The Threat of Nature and the New Dimension to Death
Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species — man — acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world. — Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
In 2018, a shocking article was published in the journal Nature Climate Change. It was titled “Higher temperatures increase suicide rates in the United States and Mexico”, a very straightforward title to a rather distressing revelation. The authors of this paper found that every 1°C increase in average monthly temperature leads to an increase of 0.7% and 2.1% increase in suicide rates for the United States and Mexico respectively. Even more concerning, the authors project that if human beings do not mitigate the issue of climate change by 2050, there could be up to 9,000~40,000 more suicides in the United States and Mexico alone.
Suicide – as we saw in the previous chapter – is already a grave concern for our species today. It is estimated that more than 700,000 people resort to suicide every year, and it is unimaginable how many more have attempted to do so on top of this number. In the face of such global despair, our inability to cope with the changing climate isn’t helping.
Suicide is not the only mental and behavioral health issue on the rise due to climate change, although it is a powerful example. Depression, anxiety, hopelessness, a literal loss in place of belonging, the list can go on. I could list off even more personal and interpersonal issues that arise with our deteriorating environment, but I’m sure you’re sick of hearing such delightful news daily. What I want to focus on here is to attempt to understand our inability to cope or even collectively accept climate change through a TMT perspective. To begin, let’s explore the question: why is climate change so controversial?
Although many diverse answers may pop up on your Google search, I believe — among many others — there is a far simpler answer. As long time environmental and political activist Arnold Schroder writes:
For most people most of the time, whatever our worldviews, global collapse is simply beyond our emotional and psychological scope, if it is presented in non-mythic terms (2019)
In an unprecedented way, humans — beginning from the Holocene 12,000 years ago and our shift to agricultural societies — have created another dilemma in the human paradox of death.
We are no longer creatures only terrified of our own death and mitigating it through social and individual means, but an animal that has created a trajectory for our own extinction as a species. For more than 10,000 years, we have been unable to come to terms with our own mortality without attempting to annihilate others. How in the world could we come to terms with our own extinction as a whole?
Even if we were to miraculously tackle this problem with full force, the ride is already headed for crash and cataclysm. Unlike the possible destruction of the world through nuclear weapons, the issue of the changing climate is that there is no single button to stop this threat.
But before we will try to face this problem of extinction, let’s attempt to better understand how we came to where we are today.
MITIGATING DEATH BY DEROGATING AND ANNIHILATING NATURE
Studies of TMT show that when we are reminded of our own death, we become more willing to kill animals and exploit forests for reasons that would not be endorsed when not thinking of death. Becker also observed that what we call the “natural world” is so terrifying, that we derogate it into a lesser reality by giving ourselves the facade of control. We can build dams, fences, go to the moon, or create sophisticated systems to better understand nature to obtain this sense of control over something that controls us. Colonial activity can also be seen as a way to subjugate and control the environmental systems.
Quickly recall, the core of colonial activity is the forceful implementation of a single definition of agriculture over another. The definition many colonizers adhered to was owning private land and using the environment for economic gain. Many of such conquerors were no doubt driven by an absolutist view of their worldview, motivated by biblical verses such as “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” Moreover, we often see the people implementing such ideas as noble and powerful men with a clear plan on how to subdue the land and people on it. But this is not the case. Sure, there were powerful people in these colonies, but the majority of them were staring death right in the face. Let’s turn to the state of Michigan for example. Through this, we will observe how the religiously, morally, and legally endorsed exploitation of our environment has come to haunt us in the modern-day.
The Dutch Migration
Before the arrival of the “exploitative agriculturalists,” the land we now call Michigan was covered in forest. This forest was managed through the reciprocal relationship promoted through the “Honorable Harvesters,” and is estimated to have covered about 90% of the entire state. However, to skip over the complex history of Michigan, the European settlers cut more than 50% of this forest down to clear for housing, factories, or to extract its lumber. In fact, by the 1940s, no uncut stands of forest remained on the land of Michigan. The state still proudly announces their lucrative lumber resources and in many cities such as Grand Rapids, it is not uncommon to see great murals of lumbermen. But what drove this “frontier” line were not “...the toughest, strongest, fiercest and most determined men and women ever to walk on the face of the Earth” (State of the Union Address, 2020), as Donald Trump may like to believe; instead, they were poor, destitute, and religiously driven people who had no place back home in Europe.
