Reviewed by Chris Clarke
As can be verified from Google, it has often been said that “what we do to the planet we do to ourselves.” An even more chilling thought, however, is that what we humans do to ourselves we may also do to the planet. A significant proportion of us have, today and throughout our history, routinely inflicted the most horrifying suffering on each other, on scales from the individual to genocide, despite widely spread contrary teachings from the major religions and despite – or maybe because of – the power and sophistication of our mind. So what is it about Homo sapiens that makes us the scourge both of other species and of our own?
According to Malcolm Hollick and Christine Connelly, the answer is, trauma: by which they mean emotionally shocking or painful experiences that have lasting mental and physical effects. What makes trauma so malignant is that, as they quote from the therapist Peter Levine, “Trauma can be self perpetuating. Trauma begets trauma and will continue to do so eventually crossing generations in families, communities and countries …” Their book argues that trauma, usually repressed or dissociated, is ubiquitous in human society, twisting the behaviour of many people and distorting our social structure.
For me the most impressive and convincing part of the book was the central section which described in some detail, drawing on many sources, how this self perpetuating cycle of trauma arose between about 4000 BCE and 2500 BCE. It began with an abrupt climate change and widespread drought, the resulting trauma leading to a succession of adverse changes in human culture which perpetuated a trauma-inducing society. The cultural history of this period unfolds with the remorselessness of a Greek tragedy, an episode that Steve Taylor called ‘The Fall.’ We are living still today trapped in the ‘dominator culture’ which then emerged, a culture that encourages violence and feeds on violence. Others have described this process in terms of gender roles or of economics (both of which are also referred to by Hollick and Connelly). Placing trauma at the centre of the picture, however, both clarifies the problem and also opens up routes for doing something about it.
The “Hope” of the title lies in the fact that trauma can be healed. The latter part of the book is devoted to this. Here the authors, in my opinion rightly, focus on human development from infancy to adolescence and provide a useful, though necessarily highly compressed account of the role of trauma in the phases of development, how it can be avoided and how it can subsequently be released. While a wide range of approaches are described there is an emphasis on body-based dynamical approaches to individual healing. This is coupled with a theoretical framework for the nature of trauma in the first part of the book, based on a metaphorical concept of ‘energy,’ which I found less convincing.
The climax of the book, for me, was the last main chapter which set out the key features of the power structure of our present ‘dominator culture,’ and placed against it a new social agenda, drawing on the work of Riane Eisler, for an emerging ‘partnership culture’ based on release from trauma. This new agenda begins with “Children First”, then proceeding through community building, equality, economics and finally myths, beliefs and stories.
In a field as vast as this each reader will find his or her own points to praise and points to question. I would have liked more contemporary psychology and more analysis of processes, such as “truth and reconciliation”, for healing the pain held within societies, as much as individuals, as a result of internal conflict. But through this book we can see more clearly how we might live peaceably in the world rather than dragging the whole planet down into our own misery. The authors have given us the great gift of seeing the (human) wood for the trees.