25 April 2006

Against Fear


JEC is right when s/he says that fear is a motivator. It's a strong motivator.

But what does it motivate people to do? Stop the fear-stimulus as quickly as possible. I believe that fear is not going to rally anyone around climate change that isn't already here. And I think it's going to make for more public resistance to climate change, not less. Here's why:

1. Fear only motivates people to stop the fear-stimulus, and generally people start with the easiest tactic for getting rid of it--denial.

The easiest way to stop the stimulus in this case is to ignore it, to say it's crazy, to say it doesn't affect me. Denial and fear love to hang out together. Usually denial just sounds stupider and stupider, and is overcome by the rational mind, not by fear. But could that happen with climate change? I say no, because when all the sane people are talking about a fucking apocalypse, it's just too easy to make the sane people sound crazy.

Fear-induced denial is the most rational response to climate change because it's so huge and one person is so powerless. And it is so easy to feed that denial in our fragmented media culture. This denial would have to be overcome if we lived in a Big-3 Network News era, but we aren't. I can't depend upon Fox News to handle climate change in a way that isn't minimizing and sensationalist and after their own short-term goals.

2. Fear needs to have boundaries, and climate change has none.

You can't just live in a constant state of fear. Well, you can, it's called an anxiety disorder, and it's an awful, disempowering way to live. Anxiety is pathological because it persists in the absence of stimulus. Global warming is, essentially, boundless. It's everywhere, in every aspect of what we do. It's in my computer monitor and thousands of other little devices I own, which refuse to stop sucking power. It's in how I get to work, in hurricane season, in far away places, in choices I make today. Should I take a bath or a shower? Buy a house on the waterfront? Have children?

It's impossible to be afraid of something so complete in a productive way.

Asking people to be afraid of global warming is grossly unfair and can have devastating effects if people actually take Gore/Flannery, et al seriously. Being afraid of global warming is being afraid of your whole world. As someone who has successfully battled anxiety, I refuse to be a part of giving the world an anxiety disorder.

Besides, I didn't do anything to lessen my personal consumption until after I had gotten over my fear. My fear, because it was so total, induced nihilism, not action. We all have seen how powerless a nation that is being frightened into submission can be--our representative government has been completely hobbled by the fearmongering of the Bush administration. Do we really want to follow in their footsteps?

3. Fear motivates in the short term. Climate change is a long-term problem.

Say you start by getting everybody afraid. Are you going to keep everybody afraid for 100+years? And if not, how are leaders going to handle the negative side-effects of fear: powerlessness, nihilism, willful ignorance, anxiety?

4. There are other options.

Europeans actually deal with fear as a motivator well. But Americans like stories of growth and change and renewal and choices and positivity. That's why republicans are in power--they are the ones promoting "progressive", optimistic stories of growth and opportunity. The fact that this is a sham doesn't matter--people are willing to vote against their actual best interests in order to promote a rhetoric of growth and opportunity.

Why aren't we using this American capacity for dreaming to pass a huge gas tax?

There is so much positive change that could happen right now. There are so many growth industries that could spring from this intractable problem. There are so many potential solutions that improve quality of life immediately. The thing that chaps my ass most about climate change is that it's not necessarily a doom and gloom story. It could be a story about vertical integration. About the end of the remote-slavery era of globalism. About getting rid of asthma inhalers. About new relationships to technology, nature and the intersection of the two.

The great thing about fear is that it's really quick, and the situation is getting a little desperate. But I have never seen it work in the way it's supposed to, and have spent too many years paralyzed by it myself. My personal relationship to fear is absolutely what is driving my interest in climate change, and perhaps I overly generalize my experience.

I don't exactly have the readership to call for an open discussion, but if I did, I would say "consider this an open thread."

9 Comments:

Blogger carla said...

Deborah,
I regularly visit here (and hit the comments on blogs where I can see you have posted). Your discourse is so thoroughly considered and so well-written that I just selfishishly consume it. I am truly amazed by this little gem of a blog. Thanks for being.

25 April, 2006 09:27  
Anonymous jec said...

You bring up some great points. I'm not really in the camp that proposes "all fear all the time" to affect change. I think a bit of fear has its place but it can be pushed too far and result in reactions opposite to those we desire.

To your first and second points: I would add that you can't introduce the fear factor without offering hope and help. The ad campaign I referred to attempts to do this. And you are right that sometimes people become complacent in the face of great fear and troubles, which we DO need to avoid. It's a fine balance.

To the fourth point, I would LOVE it if Americans acted in the way you describe. Unfortunately, if you so much as say the words "gas tax" you have lost most of the audience. But the idea of presenting the positives about the future are right on. The "fear" part of the argument can be coupled with the can-do, innovative energy of America. We have a perfect opportunity to push for energy alternatives that could solve many of our problems at once (and alleviate the fears): the problems of dependence on M.E. oil, which affects security, the economy, gas prices, etc.); jobs (new energy sector would create new jobs and could make the U.S. the leader in this growing field); pollution (health issues) and, of course, global warming.

