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.
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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?
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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.

35 thoughts on “FEARSOME”

  • To be fair to Fallout, there were a lot of nukes that went off to produce the game's setting, so there's real danger there and it's not particularly far fetched. That said, you're right about nuclear energy and radiation being way higher in our fears, even in our games.

  • Ed, you just framed my Propaganda class for next week. We're studying Greenwashing. Thanks! I owe you one.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Like in "1984," to get the most out of him during interrogations, the Government needed to know what Winston Smith feared the most.

    Here, a smorgasbord of fears are presented to control people, via "Divide and Conquer," like uppity black people and independent women, drug-dealing armed Hispanics, wiley Orientals, homoSEXuals coming to ruin your marriage and gay-marry your children, Liberal anti-gun tree-huggers who want to take away your guns and pick-up truck, and force you to buy a Prius without a gun-rack.
    Take your pick!

    Like with nuclear power plants built near fault lines, or continuing to guzzle oil like a camel at an oasis, we get to pick our poison.

  • Even when looking at radiation, fossil fuels lose: coal-fueled power plants produce more radioactive waste per kilowatt-hour than nukes.

  • Ed: I think a lot of the disproportionate fear has to do with the magnitude of what induces it rather than the frequency of occurrence. Thus, an oil spill is inconvenient, tar balls wash up on the beach and fish, water fowl and sea mammals may suffer but a nuclear meltdown makes you glow in the dark! Likewise, there are a lot of car accidents, some of them fatal but if your plane falls from the sky starting at 35K feet, no one walks away.

    Beyond all that, as a society, we are stupid and irrational. And sheepish. If we were smart and rational, the masses would swarm the steps of the Capitol with pliers and blow torches and the "Masters of the Universe" on Wall Street who blew up the economy would be in prison or worse.

  • Urban librul or the reddest red-neck, you cannot be afraid of what you have around you every day. We 'need' cars in our daily lives, therefore all risks are minimized. Flying (for most people) is not routine, so we notice the risk. Same things for nuke plants, especially a new one.

    I am sure that if you took 100 people and had them live with a tiger, after a year most would tell you 800 pound carnivorous cats are not a real danger. Cleaning the litter tray is a hassle.

    Nuke plants are an interesting conundrum for me. They are safe until they are not, then they are *really* bad. Plus, the waste is bad and stays bad for longer than English has been a language. Yes, I know, that was very technical.

  • "a society that combines a constant state of fear with overwhelming ignorance."

    In other words, a human society. We're human; we live in a world of "now", where decisions must be made quickly, and so are based on stereotypes and other ways of avoiding thinking in favor of snap choices. GW Bush is a very typical human – he did everything wrong: he made up his mind based mainly on personal and family concerns, 'fear of the other' and stereotypes; he avoided actually thinking about things as much as possible (it's hard, and it confuses you when you need Moral Clarity and Leadership!); and then once the course of action was set upon, he avoided reconsidering it (shows weakness!) and tried as hard as possible to avoid learning anything from his mistakes (what mistakes?). There's a reason why the infamous Founding Fathers (sounds like a bad garage band or comic-book hero's group..) set up our late, lamented government structure the way they did – they were thoughtful, educated and intelligent and were trying to avoid the common problems that arise when humans form societies. In other words, very different from most of us today.

  • I had actually been talking to someone recently about this, in which I was just astounded at how happy we are to keep using a horribly toxicly polluting substance such as coal for our power needs. In fact, non-renewable sources such as petroleum, coal, and natural gas make up almost 70% of our energy production, according to wikipedia. People just need to get over the scare factor of nuclear energy (it produces waste we can only store and never touch again!!!1!!) and relook at our energy needs. According to XKCD (hey, I trust him as a source!), Uranium has an astoundingly LARGE energy-mass ratio (as shown in this comic http://xkcd.com/1162/) compared to all other common sources, that it is just amazing that we are still using anything else.

    Renewable sources, like massive solar farms would, imo, be a much better choice, but it seems currently our price-energy ratio isn't quite at the point where solar becomes viable to people.

    Now, if only we had viable means of mass storing power (for the off periods when power isn't being made, such as during the night for solar), we could improve our energy independence even more.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Major Kong,
    Yes, but they're Socialist Fascist Communist Heathens!

    Jesus loves OIL!!!
    OIL = Oil Is Liberty!!!

  • I'm not sure the car/airplane comparison is apt.

    The number one reason people are afraid to fly is because they aren't the ones flying the planes. People who fear flying are typically high Type A and often exhibit varying degrees of control issues. I would venture that those people are also aggressive drivers.

    None of this has anything to do with fear based on ignorance of simple science.

  • I wouldn't say I'm scared of flying, and I do it all the time, but I'm not a massive fan of turbulence. I think I find it more awful to contemplate a plane crash than a car crash because the time between knowing something has gone awry, and being smushed like a bug, is much longer.

  • It's the same ol' shit as it is every time. Money talks. If people were scared of cars, the auto industry would be in trouble and people would turn to other forms of transit. We killed the streetcar and we're keepin' 'er dead. Fossil fuels? Same shit. People who are rich and powerful from oil and coal would rather keep running that train – hell, they will be too dead to see the consequences, but very much alive while they are realizing their [short term] economic gains.