In 2006, the Dutch historian Ger de Leeuw published a book that traced the stories of people who migrated to the United States from the Drenthe province. With remarkable detail, de Leeuw included an incredible list of every single migrant to the “New World” from the years 1845 and 1872. This list included their social status, age, family size, and most importantly, the purpose for migration. Remember, this is a time when Abraham Lincoln and others were dreaming for the United States to be a place where:
white people everywhere, the world over — in which Hans and Baptiste and Patrick, and all other men from all the world, may find new homes and better their conditions in life
And of course, the Dutch were no exception. During the years de Leeuw examined, a total of 369 Dutch migrants poured into West Michigan – a place where Indigenous people such as the Odawa were still fighting for their place to remain after Michigan officially became a state in 1837. Now, if you read the letters these Dutch people sent back home, it’ll be easy to imagine that they were also driven by a transcendent purpose to transform the “savages” into “good” Christians. As one letter written in 1846 reads:
The entire North American country is free and open for the proclamation of the Gospel…Our plan now is as soon as the water is open… we will go to the state of Michigan…
But in the following lines, the focus quickly takes a sharp turn:
Our plan now is as soon as the water is open… we will go to the state of Michigan… Although there are woods everywhere, we are still advised to go there because the soil in the woods, after the trees have been cut down, yields crops for three years without cultivation...It is surprising that one will find almost no one who came here poor and who after five or six years has not done well -- so well that he would even be counted among the rich in Holland. So, on the whole, people make progress here” (Barendregt 1846, p. 3-7).
What becomes clear here is that the focus was not on the conversion of local people – although some groups did attempt to do so – that majority focus was on economic gain. Let’s return to de Leeuw’s list to observe this.
Out of the 369 Dutch migrants, 242 were classified as “poor” and 50 as “destitute.” What is even more telling is that out of the 61 migrants who were classified as “wealthy,” 50 of them listed “poor economic means” as the leading motivation to travel across the Atlantic Ocean. In total, 71% of all these migrants were motivated by “poor economic means” to travel away from their homeland. The second most reason, religion, was only on the minds of 21% of these migrants. This makes sense, as what we learn from de Leeuw’s work is that all of these migrants traveled in groups. These groups were headed by one wealthy pastor or religious leader from that province. We can vaguely imagine that a small group of wealthy, religious leaders brought a larger group of poor, destitute people to the United States for greater economic gain. Although this only illustrates a small number of the thousands of Dutch migrants to the west side of Michigan during this period, knowing this background can allow us to better understand the ecological disruption that occurred.
Soon after these migrants flooded into the west side of Michigan (one estimate shows that in just 2 years, 3,000 Dutch people came to West Michigan), they began clearing the land and cutting down the trees to implement their own definition of agriculture. This greatly disrupted the practice of the Honorable Harvest, alongside the strong national opposition to Indigenous peoples following the lead of soon-to-be president Andrew Jackson. The famous quote, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” captures the United States American sentiment during this time well. Underneath this genocidal movement, what really drove the expelling of Indigenous groups in this area was how truly poor and desperate the Dutch were. The Dutch migrants, who had just traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and the land of the Americas, “were so ‘filthy’ that the Indians ‘could not live near them’,” as historian Robert Swierenga observes (2008). The Indigenous people were disgusted on how the newcomers polluted the wells, cooked food in the same bowls they defecated in, all on top of the smallpox epidemic they had brought. With the quick absence of any possible opposition to their religiously endorsed exploitation of land, many of these Dutch migrants achieved the “American Dream” Lincoln so staunchly fought for. However, it was of course not only the Dutch migrants who are responsible for the ecological degradation and expelling of Indigenous groups.
Finding God in the Place of God
A few decades before the mass arrival of the Dutch, a peculiar conversation was occurring between two diametrically opposed worldviews. The conversation was between an Odawa leader and a Baptist missionary alongside the waters of Kee-No-Shay Creek in modern-day West Michigan. The two leaders were in disagreement on how one worships their god. The baptist missionary was busy attempting to convert the Odawa people to Christianity, to no avail. The Odawa could not understand why the Christians would seek the divine presence cooped up indoors while reading a thick book full of contradictions. For the Odawa – and many other Indigenous groups in this area – the Great Spirit was everywhere. From the trees to the water, and even the pebble lying on the side of the road. To convince the other, the Odawa leader took the European missionary to a sacred place of worship, which was located upriver where a waterfall was pouring over majestically. Surely, the Odawa man thought, this would change the missionary's idea of worshipping indoors. But the eyes of the European man – who was raised under the culture of exploitative agriculture – landed on something else.
