Imminent Doom! Fear du Jour

By Cliff Springs

Swine flu!  Ebola!  SARS!  Flesh-eating bacteria!  Pandemic!  Asteroids!  Killer bees!  Y2K!  Nuclear war!  Trans fat!  Ice age!  Global warming! 


It’s always something.  There is a culture of people in this world who wouldn’t know what to do if they didn’t have something to worry—or better yet, panic—about.  All the hyperbole, all the doom and gloom, all the incessant hysteria should’ve created a boy-who-cried-wolf resistance by now, but no such luck.  Because of the constantly changing onslaught, the fear du jour that doesn’t resonate with one crowd is likely to click with the next.


If anything, it’s had the reverse effect on me.  I’m not a worrier by nature to begin with, but my natural inclination anymore is to run the opposite direction of common sentiment.  If it sounds too dire and too dangerous, then it probably is.  Neither panic nor fanaticism serve the interest of those who are meant to do the reacting—these emotions only serve those who create the uproars.


There are, of course, numerous reasons for the hysteria:  media sensationalism to sell papers or boost ratings; raising money and awareness for organizations that benefit from the hysteria—whether the result of genuine beliefs or simply for profit. 


Media sensationalism is neither new nor difficult to understand—profit IS the bottom line in media organizations as a whole even if select individuals are able to maintain some sense of journalistic integrity.  It’s the latter of the previous reasons behind the hysteria that I believe is the most dangerous.  Unfortunately, both work hand in hand to form a symbiotic relationship to perpetually fuel the fires of panic.


Let’s grant for a moment that the instigators behind the exaggerations are sincere (though this is often debatable)—such as environmentalists, health activists, and the like.  Using environmentalists as an example, a sincere environmentalist believes that we are not being good stewards of our planet and her resources.  I would probably agree—as would most people—that more can be done to take better care of mother Earth, though the extent of the problem and the solutions are debatable. 


Now keep in mind that there exist extremists within any such movement that operate with a distorted perception of reality—such as environmentalists who view nature as perfect but for the intrusion of mankind.  These fanatics are comfortable with tactics that include arson of construction projects in places that do not meet their environmental approval.  Such lunatics are easily dismissed for what they are, and I would prefer to set their kind aside for purposes of this article.  The problem exists beyond the wackos.


Back to our “rational” example:  your average joe environmentalist who is motivated by accomplishing some positive objectives might very well be satisfied if everybody pitched in and did their reasonable part—recycling, turning off lights when not in use to save electricity, properly disposing of chemicals to avoid pollution, reseeding of land where timber is harvested, etc.  Most of these types of efforts are reasonable, sensible, and above all else—doable.  But eliciting changes in behavior to achieve even these minimal results takes time, money, and repetition—resources that non-profit organizations do not always possess.  Unfortunately, the easier an action is to embrace, the easier it is to dismiss or set aside or overlook or forget.  We—myself included—often procrastinate on enacting the simplest of behavioral changes simply because we’re confident we can start them anytime.  It’s a dichotomy of human behavior that almost begs for fearmongering in order to be motivated to action.  This is why we have exaggeration and hype.


Calling on the world to recycle or conserve isn’t newsworthy.  “GLOBAL WARMING—POLAR ICE CAPS MELTING!” is.  Alarmism is the tool of choice, and it’s essential that one understands that alarmism of this type is almost always just that:  a tool.  Rarely is doom and gloom conveyed on an accurate scale.  If you require proof, just take a moment to recall which of the disasters at the beginning of this article came anywhere close to panning out on the level they were portrayed.  None.  None.  None.  None.  None.


One more time for clarity:  none.  Shouldn’t that tell us all something?


I’m not disputing it’s effectiveness as a tool for generating discussion and public interest.  And the media is all too willing to grab hold and run with the stories—fear sells.  Doom and gloom makes headlines and headlines generate publicity for the cause.  This is the symbiotic relationship that I mentioned earlier.  It forms a perpetual cycle of hype that serves the interests of both parties involved. 


This is one of my primary reasons for doubting the impact of mankind on global warming.  There is plenty of scientific evidence to render the verdict far from settled as to mankind’s blame, but I’m not even going to tackle that here because we only need to review history to justifiably doubt the accusations.


I remember distinctly—distinctly—reading in my Weekly Reader in elementary school that scientists feared another ice age.  This was the late 1970s—thirty years ago.  I didn’t even know what the heck an ice age was exactly, but it sounded scary.  I pictured saber-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths roaming about.  I wondered then if we could do anything to stop it. 


An ice age.  Everything frozen.  1970s.


Do any of you actually believe that in 30 years we so drastically changed this planet as to swing fully from the threat of an ice age to the impending doom of global warming?  Pollution and emission standards, fuel efficiency, etc., are light years from where they were then.  We’ve IMPROVED these things, yet we’ve swung a complete 180 in terms of our impact on the planet’s temperature in just 30 years.  That’s pretty impressive.


It’s not just that we’re being warned of global warming, but that WE did it.  Nevermind cyclical changes that have occurred throughout history—long before the existence of the combustible engine.  Never mind the possible impact of something really, really powerful—namely sun spots and solar flares from the biggest engine in the solar system.  If this were attributed to solar flares, then we would all have to acknowledge (at least those of us who are sane) that we are merely bystanders and can do nothing about it.


No, it is imperative that we take the blame so that change can be forced upon us.  Please don’t dismiss this as a motivation behind the hype.  There are too many beneficiaries of the proposed changes—environmentalists, the media, alternative power providers, and anti-capitalists (those who resent the American lifestyle).  Alternative power is a wonderful idea if someone can develop a suitable, economical, efficient source—but don’t make me pay for it with my tax dollars.  If it’s viable, then private enterprise should be able to make it work.  If it’s not viable except through taxpayer funding, then just maybe it’s not viable or the technology isn’t there yet.


Once we—mankind in general, but specifically the United States—accept blame, then the door is opened for bad policy.  Government dollars—my money and yours—gets thrown at a problem that we can’t fix.  Or we put constraints on businesses based on false science.  Once tax dollars are being doled, the number of hands wanting a piece of the pie grows exponentially.  Pretty soon, government has grown, freedoms are restricted, and a general dumbing of the population settles in.


I really don’t want to get into the details of the global warming debate here—that’s not the purpose of this article.  I’m really trying to get you to think about the methodology and the motivations behind the fear tactics, and view global warming and other such hysteria through a skeptical filter.  It’s not even necessary to assign a conspiratorial motivation to the perpetrators, just recognize hype for what it is:  a tool. 


Your momma or your daddy likely told you that if something is too good to be true, it probably is.  Likewise, if something is too bad to be true, it probably is.  If we blindly accept the hype du jour each time it comes along, then we risk becoming like the hype itself:  a bunch of tools.



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