I think a multi-pronged approach to the global warming issue is critical, but still believe that fear can be helpful in the effort. Yes, fear should not be the only message, and shouldn't be too over-the-top, but I still believe it will help get the message across.

25 April, 2006 10:10  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Carla...

Much obliged, maam.

jec:

You also bring up great points. I think the jist of your argument is that most people are not particularly sensitive to fear, and so require a certain kind of scare thrown into them. This is particularly true when it comes to personal sacrifice (ie, gas tax).

Therefore a multi-pronged approach is critical--catch everyone, including those who need a good scare thrown into them.

The only way I can respond to that argument right now is to tell a very long story about teaching people how to use power tools and welding equipment. This may not be the most appropriate (and is certainly not the most direct) way to respond.

I am going to go take a walk and think about this.

Thanks for talking to me about fear. It's important to me (and obviously you as well).

25 April, 2006 17:44  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Jec, here's the problem with my initial argument: it depends too heavily on my personal sensitivity to fear, and assumes that everyone is a little on the nervous side and thinks too much like me. I see your point: for some less birdy folk, fear is just the ticket.

But there are so many problems with introducing fear into the equation with this specific problem and in this specific culture, that I can't endorse fear as a tactic.

Unfortunately Flash player is not installing on my computer, so I haven't been able to see the ads yet (troubleshooting later... I will post them if I can get it to work). So we are going to have to work in the absence of specific visuals. This is going to be more general than I would like it to be. I see a general picture of journalism (like the Annals of Man articles in the New Yorker or Kristof's Burp of the Apocalypse) that does more than raise a red flag.

Each of these texts, to differing degree, tells a story of the end of the world and our whole species and 95% of all the life on the planet. And there is no hope. There are solutions laid out, but these solutions are couched in helplessness and empty (but totally deserved) criticism of the Bush Administration.

I am writing polemics against fear and making art about how beautiful global warming is because some fat kids are weighing down one end of the see-saw, and I can't stop trying to add as much weight to the other side as I possibly can. I strongly believe that there is too much fear and not enough structure or action. I believe this for two specific reasons:

The existential mindfuck of climate change is too huge to comprehend in plain language when you're an average person.

I bring this up because I think it's the #1 reason people don't really think about climate change. How can you think about your personal relationship to the extinction of all life? Where do you get the intellectual tools to deal with that? (As a longtime adjunct instructor I can verily say that you don't get 'em in college...)

Hammering this point is not smart because it is too vast. Do the ads hammer extinction or other vastnesses? Or do they stop down the scale of the problem and frame it in terms of pollution (a concept people tend to get)? Because it's easy for super-creative people like artists and scientists to envision a link between themselves and glaciers, but the average person really struggles with that kind of scale shift.

I think it's so much smarter to keep climate change conceptual and blitz about tangible, immediate rewards that changes in CO2 output will bring. Everybody can understand that the environment affects their health and well-being.

I also think it's interesting (perhaps so interesting that it's a whole other topic) that climate change is framed soely in terms of personal virtue and morality. Framing global warming in terms of personal virtue is so unfair--it's like blaming settlers (who were given money to move there) for the problems in the Gaza Strip. People have 4 hour commutes in expensive houses they can't afford to sell right now. Telling them they are causing the extinction of all life on earth because they drive too much? Them's fighting words.

What would happen if we minimized that punishing language and focused our attention on offering alternatives? Electric or Natural Gas Commuter busses could go from Salinas to San Jose many times a day. Providing alternatives that are less expensive than driving and are faster than sitting in traffic--creating a win-win situation--is so much more effective than the lose-lose rhetoric currently on the table.

Institutional critique is an extremely weak tactic--a sword made of jello.

I believe this kind of action is not happening, despite there being lots of money and power available (Where's Soros?) to start grassroots action-based nonprofits, for a reason.

Liberals seem to hate actual political power and prefer to consistently play the victim, squandering every opportunity to go play somewhere else and make their own weather. They want to be bullied by the Bush administration. They want to bitch and moan and leave themselves open to charges of intellectual elitism, which are largely true.

Now this sounds unfair so let me unpack myself:

Liberals are not elitists because they drink lattes or drive volvos or windsurf. Liberals are elitists because they have the luxury of being able to critique power endlessly instead of fucking deciding what is right and what is wrong and acting in the best interests of others.

(Some folks call this kind of action leadership)

This is not by accident. I don't know about you, but in college I learned all kinds of methods for critiquing power, and no strategies for wielding power effectively and fairly. Republicans are powerful because they don't mind leading people.

Liberals wrongly assume that people don't want to be led, and they have all the wrong tools in their box for leadership anyway. Institutional critique, while incredibly important, is a recipe for powerlessness. You've always got to have someone else in power in order to play Institutional Critique, and you can never have power yourself.

In this specific world, where there are no real leadership choices and too much critique and not enough action, scare tactics have a particularly cruel mouthfeel. Compounding that awful taste and gagging feeling is a scale problem that many many people simply do not have the intellectual resources to resolve.

