Death, afterlife, and doomsday scenario: Why do we evade the extreme dangers of climate change?

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Death, afterlife, and doomsday scenario: Why do we evade the extreme dangers of climate change?

(A review of Samuel Scheffler’s Death and the Afterlife)

Robert D. Stolorow, Ph.D.

Robert D. Stolorow, Ph.D.

In a blog post of a year ago examining the motivations underlying the pervasive evasion of the catastrophic consequences of climate change, I included this personal vignette: “More than three decades ago I took my young son to a planetarium show at the New York Museum of Natural History. During that show it was predicted that a billion years from now the sun will become a “red giant” that will engulf and destroy our entire solar system. This prospect filled me with intense horror. Why would a catastrophe predicted to occur in a billion years evoke horror in me?”

I explained that the “horror that I felt was an extreme form of existential anxiety—the anxiety that accompanies our recognition that, as finite human beings, we are constantly threatened by impending possibilities of trauma, harm, disease, death, and loss, which can occur at any time. But what I felt at the planetarium show was more than that, because the sun’s becoming an engulfing red giant represents not just the destruction of individual human beings but of human civilization itself…. The destruction of human civilization would also terminate the historical process—the sense of human history stretching along from the distant past to an open future—through which we make sense out of our individual existences. I want to call the horror that announces such a possibility apocalyptic anxiety. Apocalyptic anxiety anticipates the collapse of all meaningfulness. And it is from apocalyptic anxiety that we turn away when we deny the extreme perils of climate change.”

Samuel Scheffler, in his timely, thought-provoking, and Angst-evoking book, Death and the Afterlife, provides detailed and sophisticated philosophical arguments that can lend substance to the impressionistic claims made in my blog post. The book is concerned not with a personal afterlife but with a collective afterlife—the survival of human life on earth for an indefinite period of time after one’s own death. Making use of two thought experiments, the doomsday scenario (knowing that the earth will be completely destroyed by a giant asteroid 30 years after one’s own death) and the infertility scenario (knowing that all human beings have become infertile and that the human race faces imminent extinction), Scheffler argues persuasively that the taking for granted of such a collective afterlife underpins our valuing or caring about our various activities, projects, and involvements, and that the absence of such a pre-reflective conviction would seriously erode such valuing and mattering. He summarizes his arguments as follows:

I have argued that the survival of people after our deaths matters greatly to us … because it is a condition of many other things that now matter to us continuing to do so. In some very significant respects, we actually care more about the survival of others after our deaths than we do about the existence of a personal afterlife, and the imminent disappearance of the human race would have a more corrosive effect on our ability to lead … ‘value-laden lives’ than does the actual prospect of our own death…. In this respect … the survival of humanity matters more to each of us … even than our own survival (pp. 80-81).

In language similar to some of mine in my previous blog post, Scheffler writes that a meaningful human life “relies on an implicit understanding of such a life as itself occupying a place in an ongoing human history, in a temporally extended chain of lives and generations” (p. 43), “a history that transcends the history of any individual” (p. 59). In the absence of a collective afterlife, meaningfulness collapses, leading to pervasive apathy and ennui.

In arguments too intricate and technical to summarize here, Scheffler applies his afterlife conjecture to a number of issues in philosophical value theory—the limits of individualism and egoism in constituting values; the conservative, nonexperiential, and nonconsequentialist dimensions of valuing; and the complex relations between valuing and temporality, especially the future.

I, in contrast, will apply the afterlife conjecture to an understanding of the pervasive evasion of the very real possibility of the doomsday scenario posed by the specter of climate change. Scheffler himself alludes to such evasion when he notes that there “are actually things we can do to promote the survival and flourishing of humanity after our deaths, such as taking action to solve the problems of climate change” (p. 78), and that it is “unreasonable” that we fail to do more, but he does not explain this failure.

An explanation of the evasion perhaps requires a shift from a philosophical to a psychoanalytic perspective emphasizing the unbearable emotions that would accompany a facing-up to a doomsday scenario with its collapse of meaning. It is from the horror of the doomsday scenario posed by climate change that the minimizers, scoffers, and ridiculers turn away. Ironically, in turning away from the extreme dangers of climate change, we contribute to the coming to be of the horrifying catastrophe we are evading. We must face up to our apocalyptic anxiety before it is too late for the survival of future generations. Such facing-up requires that we open a far-reaching emotional dialogue in which the Angst can be collectively held and borne.


Scheffler, S. (2013). Death and the Afterlife. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Stolorow, R. D. (2007). Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections. New York: Routledge.

Robert D. Stolorow is a Founding Faculty Member at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Los Angeles, and at the Institute for the Psychoanalytic Study of Subjectivity, New York. Absorbed for more than four decades in the project of rethinking psychoanalysis as a form of phenomenological inquiry, he is the author of World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post- Cartesian Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2011) and Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic,and Philosophical Reflections (Routledge, 2007) andcoauthor of nine other books. He received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Harvard in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Riverside in 2007.