“The truth is that “I can’t breathe … hints at the apocalypse of human values”
–Ben Okri

Who would have thought that the human species would one day, be held to ransom by a microbe? And yet, here we are in a year we will never forget – 2020 – a year in which the human world not only stood still, but in which any convictions of human superiority over all living things, would be seriously questioned. It would be a year in which our basic assumptions about our future would be challenged.  For those most severely affected by the Covid-19 viral infection, the presenting symptom was one of increasing respiratory distress. Their plea is one that haunts every human being … “I can’t breathe.”

How ironic that 2020 is the symbol of perfect vision. If we had such vision, then we must have seen it coming. And we did. Deep down we knew that something like this had to happen. The so-called “black swan” – the creature that no one believed existed – a metaphor for events that not only catch us by surprise but have a major impact on our lives – suddenly pitches up? No. It did not arrive unannounced.  The ‘black swan’ dynamics of rising human populations, high density urbanisation, habitat fragmentation, plastic and biochemical pollution, the burning of forests and fossil fuels, climate instability and with it, the zoonotic consequences of the way we treat, eat, farm, corral, transport and trade domestic and wild animals – legally and illegally, has come home to roost. The swan was staring us in the face. Its call was the warning cry of the Earth itself: “I can’t breathe” …  Watch out!” 

Of course, this is all hindsight.   The pandemic with all the anxiety and uncertainty that comes with it is upon us. It is for real. We have no choice but to deal with it, each in our own way. As challenging as it has already been for some more than others, it may be of small comfort to know that we are in the midst of a process that for better or worse, will pass. Perhaps we will be better prepared for the next one? The fact remains – we are in this together, locally and globally.

For those of us who are privileged enough to know where our next meal is coming from, it has been a time to gather ourselves, to be still and open to some honest self-examination. After all, crises shape us. They shape history. They reveal us for who we truly are, for who is advantaged or worse off than us, for who or what holds our power and for who and what we value in life. They ask searching questions of us, such as: how important really, are those things that we want to rush back to doing? Crises teach us to look and to listen differently. For example, it did not take long to see the world’s reactions to the phenomenon in a different light, to realize and to be reminded of just how wide the gap is between the haves and the have nots in the world today. Something unfair and unacceptable was being unmasked. 

On the other hand, it did not take long to notice that the animals were coming closer.  Bird song was louder. In some cities, the stars, after years of smog cover, were once again visible. In northern India, the Himalayas – for the first time in multiple decades – could be seen from more than two hundred kilometres away. It was as if the Earth was saying “I can breathe again”. It makes logical sense or is it something deeper, something ethical in us that knows that there has to be a way of preserving and protecting these visible benefits to the natural environment? 

I looked up the root meaning of the word “crisis” and was surprised by what I read.  Originally used as a medical term for denoting a turning point of a disease – its roots are in the Greek word krisis from krinein ‘decision’. As we begin to face up to the social and human- induced ecological injustices of our time, could this crisis be a time and turning point in our history for the makings of some of the most important political, economic, ecological and personal decisions of our lives?

Meanwhile, several weeks into the lockdown, the novelty of isolated family contact, zoom dinners with friends and social distancing began to diminish. The light-hearted yet essential humour across the internet began to wear thin. The general mood of the public began to shift. For many – particularly those who had lost their livelihoods and without a financial cushion – the situation was becoming desperate. Fuelled by uncertainty, we began to feel increasingly irritable, frustrated, restless and impatient – all natural signs and symptoms of grieving, not the grieving for the loss of a loved one but for a certain loss of freedom, the loss of a certain way of life and for some, the loss of a sense of a future. The feeling was one of an increasing sense of suffocation. A breath of fresh air – the easing of the pressure of restrictions – was badly needed.

And then came the 25th May, 2020. The world at large watched the footage of a man suspected of trading a counterfeit $20 bill being pinned to the ground in a fatal throat-hold by a police officer in Minneapolis, USA. The officer, his knee firmly pressed into the extended neck of the handcuffed victim, ignored the repeated plea of the dying man: “I can’t breathe…”

His death will be remembered not only for the callously brutal manner in which he died, but for the depth, significance and timing of his dying words “I can’t breathe”. The name of the man was George Floyd. He was a black man. The police officers involved where white. It was an all, too-familiar script but this time, assisted by unprecedented social media visibility and outreach, the reaction was swift, fearless, focused and united. The suffocating dynamics of long standing systemic racial, ethnic and cultural discrimination not only in the USA but globally, had been unmasked. Watch out!  No one can say they did not see or hear it coming. Like the Covid-19 outbreak, this was not a ‘black swan’ phenomenon. 

