The People Paradox: Self-Esteem Striving, Immortality Ideologies, and Human Response to Climate Change
Janis L Dickinson, Cornell University
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In 1973, Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist cross-trained in philosophy, sociology, and psychiatry, invoked consciousness of self and the inevitability of death as the primary sources of human anxiety and repression. He proposed that the psychological basis of cooperation, competition, and emotional and mental health is a tendency to hold tightly to anxiety-buffering cultural world views or “immortality projects” that serve as the basis for self-esteem and meaning. Although he focused mainly on social and political outcomes like war, torture, and genocide, 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. In this paper I review Becker’s ideas and suggest ways in which they illuminate human response to global climate change. Because immortality projects range from belief in technology and materialism to reverence for nature or belief in a celestial god, they act both as barriers to and facilitators of sustainable practices. I propose that Becker’s cross-disciplinary “science of man,” and the predictions it generates for proximate-level determinants of social behavior, add significantly to our understanding of and potential for managing the people paradox, i.e., that the very things that bring us symbolic immortality often conflict with our prospects for survival. Analysis of immortality projects as one of the proximate barriers to addressing climate change is both cautionary and hopeful, providing insights that should be included in the cross-disciplinary quest to uncover new pathways toward rational, social change.
environmental behavior, birds, icons, social psychology, terror management theory, conservation; immortality projects
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