The Denial of Climate Change as Terror Management: Ernest Becker, Death Anxiety, and the Future of Illusions – Claude Barbre


In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial of Death (1973), written fifty years ago, Ernest Becker argued that the whole of human society is at its core, a symbolic defense mechanism protecting us from the terrifying consciousness of our own temporality. Humans are able to transcend the problem of facing their own death through what Becker, following Otto Rank, calls “immortality projects,” or becoming a hero in a sense. By becoming something greater than themselves, humans can create meaning in their lives by believing that whatever they dedicate themselves to, will live on beyond their individual material lives (Liechty, 2022). For Becker a failure in a person’s immortality project, allows the terror of death to enter consciousness, resulting in the potential for disturbances or psychopathology. As Merlyn Mowrey notes, “According to Becker, illusions, which he also called vital lies, are the imaginative worldviews and belief systems we create to give us a meaningful context and explanation for our lives. Becker called them lies, not because they are dishonest in an ethical sense, but because they are humanly constructed, speculative, and fictional, confidently asserting an orderly coherence, context, and purpose to human life, thus calming doubt, and keeping ambiguity at bay” (Mowrey, 2022). However, Becker also warned that the terror management of mutability awareness can also create difficult problems for human kind when immortality projects and their tandem ideologies are at odds with each other, and this can lead to driving forces for violence such as war and genocide. In this presentation we will explore how the denial of climate change and the reality of the anthropocene epoch reflect the dangers of terror management when individuals and cultures construct ideologies that underscore illusions of absolute transcendence as strategies toward denying ecologies of life– be they constructs of other-worldly realms that alienate us from all that is immanent and natural, or the propogation of alternative defenses toward mutability awareness, resulting in the destruction of shared space and living environments. With the denial of climate change “those things associated with the world of nature become vulnerable to scapegoating because they are no longer worthy of our care or respect…degraded, subjugated, or even destroyed in the struggle to affirm the divine, contributing to envionmental degradation and the intolerance of racisim, sexism, and the disdain for the poor” (Mowrey, 2022). We will see that Becker, uncovering the motivations behind human actions, and unveiling the denial of death, as evidenced in the denial of climate change and the anthropocene, can result in clearer approaches to and management of life and death anxiety, furthering life-affirming resolutions.

Short bio:

Claude Barbre, M.S., M.Div., Ph.D., L.P., is Distinguished Full Professor, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. He is Course-Lead Coordinator of the Psychodynamics Orientation, and lead faculty in the Child and Adolescent Focus, and Psychology and Spirituality Studies. He is a Board Member and Training Supervisor at The Chicago Center for Psychoanalysis (CCP), Chicago, IL. A teacher and a psychotherapist for over 40 years, Dr. Barbre served for 12 years as Executive Director of The Harlem Family Institute, a New York City school-based, psychoanalytic training program working with children and families. Author of prize-winning articles, books, and poetry, Dr. Barbre is a former Editor of Gender and Psychoanalysis (IUP Press), and Associate Editor of the Journal of Religion and Health: Psychology, Spirituality, and Medicine (Springer Press) for 15 years. His edited books include: with Esther Menaker, The Freedom to Inquire (Jason Aronson, 1995), and Separation Will, and Creativity: The Wisdom of Otto Rank (Aronson, 1996); with Alan Roland, and Barry Ulanov, Creative Dissent: Psychoanalysis in Evolution (ABC-Clio Press, 2003); and with Marcella Weiner and Paul C. Cooper, Psychotherapy and Religion: Many Paths, One Journey (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005). He is currently editing the papers of Margaret Morgan Lawrence M.D., entitled Plenty Good Room: The Selected Papers of Margaret Morgan Lawrence, and is completing a book entitled, Soul Diver: Otto Rank’s Psychology of Religion. He is an eight-time nominee and five-time recipient of the international Gradiva Award in four separate categories (Book, Article, Book Chapter, and Poetry) “for outstanding contributions to psychoanalysis and the arts,” presented by the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis (NAAP). In addition, he is a William B. Given Jr. Fellow of the Episcopal Church Foundation, and a Daniel Day Williams Fellow in Psychiatry and Religion at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. Before coming to Chicago in 2009, Dr. Barbre taught psychology and spirituality at Manhattan College and Fordham University. Nominated three times by graduate
students at The Chicago School for excellence in teaching, he is the 2017 recipient of the Ted Rubenstein Inspired Teaching Award, and the 2018 Distinguished International Research and Scholarship Award– both presented by The Chicago School. He is also the recipient of the 2022 Distinguished Psychoanalytic Education Award, presented by the International Forum for Psychoanalytic Education (IFPE), and recipient of the 2022 Joanna K. Tabin Award for Exceptional Public Service, presented by the Chicago Center for Psychoanalysis. He is in private practice in Chicago, IL.