Terror management

2 08 2022

As is my tendency, I like to wade carefully into other disciplines from time to time to examine what components they can bring to the conservation table. I do not profess any sort of expertise when I do so, but if I require a true expert for research purposes, then I will collaborate with said experts.

I often say to my students that in many ways, the science of sustainability and conservation is more or less resolved — what we need now is ways to manage the human side of the problems we face. The disciplines that deal with human management, such as psychology, economics, political science, and sociology, are mainly pursuits of the humanities (have I just argued myself out of a job?).

On the topic of human psychology, I think most people involved in some way with biodiversity conservation often contemplate why human societies are so self-destructive. Even in the face of logic and evidence, people deny what’s going on in front of their eyes (think anti-vaxxers, climate-change denialists, etc.), so it should be no wonder why many (most?) people deny their own existential threats. Yet, it still doesn’t seem to make much sense to us until we put the phenomenon into a psychological framework.

My apologies here to actual psychologists if I oversimplify or otherwise make mistakes, but the following explanation has done a lot for me personally in my own journey to understand this conundrum. It is also a good way to teach others about why there is so much reticence to fixing our environmental problems.

The idea is a rather simple one, but it requires a little journey to appreciate. Let’s pop back to the 1970s with the publication of Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 (ironically, two months after his own death). In this book, Becker examined the awareness of death on human behaviour and the strategies that we have developed to mitigate our fear of it. This particular quote sums it up nicely:

This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, and excruciating inner yearning for life and self expression — and with all this yet to die

Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death (1973)

The upshot is that we have evolved a whole raft of coping mechanisms to this personal existential dread. Some engage in overly hedonic pursuits to numb the anxiety; others try to “tranquillise themselves with the trivial”, essentially ignoring the terror, while others still manage the dread through religion and the hope of an existence beyond the mortal.

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