The power of fear

Kayaking in the Bay of Fundy, I saw a giant shark fin coming at me out of the mist. My heart raced. My brain snapped into high gear. I was, in a word, afraid.

Actually, this never happened.

What really happened was that I recalled what two fishermen had told me the last time I was out paddling. Some other fishermen had told them they had seen a huge fin out there. One guy alone in his boat had been afraid enough to get the hell out of there.

Some great whites have been tracked off the coast of Nova Scotia this summer. Maybe this had been one of them.

I hadn’t actually seen the fin. Alone on the water, I had just remembered what the fishermen had told me the week before. That was enough to get the heart pumping.

Instead, I had seen a few kayakers, the usual fishermen in boats and on shore, lots of gulls and a couple of eagles. I’d felt the rush of the powerful Fundy tide. In other words, business as usual on the bay. This nameless fear brought on by my imagination is a good metaphor for a lot of what goes on nowadays.

By modern standards my home base of Halifax, Nova Scotia is a boring place. There is some downtown construction making it hard to get around, too much government on the one hand and too few enlighted policies on the other, with consequences like a shortage of doctors and a lot of debt. The rural economy is struggling and woodland is being burned up as low-value bio-fuel, a source of so-called “green energy.”

Still, the province is a tame neighbourhood compared to much of the world, at least according to the news. From here, the big world looks like a scary place. There is a seemingly steady stream of terrorist attacks and wars, with refugees fleeing for their lives.

South of the border, the Great Democratic Experiment envisioned by Jefferson, Hamilton and their visionary cohort is degenerating into a sandbox battle of spoiled special interests. North Korea’s nuclear threat highlights two world leaders willing to sacrifice the world in service of their own inflamed egos – or so it seems. Their eyes have that righteous bulged-out look you get from too much adrenaline, the fuels behind hose two high emotions, anger and fear.

The message behind all the adrenalin out there is simple: be afraid, be very afraid. All those words, images and sounds are designed to zero in on the amygdala and associated territory – your brain’s fear centers.

Emotion drives much of human behavior. It quickly shuts down the higher brain. You might think our modern era, all shiny and high tech, would transcend our primitive origins, but it is almost the opposite.

The power of emotion to sway even the most intelligent among us has been demonstrated by two psychologists: the late Amos Tversky (who was also a mathematician) and his colleague Danny Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics, although he is not an economist.

Evolution has wired fear deep into our subconscious for good reason. It protects us from immediate threats — when the luxury of taking time to think may be fatal. But this advantage is double edged. Fear highjacks our latest evolutionary indulgence, the cerebral cortex and its capacity for reflection, creativity and problem solving.

“Fear” is the single cover line on the summer 2017 edition of Lapham’s Quarterly. The cover image is Shield with the Head of Medusa by Arnold Bocklin (1897). In ancient mythology Medusa was considered so frightening you would be turned to stone just by looking at her. The anthology tunes with deadly accuracy into the sense of uncertainty and even terror that lurks beneath all civilizations.

In his preamble, Editor Lewis Lapham quoted President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous 1933 speech: “The belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself… the unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

The president’s goal, Lapham wrote, was to bolster “the national resolve needed to emerge from the Depression.” Later, in 1941 – 45, the same resolve was needed to win a world war. So far so good.

Then Lapham switched gears: “… and in the years since to bring forth the wealthiest society and the most heavily armed nation-state known in the history of mankind.”

What is the nation protecting itself from now?

“The armour is protection against the real enemy – once again it is fear itself. Yet fear is also a tool – malleable and subject to misuse… Fear is America’s top-selling consumer product. Our leading politicians and think-tank operatives regard mental paralysis as the premium state of securitized being. [There is] a rarefied awareness of nameless, unreasoning terror as evidence of superior sensibility and soul.”

It’s Freud who made the modern distinction between “real fear” (a rational response to a clear and present danger) and “neurotic fear,” a sort of free-floating anxiety.

