In my lifetime, we have been scared out of our minds by an assortment of impending disasters: nuclear war, asteroids, asbestos, fire ants, locusts, killer bees, rogue planets, Lyme Disease, Mad Cow Disease, SARS, swine flu, bird flu, Satanic cults, holes in the ozone, the Bermuda Triangle, alien abductions, the Y2K bug, and – every couple of years — the imminent end of the world. During centuries past, humans feared comets, solar eclipses, lightning, and other natural events, as well as ghosts, witches, vampires, werewolves, zombies, and demonic possession. We are, it seems, wired to worry about something that’s out there, and that’s coming to get us.
With most of these concerns, a lack of basic scientific knowledge plays a role. So do feelings of helplessness and vulnerability. The threat appears out of the dark. It’s unpredictable and overwhelming.
As our clocks and computers ticked down the last few days of 1999, we split into two opposing camps. One side believed that in the opening seconds of the year 2000 most vital systems, especially those involving transportation, communication, and power, would cease to function. Meanwhile, the skeptics were confident that we were facing little more than temporary and scattered glitches. Nobody could be certain, but each clung tightly to their views. And then, nothing happened.
In December 2012, otherwise sane individuals spent a fortune on supplies of dried food and underground concrete living quarters. Their dread was driven by arbitrary interpretations of ancient Mayan calendars and an imagined collision with either a black hole or a non-existent planet. Once again, the cataclysm failed to arrive.
With each generation the specific emergency changes, but the general reaction follows a consistent pattern. Panic spreads, like a virus, from mouth to mouth. Entrepreneurs with exactly the right college degree begin cranking out videos, lectures, films, magazine articles, and books. They cite experts who support their premise, and denounce anyone who expresses even a hint of doubt. Breathless newscasters fan the flames night after night by repeating the message that we’re doomed. As a result, a lot of people spend a lot of money to protect themselves, while a much smaller group of people make a lot of money by fueling the distress.
And then it’s over. The emotional energy dissipates and the terror is gone, soon to be replaced by the next catastrophe lurking just over the horizon.
Today, much of our anxiety centers around climate change. The planet is heating up, the ice caps are melting, and the oceans are rising. Inhabited islands will be swallowed by the sea. Coastal cities will be flooded. Deserts will continue to expand, aggravating an already widespread famine problem. Earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes will increase in number and intensity. Wildfires will destroy forests and property, kill countless animals, and send thousands of residents fleeing from their homes.
Several factors make this current situation unique. For one, the timing is uncertain. We’re not sure if we’ll be facing the crisis next year or sometime in the next decade. It’s more likely, we hear, that it will be our children and grandchildren who will suffer the most dire consequences of global warming. Worst of all, the source of the danger is not out there somewhere. It’s us. It’s our lifestyle. This time, we’re told, we aren’t powerless. Survival is a matter of choice.
If we take a step away and look at the climate change issue from a disinterested distance, that same familiar pattern is evident. Humanity has separated into two main camps. Each parades out a string of scientists, all armed with irrefutable proof in the form of data, graphs, and a clear consensus. Each forecasts unimaginable turmoil if their warnings are ignored. Each accuses its opponent of being motivated by greed, while bank accounts swell from money flowing in both directions. Even now, as you’re reading this, thousands of people are traveling to Manhattan for a massive demonstration called the People’s Climate March, scheduled for Sunday, September 21. Its marketing campaign refers to the gathering as an invitation to change everything. Of course, the other side has already contrived its response, questioning the logic of commuting to a rally: Aren’t the protestors burning a river of gasoline in order to proclaim the perils of carbon emissions?
And here we sit, the rest of us, listening to each argument in turn, our bewildered heads lurching back and forth as though we’re watching two teams playing a sport we cannot comprehend, and trying to determine just how to place our bets. In the end, the facts will be most important. But first, we have to make our way through a tangle of perceptions.