act at the scale of the problem creates cognitive dissonance. Renee Aron Lertzman describes this as “environmental melancholia”, a form of hopelessness.  It is not apathy.  It is sorrow. The moral failure and the inability to act leads to what some now identify in other spheres as a moral injury, which is at the root of some post-traumatic stress disorders or ptsd.

The US military has been investigating the causes of soldiers’ ptsd because the early interpretations of it being fear-based didn’t match what psychologists were hearing from the soldiers themselves. What psychologists heard wasn’t fear, but sorrow and loss. Soldiers suffering from ptsd expressed enormous grief over things like killing children and civilians or over not being able to save a fellow soldier. They discovered that at the core of much of ptsd was a moral injury, which author Ed Tick calls a soul wound.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “[e]vents are considered morally injurious if they “transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations”. Thus, the key precondition for moral injury is an act of transgression, which shatters moral and ethical expectations that are rooted in religious or spiritual beliefs, or culture-based, organizational, and group-based rules about fairness, the value of life, and so forth.”

The moral injury stemming from our participation in destruction of the planet has two dimensions: knowledge of our role and an inability to act. We know that we are causing irreparable damage. We are both individually and collectively responsible. But we are individually unable to make systemic changes that actually matter. The moral injury isn’t so much a matter of the individual psyche, but a matter of the body politic. Our culture lacks the mechanisms for taking account of collective moral injuries and then finding the vision and creativity to address them.  The difference between a soldier’s moral injury and our environmental moral injuries is that environmental soul wounds aren’t a shattering of moral expectations but a steady, grinding erosion, a slow-motion relentless sorrow.

My environmental lawyer friend Bob Gough says that he suffers from pre-traumatic stress disorder. Pre-traumatic stress disorder is short hand for the fact that he is fully aware of the future trauma, the moral injury that we individually and collectively suffer, the effects on the Earth of that injury and our inability to act in time.  Essentially pre-traumatic stress disorder, the environmentalist’s malady, is a result of our inability to prevent harm.

James Hillman once wrote a book with Michael Ventura called “We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s getting Worse.” In it Hillman said that for years people would go into a therapist and say “the traffic in L.A. is making me crazy” and the therapist would say “let’s deal with your mother issues.” Hillman said “deal with the traffic in L.A.”

So much of environmental or health messaging speaks to us as individuals.  “Stop smoking, get more exercise, change your light bulbs.”  We take on the individual responsibility for the moral failure.  Sure, we need to do all that we can as individuals–that is part of preventing any further damage to the planet or our own souls.  But that isn’t enough.  We all know it.  We have to overcome our assumption that the problem is our mother issues (or the equivalent) and deal with the traffic in L.A., climate change, the loss of the pollinators.  These are not things we can address individually.  We have to do them together.

Healing the moral injury we suffer individually and collectively from our participation in destruction of the planet will require strong intervention in all spheres of life. Actions like creating a cabinet level office of the guardian of future generations or’s campaign for colleges to divest of oil stocks, or revamping public transportation are beginning steps. Can we think of a hundred more bold moves to make reparations and give future generations a sporting chance? Our moral health, our sanity—and our survival—depend on it.


  1. molly arthur says:

    SO important to understand why and how we feel powerless about the large issues facing us. And essential that we be a part of a larger, visionary movement to change the systems of destruction and oppression. We and our Mother Earth are beneficent.

  2. This article really resonates with me! Drive hybrid, walk when possible, recycle, give talks on climate change, etc, etc as though recitation would be redemption. Our only hope may be in non-violent direct action. Sitting home in sorrow, “morally injured”, to use your wonderful phrase, may ultimately be self-indulgent.

  3. Meryl Steinberg says:

    I had a visceral response to using the term “pre-traumatic stress”. Good one.

    Clearly, small moves aren’t working. I sense a need to break down the silos and coalesce around a few powerful, well-organized channels with leadership that understands what it takes to bring people together and how to get heard. McKibbon’s is impressive. 350 is working with young people who are charged about all manner of issues related to survival in deteriorating social-political and ecological systems (they are related). With leadership, they will create sustained, laser focus on using social media channels to get heard online through MSM channels. Young people have everything to gain and nothing to lose by continuing to sell themselves off by taking a job in a soul-sucking industry in exchange for what is looking like a very short term benefit in their lives.

  4. This is profoundly important thinking. Thank you, as usual, Carolyn for your extraordinary mind located in your heart.
    i am wondering what space might lie between pre-traumatic and post-traumatic stress? Something about insisting on keeping the conversation between all of us about how much we love the earth. Sorrow will follow, yes, and, perhaps even trauma, but I am observing changes in people whose ground is their love of the earth. When the passion for the beauty and wonder of the natural world is at the core of daily exchange, then …. I don’t know what is at the end of this sentence, just that my unbearable sorrow is somehow sweetened to good purpose by the shared passion for beauty. Maybe that passion calls us forth …

  5. Gena Fleming says:

    Thank you so much. This needed to be said and you have said it so well.

    Maybe our inability to work together collectively to find a solution is synonymous with the collective psychological dysfunction that led us to mistreat the natural world in the first place.

  6. Fred Erwin says:

    This is brilliant. Thank you. I see this so much in the young people I work with.

  7. Beedy Parker says:

    Yes. I find that people of good will around me somehow feel that, because they find it impossible to be “perfect” environmentally themselves, in their private lives, they are hypocrites and have no right to try to influence others. The joint social responsibility seems to escape them, the situation being that we can’t shift unless more of shift together (Ivan Illich’s concept of Radical Monopoly, where we don’t have alternatives if the society around us choses and structures a dominant system, cars for instance) I feel this more from women, men tending to reject disturbing environmental information outright as a way of protecting themselves from change.