Facing finitude: A critically important perspective in finding sustainability
Around Halloween and All Saints’ Day maybe we think a little more about death. However, this is not the case during the rest of the year. In our Western societies, death is the last taboo. Almost everyone has a personal experience that in a situation where we should talk about death (at a funeral, when someone is grieving or when we are around the dead), people feel hugely uncomfortable. If we think this topic has nothing to do with our responses to ecological problems, we could not be further from the truth.
In his book Denial of Death, anthropologist Ernest Becker points out that humans exist in two distinct spaces: in physical space, where the body is vulnerable and transient, and a symbolic space, where human constructed phenomena and stories live. These latter ones can even be considered immortal. This duality also means that the symbolic space of society is also a kind of complex response to the dilemma of human transience. In our lives we attempt to imprint ourselves in the symbolic space so that the impermanence of our body does not mean that we leave no trace behind. These are our immortality projects that help us – in Becker’s term – deny our deaths.
Continuing Becker’s work, psychologists like Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg searched for ways to empirically substantiate these claims and experimented in their research what happens if we superficially remind people of the inevitability of their own death. Their findings show that being reminded of our finitude; as a defence mechanism against the terror this induces in us, we automatically try to increase our self-worth through our attachment to social status and the symbols that represent our social standing. Additionally, we strengthen the importance of the symbolic space and our belonging to the culture that provides the most fundamental principles of this symbolic space. They call this the terror management theory.
It is now commonplace that on the one hand we live in a world where our self-worth hinges on conspicuous consumption and our culture reinforces positional consumption. At the same time, we are facing concerns almost every day regarding the potential annihilation of our civilization as well as the destruction of the life supporting systems around us. In the light of terror management theory, putting one and one together means that in the times of climate crisis our incapacity to face death head on might mean that we try to remove the crippling feeling of dread and anxiety in the shopping mall. The vicious circle it creates is presumably unknown even to climate scientists and climate activists who believe that more information on the gravity of the problem will one day wake humanity up and encourage action. While we are by no means denying the importance of this message, we are suggesting that our societies’ incapacity to reflect on mortality and finitude may have a lot to do with our obvious incapacity to turn our value systems around in our symbolic spaces.
In every feedback loop such as the vicious circle we are handling here, a possibility exists at each intervention point to moderate its velocity or divert it. We can stop superficially reminding people of their own finitude through neglecting climate change. Not a wise scenario. We can drive conspicuous consumption out of our cultures and decouple it from social status. Might be wise but not fast enough. Chess-mate. However, where there is a vicious circle, there might be a virtuous circle as well. In our understanding, transcendence management theory might just be the key to that.
While in terror management situations we are given the opportunity to suppress our conscious encounter with our own finitude, there are circumstances where we simply cannot. Losing a beloved one, fighting a life-threatening illness, having a near-miss event in our lives can put the contemplation of death in centre stage. Existential psychologists and others working with people who have gone through such experiences report that there are two things that almost always come up heavy in the life changes induced by these events: finding logos in one’s life and improving the quality of our interpersonal relationships. Deep reflection on death seems to force the ego to capitulate, turn to more meaningful internal discourses, and transcend previous building-blocks of our understanding of life. Hence, the name: transcendence management. Transcendence in this sense is the recalibration of beliefs on what really is important to me and how I can meaningfully support the well-being of myself and others in the brief period I have on this Earth. It is not a religious and spiritual path even though it can be but does not need to be accompanied by spiritual meaning making. Interestingly, these are the value changes environmental scholars and activists demand. And this is the virtuous circle. The more we enable our societies to reflect on human finitude; the closer we bring people to getting their head around death; the more chance we have that the value change we so crave when trying to save the planet happens. Environmentalists often call for more social dialogue in many different subjects. We propose to add one more fundamental: our relationship to our own death.
Alexandra Köves is an ecological economist, associate professor at the Corvinus University of Budapest. Her research focuses on using foresight methods to find out how to create a more environmentally sustainable and socially just Degrowth system.
Gábor Király is a sociologist, full professor at the Budapest Business School. His research fields include WLB, higher education research and sustainability studies. Currently he mainly deals with connections between learning and participatory approaches.
Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death. Free press.
Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Pyszczynszki, T. (2015). The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. Allen Lane.
Cozzolino, P.J., Staples, A.D., Meyers, L.S., Samboceti J. (2004). Greed, death, and values: from terror management to transcendence management theory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(3), 278-92. doi: 10.1177/0146167203260716.