Lapham ticked off the recent wars “born on the cradle of expectant anxiety” — the Cold War, the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the challenge was “to defend, honor and protect the cash flow of the nation’s military-industrial complex.”

Now we’re talking manipulation.

The term “military-industrial complex” was first used by President (and five-star general) Dwight D. Eisenhower, during his Farewell Address to the Nation in 1961. He noted how the military was needed to keep the peace.

“Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction,” he continued. “[Yet] in the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

Lapham pointed out that this military-industrial complex can survive only amid a climate of fear. Post 9/11, the nation “took up arms against a figment of the imagination–Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.”

The greatest threat turned out to be not a missile-wielding foreign despot but something more insidious — the loss of internal freedom: “Unable to erect a secure perimeter around the life and landscape of a free society, the government departments of public safety solve the technical problem [of protecting wealth and privilege] by seeing to it that society becomes less free.”

Sixteen years later, from “the collective fear and loathing of the American people,” Donald Trump became the President of the United States.

A few weeks after the publication of the “Fear” edition of the Quarterly, President Trump and “The Great Leader” of North Korea circled each other, two alpha males in their prime – actually slightly past it. That is the most dangerous stage, when, according to history, younger men and even civilians may be sacrificed on the unquenchable altar of ego.

Driving to your death

“Be afraid” is a beguiling mantra that works well for politicians, the media, sales people and marketers—indeed, for persuaders of all stripes.

In The Science of Fear (Dutton 2008), Daniel Gardner, a Canadian journalist, burrowed into our susceptibility to this entrancing bogeyman. The author recalled that on September 12 2001, US President George W. Bush called the attacks of the day before “more than an act of terror, they were acts of war… Freedom and democracy are under attack.”

Before this, George W Bush was “a weak leader with a flimsy mandate. He had lost the popular vote and had mediocre approval ratings. Afterwards, he was a hero.”

Gardner noted that 9/11 had a high “signal value,” a term used by researchers to describe how much an event seems to inform us of future dangers. A poll in mid-October 2001 found 85% of Americans thought more attacks were likely over the next few weeks. Five years later, 50% still thought an immediate attack was likely.

The author then presented the statistical risks from the actuarial tables of the threats to the health and welfare of the ordinary citizen based on recent history. (I round off most of the numbers.)

On 9/11 almost 3,000 people were killed from a population of 2.85 million. This equals an annual risk of 1 in 93,000. Compare this to a 1 in 88,000 risk of drowning, a 1 in 48,000 risk of a pedestrian being killed by a car, or the 1 in 6,000 risk of dying in a car accident.

Worldwide there were 10,000 international terrorism incidents between 1968 and 2007, killing 14,790 people for an average worldwide death toll of 379 people per year. Taking the anomaly of Israel out of the equation, the lifetime risk of being injured or killed by terrorism in the world was between 1 in 10,000 and 1 in 1 million.

In comparison, an American’s lifetime risk of being killed by lightening is 1 in 80,000, of drowning in a bathtub 1 in 11,000. In contrast, the probability of committing suicide is 1 in 119, of dying in a car crash 1 in 84. Indeed, in North America the greatest threat to your life is driving your car within half an hour of home, because that is where you do most of your driving. How many of us think that as we reach for the keys?

Do we want the government to reduce this mortal risk by, say, forcing us to use self-driving cars, which according to all evidence are far safer than our allowing our impetuous and distractable species to take the wheel.

In contrast, if the statistical risk posed by terrorism were considered in a public health context, Gardner wrote, it would be considered de minimis, “too small for concern.”

He looked at other quantifiable mortality factors. In America, 14% of Americans, 41 million people at the time, did not have health insurance. According to the Institute of Medicine, this caused 18,000 unnecessary deaths each year, costing the US between $60B and $130B annually.

On the international front, malaria in Africa could be controlled at $2B to $3B per year, but only a tiny fraction of that was being spent. The disease “will likely continue to kill 67 times more people each year than the almost 15,000 killed by international terrorism over the last four decades.”