The waterfall was pouring over a mineral called gypsum, which after corroborating with a geologist in Detroit, the missionary found that the mineral could be used to create plaster (a paste used to coat the walls of European-styled houses) and fertilizer. Within the next decade, gypsum mines were created all alongside Kee-No-Shay Creek, even being renamed as Plaster Creek. The sacred place of worship for the Odawa was replaced with the religion of colonial activity and economic gain. West Michigan quickly became an industrial center fueled by lucrative woodworking and plaster mining businesses, and also quickly annihilating or assimilating the local Indigenous populations. But soon, this very hero system that put economic gain as the utmost ideal – endorsed through religious and legal dogma – came to haunt their very own descendants.
With the compounding of fast deforestation, mining, agricultural runoff, and more, the land which was once so lucrative became hostile to those who worked it. Today, Kee-No-Shay/Plaster Creek is the most contaminated waterway in West Michigan.
Without the vast forest to stabilize the soil and water, areas near the creek are prone to flash floods. The continuous contamination of the water from agricultural and industrial runoff has made the land inhabitable for native plants, animals, and fish. Probably more concerning for our modern humanistic thinkers, E. coli has been building up so much that people do not dare enter the waterway with their skin exposed. Charles W. Garfield – a man dubbed the “first citizen of Grand Rapids” for his commitment to the city in West Michigan – lamented:
[Kee-No-Shay/Plaster Creek] has almost nothing now in the way of tree growth from its source to its confluence with the Grand River, and instead of being the beautiful even-flowing stream throughout the year, as in my childhood, it is now a most fitful affair, full to the brim and running over at times, yet most of the year it is only a trickling rill. The playground is gone. Where there was one child then to enjoy that playground there are now eight thousand children who ought to have a playground like this, but a near sighted utilitarianism has snatched it away. We have stolen their rightful heritage from them.
Today, the remnants of the sacred worship ground of the Odawa is a stinky, contaminated, and brown trickle of fluid coming out of an underground pipe at the end of the river.
Stories like this are found in every corner of our industrialized world. We have created a global hero system that is rooted in economic gain and environmental exploitation. Driven by this hero system, every “success” is backed by the stories such as the child laborers in the mines of Congo, illegal and unethical forestry work in the Carpathian mountains, and continuous extracting of fossil fuels. Moreover, it gave us rampant diseases such as the coronavirus pandemic, deadly hurricanes and heatwaves, and a growingly hostile globe. The illusion of “subduing” the earth is falling apart.
Our hero system is failing, but we also must understand why it has become so hard for some to accept this reality. It is precisely because, for a while, the hero system truly made magnificent heroes. As seen in the stories above, for the past few centuries, it seemed as if humans conquered the immense power of nature. We are able to split the most powerful chemical bonds, alter the flow of rivers, and easily predict an incoming earthquake. Humans made incredible strides to prolong our life expectancy, making us dream of days where true physical immortality is made possible. To add to this conflated ego, this domination of the natural systems created unimaginable wealth. With this, we created more symbols of immortality: statues, world records, transnational corporations, billionaires, and more. Everything seemed to be going well, until of course, it wasn’t.
The same hero system that drove the degradation of the earth, came to realize that we could be creating our own demise by exploiting ecological systems. Just like how Napoleon’s drive to conquer Europe led to his own downfall, we are doing the same on a much larger scale. We are walking straight into our own extinction. However, as we have learned through TMT, what have humans done when faced with the threat of death? We retreat into our hero systems and already established worldviews. This is the positive-feedback loop of ecological degradation:
Humans realize that the earth and our bodies are decaying and dying. So then we retreat back into our same ideals of infinite economic growth, which in fact, is driving the decay.
What may be most consequential for humanity is that those who rose to power, rose to power precisely because of their hero system built on ecological exploitation. As Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway so brilliantly showed in their book Merchants of Doubt, our leaders have openly disregarded any evidence that may challenge their place in power and continuous economic growth. There can never be enough proof or evidence for anything, there is always a “leap of faith”:
Science is pretty much the same. A conclusion becomes established not when a clever person proposes it, or even a group of people begin to discuss it, but when the jury of peers—the community of researchers—reviews the evidence and concludes that it is sufficient to accept the claim (33).
In such ways, to return to our beginning question, climate change is so very controversial because to face it, it is to admit our collective mortality and minuteness in the face of nature. To truly admit to the problem of climate change is to shatter all cultural beliefs, hero systems, and personal identities that have greatly benefitted from it in the first place.
Those who have become suicidal, anxious, and depressed in the face of the threat of climate change see the world too clearly. They do not — or refuse to — adopt the buffers that can easily deny the threat of the degrading world and ultimate death.