They fear their own mortality. They are afraid of death. And that fear drives them to hold fast to anxiety-buffering worldviews or "immortality projects" that sometimes act as barriers to sustainable practices.
This is an idea that I've been aware of for a while now (see Janis L. Dickinson's The People Paradox: Self-Esteem Striving, Immortality Ideologies, and Human Response to Climate Change). A series of studies by psychologists Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg "found clear evidence that evoking people's fear of death made them more defensive of their world view, more hostile to foreigners, more willing to lash out violently at people of different political or religious beliefs and more drawn to charismatic leaders." (See also this discussion of fear and the environmental movement.)
Ernest Becker once said, "To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything." The Ernest Becker Foundation (EBF) "seeks to illuminate how the unconscious denial of death and mortality profoundly influences human behavior, giving rise to acts of hate and violence as well as noble, altruistic striving." Indeed, the EBF has a conference coming up entitled Understanding the Violence of Climate Change (Seattle, October 21-23, 2011), which will "explore the close correlation of the denial of climate change to the denial of death."
Here's the question, then. If those who deny, question or ignore the climate change emergency are afraid of death, do those who are fighting to safeguard the future of life on Earth face their own mortality with acceptance or courage? Are climate activists those who have made peace with the idea of dying?
Let me tell you a story. One Sunday, almost 20 years ago, I woke up and told my husband we needed to take a drive. (This is something we never did, and something I never did as a child — my father was a travelling salesman, so taking a Sunday drive was something we just didn't do.)
Because I was so sure I had to do this, my husband joined me to see what it was all about. (I had no clue at the time.) We drove south out of town for quite a ways until I shouted, "Turn left here!" Again we drove for quite a ways until we came to a lovely little campground by a pretty little lake. "This is it," I said. I wandered about in the campground and sat by the lake until I realized this wasn't the right place.
I decided to cross the road, and started bushwacking up a wooded hill through trees and leaves and branches. My husband was following his own path now, so I was alone. I kept wondering what I was there for, what I was going to find.... And then it happened. Something caught my attention, and as I looked over my shoulder, I saw myself — my dead body — lying next to a log in a bed of moss.
A wondrous sense of serenity came over me as I realized that my death will be a gift to the Earth, a returning to my Mother. In that instant, I was no longer afraid of my mortality, knowing deeply and calmly that death is not an end but a new beginning in the cycle of life.
Perhaps that sounds cliché (not to mention sudden) but I made my peace with the idea of becoming compost after I die. And now I fight to protect all life (not just my own) — the very miracle of life — on this planet.
Which has me wondering ... are all climate activists at peace with their own death, and therefore able to to fight for the right of others to live?
p.s. No, that's not me. (I wish!) It's a beautiful photo by Scott Fitzhume from Pixdaus.