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Nightmares of Climate Change

The grim forecast for ecologically impacted dreaming.

Key points

  • Dreams accurately reflect our experiences with nature.
  • Worsening ecological conditions are likely to prompt increased nightmares.
  • Vivid dreams of nature can become a source of waking world activism.
Kelly Bulkeley
Kelly Bulkeley

Global climate change is having an increasingly destructive impact not only in the waking world but in the world of dreaming, too. Unprecedented fires, floods, and heat waves are severely disrupting the basic capacity to sleep and dream for countless people. A sharp rise in nightmares can be expected. However, these dark dreams carry potential gifts and energies for positive change if we can learn to heed their insights.

Dreams are sensitive to the environment

Several sources of evidence show that dreams reflect our interactions with the natural environment. This connection appears most clearly following a natural disaster like a wildfire, earthquake, or hurricane, with many survivors reporting recurrent nightmares and frightening dreams. The global pandemic of COVID-19 is a natural disaster of a certain kind, and it has prompted an incredible public outpouring of disturbed dreams and nightmares. When nature becomes an immediate threat of horrible death, the dreaming mind takes note and becomes highly active and engaged.

In less extreme conditions, too, dreams reflect our interactions with nature, as researchers have shown in studies comparing dreams among people living in indigenous communities versus modern urbanized nations. The former tend to have more dreams of animals, the latter more dreams of buildings and machines. This may not seem like a surprising result, but it is important in establishing the bigger principle: Our dream lives are accurately attuned to our experiences with nature in the waking world.

To be honest, researchers are behind the curve on this topic. Much more study of the dream-nature relationship is needed. In particular, we need fresh insight into how the patterns of people’s dreams are shifting in reaction to, or perhaps in anticipation of, drastic shifts in the environment. The challenge for therapists and caregivers is all the greater as we brace for the psychological impact of climate disturbances beyond anything in recent human history.

What will happen with unprecedented ecological change? The short answer is almost surely to be, unprecedented ecological nightmares.

How to interpret dreams about nature

If, for example, someone shares with you a frightening dream about an approaching wildfire, how might you respond? Earlier generations of analysts would have focused on the “subjective” dimension of the wildfire as a dramatic metaphor of personal significance. In this view, the dream is suggesting that something in the dreamer’s life—a relationship, a problem at work—feels as scary and threatening as an approaching wildfire. The dream is not really about wildfires out in the world, but about a wildfire-like concern within the individual’s mind.

In recent years, dream researchers have become more open to the idea that dreams also have “objective” dimensions of meaning—that in addition to personal metaphors, dreams can express insights into important aspects of collective reality. Sometimes a dream about a wildfire is actually about the growing threat of wildfires in waking life.

Indeed, there is an edge of ethical critique here. By turning everything into a personal metaphor, subjective interpretations run the risk of diminishing people’s feelings of connection to the world, thus robbing them of the energy to do anything to change that world. In many non-Western cultures around the world, by contrast, dreams are recognized and honored as sources of collective insight. These cultures appreciate the personal dimensions of dream meaning, but they also draw upon dreams as guides for concerns shared by the whole community. Modern Westerners have lost much of our awareness of this communal aspect of dreaming; it’s not too late to get it back.

Dream-inspired activism

Few dreams are all objective or all subjective. Often, both dimensions of meaning are involved. Recognizing this vital duality can lead to new ways of helping people find waking-world actions to help the environment, actions that can also have a personally healing impact. For instance, someone who has recurrent dreams about endangered animals could get involved in an animal rescue program. Someone with nightmares about floods could start supporting atmospheric research groups. Someone with anxious dreams about deadly heat could begin advocating for policy reforms in energy usage.

By amplifying these dreaming-waking connections and making them an explicit part of conscious awareness, new energies for activism are released and deeper insights into personal life become possible. In fact, what C.G. Jung called “big dreams” often center on an especially powerful connection between the personal and the collective. In these cases, the dream becomes a dynamic nexus of doubly intensified meaning, and a unique source of inspiration for effective action in the waking world.

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