Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
Climate-change denial is spreading like a contagion across the land, with fewer Americans believing the world is warming than the number who did just a few years ago—all while the scientific consensus has solidified in the opposite direction. What on earth is happening here? George Monbiot speculates in Conservation magazine about the psychological factors at work behind climate change denial, specifically the finding that people over 65 are more likely to be skeptics about climate change:
In 1973, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker proposed that the fear of death drives us to protect ourselves with “vital lies” or “the armor of character.” We defend ourselves from the ultimate terror by engaging in “immortality projects”—projects and beliefs that boost our self-esteem and grant us meaning that extends beyond death. Over 300 studies conducted in 15 countries appear to confirm Becker’s thesis. When people are confronted with things that remind them of death, they respond by shoring up their worldview, rejecting people and ideas that threaten it, and working to boost their self-esteem.
Monbiot seizes on a 2009 study that brings Becker’s theory to bear specifically on the topic of climate change and may further explain the differences among age groups:
A recent paper by biologist Janis L. Dickinson, published in Ecology and Society, proposes that constant news and discussion about global warming makes it difficult for people to repress thoughts of death and that they might respond to the terrifying prospect of climate breakdown in ways that strengthen their character armor but diminish our chances of survival. There is already experimental evidence suggesting that some people respond to reminders of death by increasing consumption. Dickinson proposes that growing evidence of climate change might boost this tendency while raising antagonism toward scientists and environmentalists. Their message, after all, presents a lethal threat to the central immortality project of Western society: perpetual economic growth, supported by an ideology of entitlement and exceptionalism.
In other words, for seniors to acknowledge that they are wrong about global warming could well mean that they are wrong about a host of other things, and the thought of this world view unraveling is apparently more terrifying to them than the prospect that their grandchildren may live in an environmentally degraded world.