Sheldon Solomon: Climate, Terror and Being “Tranquilized by the Trivial”

After the release of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, professor Sheldon Solomon, experimental social psychologist and co-creator of ‘terror management theory,’ suggested human responses to news of impending social and ecological collapse have nothing to do with climate science and everything to do with death.

The prospect of violence, drought, famine and species extinction – all prominent aspects of the recent IPCC report – force individuals to confront feelings of mortality which we try to suppress by doubling down on our cultural worldviews. That means our own fear of death makes us more likely to strengthen and affirm our belief systems. So if you already don’t agree with climate science, the latest IPCC report isn’t likely to change that.

In fact, says Solomon, it’s “tough to get people to dispassionately and rationally consider the facts.” This may actually be more true for “very educated and scientifically literate people,” he says.

“I say that for two reasons. One is what psychologists these days call motivated reasoning, and there’s a whole set of studies suggesting people tend to view this kind of information in ways that confirm and fortify their preexisting beliefs. And so folks that are pro-environment will be apt to uncritically embrace these facts and become more ardently so and climate change deniers will discount them by generating counter arguments and disparaging the credentials of the scientists who produced the report.”

The second reason, he says, has to do with our human response to fear-inducing information, what Solomon studies under a rubric he calls terror management theory.

“This kind of information is daunting,” Solomon says, “because it conjures up both conscious and non-conscious reactions to the fact that we will some day die.”

Solomon points to one of the basic arguments made in Ernest Becker’s book the Denial of Death: “humans share with all forms of life a basic predisposition towards self-preservation in the service of survival and reproduction.”

But beyond the drives of other creatures, humans have the unique capacity to think abstractly and symbolically, he says, leading to a sense of self-consciousness. We can also reflect on both our past and our future and this, “makes us aware that we can die some day and that our death can come for reasons we could never anticipate or control.”

Such reflections can lead to “unwelcome realizations” that “give rise to paralyzing terror that we assuage through the development and maintenance of cultural worldviews.”

Ultimately, Solomon says, in these moments of terror we want to tell ourselves that we participate in and are valuable members of “a meaningful universe.”

This desire, to position ourselves within a meaningful universe, can have undesirable consequences, however.

When confronted with the looming image of our mortality, we usually end up doing one of two things: “One is to just get the images of death out of our minds. We tend to do that through suppression and distraction: watching television, consuming massive amounts of drugs and alcohol, going to Walmart to save a buck on a chainsaw and a lemon."

He added, "the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard called this being ‘tranquilized by the trivial.’”

The other involves constructing defenses – especially ones that affirm our worldview – that keep unwelcome thoughts of death from coming to mind.

“This has to do with bolstering faith in our cultural worldviews. So we may become more devoted to our career, more supportive of charismatic political leaders, even more concerned about the success of our favourite sports team.”

Ultimately a terror management theory perspective would suggest we need to “create conditions that will make people more receptive to dispassionately considering the facts,” Solomon says.

We can do this by “undercutting motivated reasoning and helping folks recognize how efforts to deny death can foster maladaptive defense reactions.” If we can anticipate our own desire to do away with unwelcome thoughts, perhaps we can find more productive ways of coping with our anxieties.

The recognition of our own death denial is the first step to confronting it: “I think if we can do that we can nudge folks in a productive direction.”

Yet there is still a significant barrier to overcoming inaction on issues like climate change: political polarization.

“We’re going to have to kind of go to extraordinary lengths to depoliticize these issues,” he says.

The thing to remember, according to Solomon, “is that left and right are both beside the point.” Open-mindedness and compromise, from both sides, may well be the only own avenue out of our current political deadlock.

“Conservatives might have to acknowledge, as Naomi Klein points out, that there may not be market solutions to these kinds of difficulties. Liberals may have to consider, as Stewart Brand points out in his book Whole Earth Discipline, that there might be a role for nuclear power and genetically modified foods in constructive solutions as we move forward.”

The challenge is to overcome the denial that prevents us from having these important – even if difficult – solutions conversations in the first place.

Image Credit: Jeffrey Smith via Flickr

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