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When is fear mongering justified?

When is fear mongering justified?

Can someone use facts to monger fear? Is it right?

Author: Trevor Quirk/Monday, December 29, 2014/Categories: wildlife conservation, sustainability, climate change

Now that our national hangover from the frenzied media coverage of Ebola in the U.S. has begun to subside, the term “fear mongering” might warrant some analysis. I was struck by a comment Noam Chomsky, famed linguist and activist, made while concluding one of the rangy talks he often gives. Chomsky said that fear mongering “is quite appropriate because there are things to be frightened about. If fear mongering is used to control people then it’s wrong. If fear mongering is used to activate people then it’s right…When, say, Bill McKibben talk[s] about the climate crisis, that’s right. [He] should be doing that.”

Fear mongering is merely a strategy, one that must be factually justified. It should be initiated based on its predictable consequences and modified per its actual consequences. In the case of an unprecedentedly serious climate crisis, yeah…it might be appropriate.

Bill McKibben, whom Chomsky invokes, clearly reciprocates Chomsky’s view. In 2012, he wrote in Rolling Stone, “Since I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming way back in 1989, and since I’ve spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say with some confidence that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly — losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.”

Others have identified this notion as the crux of McKibben’s thinking about climate change, though it’s not as if McKibben invented any of the ominous data he sites. It’s common knowledge to environmentalists that the IPCC is conservative in its descriptions and predictions — there’s been much climatological work, especially at MIT, that suggests that the effects of climate change will be much worse than conventional wisdom posits.

This is something to be frightened about, no? Yet exactly how frightened should we allow ourselves to get?

Hysterical fear, after all, can engender the soft-skulled liberalism that holds that the left is always unified around the correct arrangement of facts, which can lead to unpleasant irrationalities like opposition to vaccination and GMOs, not to mention runaway theorizing about 9/11. Under this mindset, dissent and deviation become nearly unacceptable, difficult as they are to tolerate when we feel so much is at risk.

As a case study, consider Bjorn Lomborg, a divisive Danish environmentalist who was made into a pariah after he published “The Skeptical Environmentalist” in 2001. For Lomborg, climate change is a real and serious problem, but only insofar as it affects human life worldwide. For years he’s been recommending world governments divert billions of dollars set aside for various regulatory schemes to develop impoverished regions that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. His adaptationism was not so appealing to many of his colleagues, and an academic fracas followed.

If you read him, it’s clear Lomborg thinks his treatment by the environmentalist and scientific communities stems from the culture of fear they harbor. Which is why he believes that the fear mongering which McKibben and other writers employ is not necessarily a prudent way to activate the world’s population.

Setting aside whether one agrees with Lomborg’s technical assertions (which are controversial), I think it’s worth considering the psychic effects of the fear mongering he identifies.

Justified as it was, a lot of older environmentalist fear mongering persisted under the delusion that the “environment” is an external edifice, something pristine, “out there,” and inherently worth saving (this is why Panda’s were the ailing poster animals of Preservation, and Polar Bears are the drowning totems of Global Warming.) Biologist Richard Lewontin has repeatedly made the point that ultimately all organisms alter their environment, which implies cultivation and, yes, destruction.


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