In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Is Climate-Related Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome a Real Condition?
  • E. Ann Kaplan (bio)

Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PreTSS) is but one of several mental health conditions being theorized in the humanities and social sciences as a result of climate change and the environmental desecration resulting from it. This turn to climate illness is important in the context of efforts to change course as regards the current petro-culture world, or at least to mitigate its impact on humans, non-humans, and the planet. It seems, as William Davies (2019) puts it in his work on declining democracy, that societies world-wide are moving from logic to emotion, from reason to feelings.1 Interest in climate illness responds to such a situation in the sense that too much unconscious emotion may prevent publics from acting to remedy what is happening. Theoretically, if publics can understand the negative emotions and psychic conditions that prevent positive action, society can begin to confront the resistance to tackling what humans are doing to the biosphere. Indeed, it may be helpful to acknowledge that, given the situation, panicking may be appropriate. Further, as Heather Houser (2014), for one, has argued, creating narratives about humanity's dire condition might be more effective than gathering scientific facts and data, widely available already.2

Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, my focus here, is unlike most other mental health climate concepts—e.g. solastalgia (Albrecht), ecosickness (Houser), or Anthropocene disorder (Clark)—because, like ecophobia (Estok), it has a specific clinical reference. In my case it links to, but is different from, the familiar Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); it also differs from other climate illnesses in being focused on the future rather than the past or present.3 In what follows, I'll first look at what psychological research there is showing PreTSS as a disorder so as to assess its viability as a clinical diagnosis; I will [End Page 81] then address briefly how humanists (and film directors) represent PreTSS as a mental illness in climate change narratives. In both discussions, I raise issues to do with race and gender. Finally, 1) I'll ask why the status of official diagnosis matters; 2) explore whether other psychological research suggests climate trauma implicitly if not citing case studies; and 3) argue that while PreTSS might not be the best formulation, or verifiable by narrow scientific methods, what it stands for is useful in regard to affects and illness related to climate change.

Project Context

In the wake of 9/11, I had written extensively about trauma and PTSD in the media, looking at modernist, post-modernist, and postcolonial contexts (Kaplan, 2005). As debates about climate change accelerated around 2007, I became fascinated with dystopian films and fiction about future worlds in which human action had brought about the collapse of both the natural world and civil infrastructures. Known as cli-fi, these films form a subset of regular science fiction, which involves time-travel, aliens, and cyborgs. From the perspective of PTSD, it made sense to see the increasing dystopian fantasies in cli-fi as related to social anxieties and anticipations about a catastrophic future—that is, anxieties about what has not yet happened. It occurred to me that viewers of such fictions may experience what I first called "trauma future-tense," and discussed in regard to Alfonso Cuarón's 2006 film Children of Men (Kaplan, 2012). I saw a connection between anticipatory anxieties for the future (which is what I meant by "trauma future-tense") and the familiar related phenomenon of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I suggested that symptoms similar to those in PTSD could emerge from extreme anxiety about a future when the natural environment, and related human systems, would have failed (Kaplan, 2015). Symptoms, I theorized, might include flash-forwards, nightmares, and fear-induced disassociation, now caused by reference to a future rather than past event.

I called this new disorder "Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome" (PreTSS) and only later discovered that Paul Saint-Amour was pondering a similar futurist mental state in his Tense Future: [End Page 82] Modernism, Total War and Encyclopedic Form (2015). In that work, Saint-Amour first notes that according to classical...