Culture Collapse Disorder: Can Depth Psychology Help Us Cope?

colony collapse disorder vs culture collapse disorderEarth’s inhabitants are in peril largely of our own making. We are, consciously or unconsciously, systematically destroying the our homeplaces, habitats, ecosystems, and above all, the only home we collectively know: Earth. Reports are emerging daily about the implications of human impact on our environment, presenting dire warnings about pollution, urban development, greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, natural disasters, and displacement. The tally of global losses grows daily as we perpetrate ecological destruction through our relentless consumption of the earth’s dwindling resources; through rampant use of toxins, chemicals, and pesticides; and through deforestation, erosion, and devastation of natural ecosystems, wetlands, rivers, and oceans.

The unchecked demands of a burgeoning human population on the planet are initiating conditions that are simply not sustainable. Combined with what might be called our cultural “modern mindset,” an ongoing belief (perhaps primarily at an unconscious level) by a large part of the earth’s population that resources are unlimited, that the way we live is the only way, and that everything will work out somehow, we are, as humans, at a precarious tipping point. In fact, more than thirty years ago (in 1979), ecopsychologist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy noted that for the first time in recorded history, we are deluged with data that suggest our own culture, species, and planet may not survive. If we turn to nature for insight, it’s hard to miss the growing number of extinctions of so many species; one of the most notably, perhaps, the mass die-off of honeybees that are abandoning their hives to certain death, a phenomenon termed “Colony Collapse Disorder.”

Some scientists suggest that honeybees may be acting as the proverbial canary in a coal mine, foreshadowing the imminent demise of the human race as we plummet toward a colony collapse of our own. In his 2008 book, A Spring Without Bees, Michael Schacker muses on the mythical as well as biological implications of CCD, referring to it as a potential Civilization Collapse Disorder. I have simultaneously considered it as Culture Collapse Disorder, an appropriate name for a culture demonstrating ominous symptoms that it can no longer sustain itself.

When we consider the history of humankind, it is not difficult to trace an inevitable path to the significant crisis we face today as culture and a species. The word “culture,” related to the word “cultivate,” literally means the “tilling of the land.” Since approximately ten thousand years ago when a human first turned the earth with a sharp stick in order to plant a seed, to cultivate it, we have not ceased developing new techniques to sustain our burgeoning numbers. From the scientific revolution to the industrial revolution to current day when technology and globalization are the new normal, we have increasingly sought to manipulate nature, embracing rational thought and moving further from a worldview that nature is a community of which we, as human animals, are a part.

Merrium Webster defines “culture” as the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior.” Certainly humanity as a whole may be considered a culture in and of itself in the way we interact with one another, follow customs and traditions, and utilize our capacity to think and take logical action. Culture may also be divided countless ways to reflect, for example, modern versus ancient, third-world versus first-world, or indigenous versus European or western. However, with the coming of globalization and a dramatic increase in what we often refer to as “consumer culture,” the distinctions and contrasts in some cases are becoming harder to discern.

From a research standpoint, culture, human culture, and the domination and escalation of so-called “western” or “consumer” culture have been topics of much attention. The various demands of the masses including food, water, shelter, energy, and healthcare, as well the challenges presented by science, industry, technology, and globalization, have all had their share of scrutiny.

Regarding sustainability, some well-known research has been published on the concept of “collapse,” most notably, perhaps, from Jared Diamond (in his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) who traces a history of the rise and fall of civilizations over millennia. With the growing evidence of environmental distress, scientists, futurists, and other experts are now rapidly producing vast amounts of research on sustainability and the escalating ecological plight of the planet, a result of ecocide and climate change specifically, both of which are a result of the impact of culture on nature and of our modern mindset that allows us to engage in ongoing consumption and destruction of the planet without changing course. 

In addition, a growing number of studies are focusing on displacement and the destruction of homeplaces caused by ecological devastation like pollution, erosion, drought, desertification, and rising sea levels. Finally, much attention and debate is being turned to social issues including civil, sexual, and humanitarian rights; socio-economic challenges; the increase in poverty and the emerging gap between the rich and the poor; access to healthcare and the effects of decades of drug development on humans and the environment; and what appear to be epidemic increases in diagnosed cases of mental and emotional health conditions like depression, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and autism to name a few. In response to these insidious challenges, an increasing number of social scientists and psychologists are now investigating the psychological effects of these critical culturo-ecological issues and the underlying systemic relationships between humans and humans, humans and society (culture), and society and nature.

Given this, it is impossible not to contemplate whether the number of problematic symptoms manifesting so rampantly in our culture warrant the diagnosis of “disorder.” In general terms, “disorder” alludes to a disturbance of the regular or normal functions of a process or event. In the arena of mental health, we understand this to be a psychological abnormality or a pattern of behavioral or psychological symptoms that impact multiple life areas and/or create distress for the person experiencing these symptoms. Indeed, with increasing signs of distress (manifest on both a conscious and unconscious level) among many of earth’s inhabitants—and the intimations of more to come—it is critical we delve into the underlying causes of our dis-ease.

Few are engaging depth psychology to inquire into the oft invisible or unexamined causes of a culture in crisis and to assess the patterns at play. Utilizing a depth psychological lens to study this fundamental eco-psycho-spiritual crisis can allow us to gaze beneath the surface of everyday habits, attitudes, and outcomes, exploring beyond the symptoms to ascertain the roots of issues that have potentially brought us collectively to brink of disaster, or the urgent need for transition to new attitudes and actions at the very least. 

Using aspects of mythology, indigenous understanding, archetypal psychology, psychologies of liberation, and Jungian thought may serve not only to diagnose and devise a “treatment plan” to engage with the potential cataclysm at hand, but might also enable us to find ways to come into relationship with it. Ultimately, this process could provide a blueprint by which we can individually and collectively begin to cope with the consequences and fallout of what has already occurred and what is yet to come: the grief, sadness, anger, and despair, of what we have done to ourselves, our homeplaces, and our ultimate home, the earth.

About Bonnie Bright


Bonnie Bright, Ph.D., earned M.A. degrees at Sonoma State University and at Pacifica Graduate Institute, where she also received her Ph.D. She is the founder of Depth Psychology Alliance™, an online community for everyone interested in Jungian and depth psychologies, and of DepthPsychologyList.com, a free database of Jungian and depth psychology-oriented practitioners. She is also the creator and Executive Editor of Depth Insights™, a scholarly journal, and regularly produces audio and video interviews on depth psychological topics. Bonnie has completed 2-year certifications in Archetypal Pattern Analysis via the Assisi Institute; in Indigenous African Spiritual Technologies with West African elder Malidoma Somé; and she has trained extensively in Holotropic Breathwork™ and the Enneagram.