On October 5, 2012, on the front page of the Huffington Post, appeared a terrifying image of melting arctic ice, accompanied by the chilling headline, “Arctic Ice Melt and Sea Level Rise May Be ‘Decades Ahead Of Schedule’” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/05/arctic-ice-melt-sea-level-rise_n_1942666.html?utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false#sb=367721,b=facebook). Why have the majority of Americans and American politicians been largely oblivious to this extreme threat? I believe there are two principal reasons.
The first is unbridled narcissism. Psychoanalytic developmental theorist Erik Erikson famously characterized an essential aim of adulthood as generativity—the caring for the well being of future generations. Climate change most likely will not be a threat for most of us, but it will leave our children, grandchildren, and future descendents with catastrophes of unimaginable proportions. In the deplorable obliviousness and indifference to the problem of climate change, any concern for the well being of future generations is being blatantly trumped by narrow self-interest and greed.
The second is denial. What, precisely, is being denied? More than three decades ago I took my young son to a planetarium show at the New York Museum of Natural History. During that show it was predicted that a billion years from now the sun will become a “red giant” that will engulf and destroy our entire solar system. This prospect filled me with intense horror. Why would a catastrophe predicted to occur in a billion years evoke horror in me? Let me explain.
The horror that I felt was an extreme form of existential anxiety—the anxiety that accompanies our recognition that, as finite human beings, we are constantly threatened by impending possibilities of harm, disease, death, and loss, which can occur at any time. But what I felt at the planetarium show was more than that, because the sun’s becoming an engulfing red giant represents not just the destruction of individual human beings but of human civilization itself, a possibility vividly portrayed in the recent movie, “Melancholia.” The destruction of human civilization would also terminate the historical process—the sense of human history stretching along from the distant past to an open future—through which we make sense out of our individual existences. I want to call the horror that announces such a possibility apocalyptic anxiety. Apocalyptic anxiety anticipates the collapse of all meaningfulness. And it is from apocalyptic anxiety that we turn away when we deny the extreme perils of climate change.
We must renounce destructive narcissism and oblivious denial, embrace generativity, and face up to our apocalyptic anxiety before it is too late for the safety of future generations. President Obama brought tears to my eyes when, in his acceptance speech at the DNC, he contended that climate change and the threat it poses to human life on planet earth are not illusions. He was right, and we must not turn away!
Copyright Robert Stolorow
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