Quick to grasp the relevance of the event and the words “I can’t breathe”, the Nigerian novelist and poet, Ben Okri wrote: “These few words should become the mantra of oppression and spark the real change our world so desperately needs” adding … “Never in my lifetime has the case for such visible injustice moved white and black people, moved them as human beings.” I value Ben Okri’s recognition and inclusion of both whites and blacks in his analysis of the emotional impact of this historical event. Perhaps not as forceful or meaningful as it may be for some, I don’t believe there is a single human being who does not understand the personal significance of the words “I can’t breathe”. Like Martin Luther King’s 1963 – “I have a dream”- speech, these very human expressions belong to all of us. We are all in this together. What an opportunity! What a responsibility!

Over the years, having spent most of my life in South Africa, I have come to know the meaning of privilege … the privilege of unbounded opportunity; the freedom to follow my dreams, to travel to wherever I wished and to take for granted that my future and that of my children would be secure. I can only imagine what it must be like – how suffocating it must be – to be robbed of your voice and freedom to be yourself, without prejudice or consent. I too would protest “I can’t breathe” and more … I would do so not only for myself but for the sake of that which has been silenced and suffocating in others. 

It is part of my work.  As a psychiatrist and analyst, the psychological and ecological relevance of these three words – I can’t breathe –  is inescapable.  In other words, what is happening in the world ‘out there’, is also happening within ourselves and more … it is happening to the Earth as well.  Let me put this into context.

With the easing of the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions I am slowly moving from skype and zoom consultations, to seeing my patients once more, face to face. In keeping with the regulations, each patient enters my consulting room, hand-sanitized and fully masked. Once seated and appropriately distanced, I invite them to take off their mask. For a start, it makes it easier to breathe. “You may take off your mask” is a powerful metaphor for the meaning of analytical therapy … that in this room, in this hour, in this space and time together, no words, utterances, declarations and dreams are forbidden. You can remove your social masks. You can be yourself … and when you leave you can put them on again, not only for your sake, but for the sake of others.

Seated face to face, the first question I ask of any new patient is a simple “How can I help?” My task then, is to listen and to listen deeply. There are many reasons for seeking professional help, for example, the need for guidance in careers and relationships; because of identity issues or the sense of having lost one’s way in life; because of issues of loss, betrayal, abandonment and grief. Sometimes quickly and direct, sometimes slow and circumventing, the response I get from almost every individual has somewhere within it the mantra: “I can’t breathe” –  individuals ‘suffocating’ in bullying relationships, stifled in their careers, ‘paralyzed’ by political correctness and bureaucratic inertia, claustrophobic in their marriages, ‘choked’ by commitments, deadlines and the expectations of others. Sometimes, they are simply ‘out of breath’, burning out … desperate for a place to gather themselves, to catch their breath … to be inspired.

What follows is a process intrinsic to many therapeutic approaches –  the task of assisting my patients toward a renewed perspective of themselves and of their relationships; helping them to recognize and to own up to their own contributions to their suffering and most challenging (and rewarding) of all: helping them to find their voice – an authority that is natural to them. This takes time, trust, patience and a willingness to be disturbed. Owning up to own up to one’s personal contributions to one’s suffering is not easy.  It is far easier to identify the source of one’s problems as a phenomenon external to oneself … to the ‘system’ or to any particular individual-other (husband, wife, parent, boss etc.) than it is to admit to the possibility that one’s own assumptions, pretenses, neediness, entitlement, manipulations and demands have been suffocating for others.

Finally:  the task of finding one’s own voice – of learning how to take the “knee” of fear, conformity and self-doubt off the throat of that which you have silenced within yourself … to hear the plea of an often forgotten voice within you, and to let it breathe. Finding one’s voice of course, is not without challenges, consequences and responsibilities. It can sometimes come at a considerable cost to one’s family or to one’s place and status within societies and to those who could not see beyond your masks.  However, it can also bring a measurable renewing of relationships within those same families and societies. Sometimes, to find your voice is to inspire others to find theirs, to be a voice for the voiceless and most urgently of all – to be a voice for the Earth.

To me, deep ecology and depth psychology are intertwined. Ecology is far more than an academic faculty or study. It is a state of mind, an attitude … a way of listening and a way of seeing. It makes sense to me that the chemical and biological patterns of relationships between the atmosphere, the forests, rivers, mountains, oceans, landscapes as well as the micro and visible animals in our lives, are inseparable from our existence as human beings. Our identity and our sanity depends on them. These very patterns of relationships are in our psyche and in our blood. Who and what would we be without them? And yet, the Earth, on our watch, is suffocating. 