    Swine flu? Bath salts? Fear makes people reactionary. People will always be afraid of something. We have tendencies towards a herd mentality. Better to channel that into a known rather than unknown reaction, for best results with regards to social control.

    TL;DR People are assholes, sociopathy is a great way to gain/stay in power, also rich.

  • Know what scares the bejeebus out of me? All them folks out there driving along while texting. How is it that people think they can both text and drive? What kind of thought process is that?

  • In failure mode analysis we attempt to estimate the both the probability of a particular failure and the severity of the effect. Each is expressed as a decimal fraction, and the failure effect is the product of the two.

    In a car crash situation you have both some control [you might be able to avoid the crash entirely or do something to lessen its effects] and you have a vehicle that is designed to protect you as much as possible. The safety benefits of seatbelts and shoulder harnesses are almost impossible to over-estimate. Airbags take it to another level.

    Traffic fatalities often result from wildly excessive speed, alcohol use that impairs both judgment and reaction time, and/or a willful failure to use safety devices properly.

    On the other hand, if the plane goes down, you're dead. End of story.

    Cares have brakes, planes don't.

    I suspect that what people base fear on is not the probability of the event, but the severity of the outcome if it goes wrong.

    This overbalances the failure effect formula, but is not totally irrational. Probability really is meaningless in isolated cases.

    I will say the take-away from the recent Arkansas oil disaster is that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project is utter insanity. Over a span of thousands of miles and decades of time, failure probability approaches 1, and the effects are beyond disastrous for millions of people. If I weren't an atheist, I'd say god is telling us something.

    Meanwhile, hive collapse is killing the bees – possibly from certain commercial pesticides. When agriculture fails, none of the rest of this shit will matter, because we'll all fucking starve.



  • So many things to say. Most recently a huge FB thread by a friend about the "dangers" of fluoride in our water. It was just… ridiculous. Papers quoted out of context to the effect of "very high level of fluoride in the water in China seems to have caused developmental issues in infants, therefore very low levels in our water in America is bad for EVERYONE!". It's frustrating to watch people terrify themselves about something that's actually helping them by not knowing anything about basic chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, or anything else remotely science-y.

    I once had a friend go off on a tirade about how she won't let her daughter swim in the swimming pool if there's even a storm on the radar because she could get electrocuted by lightning while swimming. I looked it up and was able to find one case of that happening in the history of EVER, yet it was a big, fat, giant concern for this woman while she's fine feeding her child soda and a million other foods proven to cause obesity, diabetes, heart-disease and who knows what else.

    It's very annoying.

  • Charles Bird says:

    I find I spend a good amount of time catastrophizing. What could happen if I do X? When I think about it, it's really a way of planning how to proceed. I often end up taking risks after assessing the probability of failure and the consequences of such. I turn out to be a very bad investor in that the fear of loss overwhelms my love of profit. Fear of climate change seems to me more of a moral issue affecting future generations. To act on this fear would require me to make serious changes in my life….no car, less heat in winter, no AC in summer. In the end I think Mao had it right, change takes place only when contradictions become antagonistic. In other words, self-interest wins the game.

  • I think there's something about people needing to be scared, but needing to be scared in the *right way*. As a species, we're still far closer to the jungle/plains than we are to the sidewalk/stripmall, and in the relentlessly hostile environment of nature, fear is your friend. Fear keeps you sharp–alert to the snapping of twigs or the onset of inclement conditions. I think we're programmed to be scared–that, oddly enough, we feel safest when we're scared, because nothing can sneak up on us when we're in that state of hyper-alertness.

    And it makes sense, too, that being scared of irrational things is where our minds go–fear has to be about the uncertain, the fathomless potential. I'm not saying that we *actually* understand the dangers of cars, of oil, or what have–but we *think* we do. So they don't scare us (though they should) because we don't see them as 'unknowns' (though they are.) Radioactivity is invisible death–and flying is magic. Easier to be scared of such things–and atavistically, much more sensible.

  • Yup. In terms of deaths per megajoule generated, nuclear is by far the safest. It's safer than solar, wind, hydro, tidal, everything.

  • mother earth says:

    Drove through Mayflower on Sunday on I40. Was going 75, windows rolled up, no air or heat on, and for 10 minutes in my car it smelled like someone had doused a rag in gasoline and had it pressed on my nostrils. Terrible. I feel so bad for those folks who live there. Crazy thing is that Exxon is calling the shots to media and public access. Supposedly the FAA has shut down airspace over the spill at Exxon's behest. I know we are a hick state, but jeez, can't state officials take over an environmental crisis versus the corporation responsible? I understand that pipeline was built in the 50's or 60's. Runs right by Lake Maumelle, Little Rock's water supply. We are really lucky the leak didn't happen there.

