The Trauma of Ecodefence

This was a paper I wrote that got published in the James Cook University student newspaper (sometime around the mid-1990's). I am an activist, not a psychologist, and was a student at the time.

Trauma of Ecodefence

Alexander J. Thomas*


My main message is that while defending our ecosystems can be a strengthening experience for individuals and communities, it is less well recognised that it can also be a traumatising one. Ecodefence is a widespread and growing phenomena that varies in intensity across the world, appealing to the young as a lifestyle in countries such as Australia, yet inviting death and maiming in countries such as Thailand. In Australia, activists can underestimate the power of the direct action situation, and overestimate the power of individuals to tolerate and understand human behaviours. The consequences of trauma to participants in direct action campaigns can overwhelm up to a quarter of participants, although few panic, and so it is preferable to anticipate and manage this outcome.

The extent of ecodefence

When the concept of the trauma of ecodefence first came to me I must admit that I had in my mind an impression of the look on the face of a young, dreadlocked, para-booted, greenie squatter coming to terms with the experience of a confrontation with red- necks, and the awesome sight of clear-fell logging coupe carnage. In fact, the history of ecodefence is as old as mankind, and its practioners cut across all race, age, class, gender definitions. Examples of ecodefence in the history of the Western tradition stretch can be found as far back as antiquity, and their are plenty of meaningful stories in traditional cultures as well.

Much of our modern conflict is driven by competition over natural resources, and appreciating this link is bringing about a revolution in the philosophy and practice of politics and warfare (Prins and Stamp 1991; Homer-Dixon et al. 1993). If we take warfare for example, Prins (Prins and Stamp 1991) has not only identified a shift in the deployment of military forces toward instances of environmental conflict, and just one Australian instance of this was the use of an F-111 jet in the Franklin Dam protest, but set a framework for a change in policy and practice which may help strengthen the defence policies of the Democrats and Greens in particular.

For some reason we need to keep reminding ourselves of this ecology-conflict link at an intellectual and political level, and I would suggest that this is because too few of our intellectuals and politicians are grounded in their earth reality. An earth reality that most of the planet's citizens are still well and truly in contact with. Ecodefence is the intuitive response of earth grounded citizens, because they understand the healing power of nature, and the link between a poor environment and the extent of disease. For all the technology and genetic engineering that the Western medical tradition can leverage, the link to our environment is still the one which determines the health status of the overwhelming majority of us (Conrad et al. 1995).

Direct action is being adopted as a lifestyle, particularly by young people, however few realize that it can be a life of trauma. Naive activists say things like "... you can take on the establishment by doing something as simple as sitting in front of a bulldozer.", without recognizing that although conflict may be non-violent the feelings still run high. More experienced activists realize that when push comes to shove blockading and conflict in the field are the tactics of last resort, because this form of political resistance always involves individuals putting themselves at risk.

The modern practice of direct action in ecodefence has been facilitated by writings such as Abbey (1973), Mitchell (1970), Watson (1995) and Sharp (1973) to which I would add Ueshiba's (1992) 'The art of peace' as a counterpoint to the often mentioned Tzu's (1963) 'The art of war'. The internet has also had a significant impact on the timeliness and availability of resources, and for the provision of this service I think a laurel would have to go to Pegasus networks. Ecodefence is also embodied in legal structures, for example the Worldwatch Institute now includes a chapter on environmental justice in its annual report (Worldwatch Institute 1996), and Australia has a number of Environmental Defenders Offices supported by the Federal, State governments and professional legal associations. These provide a non-profit community legal service for environmental law in the public interest.

Examples of ecodefence campaigns

In Thailand, traditional peoples are defending their forests by ordaining the trees as monks . These trees are not cut by the local people employed by the timber companies, because killing a monk is considered one of the most unspeakable crimes imaginable. In response, they are being killed, their wells are poisoned and in a chilling twist being denied access to water, forests and fields by the use of anti-personnel mines.

