Denial and its Consequences

On finding acceptance, freedom, and humour in the face of death and climate collapse

Will Franks
Sep 10, 2019 · 13 min read

Our failure to acknowledge, accept and embrace death not only makes it far easier to waste our lives in distraction and confusion. Ironically, it is currently a key driving force in our inability to respond to the mounting existential threat posed by climate and ecological breakdown. But by opening to death, we open to life, and the reality of what we are called to do – and become – in this critical historical moment.

As global civilisation accelerates towards breaking point, our individual responses to the climate and ecological crisis become of ever-greater importance. The problem is no longer strictly informational, as the majority of people are aware, informed and concerned about the crisis. But for the most part, they’re not doing anything. Observing the utter failure of the majority to act on their knowledge (although many don’t realise just how rapidly the situation is accelerating, or how destructive the decades ahead will be [1]), we see that we are faced with an incredible crisis of denial; denial which has its roots in our emotional-traumatic landscapes and (closely related) existential beliefs.

Our global existential crisis has grown – and continues to grow – from a deep existential confusion, churning right beneath the surface of consumer comfort, ecological violence and relentless economic productivity. At the beating heart of this existential unease is our fundamental anxiety around death. Our unwillingness to admit our own mortality, and the strategies we employ to deny it, directly influence how we perceive and respond to the growing threat of all-species extinction. Our views about individual and collective mortality are tightly linked to our beliefs about who and what we are, and it’s time we engage in a Great Unravelling of this psychological tangle. This means investigating how death denial translates into collapse denial, and how we can move beyond that state into a mortality-mature society – reclaiming the beauty and mystery of being an embodied mortal being in a creative, evolving universe.

A Culture of Denial

We all know the feeling of dread or despair that surfaces when an article with the latest urgent climate change warnings from scientists appears on our news feed. We also know the familiar tactic of swiftly scrolling on, burying the anxiety that has bubbled to the surface. But I think that if we stop to look closely, we see that this collapse anxiety is coloured by our personal anxiety about death. Our behaviour can be explained by the fact that climate change news often act as reminders that we are going to die. And it’s exactly that kind of reminder that we have trained ourselves to suppress and ignore. This leads to several common responses:

Where global climate change is concerned, proximal defenses to thinking about mortality are likely to manifest in three ways: (1) denial of climate change, i.e., climate skeptics; (2) denial that humans are the cause of climate change; and (3) a tendency to minimize or project the impacts of climate change far into the future, where they no longer represent a personal danger. [2]

Sound familiar? So long as we’re erecting these psychological defenses, we’re living in a dreamworld and are prevented from responding appropriately to the crisis. By digging deeper into the death denial at the source of these defences, and the culture that reinforces it, we can work through it and beyond it. The work of philosopher Ernest Becker is an unparalleled guide for navigating this psychological landscape:

“In The Denial of Death (1973), Becker proposed that human beings are predisposed to suppress thoughts of death to manage anxiety about the inevitability of mortality. Along with an enlarged brain and prefrontal cortex, human beings gained the capacity to use symbolic language and simulate experience, imagining the future before it happens. One component of consciousness is awareness of a “self”, and with this awareness comes awareness of the inevitability of mortality. Becker invoked Otto Rank’s assertion that fear of annihilation is the primary source of human anxiety. The flip side of fear of annihilation is anxiety about the self, which is the basis of neurosis.

Becker suggested that thinking about death is so costly that denial of death is ubiquitous and explains the majority of human mythologies and world views. He proposed that we repress thoughts of death and dying by pushing them out of consciousness and creating a mythical, culturally and socially informed reality that provides a context for self-esteem or even heroism. We use our unique self-awareness and imagination to create a fictional self through shared meaning, myths, cultural worldviews, and projects for building self-esteem” [2]

All this explains so much that was previously hidden from view...

That “mythical, culturally and socially informed reality” erected to quell our fears about death is precisely the destructive consumer-capitalist culture that is driving collapse (by degrading biodiversity, oppressing poor nations, and pumping out carbon dioxide, methane and pollutants at unprecedented levels). Becker’s work offers an explanation for why this culture is so individualistic: it is continually reinforcing the self-esteem that dampens our death anxiety. We cling to money, property, status, and relationships because they inflate our sense of self, giving us illusions of permanence, certainty and stability in the face of death. This is why Becker calls them immortality projects.

So long as you’re running from death, your life is defined by subconscious attempts to save your life, and to have influence on the world that will outlast you. As George Monbiot summarises, “Over 300 studies conducted in 15 countries appear to confirm Becker’s thesis. When people are confronted with images or words or questions that remind them of death they respond by shoring up their worldview, rejecting people and ideas that threaten it and increasing their striving for self-esteem.” [3]

The implications of this are deep. Embedded in a culture in which we convince ourselves we are immortal, we accept our subjugation and oppression under exploitative capitalist labour systems, or as David Graeber calls them, “bullshit jobs”. In short, it is far easier to squander your life – or rather, allow it to be squandered serving the demands of your wealthy oppressors – when you have convinced yourself it will last forever. It also makes you less likely to act on the genuine threats to your life posed by climate change, because to confront those threats would require a confrontation with mortality that brings your whole lifestyle into question: it would expose your immortality projects as futile and unable to succeed. Rooted in denial. This explains the deep discomfort we feel when faced with evidence of our death.