It is not elitist to assume that people of average intelligence can't quite grasp what climate change is. It is elitist for all the smart people to castigate everyone who lives in the middle of nowhere without providing any leadership, options, or other tools for change.

The problem with fear is that it's theoretical, that it is a tactic that will work on the culture we think we have. But I still think that it won't work on the culture that actually exists.

I am already late for work. If this is confusing I will have to straighten it out later. And more on the gas tax! I swear I think it's a problem of leadership and power! People suffered tremendously with great pride for WWII--why?

26 April, 2006 08:33  
Anonymous jechlgxthsv said...

I agree with a lot of your points, and you've introduced some I need to think more about (leadership, for one). I have to run off to work, so a more lengthy respsonse will have to wait.

If you do get to view the ads, keep in mind that they are meant to lead people to more information, the message being: global warming is happening more quickly than you think, and there are things you can do about it. The website is a key part of that message (the counterpart to the fear).

I'm interested to hear your thoughts if/when you're able to view the ads. I'll try to write more later.

26 April, 2006 09:17  
Anonymous jec said...

oops, that was me.

Those damn word verifications!

26 April, 2006 09:17  
Anonymous jec said...

I just tried to post this, but it didn't register. I apologize if it ends up appearing twice! Fortunately I saved it before I hit "post."

Okay, in general I agree that over-the-top fear can be counter-productive as a motivator. I don't think we disagree on that point.

I've been trying to identify whether or not what I'm talking about is really even "fear." I think it is, but it's not the big apocalytic fear, not "The Day After Tomorrow" fear. I think we want to induce just a little "fear" (anxiety, tension, concern?) in a way that says,"Hey, you really need to pay attention to this"

Although some of us are floored and moved to action after learning about the devastating possible affects of global warming, probably for many people a better message would be that the earth is changing, that we are changing it, that the future could look a lot different from the past and the present if we don't act.

We don't have to describe an end-of-the-world scenario to instill concern. Will "concern" get people to take action? I think the earth is helping us make the global warming argument these days, so, perhaps.

Your point about the overwhelming nature of the problem is right on. Americans, after all, like to hear about things in the simplest terms. I do think that the simple (and not entirely accurate) message is getting through: fossil fuels/pollution leads to global warming leads to more heat waves and bigger hurricanes. They don't need to know all the details about the arctic (though many have melting ice caps in their mental image of global warming) or that Europe might actually go into a deep freeze (boy does that confuse them!). The issue, as you say, is too complex for most Americans to deal with.

As for the ads, the campaign aims to do two things: make people realize that global warming is happening sooner than they think (will affect the next generation), and that it's not too late to stop it. The website tries to spell out specific things that an individual can do. The ads do, IMO instill fear, especially the "train" ad (you'll see what I mean). Is it too much? I'd like to know what you think.

I don't have time to write about leadership right now, but it's safe to say that I agree with your position on this. It's frustrating to say the least.

By the way, do you regularly read any global warming/environmental blogs or other blogs that deal with the issue?

26 April, 2006 17:27  
Anonymous jec said...

I've tried to post this twice without success. I'll hope that the third time's the charm. Fortunately I've learned to save what I write before hitting the "post" button.

Okay, in general I agree that over-the-top fear can be counter-productive as a motivator. I don't think we disagree on that point.

I've been trying to identify whether or not what I'm talking about is really even "fear." I think it is, but it's not the big apocalyptic fear, not "The Day After Tomorrow" fear. I think we want to induce just a little "fear" (anxiety, tension, concern?) in a way that says,"Hey, you really need to pay attention to this"

Although some of us are floored and moved to action after learning about the devastating possible affects of global warming, probably for many people a better message would be that the earth is changing, that we are changing it, that the future could look a lot different from the past and the present if we don't act.

We don't have to describe an end-of-the-world scenario to instill concern. Will "concern" get people to take action? I think the earth is helping us make the global warming argument these days, so, perhaps.

Your point about the overwhelming nature of the problem is right on. Americans, after all, like to hear about things in the simplest terms. I do think that the simple (and not entirely accurate) message is getting through: fossil fuels/pollution leads to global warming leads to more heat waves and bigger hurricanes. They don't need to know all the details about the arctic (though many have melting ice caps in their mental image of global warming) or that Europe might actually go into a deep freeze (boy does that confuse them!). The issue, as you say, is too complex for most Americans to deal with.

As for the ads, the campaign aims to do two things: make people realize that global warming is happening sooner than they think (will affect the next generation), and that it's not too late to stop it. The website tries to spell out specific things that an individual can do. The ads do, IMO instill fear, especially the "train" ad (you'll see what I mean). Is it too much? I'd like to know what you think.

I don't have time to write about leadership right now, but it's safe to say that I agree with your position on this. It's frustrating to say the least.

By the way, do you regularly read any global warming/environmental blogs or other blogs that deal with the issue?

26 April, 2006 18:49  
Anonymous jec said...

Sorry about the duplicate post. If you can delete one of them, please do.

26 April, 2006 18:50  

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