Connecting the Dots with Columnist John Bos: Eco-Anxiety IV

  • JOHN BOS

Published: 11/29/2021 10:32:43 AM
Modified: 11/29/2021 10:32:12 AM

How do you feel about dying? Or about the planet dying?

Death and dying aren’t popular topics of conversation in the United States of denial. Instead of confronting their own mortality, many Americans tend to label such talk as “morbid” and try to stave it off — along with death itself — for as long as they can. It also turns out that the way we think about death can affect how we think and act in daily life. And, with growing evidence, how we think about our climate crisis.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 and the culmination of a life's work, Ernest Becker's book “The Denial of Death” is an impassioned answer to the "why" of human existence. In bold contrast to the predominant Freudian school of thought, Becker tackles the problem of the “vital lie” — refusal to acknowledge our own mortality. Becker believes that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality. This, in turn, acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism.

It wasn’t always this way in the U.S. Until the end of the 19th century, Americans were far more familiar with many aspects of death, largely because most people died at home and people took care of their own dead.

Anthropologist Anita HannigIn writes that in order to break through the silence and avoidance that shape contemporary American attitudes toward death, we must teach young people different ways to engage with the end of life. Rather than shield them from the specter of mortality, we need to give them the space and tools to explore their own relationship to it.

The more than 100,000 “young people” in the streets of Glasgow during the recent COP26 were engaging with the specter of their own mortality caused by the “adult’s” inaction about climate change. A recent, as yet peer-reviewed, survey of young people in ten different countries revealed that 84% were at least moderately worried about climate change, 68% felt sad or afraid about it, while 65% reported feeling anxious. The Glasgow young people know they are living into an environmental future that few of the COP26 “decision makers” will have to face.

I am reading more and more studies that link the denial of mortality to the denial of climate change. If one truly comprehends the awful reality of where our climate crisis is taking us, it should be no surprise that since the 1990s “ecopsychology” has emerged as an approach within psychology to the life-altering environmental impacts on all living things. Ecopsychology suggests that our modern lives are so disconnected from nature that we do not care enough to want to protect it. That we fail to realize that we are threatened by damage to the natural world. Ecopsychology views disconnection from nature as also central to the current mental health epidemic. Reconnecting to nature is seen as a requirement for mental health that also provides the emotional link that will drive us to act (out of love, not just fear).

Ecopsychologists emphasize that the anxiety, guilt, grief and anger we feel concerning collapsing ecosystems — our “pain for the World” — are appropriate and, although difficult, provides the starting point for action and a renewed relation to Earth.

In her Nov. 24 My Turn column, Johanna Neuman writes that “Human development has altered habitats for the worse, and now we must fix this problem of our own making.” She then underscores the importance of a “renewed relation to Earth” writing “Our live are richer when our surroundings are teeming with life. Now is the time to reconnect with nature and give [all] species a foothold on survival.”

Although Ernest Becker focused mainly on social and political outcomes like war, torture, and genocide in “The Denial of Death,” he was increasingly aware that materialism, denial of nature, and immortality-striving efforts to control, rather than sanctify, the natural world were problems whose severity was increasing.

The poverty of collective responses to our darkening climate crisis is in stark contrast to its threat. Why do we not act? I think that fear of mortality is being manifested in three ways: denial of climate change; denial that humans are the cause of climate change; and a tendency to minimize or project the impacts of climate change far into the future, where they no longer represent a personal danger.

Psychology defines eco-anxiety as a "chronic fear of environmental doom." How do you feel?

The “Connecting the Dots” column by John Bos appears every other Saturday in the Recorder. He is also a contributing writer for Green Energy Times and his climate focused essays have been published in other regional newspapers. Comments and questions are invited at john01370@gmail.com.




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