While the scientific consensus is that climate change caused by human-made emissions is a threat to most forms of life, the climate crisis is a rather slow moving threat. It is only occasionally immediate, as in a cataclysmic weather event like Hurricane Sandy. For the most part it is gradual, leaving us uneasy, but not fearful of imminent demise. In some ways it is like death itself. We know it’s coming; we dread the day it will take each of us; but our culture provides an inexhaustible array of symbolic, unconscious defenses and distractions that blunt the dread and leave only a residual, disturbing death anxiety. The operative word here is “culture.” What is our culture’s role in climate change?
Writing in 1973 Ernest Becker theorized that people are willing to die for their immortality. This sounds ironic, and it is, but it helps explain why many people are willing to die for their nation’s flag, for their religion, or for their good name. He explained that one of the primary sources of immortality is one’s culture, the set of beliefs, values, myths, and stories that we tell ourselves and each other about who we are, what our purpose is, and what gives our lives meaning. He borrowed the term “heroism” from the great psychologist William James who understood it to mean culture’s affirmation of a person’s upholding and embodying the values of one’s culture, a primary source of self-esteem.
Think of our culture’s forms of heroism. I am not talking about the firefighter who rushes into a burning building, or the baseball player who hits the game winning homer. They are heroes in common parlance, and rightly so. But the Jamesian-Beckerian hero is someone who embodies our present day culture, a culture that has set aside religion as the primary source of values and everlasting life. Instead of religion, our culture values wealth, fame, power, and sex appeal, and so our heroes are the rich, famous, powerful, and beautiful. These are our sources of social status, of rank, position, and station in life. Obviously not everyone in our society can achieve wealth, fame, power and beauty. What we all can share in, however, is consumerism, a way for every one of us to join in, to attain various degrees of status through acquisition of material goods. This is our source of identity, and the most powerful antidote to death anxiety, self-esteem. These are our symbolic immortality projects, not necessarily conscious, but mainly unconscious, baked into our cultural identity as Americans. Our individual hero strivings, our primary sources of self-esteem, are to amass wealth, become famous, acquire power, and enhance our appearance. We admire the billionaires, movie stars, entertainers, and “rock star” politicians who embody these traits. We aspire to their status, treasuring our own pretensions to their pinnacles of heroism. Eternal life promised by religion is still valued, but in a part-time, limited way, delegated to an hour a week, if that, and trotted out at funerals, weddings, and mass tragedies. Instead, most people spend hours each day focused on money, money making, consumerism, business news, and maintaining status – keeping up with the Joneses. This is our primary and immediate symbolic immortality, our defense against death anxiety that lurks beneath the surface of daily life. (Refer to The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski, a book that takes its title from a phrase by William James, and that validates the death denying theories of Ernest Becker.) How does this notion of heroism relate to the growing climate crisis?
The dread of climate change is like the dread of death; we are defended against it through our self-esteem-generating forms of cultural heroism. Unfortunately, our post-religious source of heroism is capitalism. Capitalism rewards achievement and striving for heroism with wealth, fame, power, and sex appeal. At the same time, capitalism is a major contributor to the degradation of the environment, pollution of the air, water, and soil. Capitalism is simultaneously our immortality project and the source of our demise, an irony that should not be lightly dismissed. Capitalism is at the heart of the American experience. We are emotionally invested in the righteousness of private ownership for profit. The need for profit, for relentless economic growth, for winner-take-all economic competition, powers the ruthless plundering of the environment. If humanity should stop stripping the biosphere of life sustaining natural resources, global-scale capitalism, it is feared, would eventually grind to a halt. This threat to capitalism is a threat to our immortality project, to the sustaining of our symbolic defense against death anxiety. Capitalism, the source of our society’s wealth and power, provides individuals with opportunities for personal wealth and power, along with sexual attractiveness, status, and ultimately, self-esteem. Capitalism is also the wellspring of our power as a nation among nations, another source of individual and group self-esteem through the mechanism of what Freud called transference. We venerate the flag, the symbol of our nation that provides our identity and forms our heroism. To reject capitalism is to reject Americanism, which is to reject who and what we are. It is a rejection of our source of symbolic immortality. This is the paradox of climate change. We dread the threat it poses to human life, but addressing it poses a threat to our symbolic immortality.
This is a terrible incongruity. If we reject the reality of climate change we open the possibility of killing the planet. But if we accept climate change as real, and take action against capitalism’s pursuit of profit, we symbolically die. This takes us back to Becker’s assertion that people are willing to die for their immortality. The soldier, police officer, and firefighter who are willing to give their lives for a cause or the common good, are the most obvious examples. But the ordinary person is also willing to risk some vague future death and destruction from climate chaos to preserve his/her identity, heroism, and source of symbolic immortality. A “Green New Deal,” the sweeping climate policy non-binding resolution to eliminate U.S. greenhouse gas emissions within a decade, sounds good, but threatens our symbolic defense against the danger environmental activism is designed to literally counter.
