It is urgent that educators in social studies and science (among other disciplines) consider the ethical imperative of teaching the climate crisis—the future is at stake. From the perspective of terror management theory (TMT), a barrier to teaching this contentious topic effectively is existential threat.
Through the lens of TMT it becomes clear that climate catastrophe is an understandably fraught topic as it can serve as a reminder of death in two ways:
- such discussions can elicit not only mortality salience from considering the necrocene produced by climate catastrophe
- such discussions produce existential anxiety arising from worldview threat. This threat can occur when Western assumptions are called into question as well as when there is disagreement between those with any worldviews that differ.
For a summary of relevant aspects of TMT in the context of teaching of the climate crisis, as well as specific strategies to help manage this situation (providing conceptual tools, narrating cascading emotions, carefully using humor to diffuse anxiety, employing language and phrasing that does not overgeneralize divergent groups, and priming ideas of tolerance and even nurturance of difference), see this open-access article:
van Kessel, C. (2020). Teaching the climate crisis: Existential considerations. Journal of Curriculum Studies Research, 2(1), 129–145. https://doi.org/10.46303/jcsr.02.01.8
For an in-depth look at climate anxiety, check out Panu Pikhala’s report for Mental Health Finland,
as well as Pikhala’s Hope and Action Project with teachers, including this list of emotional tasks for classroom use! (Please note that Google translate does a decent job of the website if you don’t read Finnish)
Is a subfield of social psychology that is derived from existentialism and the works of Ernest Becker. TMT posits that our awareness of death conflicts with our evolved desire to live and that this creates the potential for debilitating existential anxiety (i.e., “terror”). Furthermore, it proposes that humans have attempted to psychologically resolve the problem of death by inventing and sustaining self-esteem-yielding cultural worldviews that help to manage this anxiety. These cultural systems enable people to curtail death related anxiety by providing hope for immortality. According to TMT, immortality can be literal, such as a belief in an afterlife (e.g., heaven). However, we can also attain symbolic immortality through a cultural system (e.g., one’s country) which allows its adherents to construe themselves as valuable members whose memory and contributions will persist posthumously through the permanency of that culture or the objects that it fosters.
An existential threat is a threat to existence (e.g., mortality salience) and sometimes refers further to threats to the psychological constructs that help us to make sense of our existence as simultaneously physical and symbolic beings.
The state of having death on your mind. When we say mortality is salient, it means that one has been reminded of death.