While many commentators decry the risks of terrorism and other security-related concerns, Gardner noted that we in the West were living in the healthiest, wealthiest and safest period in history. This fact is lost on most of us.

For example, until the 1920s there was no check on the caprice of infectious diseases that ravaged communities with no regards for income, power or social status. Antibiotics, vaccinations and an emphasis on hygiene, considered the greatest single advance in medicine, have only recently combined to protect our species.

Children had been especially vulnerable. A diphtheria vaccine was created in 1923, but before that not even the mighty were spared. Queen Victoria’s daughter and granddaughter both died of the disease during an outbreak in 1878.

In 1725 the average life expectancy in the US was 50 years. By the end of the 20th century it had risen to 78 years. In 1900 20% of children born in the US died before they were five years old. By 2002, this figure had fallen to less than 1%.

Preoccupied by the drama of our own circumstances, we underestimate the uncertainty of previous eras. Generation after generation, millennia after millennia, life had been tenuous, fragile, susceptible at any time to the dark angels of Illness, famine, poverty and war.

With the dramatic exceptions of the mass insanity of the two world wars, the 20th century was a turning point. Medicine protected us and communication and transportation connected us. Yet beguiled by the tug of “free-floating anxiety” and fear, our age stays locked in its own thought prison.

The Cold War pitted the Soviet Union against the West in a resource-guzzling build-up of arms. Nuclear Armageddon was postponed by the unhinged but effective insurance policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).  In 1985 the Soviet Union and the US possessed enough nuclear weapons to kill half of the human race and reduce the rest to scavengers. But the Cold War ended peacefully, Gardner noted, and the Soviet Union dissolved within a few years.

While later instability provided an opportunity for the ex-KGB hand Vladimir Putin to rise to power, the Russian threat pales in comparison to that of the Cold War.

Boiling the frog

Photo © 2010 J. Ronald Lee.

We are wired to respond to the immediate, the sensational, the loud, the unexpected. Subtle butpotent long-term threats escape our attention.

Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman (Ballantine Books 2009) was published a  year after The Science of Fear. Goleman recalled growing up during the Cold War, when “bomb drills at school reminded us that we could be blown to bits in a nuclear war. Children today face what may prove, over the long term, to be an even more dire threat: the specter of drastic disruptions of life from global warming and the other ecological disasters we may have already set in motion.”


David Wallace-Wells takes us to this simmering apocalypse in his article “The Uninhabitable Earth,” the cover story in New York magazine, July 10, 2017. “Absent a significant adjustment to the way billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the earth will become close to uninhabitable, and other parts close to uninhabitable, as soon as the end of the century,” he wrote.

He cited Wallace Smith Broecker, the oceanographer who coined the term global warming, who calls the planet “an angry beast.” Wallace-Wells piles on the evidence of slow-moving but relentless scenarios, stories that unfold over decades and centuries, although the slopes of the curves are steepening faster than even doomsayers were predicting a short while ago. Recent satellite data show that since 1968 global warming has progressed more than twice as fast as scientists had predicted. Moreover:

Arctic permafrost contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in the atmosphere. When the permafrost thaws, the carbon may evaporate as methane, which is 34 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon oxide.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects 4° of warming by the beginning of the next century. The last time the planet was 4° warmer, it wiped out all but one species of European primate.

Since 1980 the planet has experienced a 50-fold increase the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat. Cereal crop yields decline with heat–and animal protein even more. The tropics are already too hot to efficiently grow grain.

Drought may be a worse problem than heat. By 2080, without dramatic reductions in emissions southern Europe will be permanent extreme drought. The same will be true in Iraq and Syria and much of the Middle East. Experts estimate that 800 million people are under nourished globally, with increasing famines in Africa and the Middle East.

The fraction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has just crossed 400 ppm and is expected to hit 1,000 ppm by 2100.

The warmer the planet gets, the more ozone forms, increasing smog. More than 10,000 people die each day for the small particles emitted from fossil fuel burning. In 2013 smog was responsible for third of all deaths in China.

