Choosing our illusions without care

June 14, 2012

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

It is poetic justice that the Ernest Becker Foundation’s home base, Seattle, also provides us with the leitmotif of our age, expressed in the final lyrics of Nirvana’s song Smells Like Teen Spirit: “the denial, the denial, the denial, the denial, the denial.” We are indeed a culture of denial and the EBF Fall Conference dealt with climate change denial and the reluctance of many to accept the findings of science. This denial certainly comports with what Becker says about the unwillingness to challenge the cultural systems through which people experience an ersatz immortality. There has recently been a whole spate of books dealing with this denial. I’m thinking here of Benjamin Barber’s book Consumed and Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion. One recent addition has really caught my eye, James Kunstler’s Too Much Magic. Author of The Long Emergency, Kunstler  is a leading analyst of peak oil and its repercussions for a society premised  on constant growth and expansion. Subtitled “Wishful Thinking About Technology And The Fate Of The Nation,” Too Much Magic examines the irrational faith that we moderns have in Technology to save the day. The appeal of such a belief is that it doesn’t require any real change on our part. “They will come up with something” has become the background mantra for a culture unwilling to face the death of a particular lifestyle, which Kunstler refers to as “happy motoring.” Fantasies of flying cars of the future, algae-based energy and the like are systematically chronicled and refuted. The political implications of our cultural reset are analyzed as well. The overall picture is not pretty. Insightfully, Kunstler also connects our denial to the generational cycles described by historians Bill Strauss and Neil Howe in their book The Fourth Turning. Our culture of denial is reflective of a “third turning” wherein systems become sclerotic and more and more effort has to be put into maintaining them. The banking bailout is a prime example of this.


The aspect of Too Much Magic that really caught my attention was the way it demonstrates our Janus-like relationship to technology and how it can be a form of death denial. On the one hand, some deny science because it is a threat to their immortality ideology. On the other hand, many of the same people have a childlike faith that technology will save us. Ken Wilber has a wonderful image for this contradiction, people happily sawing off the tree limb on which they sit. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Kunstler’s description of Disney World. Born in the gee-whiz era of scientific miracles following WWII,  the Disney experience simultaneously trades on our nostalgia for a simpler, bygone America of the small town. Listen to Kuntler’s description. “I was amused to discover some years ago, on a visit to Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, how much of the overarching metaphor in old Walt’s kinetic semiology of thrill rides and wish fulfillment galleries revolved around the invocation of death.”  Later he writes, “From Main Street, the Disney World visitor moves on to the many rides featuring brushes with death, haunted houses, animatronic corpses, holographic ghosts, screaming mummies, ghouls, skeletons, coffins, graveyards and all the other stock trappings of our national bent for necromancy. The place is drenched with signifiers of mortality.” Wow!  I wonder if Kunstler has read The Denial of Death. He certainly seems to be barking up the same tree. There are some dots to be connected here, namely our techno-utopianism, our cultural paralysis, and our death denial. Kunstler’s new book is an important contribution to the conversation.



  1. Good summary, Svaardvaard! I ;think that your annalysis could be extended to the economy as it is being experienced in Europe and creeping up in the US. The economy based upon growth, as GDP, which denies the limited supply of natural resources by looking for more growth to resolve the crisis. Scapegoat the poor and workers by shrinking services, jobs, unions, etc, as though that is going to save the day. Deny the limits, avoid the alternatives that are there, grab power and wealth.

    We need to develop the alternatives which we know about.

  2. Well, i really dont want to be so forthright, but climate change denial is bleedin’ obvious innit…”I dont care about climate change, or any other long term environmental issues because i will be dead before it becomes an issue for me personally”

    The standard armour, an impossible existential choice, an over-reaching of our psychological limits…the mainstay of our repression.

    I’ve read Kunstlers “The Long Emergency” and regard it as a very well researched synopsis of the human predicament in regard to environment and energy,

    We need to wake up to personal reality, to understand ourselves. Freud was right when he said that in order to fully develop an individual needs to recogonise that, by default, he is initially pointing in a *contextually* opposing direction from where he needs to travel, this is what we need to acknowledge. Its the Kierkedaardian gestalt of free will being a matter a psychological form and process rather than the matter and issues.

    Everything will flow from there – human limitation, thats it – thats the answer..

    • Yes Bernie,I agree that this is all connected. Adjusters magazine has featured a lot of thought provoking pieces about new visions for sustainable economies. A glance at their archives might be engaging

  3. Smashy, nice analysis especially with Freud. Just as the archetypal addict has to hit bottom, so too our culture of denial will get a physical wake up call from Reality as we experience new limits. The turn will be fast and sharp with the attendant prospect of fascism in some form. This is where knowledge of Becker is so needed. Just as the addict remains an addict, so too we wil never escape denial. It follows that as an addict can recover his life, we can manage our denial and anxiety in constructive ways.

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