Look! The human knee is on the throat of the biosphere. We are polluting the air we breathe, choking the rivers, deforesting the lungs of the Earth as well as poisoning the seas and soils that sustain every living thing. 
Listen! The biosphere is crying: “I can’t breathe”. Watch out!  In response to human activities and human-induced ecological injustices, the biosphere will protest. It is already doing so and with increasing vigour. With rising global temperatures – undeniably linked to fossil fuel burning – the climate is becoming less stable. As a result, climate extremes in the form of floods, droughts, wild fires and hurricanes are the order of the day. No one can say that we didn’t see it coming.

Please don’t think the Earth is out to get us. By all means, take it personally but the biosphere won’t. It will simply continue doing what it has been doing for billions of years. Remember, the evolution of life on Earth is a two-way process. It is not enough to marvel at the way organisms over millions of years have improvised and adapted to changing environments. The biosphere in turn, adapts to the way that organisms behave. It is an ongoing, bilateral process of give and take… a formula for all relationships. If this is so, then the timing of the biospheres’ response to human consumptive behaviour should not come as a surprise. The other problem of course, is that multiple other species on Earth are suffering and suffocating because of us. A human- induced ‘sixth extinction’ is staring us in the face.

Is there anything we can do about our deteriorating relationship with the biosphere? The answer is yes. We need to get the suffocating human knee of conscious denial, entitlement, indifference and defeatism off the throat of the ecosystems of our planet and we need to do it quickly. To me, these are the four most important ecological challenges of our time. Let’s take a closer look at them. 

Conscious denial is best described by Bob Dylan in the line of his 1962 classic: “How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?” It’s not because we don’t care. We know what is happening, we know that our current lifestyle is damaging to the biosphere, but for reasons of timing, inconvenience, commitments, conformity, the economy and other personal aspirations, we don’t want to know. We rationalize and minimise what could be described as a contract with ignorance – “things are not that bad”, we say or, “if others are not changing their behaviour then why should I?” The question is: Are you willing to be disturbed? Are you willing to say No to that contract? 

To turn your head is not far removed from the second challenge: human entitlement – a pervasive sense of self-importance in which our denial becomes justifiable. Assumptions become systematic, ritualised and ultimately, systemic. Our habits become addictions. When challenged, no one warms to being advised that we may be wrong, that our personal philosophies, assumptions, expectations and lifestyles are inappropriate, anachronistic or worse … that we are suffocating the lives of others. There’s a difference between a sense of self-importance and a sense of self-worth. In children, the former is natural, necessary and when appropriately guided by parents and teachers, it enhances a sense of resilience, agency and self-worth. In adults and particularly in times of crisis, self-importance is regressive, narcissistic and pathetic. For self-proclaimed ‘stable geniuses’ and others in positions of power, it is dangerous.

The question remains: are we willing to be disturbed?  Are we willing to remove the ‘knee’ of human self-importance from the throat of our planet? Are we willing to re-examine our priorities, our assumptions, our values and conveniences – what could also be described as our addictions: food, work, adrenaline, lifestyles and so on? Are we willing to question the possibility that we may be wrong about our understanding of the human place and position in a web of life, that we are not the apex of creation and where all else is secondary – to be utilized, bought, sold and controlled for our benefit?  Or, are we going to resort once more to our contract with ignorance? If it is the latter, then we will be faced with the third, most toxic challenge of all: human indifference.

What makes this behavioural phenomenon so toxic is that you know exactly what is going on but you simply don’t care.  Part of my work includes helping people to sort out relationship issues. Often, in answer to the question: “What is the opposite of love?” I hear the word ‘hate’. To me, it is anything but hate. Hate has energy, chemistry and substance. You can work with the emotion of hate. The opposite of love is indifference. You don’t give a damn. You don’t care. In a marital relationship, this is toxic. Instead of energy there’s apathy. Instead of chemistry there’s emptiness. Instead of substance there’s frivolousness. The relationship is all but dead. The same goes for our relationship to the Earth and to the biosphere. 

Are you willing to be disturbed? To test your own sense of self-importance and indifference, ask yourself: “How much consciousness, awareness, sensitivity, memory, intelligence, resilience and expertise am I willing to grant to a tree, a bird, an animal, or anyone I believe to be less important than me?” The answer to this question hinges on the word: willing. How willing are you to grant these assumed human-defining qualities – at whatever level or intensity –  to all living things? Remember, this is not a test of whether butterflies, birds and whales are more important than us or not. It is a measure of the degree to which we value and validate the rights of other species to exist. How willing are you to look at the Earth through a different lens and to listen with a different ear? If unwilling, could the hardening of your thinking be anything to do with the final phenomenon and challenge: human defeatism?

