Survivor guilt in the Anthropocene

1280px-Lonesome_George_-Pinta_giant_tortoise_-Santa_CruzJennifer Jacquet at Lapham's Quarterly:

The current array of species disappearances is comparable in rate and size to the five other mass extinctions in earth’s 4.5-billion-year history. But only since the second half of the twentieth century—with the creation of international scientific bodies, and databases that tally likely extinct species (to date, nine pages of very small font)—have we come to understand the magnitude. This havoc we have wreaked on earth’s biological system feels fundamentally different than that which we have wreaked on its physical system. We feel bad for warming glaciers and making the oceans more acidic, but we feel particularly bad about annihilating wild animals that managed to struggle for their survival alongside us year after year. They struggled against all odds but one.

Dealing with the disaster we have created means finding a way to reckon with our guilt for causing it. “Why stick around to see the last beautiful wild places getting ruined, and to hate my own species, and to feel that I, too, in my small way, was one of the guilty ruiners?” asked Jonathan Franzen in 2006. “The guilt of knowing what human beings have done” is how conservation biologist George Schaller described the feeling he gets when he looks at the Serengeti. In 2008 Schaller made one of the most definitive statements of Anthropocene-inspired self-reproach. “Obviously,” he said, “humans are evolution’s greatest mistake.” And in 2015 Pope Francis joined the chorus of mourners. “Because of us,” he wrote in his encyclicalLaudato Si’, “thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”

In 1961 psychoanalyst William Niederland coined the term survivor syndrome after conducting a study of those who survived Nazi concentration camps as well as survivors of natural disasters and car accidents. Niederland noted that among their symptoms were chronic depression and anxiety. Many camp survivors whom the SS had “selected” to live found it difficult to relate to ordinary people and have ordinary feelings. Sigmund Freud , page 44] had intimated the idea in an 1896 letter in which he discussed his father’s death, describing a “tendency toward self-reproach which death invariably leaves.”

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