At the same time, our capacity to imagine death due to climate change is matched by our capacity to fantasize technological solutions. In this technological age, we deal with problems by inventing and engineering mechanical and electronic resolutions. Capitalism-generated, profit-making technology to the rescue is a much more satisfying fantasy of a future climate change super-heroic savior. Our emotional response mechanism, inherited from our ancient hominid ancestors, is not geared to react to threats fifty years in the dim future; we have evolved to deal with immediate threats. Our belief in the myth of progress, of an unending improvement in the world and our role in its development – another source of group and individual self-esteem and, hence, a defense against death anxiety – allows us to put off an impending dire future with an assurance that our constantly improving scientific powers will save us when the time comes.
Our ability to fantasize answers to climate change include pseudo-scientific counterclaims that environmentalism is a swindle, a hoax, and a money making scheme for elite scientists and prognosticators. This is a strangely comforting defense that cynicism provides. And cynicism, the belief that people are motivated purely by self-interest, is at the heart of laissez faire capitalism, the flawed philosophy of Ayn Rand, the debunked economics of Milton Friedman, and the extreme conservative ideology that occupy primary positions in our American politics and economics. The capitalist, which is most Americans, has a firmly cynical understanding that people put their own needs first. Most economists translate this into belief that people put their material survival first, which is often true. But people put their psychological needs ahead of their physical needs in countless ways. This is why political pundits are astounded when voters seemingly vote against their own material interests. They forget that voters more often vote for their psychological – what some call their “spiritual” – interests over their material needs. In the case of climate change, soothing counterclaims work in our psychological interest, even if they are not in our material interest.
America’s historic belief, emblazoned on the great seal on the back of the dollar, is in annuit cœptis, roughly translated as “[providence] has favored our undertakings.” We have long believed in our manifest destiny, in America as the greatest country on earth. We see ourselves as the divinely anointed world leader. To accept our way of life as being complicit in the destruction of the planet is a thought too terrible to entertain. It calls into question our national meaning. It is far more convenient to reject “anthropogenic climate change” (i.e., human-induced climate change made to sound scientific and elitist) and to accept changes in the climate as favored by providence. Evidence-based scientific consensus that human activity is changing Earth’s climate is trumped by emotion-based supernatural consensus that God would not allow the Earth to be destroyed at our hands. “You can’t change the weather” is a fundamental truth that translates into humans can’t change the climate, only God can, and He is on our side.
So we are faced with cultural rejection of environmentalism, of clarion calls to action to save the planet, and of the Green New Deal. Politicians openly mock the aspirations as “bananaland”, as “unicorns and rainbows.” Social media trolls proclaim that it’s “time for the red pill!” Pundits trot out lists of global warming and climate change myths, leaving serious minded climatologists mystified at the lack of urgency in the public response. The tendency among progressives is to look for explanations such as profit-driven deception, conservative ideology prompting relentless anti-environmentalist propaganda, and sheer ignorance in an undereducated populace. These explanations are not without merit. But a more telling explanation is the concept of denial.
We label the opponents to environmentalism as climate deniers, people who simultaneously declare global warming to be untrue while being “in denial” of the actual danger. This is a tricky concept. It supposes our ability to look into another person’s heart and determine their essential motivation. Are climate deniers motivated by greed, by ideology, or by psychological needs? My answer is all of the above and more. I point to the cultural values at work, the psychological need for symbolic immortality at the heart of climate denial. As Chris Hedges puts it: “The failure to act to ameliorate global warming exposes the myth of human progress and the illusion that we are rational creatures.”[i]
Ernest Becker’s landmark book was titled The Denial of Death. The 21st century version should perhaps be called the denial of death through climate change. It is a simple concept with complex ramifications. Environmentalists are not going to convince people with rational arguments based on the science of climatology. The denial runs too deep, encased as it is in our culture, our need for heroism and self-esteem, and our identities as Americans. When the Green New Deal was brought to a vote in the Senate, the majority of Democrats voted “present.” I’m afraid that’s emblematic of the rest of us, myself included, unable to face the threat with any major change in lifestyle. We are all “present” as climate chaos unfolds, seemingly helpless to undo our own culture. I fear it will take many more dire calamities to bring us out of our paradox. Hopefully it won’t be too late.
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Stephen James is a member of The Writers Collective. He is the award winning author of American Stew: Hope in a Toxic Culture, is the president of Contemporary Heroism Initiative, Executive Director of the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York, and is a member of the Ernest Becker Foundation. He is a producer of communications media in the New York area.