Alf Hornborg is Professor of Human Ecology at Lund University since 1993. He received his Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Uppsala in 1986 and has taught at Uppsala and at the University of Gothenburg. He has done field research in Peru, Nova Scotia, the Kingdom of Tonga, and Brazil. His primary research interest is the cultural and political dimensions of human-environmental relations in past and present societies, particularly from the perspective of world-system analysis.
This interview took place on the 28th of February, 2018.
“I’ve been thinking about the matter of death versus life as a matter of the end of time. As a psychologist once said: ‘a human being basically boils down to time; time is what we are.’ Time gives us opportunity, freedom to do certain things. But, if you are on an airplane that is about to crash, you know that time is limited. And I think the basic anxiety about death is the thought that time is limited — that there’s an end to time. That is a basic existential condition for all human beings. Between the lines, that’s what you can read in some of Zygmunt Bauman’s books. We try to imagine that there’s no end to time. Yet still, all of our struggles, whatever we do and whatever we find meaningful and what we fill our lives with, are somehow struggles against the end of time. And we also have to struggle to keep that away from our awareness.”
“I do think, also, there’s a big change that has occurred between the late 19th century, when death was a collective issue, and now. Collectively, we dealt with death through the church — learning about resurrection and eternal life. In Buddhism and Hinduism you have reincarnation. There are all kinds of cosmological ways that we use to deal with the fact that people do die. What is weird about our society, modern society, and perhaps Sweden in particular, because Sweden is so secular, is that we’ve had to develop more individual ways to handle death. We cannot accept the religious answer anymore, so we turn to technological ones. People say, for example, ‘they’ll fix it now, we have all kinds of technologies in the hospitals.’ A lot of the things that we do in the process of destroying this planet have much to do with repression of the fact that, as Keynes said, ‘in the long run we’ll all be dead.’ Those were his immortal words said to an audience of economists.”
“My immediate take on our relation to climate change and our relation to death is that they both are repressed. We go on with our lives as if we were never going to die, as if that’s nothing to worry or think about. The same goes with climate change. We go on with our lives as if it didn’t exist, the biosphere will not boil, etcetera. In a way, our way of denying climate change is a magnified version of our denial of death. That’s what I would argue. Psychologically, we are not ready to accept death until it’s very close to us. It’s something that we sweep under the carpet. I think that’s also a reason why we don’t accept climate change as something that ought to change our behaviour. Because it’s something too disastrous to even imagine.”
“That’s a relationship that I would really want to look at. We have 17,000 scientists all over the world saying that the planet will be largely uninhabitable in 100 years — and, so, what do we do? Book another trip to Thailand? We’re not affected by it. Climate change should be existentially just as profound as death. I have grandchildren who will probably experience the end of this century, when this planet is supposed to be largely uninhabitable. So, it’s not that far away. It’s not 500 years or so — it’s within reach.”