In Australia, my impression is that recent instances of conflict and direct action in ecodefence have become much more site specific, yet more intense. Although the bigger picture is no less relevant, there seems to me to be a more fertile field of public and political will for these debates than there was even a decade ago. Still, at the coalface these changes are resisted at a local level in remote communities, where there is very much a pioneer ethos and mentality.

For example, the coastal community of Cardwell is where the Port Hichinbrook resort proposal is still being bitterly fought. During the most recent on-site conflict the defenders of the mangroves were removed not by the police, but by Keith Williams' hired hands who were deputised by the police. Defenders reported extreme sexual threats, even videotaping the action did not prevent the excessive use of force and personal injuries were sustained. The local doctor, in what would be a gross dereliction of duty, was reported to have refused to treat these injuries (Kingston 1994). At a community level the trauma of the protest persists to this day, with shops variously refusing to serve local residents involved in the defence, shots fired at houses and numerous threats of violence.  

The nature of ecodefence trauma

Trauma is not a new or unstudied phenomena, and has been particularly studied in war, natural disasters and car accidents (Watts and de L Horne 1994). Tragically, it is increasingly being understood in Australia in terms of civilian massacres such as Hoddle Street, Queen Street and Port Arthur, and in terms of chronic social dysfunction such as child abuse. Lessons from these traumas can be adopted for use in ecodefense.

The trauma to an individual is a matter of relative stress, and in the context of ecodefence is about their reaction to the death, loss or threat to an ecosystem or its defenders, which may be sudden, untimely, violent and shocking. Because the violence of ecodefence is perpetrated by the hand of mankind the trauma is generally more stressful, and where developers and organisations are involved, the denial of responsibility, failure to offer an apology, absence of regret and use of lawyers and legalisms (such as SLAPP writs) can be profoundly painful (Erikson 1994). Furthermore, if the habitat destruction becomes inevitable there will be a period of 'inescapable horror' before the individual bears witness to it.

For young people in particular, the trauma may be the shattering of their assumptions about their personal invulnerability, the failure of human institutions (such as the police force in particular), and the cruelty and hostility of strangers (Janoff-Bulman 1992). Consider that people who have been in an environment of trust, respect, decency, charity and concern may suddenly find themselves confronted with hostile strangers who treat them as if they belong to a different order of humanity and have no qualms about being cruel and violent to them. Ecodefenders are considered so much like trash that they are increasingly met with police or goons in protective clothing, as if ready to handle toxic waste.

The effects of trauma can manifest themselves as specific and non-specific signs and symptoms, and in severe cases in a condition known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can affect 70-90% of people exposed to a traumatic event for up to a few weeks. The trauma of ecodefence in Australia also occurs in at least one other form, namely the constant erosive and disillusioning news of the state of our environment. These can compound and exacerbate a trauma reaction, in the sense that someone who has been exposed to continuous bad news may have a disproportionately more traumatic reaction to a direct action confrontation.  

The trauma of ecodefence in Australia is manifestly unlike war, civilian massacres, natural disasters or car accidents, where the important difference is human death, but this would not be so for overseas situations, like Thailand. However, it may only be a matter of time. Just consider the signs of escalation, such as the street riots following France's recent nuclear tests, and in a more local example the recent televising of a physical fight which broke out over the loping of a significant fig tree somewhere on either the Sunshine or Gold Coast.

Signs and symptoms of traumatised people

There are specific and non-specific reactions to trauma, and activists may choose to keep a list of these as an aid in identifying people who have been particularly traumatised and who may develop PTSD (Table 1).

* intense yearning for the lost ecosystem

* preoccupation with images of the ecosystem

* pangs of grief triggered by any reminder

* disorganisation

* numbness

* anxiety

* anger

* dreams of the ecosystem

* angry protest 'Why did this have to happen?'

