FEARSOME

Posted in Quick Hits on April 4th, 2013 by Ed

While Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone unarguably had a bigger cultural impact, Fear by Barry Glassner is the best non-academic book written by an academic in the last several decades. Partially inspired by the moral panics of the 1980s (satanic ritual abuse; it's everywhere!) he argues that despite living in the safest society in recorded history, American exist in a culture of perpetual fear. Some of these fears are mountains made out of anthills; how big of a threat were "bath salts" or the Swine Flu, really? In other cases we're simply afraid of the wrong things – driving is infinitely more dangerous than flying, yet few people are afraid of the former.

If we asked Americans whether nuclear or fossil-fuel power generation is more dangerous, I have little doubt that the former would win in a landslide. And why not. Three Mile Island! Chernobyl! Fukushima! The three oil spills in the United States in the past week – to say nothing of the many equally catastrophic oil-related disasters over the years, including the Exxon Valdez, Ixtoc-1, Deepwater Horizon, and more – attract barely a fraction of the attention of nuclear disasters. And that says nothing of the long-term, subtle damage caused by fossil fuels like air pollution, environmental degradation, and water contamination. Say "toxic waste" and people think of nuclear power, not Love Canal.

We're not afraid of any of that despite the fact that it represents a real threat. Extracting, producing, and burning fossil fuels is an orgy of pollution and exposure to carcinogens. That all lacks the zing of the nuclear boogeyman, though. Radiation, not air pollution, made Godzilla and thousands of other mutant monsters. You can build movie, novel, and video game plots around radioactive beasts and nuclear explosions. It doesn't work for fossil fuels, does it? Fallout wouldn't be much of a game if the central plot point was an oil spill ("Here! Quick, pour some Dawn on this oil-coated seabird! I SAID HURRY, GODDAMMIT.")

With things that are actually dangerous – fossil fuels or driving, for example – we excuse away any hints of fear. Global warming isn't real. Oil spills don't happen very often. Pollution isn't as bad as treehuggers say. I'm a safe driver. My car has eight airbags. This would make more sense if we did not simultaneously invent nonsense to be terrified about. Maybe in a bizarre way it actually makes us feel more secure. If we convince ourselves that nuclear power or flying or SARS are your biggest threats, those things are all pretty easy to avoid. With our arbitrary and irrational list of dangers kept at a safe distance (because they either don't exist or are incredibly rare) we feel blissfully secure while we go about our lives and do a great number of things that are far more dangerous.

If you're not convinced, how much opposition was there to the building of an oil pipeline through now-oily Mayflower, Arkansas? Would they have been a bit more agitated if the proposal was to build a nuclear waste repository or a power plant instead? This kind of contradiction is the natural product of a society that combines a constant state of fear with overwhelming ignorance.