Greening in the Red Zone: Disaster, Resilience, and Community Greening

Image of Greening in the Red Zone: Disaster, Resilience and Community Greening
Release Date: 
February 8, 2014
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Greening in the Red Zone provides critical research and application that provides a tremendous starting point for catalyzing a discussion about how to heal, integrate, and reengage veterans as leaders in their communities of choice.”

The “red zone” = sites and experiences of trauma; “greening” = the process of healing; “resilience” = people, communities, and organizations adapting to and coping with the effects of trauma. These three key terms form the backbone of this excellent compendium of contemporary research on how individuals, groups, and institutions deal with a wide variety of traumatic experiences through which they don’t just cope but also actively heal.

Case studies provide a wide variety of examples: community gardens in once war-ravaged spaces; children displaced by war, poverty, or natural disaster healing through interaction with animals and nature; reforestation of in the wake of hurricanes, war, and other unnaturally impacted environments; war veterans who heal through an engagement with nature, community, and family.

Focusing o the third strength here, Greening in the Red Zone volume is groundbreaking in its potential for a theory and methodology for healing returning veterans in desperate need of restoration and reintegration in the wake of the traumas of war. As contemporary U.S. warfronts become the objects of historical debate, rapid troop drawdowns demand a thoughtful and systematic engagement with returning soldiers as they seek to find their footing at home.

Social ecologists Marianne Krasny and Keith Tidball have been developing a pedagogical framework that centers on activating memories of “greening” whereby hunting or hiking are connected to feelings of well-being that lead to recovery and reintegration after traumatic assaults to mind and body. Put more formally, they argue that this leads to the formation civic-ecology communities of practice that foster “social-ecological (SES) resilience” that help individuals cope with and overcome trauma. In the process, individual physical and mental healing is combined with community building.

Much of the approach advocated in this volume is grounded in the notion of “urgent biophilia” developed most notably by Mr. Tidball. Humans, he argues, have a cultural-evolutionary affinity for nature (after all, hominins have spent millions of years coping with and adapting to the natural world). The act of linking injured people, community, and natural experiences of all stripe create a civic ecology that helps them learn and build adaptive, resilient capacity.

Krasny et al. (Chapter13) underscore the gap in current approaches to healing—those that emphasize the individual or community—with the engagement of nature. They argue that the life of soldiers is characterized by stress at all stages surrounding overseas deployment, further compounded by life in hazard zones.  Indeed, upon their return, veterans may suffer from severe forms of anxiety related to their deployment experiences. They may also experience a more mundane, but also highly problematic, struggle with reintegration with family and community. Because post-traumatic stress syndrome and other forms of anxiety are typically located in the individual by psychologists, treatment focuses on the individual rather than considering how the individual fits within a more holistic context of family, community, and environment. 

As a cultural anthropologist, this holistic approach strongly resonates with its emphasis on integrating veterans with nature (everything from gardening to outdoor adventure activities) that result in individual and community reintegration and recovery.

As a university administrator, I am very concerned with how higher education institutions will work to not just educate returning veterans, but proactively create programming that heals and reintegrates. Indeed, there seems to be few examples of universities creatively engaging veterans beyond Veteran’s Affairs Offices that address technical issues, such as scheduling classes, obtaining military transcripts, or navigating financial aid. I am not underestimating role of these offices. They are crucial because there is nothing obvious or intuitive about the sometimes quite confusing bureaucracy, practices, and rituals associated with higher education institutions.

There are, indeed, a few examples of institutions creating veterans-oriented outdoor programs mostly with an adventure experience bent. Outside of higher education, programs such as “Wounded Nature” also focus on fixing the body and mind through experiences in nature. None of these efforts, well intentioned as they are, appear to be informed by cutting-edge social science research and theory, nor do they appear to have a methodology based on such.

The field of trauma, healing, and reintegration of veterans (and others who have experienced forms of disaster and devastation) is urgent and compelling. The Army projects a drawdown of 80,000 in five years or less, with perhaps 40,000–60,000 more in the works. The Marine drawdown would range from 20,000–30,000. The Navy and Air Force is likely to also see forced cuts.

Greening in the Red Zone provides critical research and application that provides a tremendous starting point for catalyzing a discussion about how to heal, integrate, and reengage veterans as leaders in their communities of choice.