* sadness, crying and pain

* difficulty with sleep

* nightmares about the event

* depressed feelings

* tendency to startle (indicating arousal)

* irritable feelings

* mood swings * bad conscience, self-accusations or guilt

* fears about approaching the site or similar situations

* tension in the body

Table 1 - Specific and non-specific reactions to trauma. Adapted from Watts (Watts and de L Horne 1994).

Preparing for trauma of ecodefence

Preparation for the trauma of ecodefence consists of: •    alerting people to normal reactions to the situation •    identifying what people can do when they have these reactions •    nominating a place and/or person for defusing and/or debriefing

It is important to let people know that there will be support for their continued engagement and that this often helps their future satisfaction and capacity to accommodate the trauma, while at the same time it should be affirmed that are allowed to select their own point of dissociation.

Managing the trauma of ecodefence

During the action individuals who are traumatised may lose the ability to function, and become a danger either to themselves or others. There are two ways of managing this situation. Either the individual is given psychological first-aid through kind and reasonable compassion for their suffering, and escorted to a comfortable place to defuse, or they are kept close to the action, made aware of it and are expected to remain involved in it.

After the event there will be a period during which the experience engrains the community of participants, supplying its mood and temper, dominating its imagery and its sense of self and which governs the way its members relate to one another. This period is a make or break time, during which there can be a wave of euphoria and good feeling, or corrosion and splitting apart.

The immediate activity after the action is to defuse the experience, which is best done by reviewing what happened in small groups. During the defusing people can unload their feelings, share their distress and resolve to move on.

Shortly thereafter a group debriefing can be held. The purpose of the debriefing is to be constructive, and any discussion of perceived mistakes or negligence should be deferred because this can lead to guilt and distress. There is also a myth that forcing the recollection of the event is somehow useful, but this is not so. Attempts to do so are often well meant, but they should be swiftly and kindly disabled.

Because debriefings can easily become negative situations, care must be taken with them. Activists who facilitate these debriefings may find the format provided in Table 2 useful to them.

1. Introduction •    Right to be silent and confidentiality •    Discussion of procedures deferred •    People talk only for themselves •    People should be made aware that it could get worse before it gets better •    If leaving then please do so quietly and encourage to return •    If leaving in distress then someone will leave with them to support them

2. Fact phase •    Identify the facts of who, what, when and where. Defer why for later.

3. Thoughts •    Peoples thoughts are often clues to the core of their anxiety, and form the basis of intrusions into their thinking. •    Ask what did you do and why, what did you hear, see or smell

4. Reactions (longest) •    Never cut someone off when describing their reaction •    Ask 'How did you react?', 'What was the worst of what happened for you?', 'Have you ever experienced something like that before?' and 'How did you feel when that happened?'

5. Symptoms •    Describe the possible responses people may be having.

6. Preparation •    Describe the common elements of peoples experience •    Foreshadow their possible experiences, and affirm that these will decline with time

7. Re-entry •    Encourage self-help if symptoms persist beyond six weeks, increase or person can't function •    Arrange follow up meetings

Table 2 - Direct action debriefing format adapted from Watts (Watts and de L Horne 1994).


Conflict in direct action ecodefence can be a traumatising experience for people, and the nature of the trauma is particular because it often involves a personal loss, violent human action against other humans, and the shattering of the assumption that public institutions (such as the police) are benevolent. The experience of trauma can be strengthening when there is a recovery of function and an adaptation and mastery of it into a more resilient, re-evaluated world view. It is not about 'getting over it', but an accommodation of it into the assumptions of how life is, without becoming excessively disillusioned. The shared experience of a trauma can be a positive force which creates spiritual kinship and community identity amongst people.

The essence of helping people accommodate the trauma of their experience is about having compassion for their suffering, recognising that the event was traumatic for them, affirming that their reactions are normal, and identifying their strength as a survivor. Acknowledgements This paper was kindly improved and encouraged through discussion with Helen Myles, Dr. John Winter, and Kerry Stelling, and was inspired by a recent journey with the support of the Tarkine Tigers.


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* PO Box 100, JCU QLD 4811, AUSTRALIA.