Immortality projects are attempts to give life meaning beyond death – which we perceive as meaningless. Death is a profound source of nihilism because it flies in the face of our immortality projects.

This is truly a great tragedy of our times: that by attempting to live forever, we throw our lives away and fail to find meaning or beauty in mortality. Our task, then, is to arrive at new (or ancient) views of death which uphold it as an inherently meaningful, mysterious – even magical – event in the life of a being. If we can do that, we can drop the immortality projects and step into new identities: mortal beings in a mortal world – and take this as our starting point for seeing and creating the meaning and beauty we have been deprived of.

The Great Unravelling

But why pursue immortality projects – that is, why run from death – in the first place? To unravel the knot of existential confusion we need to pin down the interrelated reasons for death denial. Provisionally, I venture that these are:

  • We’re not living life in line with our deepest values; we know, deep down, that we are wasting our precious lives.
  • We are trapped in social, political and economic systems which reinforce death denial – preventing us from helping the world and finding authentic meaning. We are dis-empowered from living fully.
  • We believe in permanence, and run from change and uncertainty.
  • We each believe we exist as an “individual”, an isolated self separate from other humans, Earth and the universe.
  • We have little or no positive narratives about death. We have forgotten that is a fundamental and natural quality of everything and every being.

Turning these reasons around gives us an immediate strategy for a life that is enriched by a full confrontation and acceptance of our mortality:

  • We resolve to live in line with our deepest values and not to waste our precious lives.
  • We can create social, political and economic systems which embrace mortality and help us help the world (which is collapsing)– thereby providing deep authentic meaning. We are empowered to live fully.
  • We accept and embrace impermanence, change and uncertainty.
  • We see through the illusion of separation and come to see, know and feel ourselves as fundamentally interconnected with all reality: every moment of our life ripples out into the universe and forever influences the future.
  • We can explore, and live by, inspiring and beautiful narratives around death; we remember death as a central and completely natural fact of life.

Living out this journey generally takes people from denial through to acceptance of death in a number of distinct stages. And our response to climate and ecological collapse changes in tandem: from denial to acceptance.

From Denial to Acceptance

A key, and perhaps counterintuitive, observation is that both denial and acceptance can either increase or decrease our chances of survival. Let’s venture a summary of four dominant responses to the death threat of collapse. It’s likely that we’ll swing through all of these at different times and in different places, perhaps quite rapidly.

1. Denial drives inaction. We don’t accept our personal mortality or the global threat to life and continue with our head in the sand: chasing immortality projects, consuming useless goods, and perpetuating the economic system that is driving collapse. Decreases chances of survival, decreases life quality.

2. Denial drives action. This occurs when attempts to mitigate collapse and human extinction are driven by a belief that we can avoid our personal death; our activism is a thinly veiled immortality project. Many climate activists seem to be in this state, and I can now see that it was something personally motivating me when I initially got involved in Extinction Rebellion. Probably it still is. This produces beneficial results – we work hard on mitigating collapse – but is harmful for the individual because they are perpetuating their confusion and death denial. This breeds stress and burnout, and puts strain on those around us. Increases chances of survival, decreases life quality.

3. Acceptance drives inaction. We contemplate our individual and collective mortality and the threat of near-future collapse. Equanimous and accepting of this situation, we land in a state of disengagement and passivity. How many thousands sit right now in the monasteries and temples of the world, profoundly at ease with their mortality, yet failing to engage with the radical political, social and economic changes needed to navigate collapse? The catch here is that individuals at this stage have only partial acceptance. You’ve accepted mortality enough to find personal calm and wellbeing, but you don’t go further: it doesn’t translate to a recognition of the suffering of the countless other mortal beings in this world. Perhaps you haven’t embraced your death enough to realise that you’ve only a limited time to make this world a more harmonious and beautiful place. And that your inaction only makes this time shorter… Decreases chances of survival, increases life quality.

4. Acceptance drives service. We accept our personal death and the reality of unfolding collapse. Realising our finite time to live well, to do what is right, to help a world in crisis, we strive to awaken and transform so we can respond accordingly. Full acceptance of our death helps enable full acceptance of our life. “Okay, this is it. This is my life. Collapse is already in motion and what I do today will influence the future of all life on Earth. I can help it fluorish or let it suffer. Thus, I’m going to live and die doing what is right and just and beautiful: serving this precious living planet as best I can.” When the reality of our life is climate and ecological breakdown, this is an essential and liberating realisation. It’s transformative, because helping life flourish helps us flourish, in beautiful symbiosis. Increases chances of survival, increases life quality.

Acceptance, then, simply means living in line with the now-inextricably-connected truths of death and unfolding collapse. Which might go something like:

We do not know what the future holds. But at current rates of carbon emissions, we are on track for 4C average global temperature rise – at which point we can reasonably expect 8 billion people to die [4]. This figure will include billions of children and young people – as well as countless innocent animals and plants – and it will probably include us. It might grow to include everyone. Runaway methane release might cause catastrophic collapse within 5,10,15 years. We can change these figures, perhaps significantly, if we act now to change ourselves, society, and the system, at a deep level. But sooner or later, whether we adapt and transform or succumb to catastrophe, each of us is going to die.

