Covid and Climate seem to be trying to outdo each other at the moment. This week, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) turned up the dial a few notches with a ‘code red for humanity’:
‘Sea levels rising at twice the expected rate; drought and catastrophic bushfires with drastic consequences for health, agriculture and biodiversity; more frequent and intense heatwaves that will kill more people; more intense winter storms that will lead to localised flooding, damage and deaths’. The projections make for some pretty scary reading.
CSIRO’s Climate Science Centre has told us to think of it ‘like the planet hurtling down a slippery slope at great speed with no end in sight’ and ‘there’s no end to how much damage we can create’. Words and phrases like extinction, tipping point, existential threat and emergency are sprinkled liberally throughout media reports.
Over the past few years, no sooner do we have to deal with one threat than another appears – only more deadly this time. Judgement Day is always just around the corner. The Doomsday Clock has been set at one minute to midnight for as long as I can remember.
Then there’s the ubiquitous ‘time bomb’. Population time bombs, climate time bombs, fertility time bombs, cultural time bombs, racial time bombs, health time bombs. All designed to instil fear in people. The time bomb explosion is never far away. Like the movies’ race-against-time narrative designed to create a heightened sense of anxiety.
Remember Y2K? The Year 2000 computer bug that threatened global chaos with planes falling out of the sky, power grids shutting down and a complete meltdown of computer programs? None of it happened.
Factory-like, the media churns out these apocalyptic stories one after another. And it’s never ‘if this or that will happen’ but ‘when it will happen’.
And of course we are encouraged not only to fear what might happen, but ‘fear the worst’. The worst-case scenario is the only scenario. The latest IPCC Report, for example, lists a number of scenarios for the next 100 years from mild to worst case. So which does everyone focus on? The worst case scenario of course (RCP8.5). The ‘precautionary principle’ must rule. Always ‘err on the side of caution’.
Fear is a powerful political motivator. Fear makes people do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. Whereas the Enlightenment encouraged public debate and reason, Machiavelli saw the political advantages in using fear to control the masses.
My late father used to say, “Don’t meet trouble before it comes”. The two-fold reasoning behind this pearl of wisdom is 1) most impending dangers never eventuate and 2) when they do, they are either not as bad as you thought they’d be or if they are you are more than capable of handling them.
‘Confidence is the opposite of fear’, quipped Aristotle. We need to start replacing fear with reason, with judgment, with courage, with meaning and with hope. And we need to teach children not to be fragile. The Swedes have a saying, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing’.
The world will never be totally safe. Nothing is ever risk-free. But through family, in particular, we have the capacity to deal with adversity.
As for current events? These too will pass.
In his brilliant book ‘How Fear Works’, Frank Furedi advises: “The most effective way to counter the perspective of fear is through acquainting society with values that offer people the meaning and hope they need to effectively engage with uncertainty. The problem is not fear as such but society’s difficulty in cultivating values that can guide it to manage uncertainty and the threats it faces.”
Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s last words were Noli timere – “Be not afraid”.
UK Bishop N.T. (Tom) Wright commented on these same words: “Do you know what the most frequent command in the Bible is? What instruction is given, again and again, by God, by angels, by Jesus, by prophets and by the apostles? Is it ‘be good’? ‘Is it be holy’? Is it ‘don’t sin’? No, the most frequent command in the Bible is, ‘Don’t be afraid’.”
We are not passive or helpless observers in a world beyond our control. We are not vulnerable. We do not have to live on Fear Street.