Writing Threat and Trauma: Poetic Witnessing to Social Injustice and Crisis

By | 15 September 2022

I argue that contemporary mediatised poetry constitutes a new mode of witnessing to threat and trauma resulting from pressing public health issues. For this reason, I begin by establishing the connections between trauma, public health, and social injustice, both in terms of genesis and impact.

Some public health researchers emphatically state that trauma itself is a public health concern (Magruder, McLaughlin & Elmore Borgon). Evidence links high-stress levels and trauma to a myriad of illnesses both physical and mental including cardiovascular disease, cancer, substance addiction, and anxiety and depression (Science Daily; Hendrickson et al.; Lanius, Vermetten & Pain; Felitti et al.; Schunurr & Green; Friedman & Schnurr). The ground-breaking Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study led by Felitti and Anda (2006) revealed that 64% of participants reported one or more ACE. Though not every adverse childhood experience leads to a post-traumatic condition, this still indicates endemic trauma in the broader community (cited by Kate). Further, Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD), resulting from chronic trauma and involving disturbances in three domains of self-organisation: affective dysregulation, negative self-concept, and interpersonal problems in addition to PTSD symptoms, is also a high prevalence illness.

As a zoonotic disease that came about largely due to human expansion and encroachment on wildlife habitat, SARS-CoV-2 is intrinsically bound to inequity, animal product consumption and trading, and speciesism (the human assumption of superiority and dominion over nonhuman animals). Bridgland et al., state that though, the COVID-19 pandemic ‘does not fit into prevailing Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) models, or diagnostic criteria’ research shows the prevalence of ‘traumatic stress symptoms as a result of this ongoing global stressor’ as the pandemic ravages ‘all areas of human life (e.g., social, financial), creating distress, and exacerbating mental health issues’ (1).

Climate emergency is intrinsically bound to systemic social injustice related to inequity, late capitalism, and mass consumerism and transport, over-consumption of resources, industrialisation, and unsustainable farming practices. The term ‘climate trauma’ was coined by Zhiwa Woodbury, an ecopsychology researcher who posits a ‘new taxonomy of trauma’ resulting from an ‘ever-present, ever-growing threat to the biosphere’ that features ‘dissociated unresponsiveness to the climate crisis’ (para 1). Woodbury critiques the ‘disarmingly innocuous’ term ‘climate change’ (para 1), arguing that if it was only about manifest events such as heat waves, megafires, and floods, it would resemble established models of trauma, but since it operates as a constant and inescapable existential threat that calls into question our very relationship to nature and our identity as humans, it involves ‘limbic cycle’ and ‘limbic paralysis’ (para 28-29).

Despite the central role nature plays in catastrophes like the Black Summer fires and the Coronavirus pandemic, these are not ‘natural’ disasters. Even pre-climate crisis phenomena like La Niña, which has long oscillated with El Niño as the Antipodean climate pattern, has been exacerbated by climate crisis, leading to recent catastrophic flooding (World Meteorological Organization 2022). Convincing links between both developments and the destruction of wildlife habitat and mass consumerism and industrialisation have been made (Hitch; ANU; Young; Armstrong, Capon & McFarlane; Briggs). Both the pandemic and climate crisis generate trauma and aggravate existing trauma. As Zac Steel points out, traumatic experience does not necessarily result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and those with past histories of trauma are more vulnerable to being further traumatised and re-traumatised, or as Zac Steel puts it, ‘the risk for PTSD [amidst environmental disaster] is most directly linked to the ‘trauma dose,’ which is characterised by the number and severity of lifetime trauma events’ (15). The pandemic pulled focus from climate emergency because of the contiguity and concurrent trans-national threat of COVID-19. As Shakespeare-Finch et al., state: ‘A key differentiator of COVID-19 from the catastrophic stressors such as the bushfires and floods are the simultaneous and direct impact of its effect on all citizens nationally and globally’ (3). Poetic texts have the power to bear witness to the threat and trauma produced by social injustice-crises, and poets are increasingly taking up that mantle.

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