VI. 1. FACING DEATH AND THE FUTURE OF THE SPECIES
Facing death is critical to reducing violence and halting our present slow species-suicide by destroying the biosphere our grandchildren will need for life.
Most of this site discusses the importance of facing death from the individual's point of view, i.e. how each of us can become more truly alive by developing a life-affirming death awareness through psychological, societal and spiritual journeys. It is our view that each of us can benefit from doing so, irrespective of whether others, or society as a whole, break through their denial of death.
In this section, however, we shall look at a different issue: why facing death may be critical not only for individuals to be truly alive, but for society as a whole to remain alive.
Our theme is simple: individuals who deny their own death also deny the threats to the survival of the species as a whole. It may well be that only if large numbers of citizens and opinion-makers are willing to affirm life by facing death in their own lives will they be willing to face - and act to prevent - our present path to slow species-suicide through destroying the biosphere upon which we depend for life.
We begin by noting the massive failure of our present leaders and institutions to address humanity's greatest problem in the 21st century: preserving the biosphere.
Despite the horrible problems still afflicting the human species, it is possible to argue that life in 2005 is better than it was in 1905 in almost every respect: far more people live far longer and enjoy higher standards of living; infant mortality is down and healthcare improved; people are better-educated, literacy is up; women and minorities have more rights; there is less slavery, more democracy; it seems unlikely at this time that we face the kind of world wars that awaited the world in 1905; modern communications and the Internet have begun to create the global consciousness needed to solve global problems.
There is only one major area of life in which the human condition is dramatically, frighteningly and incontestably worse that a century ago: the health of the biosphere upon which human beings depend for life. The fact that humanity is not only failing to address the problem but actually making it worse as you read these words - despite our knowledge that we are committing slow species-suicide - amounts to the breakdown of an entire civilization, not simply the failure of a particular political party or political leader. Nowhere is this collapse of civilization more serious than in the United States, which is responsible for over 30% of world global warming despite being only 3% of the world's population.
America's failure to take serious action to reduce global warming is occurring despite the fact that we know the steps needed to save the biosphere, such as increasing fuel efficiency. And rather than move to solve the problem, humanity is actually making it worse:
o The U.S. won a Cold War triumph over the Soviet Union - and the destruction of the biosphere accelerates.
o Alaskan ice shelves that have existed for millennia suddenly begin melting - and a Presidential election is held in which the environment is barely discussed.
o Two millennia-old religious and spiritual institutions founded by ascetics who preached simplicity flourish - even as U.S. over-consumption of energy and resources create a rising amount of CO2 emissions, under both Democratic and Republican Presidents.
o The scientists we trust to inform us about biospheric threats warn us of the danger with increasing alarm, while media moguls largely ignore them, continuing to focus on amassing great empires that will eventually prove to have been made of sand.
o Great multinational corporations globalize the world while ignoring the fact that their behaviors amount to slow-motion suicide for themselves, not to mention everyone else.
It seems clear that the sum total of our present politics, institutions, ideologies and religious faiths cannot save us. Our salvation may well depend on transforming our approach to economic, social, military and environmental policy. And facing death in a way that affirms life can significantly contribute to such a transformation.
Humanity needs to transform if it is to survive for a fundamental reason: it is, in effect, fighting its own evolution. Three key behaviors rewarded by evolution have been the abilities to (1) procreate; (2) dominate through violence; and (3) transform raw materials into finished products.
Despite the horrific harm each of these behaviors have caused to particular groups or regions at one time or another, they have benefited human life as a whole. If the most basic measure of human life is the number of people alive times the years they live, human life is today flourishing as never before.
For the first time, however, these three "evolutionarily rewarded" behaviors have become not just a threat to a local area or group but to the long-term continuation of human life itself:
(1) procreation : as improvements in Third World healthcare and nutrition (though still woefully inadequate) help produce a growing population consuming increasing amounts of energy and resources, we risk reaching a tipping-point in which we have more people than our ecological systems can provide for;
(2) domination through violence : with the invention of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that can destroy all life, and the increasing likelihood that non-state players will use them, the ability to of a given society to militarily dominate others is less adaptive than a willingness to move beyond militarism and create the new cooperative world order needed to preserve the biosphere, fight terrorism and reduce world poverty.
(3) creating finished products: the ability to produce finished products has become a major threat to the biosphere, e.g. the proliferation of gas-guzzling autos in the U.S., and the growing thirst for autos throughout the Third World, especially in China and India.
Many of our present behaviors have material explanations. People have more children in poorer, agricultural societies because of high infant mortality rates, the need for people to work the land, and the need for male heirs. Societies who dominate the world stage for a time usually do so in part because of their use of weaker societies' resources. People enjoy material comfort.
As Ernest Becker , Robert Firestone and the Terror Management Theory group of social psychologists have explained, however, our behaviors are not explained by material factors alone. Our denial of death not only fuels these behaviors, but helps cause them.
We also procreate because we seek to perpetuate ourselves beyond the grave. Our leaders wage wars partly because they seek to justify their existence and "make history", i.e. live on symbolically after their deaths. We follow our leaders and invest them with wisdom and goodness they do not possess because we unconsciously seek to be protected from death by them. We similarly emotionally invest in badly flawed institutions and ideologies - organized religions, political parties and movements, nationalism, capitalism - and seek to amass wealth, partly in the unconscious hope that they will protect us from death and/or grant us some form of eternal life after it. We seek creature comforts beyond our real needs, and ignore the damage we know we are doing to our descendants, because we are cut off from life and humanity's future as a result of denying our death.
Material explanations alone cannot account for such phenomena as so-called "suicide bombers" flying airplanes into large buildings in the hopes of attaining eternal life. (It is more accurate to call them "immortality bombers".) Nor do they explain how elected leaders in the wealthiest nation on earth can place more faith in an imagined God than the scientists their society has educated at great expense to determine whether or not the biosphere upon which they depend for life is being destroyed.
It is beyond our scope here to present all the evidence indicating that denial of death contributes greatly to much of today's violence and environmental neglect. We can only hope that interested readers will look more deeply into this massive evidence because doing not only helps illuminate the problem but points in the direction of solutions. ( Sources: Dr. Robert Firestone, others.)
For if denial of death contributes to violence, intolerance, poverty and biospheric neglect, developing a life-affirming death awareness can contribute to peace, reducing world poverty, and saving the biosphere. As we shall discuss in more detail in the remaining parts of this section:
(1) Surfacing and transforming our deep anguish about our mortality into love for life naturally leads to far greater tolerance and empathy for others. We identify more with what we have in common - our mutual sadness about our shared fate - than the illusory immortality projects that divide us. Fully feeling our own sadness, vulnerability and pain in the face of death makes it almost impossible to consider violence against another, except in clear and incontestable cases of self-defense.
(2) Such transformed experiences of empathy can also motivate us to cooperate more and help those in need. Death teaches us, after all, to value alive experiences of giving and helping our fellow human beings more than deadening experiences of addictive consumption, pursued as an unconscious but futile attempt to protect us from death.
(3) As death teaches us to value experiences more than possessions, we might also be more open to the case for reducing consumption. And we might develop a greater concern for real-life actions that can contribute to others beyond the grave - first and foremost saving the biosphere.