Resolving to live in line with these truths demands of us a radical and courageous honesty. Not as a forcing or disciplining, but as an act of kindness to ourselves and all beings. If we’re not honest with ourselves and others, our kindness won’t be effective but rooted in confusion and denial. So we need to sit with these facts and be with whatever comes up. We must make peace with both death and collapse if we are to find peace in this life. Because this is our life now – and it is from that place of acceptance that we can begin to move forward, to explore the infinite possibilities for the expression and activity of love. This is not to say that we should become numb, or blasé, about the crisis. Quite the opposite – love is precisely what is needed to hold the grief, sadness and tenderness of these times.

Acceptance can also bring about a beautiful “fuck it” attitude – let’s be bold, let’s go for it, let’s break the rules, let’s fight for life, fight for each other, whatever it takes. Life’s too short to wallow, to moan, to judge, to despair, to shrink from the world, to oppress and be oppressed. Time to jest / dance / celebrate / let go / be free / be wild / *insert your thing here*. Let go of all this seriousness and be silly, playful, ironic. The Tibetans talk of facing life and death with good humour, a “light touch”. Because it’s all so fleeting, so precious, so wonderfully mysterious. Existence is magical, and death no less.

We can see now that death acceptance and collapse acceptance aren’t life-denying, but life-affirming. They form the psychological foundations of a society that can engage maturely and appropriately to life and the end of life, either partial or total, on planet Earth.

One last point: in the other direction, compassionate action can fuel acceptance of both death and collapse. Service to others can give us present-moment meaning, experiences of love and freedom, that weaken our attachment to old immortality projects. Giving our hearts, minds and bodies to climate activism helps us realise our power and capacity to make real change, real beauty, in the world – allowing us to move beyond hopelessness and nihilism.

In a follow-up piece I’ll dive deeper into practices and ways of thinking that can help us foster a deep embrace of death and collapse. For now I want to offer a short reflection on how death really is the most natural thing in the world.

On Death and Nature

“Death is the blade wielded by nature to shape and sculpt the living firmament through Darwinian processes; absent death, there could be no such phenomenon as natural selection” [5]

Death is a fundamental mechanism of organic transformation, a vital feature of the living ecosystems in which we are embedded. Just recently, walking in the woods outside my hometown, I had an experience of seeing nature in a new way. Amongst the tangled webs of interwoven plants, I could see that the divisions I was making between organisms were totally artificial, totally imaginary. The idea of individual, isolated organisms is a false one; the reality of nature is a globally interconnected network in which all “parts” are inseparable from the whole. It’s all one vast flow. I saw too the false distinction between “living” and “dead”: the “dead” leaves were vibrantly alive with mould, bacteria, and funghi… the distinction between living and dead, animate and inanimate, blurred and dissolved. This way of seeing has stayed with me, and has healed this anxiety that my death is somehow the end of everything. Because it obviously isn’t. It’s just the end of “me”. And that’s okay. That’s natural. (Even more okay as I wake up to the fact that “me” is also a false belief!) Perhaps this is why indigenous forest tribes have a far healthier relationship with death than we do: they know where they come from – what they’ve grown out of – and where they’ll go back to.

In the words of ecologist Carrie Barlow [5]: “Death is not just natural, it’s creative. It’s what allows everything to be. Were it not for death, there would be no such thing as food. Everything we eat was once alive. We can’t eliminate death from the whole cycle of life.”

Woe to the humans who in their arrogance and confusion think themselves separate from this cycle! What a cause of unnecessary suffering. And what an awe-inspiring, life-enriching process, to reconnect with our place in this vast, ancient and inexhaustible cycle, rolling on for aeons and aeons… trillions of beings constantly emerging, changing, multiplying and fading. Now that this whole cycle is threatened, how will we choose to live – and die? Living in loving service to all life, may we die with dignity – with hearts full of love. Not an ending, but a return, a re-absorption, into the living planet and immense cosmos that we emerged from.

We can come to see both living and dying as giving back to a world that has given us everything.

Allow yourself to become empty.

Abide in stillness.

The ten thousand beings rise and flourish, while the sages watch their return.

Though all beings exist in profusion, they all end up returning to their source.

This is called returning to their original nature.

Original nature is called constant renewal.

To understand constant renewal is called illumination.

To not understand constant renewal is to invite disaster.

- Tao Te Ching

References

  1. Jem Bendell – Deep Adaptation https://www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf

2. Janis L. Dickinson – The People Paradox: Self-Esteem Striving, Immortality Ideologies, and Human Response to Climate Change https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss1/art34/

3. George Monbiot – Death Denial https://www.monbiot.com/2009/11/02/death-denial/

4. The Understatement of Existential Climate Risk – David Spratt and Ian Dunlop, 2018.

5. Jim Gardner – The Intelligent Universe

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