(On February 24-25, 2017, the writers of this post are holding a symposium in Atlanta on the topic of how our destructive behavior toward our fellow animals and the planet is driven by anxiety over our own mortality and our consequent denial of death. Sheldon Solomon will be one of the speakers.)
In his last book, Escape from Evil, Ernest Becker wrote:
Mortality is connected to the natural, animal side of [human] existence; and so man reaches beyond and away from that side. So much so that he tries to deny it completely.
As soon as man reached new historical forms of power, he turned against the animals with whom he had previously identified—with a vengeance, as we now see, because the animals embodied what man feared most, a nameless and faceless death.
Forty years ago, when Escape from Evil was published, Becker could not have imagined where this truth might be leading – or how quickly.
The most recent Living Planet Index concludes that global wildlife populations have fallen by 58 percent since 1970, and that the decline is on track to reach two-thirds among vertebrates by 2020.
Another report shows that more than 300 kinds of mammals – from hippos to rhinos, and gorillas to camels – are being eaten to extinction. And sport and trophy hunting have left elephants, lions and most of the other great iconic species of Africa hanging on by a thread.
All of this is just the tip of an iceberg that scientists are calling the Sixth Mass Extinction of species, brought about by anthropogenic climate change, the poisoning and overfishing of the oceans, and the destruction of the forests. Beyond that, every year, our industrial civilization commits billions of animals to suffer and die in factory farms and research laboratories.
Overall, and for all of our intelligence and ingenuity, humankind has set in motion a process of relentless planetary destruction and extinction that will quite likely take our own species down, too.
Why is this happening?
Terror Management Theory argues that any reminder of our own animal nature – and thus our own mortality – is threatening, even though we may not be consciously aware of why that is. That means animals themselves are threatening, and when reminded of our own mortality, we will try and distance ourselves from animals. We convince ourselves that we are qualitatively different from them and superior to them.
We cannot entirely distance ourselves physically from the other animals while continuing to use them, but we can distance ourselves psychologically by treating them as commodities, resources, tools and symbols. All of these ways that enable us to accept their existence without acknowledging who they (and therefore we) really are.
(One exception to this behavior is how we treat our pets. But that’s because we tend to consider them as “furry people” who are part of our family in-group and therefore no longer really “animals” at all.)
Animal advocacy groups try their best to stem the tide of violence, but they remain unaware of the core psychological issue: that we humans have a desire (albeit largely unconscious) to separate and elevate ourselves above nature and the other animals. So They fail to take into account that the deterioration of our relationship with other animals, the damage we inflict on the natural world, and the inevitable harm this has on our own lives are inextricably linked to our insistence that “I am not an animal!”
the divine intellect, of which each man has a potential share and which distinguishes man from other animals, is immortal and transcendent.” —Aristotle
Much of the modern Western world’s relationship to nonhuman animals was forged in Ancient Greek thought. For the ensuing Christian world, the notion that only humans had a soul reached its apotheosis in the work of 17th-century philosopher René Descartes, who asserted that “animals” are simply biological machines that don’t have to be treated as living beings at all.
Today, nonhuman animals are routinely used in ways that disguise who they are or reinforce our ostensible superiority. We buy meat in shrink-wrapped packages, use other animals as biomedical “models” or “systems” in research, and force them to perform for our entertainment. And for all the talk of “animal rights,” it is still the case that no nonhuman animal has any legal rights whatsoever, even though science has demonstrated unequivocally that many of them demonstrate self-awareness, intelligence, sensitivity and emotional attachments.
Becker’s basic premise regarding our need to distance ourselves psychologically from the other animals as a defense against death anxiety has been validated in a variety of experimental situations. For example, Jamie Goldenberg has shown that mortality salience increased preference for arguments that humans are unique among all life forms. And Uri Lifshin and Jeff Greenberg have demonstrated that subconsciously reminding people of their mortality causes them to support killing animals, and that killing animals gives people a sense of power and invulnerability.
The terrible irony in our behavior is that it is our very efforts to raise ourselves above our fellow animals that are, in fact, bringing about our demise. The more we seek “progress” – building an industrial civilization through which we strive to take dominion over nature and its cycles of life and death – the more we are playing into our very worst nightmare: not just death, but now mass extinction.
We are not outside of nature and never will be. We are part of nature, and life becomes a lot more comfortable when we stop trying to defend ourselves against it. While we may never be able to dissolve our existential terror altogether, we can gain comfort by embracing the world of nature rather than constantly trying to transcend it.
That means acknowledging that we are animals, just like all the other animals. And it means ceasing to exploit them as commodities in our quest for immortality.
Join us at the “I Am Not an Animal!” symposium in Atlanta on February 24–25, 2017. For details, go here.
 Becker, Escape from Evil, 1975, p. 92
 Tarnus, R. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have p.60
 Goldenberg, J. L., Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Kluck, B. and Kornwell, R. 2001. I am not an animal: Mortality salience, disgust, and the denial of human creatureliness. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 130(3): 427–435.
 The Evil Animal: A Terror Management Theory Perspective on the Human Tendency to Kill Animals: Uri Lifshin, Jeff Greenberg, Daniel Sullivan – Univ. of Ariz.