Defeatism is the saddest of the challenges. Why? … because it addresses that part of us that believes it is too late to turn the tide of what we have done to the environment … that we might as well give up. Hamstrung by a pervasive sense of hopelessness, we might as well eat, drink and be merry … Yes, we have good reasons to be cynical, to see all our endeavours to make a difference to our planet as no different to the futile task of the legendary Sisyphus – the mythical Greek hero who, scorning the gods of the underworld, was condemned by them to push a heavy boulder up an ever-increasing gradient until, inches short of the summit, it became too heavy, overpowering him, only to roll back to where he had started and to where he would have to start all over again … and again.  Instead of giving up, as the gods expected him to, he turned once more to that rock. Embracing it, he recommenced his impossible task. In that act, he scorned once more, the punishing gods. In that act, he showed that he was bigger than that rock, bigger than his fate … that within the rock itself lay hidden possibilities.  This is the challenge of human defeatism. Don’t fall for the trap of hopelessness.

Here then, is the challenge: Are you willing to make a stand, to say “No” to the voices of entitlement, indifference and defeatism within ourselves and in others? Are you willing to be an advocate of hope, to refuse to be overwhelmed by the weight of the environmental tasks that we all, in our own way, have to face? In light of the fact that we are not a keystone species on Earth, that its ecosystems will be better off without us, do you have it in you to be a keystone individual, someone who gives a damn, who makes a difference, however small … someone who knows the difference between optimism and hope? Hope is not the same as optimism. It is not the conviction that everything is going to turn out well. No, we don’t know how things are going to turn out. Hope, said the writer, poet and first president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, “… resides in the faith that things have meaning … in the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.” In other words, do the right thing, have faith in your values and be surprised by how things turn out. Yes, it is an individual task, but you are not alone. There are thousands of others, each in their own way, already making a difference … a reminder that in our diversity is strength, but in unity there is power. 

Finally, let us not forget that justice is an ethical concept … a deep sense of what is fair, respectful, unbiased and validating for all living things. And so, as a way of coming to terms with the impersonal manner in which something as small as a virus has forced us to re-examine not only ourselves, but the injustices it has unveiled, let’s become hunter gatherers again, not with bows, arrows and loin cloths, but hunter gatherers of values; hunter gatherers of the wild roots of fairness, humility, unpretentiousness, beauty, fertility, generosity, patience, play, freedom and compassion. Let’s value fiercely, the social, personal and ecological significance of these three words …  “I CAN BREATHE”  

I like the word, fierce – 
the way it aligns itself with 
nakedness and solitude:
a fierce nakedness …
a fierce solitude …
And I like the way it holds
the word, fire. 
I like the word, fire –
the way it ignites 
the cutting edge of poetry
refusing to be nothing less than 
a fiery edge …
a fiery tongue …
And I like the way it is linked
to the word, wild.    
I like the word, wild –
how it weaves its way 
between yes and no,
how it announces itself as 
a wild anger …
a wild joy …
And I like the way it nurtures 
the word, fierce. 
I like the word, fierce.


  • Dr. Ian McCallum

    Psychiatrist, Analytical Psychologist, Environmentalist and Poet

    Dr Ian McCallum MD is a psychiatrist, analytical psychologist, environmentalist, and poet. He is an adjunct professor at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Graduate School of Business in Port Elizabeth, and an honorary lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cape Town. He is the author of two anthologies of wilderness poems: Wild Gifts (1999), Untamed (2012) and a novel Thorns to Kilimanjaro (2000). His award winning book Ecological Intelligence – Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature addresses the interconnectedness of all living things and ultimately, the survival of the human animal. It won the Wild Literary Award at the World Wilderness Congress in Mexico 2009. In collaboration with renowned sculptor, Dylan Lewis, he was the writer/poet for the Mail and Guardian award winning ‘UNTAMED’ exhibition at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens (2010-2012). In 2012, together with friend and journalist Ian Michler, he completed a 5000 km journey through six southern African countries walking, kayaking and cycling. Following ancient elephant migration routes and clusters, one of the priorities of the expedition was to highlight the importance of elephants as keystone species in Africa’s wild ecosystems … “if we can’t protect something as big as an elephant, how on Earth can we be expected to look after the little things?” A former South African Springbok rugby player, McCallum’s other interests include evolutionary biology, wildlife photography (he won the Agfa Wildlife ‘Man and Nature’ category in 2001). He is a specialist wilderness guide, a long-time associate of the Wilderness Leadership School and a trustee of the Cape Leopard Trust. He is a 2016 recipient of the Wildlife and Environmental Association of South Africa Lifetime Conservation Achievement Award.