When Two Deaths Go to War
Image by Dylan Collette via Wikimedia Commons (cc)
In January 2019, climate activist Greta Thunberg delivered a speech at the World Economic Forum, warning the audience that ‘financial success [had] come with an unthinkable price tag’ in terms of the impact on the environment. She called upon economic leaders to carry out ‘unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ before it is too late. ‘I don’t want you to be hopeful, I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act’. But what fear does Thunberg feel every day? She gives the answer in the same speech: ‘Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t. That is as black or white as it gets. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival’.
For people like Thunberg, the driving force behind their activism is none other than fear of death – a theme that runs through all of her speeches. ‘We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, and the extinction rate is up to ten thousand times faster than what is considered normal’, Thunberg told Members of the European Parliament in April 2019. In her message to the UN Climate Action Summit in September 2019, she said that ‘People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing’.
The radical environmental movement Extinction Rebellion even features an obvious mortality reminder, and co-founder Gail Bradbrook echoes Thunberg’s ‘black or white’ narrative when she says that ‘We really are at a crossroads. What we choose to do today is the difference between life and death on Earth’.
Unlike the hero-systems based on pursuing immortality through national, ethnic, or racial community, that of climate activists promises symbolic immortality through the survival of humankind, hence Thunberg’s frequent uses of terms ‘species’ and ‘Homo sapiens’. Thus, humanity itself is perceived as an extended family and its vitality functions as a shield against the mortal dread. While ethno-nationalists and conservative populists need to deal with the fear of permanent death presumably resulting from imperialist policies or a Great Replacement, climate activists fear extinction of life as such.
Despite the obvious difference between the ‘extended family’ of ethno-nationalists and climate activists, the latter identify individual worth on peoples’ contribution to human survival.
Ironically, it is exactly climate activists’ death narrative that turns many people off their message, for two reasons. First, unwelcome and insistent reminders of mortality repel people. They will prefer to block the entire message because it is framed by existential horror. They will derogate the messenger to delegitimize the source of terrifying reminders. This is why Thunberg is dismissed – predominantly by middle-aged white men – as a ‘mentally ill child’ or, as one pro-Brexit journalist put it, ‘a millenarian weirdo’.
Second, climate activists’ death narrative clashes with that of conservative populists, despite their rhetorical similarities. Ethno-nationalists tend to divide people into in- and out-groups; denial of death produces a cleavage between two types of demise: our death (which can be transcended and therefore not real) and theirs, permanent and ultimately negligible. This cleavage produces the distinction between ‘us’ (real humans) and ‘them’ (easily dehumanized), like Razin’s Russified Udmurt, a ‘a robot-like outcast’.
The idea of human extinction pushed by climate activists threatens the ownership of ‘our’ death as it implies the collectivisation of the demise, which subverts the ethno-cultural hero-system. Ethno-nationalists rightly suspect that this implies the elimination of national borders since, if extinction threatens us all (if we are in this together) then there can be no us/them. This violates the worldview that helps these groups resist mortal dread.