  • there are so many problems with Nuclear, or nukular as George W says, think Chernobyl and radicoactivity. like building these on fault zones. the whole concept of outliving radioactivity just boggles the mind. lol. love the concept that this form of "energy" is safer than other. Risks, a matter of who is paying the piper.

    while the Rich owners of the Nuclear, Coal or Gas power plants don't live anywhere near these plants, just think how the lucky ones who live downwind/stream of these sites are. and then there is the XL Pipeline fantasy of no oil spills, even before Mayflower Arkansas. come down here to New Orleans and the BP fiasco, which BP ran entirely on its' own, thanks to Obama and the Coast Guard.

    we don't need no stinking Government messing up our land/sea/aire. we Got BP, Exxon and all those other Fuel efficient Corporations doing it "so" much better. lol. Was it Lenin or Stalin who said Capitalism would sell the rope to hang America with? lol.

    and the real easy way these "Power plants" can be "terrorized" so easily. like the Government has bothered to care one way or the other, now that Exxon, BP, Wall St. etc. own America and it's priorities are not in taking care of little six pack Joe and Jolene. lol

    ain't we got fun. Timothy McVeigh was just a harbinger of what awaits us. which is why the PR machine has black v white, straight v gay. uppity women and others minorities in the spotlight.

    you really don't want to think about how dumb we have been downed.lol that's the real purpose of the REpublican war on Education. St. Ronnie was not doing this for anyone's health, other than the REpublican owners/cohorts. and the Lessor of Two Evils, as well.

  • Not so sure about your comparing an ant hill to anything. They can be massive, like iceberg big.

    In Aus, the big fear sharks, crocs and spiders (especially of spiders in Sydney).
    Still you're far more likely to die in a car than any of those three combined.

    An issue for planes and nukes are probably this. Profit motive. These are big, expensive, highly technical pieces of equipment. Failure is not an inconvenience or major problem, but catastrophe. We know that if a company can cut corners to get a few more dollars of profit it will. So that underlying understanding underpins people's view of the world. So was this plane built and maintained by qualified people? Or had the top's race to cut costs won the day?
    Yup airplanes and libertarians.

  • Nuclear waste will be perking away on this planet millions of years after we are gone.
    Check out the leaks at the Hanford nuclear facility-moving down the Columbia to the sea.
    Oil is nasty, no doubt. Nuclear waste never goes away.

  • Driving is not infinitely more dangerous than flying.

    There are quantifiable risks for both on a per-1,000,000 passenger mile basis Driving is significantly more dangerous, but by no means is it "infinite".

    Semantics; yeah, I know.

  • I think oil vs. nuclear a BS comparison. Sure, oil is really really bad. But, dude, that doesn't make nuclear better, not by a long shot. Here's the thing: nuclear produces insanely toxic waste that is going to remain insanely toxic for a long, long time. That, in itself, is bad enough but the real problem is that NOBODY HAS FIGURED OUT WHAT TO DO WITH IT. The best we've come up with is shoving it under a mountain in Nevada–but it turns out there are all kinds of problems with that, too, like we'd have to truck and train the insanely toxic waste through our cities and towns to get it there and, oh yeah, groundwater and earthquakes and etc etc. So, yeah, BS comparison.

  • Jerry Vinokurov says:

    If you're that worried about the waste (which, really, who cares if it sits in a seismically stable cavern for 10,000 years?) you could always build breeder reactors.

  • Lilace Guignard says:

    In risk perception theory, the risk/benefit relationship is key to understanding why we perceive the risk of driving (though we hear the statistics) as less than that of flying, etc. If we perceive the benefit of something as particularly high we tend to perceive the risk as lower—an inverse relationship. I'm not saying it's always the case, but it's a common rationalization. Hey–I can get by without nuclear energy but I need fuel for my car, heater, air conditioner, fridge . . . The factors that most affect our sense of dread (fear) are how in or out of control something feels and how familiar or unfamiliar it is. Where I live the corporations spend a lot of effort convincing people that fracking for natural gas is safe, that they are in control, and that it is just like the drilling for oil that's been a part of Pennsylvania history for over a century. And risk perception theory studies show that facts/numbers do not change perceptions as much as stories, images, and experiences.

  • moderateindy says:

    By all metrics Nukes are the safest. One might want to look at facts instead of opinions. Even solar panels have toxic materials in them. There are technologies (like the previously mentioned breeder reactors) that can significantly reduce the amount of nuclear waste. I wonder what other research has been stifled over the past 40 years because of the irrational panic that has shrouded nuclear energy in this country. The "panic" over the storage of nuclear waste also ignores the fact that we have great leaps in technology all the time. Coal fired plants release far more radioactivity into the atmosphere than nukes. And that is now, not some possible future. Certainly nukes have the potential for great damage, but this is where the car/plane analogy is apt. Potential is not reality. Facts must take precedence over opinion.

  • I know. Most people are thinking Godzilla when they should be thinking Toxic Avenger. It's crazy.

  • Neal Deesit says:

    I'll believe all this "nuclear power is safe" talk when the Price–Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act is repealed and the DOE and the nuclear power industry put on their "big boy pants" and insure themselves against the liability arising out of their operations. Commercial nuclear power would never have started , and will not continue, without it.

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