Violence in society increases as people become hotter. Forced migration is already at a record high with at least 65 million people displaced people wandering the planet.

Wallace-Wells presented an explanation of the modern economy – the driver of global warming — that is simple and direct: cheap energy that we have not properly employed. While neoliberalism prevailed between the end of the Cold War 1989 and the onset of the great recession in 2008, “historians suggest that the entire history of swift economic growth which began in the 18th century is not the result of innovation or trade but simply our discovery of fossil fuels.”

Following this logic, researchers predict a 23% loss in per capita earning globally by the end of the century, resulting from changes in agriculture, crime, storms, energy, mortality and labour. “Imagine that the world would look like today with an economy which is half as big and which will produce half as much value.”

After the statistics and the science, Wallace-Wells ended on a poetic note.

“Early naturalists often talked about “deep time,” the profound slowness of nature… What lies in store for us is more like what Victorian anthropologists identified as dream time or ‘everywhen’ — the semi-mystical experience described by aboriginal Australians of encountering in the present moment an out-of-time past when ancestors, heroes and demigods crowded an epic stage, a feeling of history happening all at once.

“The carbon-burning processes that began in 18th century England lit the fuse of everything followed. But more than half of the carbon humanity has exhaled into the atmosphere its entire history has been emitted in just the past three decades. Since the end of World War II the figure is 85%.”

What do our big thinkers propose?

Stephen Hawking says our species needs to colonize other the planets in the next century to survive. Elon Musk plans to build a Mars habitat.

Wally Broecker, now 84, puts his faith in carbon capture, the untested technology to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which he estimates will cost several trillion dollars of geo-engineering. Climatologist Jim Hansen, former head of research at NASA, filed a lawsuit against the federal government charging inaction on warming that will impose massive burdens on future generations.

The challenge is clear. To meet the goals of the Paris Accord, by 2050 carbon emissions from energy and industry that are still rising must fall by half each decade. The writer ended on a quasi-hopeful note, the forced but seemingly necessary optimism of the climatologists who think we can engineer our way out of this problem that we have created by our own naïve engineering.

Our short-term preoccupation with terrorism, security, policing and war is our ancient brain at work. Television images and bombastic leaders channel our attention away from more insidious threats like global warming. Our brains are programmed to latch on to threats that are immediate and local, not longer-term, global and infinitely more dangerous.

In the short term, over-reliance on fossil fuels causes warming of the planet and other environmental issues. This leads to droughts and famines that in turn lead to forced migrations and a motley soup of social and political instability.

In the longer term, our current civilization is based on the cheap energy and reckless spending of the fossil fuel economy. This engine has lifted billions into a higher standard of living and now threatens the ecology that supports us all.

These threats are gradual and, in comparison to the images of terrorism and war on the television news, not very dramatic. Then again, one of the predictions of global warming is more weather extremes, including storms. Houston under water, a coastline of oil infrastructure under threat, that makes good TV as well.

Wallace-Wells’ scenarios are bold and disturbing. They are based on precise measurements, validated scientific theories and sober predictions. It’s not “fake news.”

The scenarios are alarming. They should make us afraid, in a rational sort of way. Let’s put that recent innovation the cerebral cortex to work and think our way out in a collaborative sort of way. Here on earth, we’re all in this together.

Let’s clean up the mess we have made.

Beyond the challenges – social, economic, technical – let’s end with that giant emotional filter we began with: fear.

Following the Dalai Lama, Rinpoche Chogyam Trungpa escaped from Tibet after the Chinese occupation. He eventually settled in Halifax. Fear was one of his favorite subjects.

“When you are frightened by something, you have to relate with fear, explore why you are frightened, and develop some sense of conviction,” he wrote. “You can actually look at fear. Then fear ceases to be the dominant situation that is going to defeat you. Fear can be conquered. You can be free from fear, if you realize that fear is not the ogre. You can step on fear, and therefore you attain what is known as fearlessness but that requires that, when you see fear, you smile.”







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