How Apocalyptic Thinking Prevents Us from Taking Political Action

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While Americans take comfort in shows predicting disaster and myths about the end of the world, the real debate over climate change has stalled.

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The Day After Tomorrow.

Flip through the cable channels for long enough, and you'll inevitably find the apocalypse. On Discovery or National Geographic or History you'll find shows like MegaDisasters, Doomsday Preppers, or The Last Days on Earth chronicling, in an hour of programming, dozens of ways the world might end: a gamma ray burst from a nearby star peeling away the Earth's ozone layer like an onion; a mega-volcano erupting and plunging our planet into a new ice age; the magnetic poles reversing. Turn to a news channel, and the headlines appear equally apocalyptic, declaring that the "UN Warns of Rapid Decay in Environment" or that "Humanity's Very Survival" is at risk. On another station, you'll find people arguing that the true apocalyptic threat to our way of life is not the impending collapse of ecosystems and biodiversity but the collapse of the dollar as the world's global currency. Change the channel again, and you'll see still others insisting that malarial mosquitoes, drunk on West Nile virus, are the looming specter of apocalypse darkening our nation's horizon.

How to make sense of it all? After all, not every scenario can be an apocalyptic threat to our way of life -- can it? For many, the tendency is to dismiss all the potential crises we are facing as overblown: perhaps cap and trade is just a smoke screen designed to earn Al Gore billions from his clean-energy investments; perhaps terrorism is just an excuse to increase the power and reach of the government. For others, the panoply of potential disasters becomes overwhelming, leading to a distorted and paranoid vision of reality and the threats facing our world -- as seen on shows like Doomsday Preppers. Will an epidemic wipe out humanity, or could a meteor destroy all life on earth? By the time you're done watching Armageddon Week on the History Channel, even a rapid reversal of the world's magnetic poles might seem terrifyingly likely and imminent.

Dispatches About Planet Earth. See full coverage

The last time apocalyptic anxiety spilled into the mainstream to the extent that it altered the course of history -- during the Reformation -- it relied on a revolutionary new communications technology: the printing press. In a similar way, could the current surge in apocalyptic anxiety be attributed in part to our own revolution in communications technology?

The media, of course, have long mastered the formula of packaging remote possibilities as urgent threats, as sociologist Barry Glassner pointed out in his bestseller The Culture of Fear. We're all familiar with the formula: "It's worse than you think," the anchor intones before delivering an alarming report on date-rape drugs, stalking pedophiles, flesh-eating bacteria, the Ebola virus (née avian flu cum swine flu). You name it (or rename it): if a threat has even a remote chance of materializing, it is treated as an imminent inevitability by television news. It's not just that if it bleeds, it leads. If it might bleed, it still leads. Such sensationalist speculation attracts eyeballs and sells advertising, because fear sells -- and it can sell everything from pharmaceuticals to handguns to duct tape to insurance policies. "People react to fear, not love," Richard Nixon once said. "They don't teach that in Sunday school, but it's true."

Nothing inspires fear like the end of the world, and ever since Y2K, the media's tendency toward overwrought speculation has been increasingly married to the rhetoric of apocalypse. Today, nearly any event can be explained through apocalyptic language, from birds falling out of the sky (the Birdocalypse?) to a major nor'easter (Snowmageddon!) to a double-dip recession (Barackalypse! Obamageddon!). Armageddon is here at last -- and your local news team is live on the scene! We've seen the equivalent of grade inflation (A for Apocalypse!) for every social, political, or ecological challenge before us, an escalating game of one-upmanship to gain the public's attention. Why worry about global warming and rising sea levels when the collapse of the housing bubble has already put your mortgage underwater? Why worry that increasing droughts will threaten the supply of drinking water in America's major cities when a far greater threat lies in the possibility of an Arab terrorist poisoning that drinking supply, resulting in millions of casualties?

Yet not all of the crises or potential threats before us are equal, nor are they equally probable -- a fact that gets glossed over when the media equate the remote threat of a possible event, like epidemics, with real trends like global warming.

Over the last decade, the 24-hour news cycle and the proliferation of media channels has created ever-more apocalyptic content that is readily available to us, from images of the Twin Towers falling in 2001 to images of the Japanese tsunami in 2011. So, too, have cable channels like Discovery and History married advances in computer-generated imagery with emerging scientific understanding of our planet and universe to give visual validity to the rare and catastrophic events that have occurred in the past or that may take place in the distant future. Using dramatic, animated images and the language of apocalypse to peddle such varied scenarios, however, has the effect of leveling the apocalyptic playing field, leaving the viewer with the impression that terrorism, bird flu, global warming, and asteroids are all equally probable. But not all of these apocalyptic scenarios are equally likely, and they're certainly not equally likely to occur within our lifetimes -- or in our neighborhoods. For example, after millions of Americans witnessed the attacks of 9/11 on television, our collective fear of terrorism was much higher than its actual probability; in 2001, terrorists killed one-twelfth as many Americans as did the flu and one-fifteenth as many Americans as did car accidents. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, the odds of an American being killed by a terrorist were about 1 in 88,000 -- compared to a 1 in 10,010 chance of dying from falling off a ladder. The fears of an outbreak of SARS, avian flu, or swine flu also never lived up to their media hype.

Over-reliance on the apocalyptic narrative causes us to fear the wrong things and to mistakenly equate potential future events with current and observable trends.

This over-reliance on the apocalyptic narrative causes us to fear the wrong things and to mistakenly equate potential future events with current and observable trends. How to discern the difference between so many apocalyptic options? If we ask ourselves three basic questions about the many threats portrayed apocalyptically in the media, we are able to separate the apocalyptic wheat from the chaff. Which scenarios are probable? Which are preventable? And what is the likely impact of the worst-case model of any given threat?

In answering these questions, it becomes clear that much of what the media portrays as apocalyptic is not. The apocalyptic scenarios involving global disaster -- from meteor impacts to supervolcanic eruptions -- are extraordinarily rare. An asteroid could hit the Earth and lead to the extinction of all mammals, including us, but the geologic record tells us that such massive strikes are unlikely, and logic tells us that there is little we can do to prevent one. Nor are terrorist attacks or an outbreak of avian flu likely to destroy humanity; their impact is relatively small and usually localized, because we can be prepared for such threats and can contain and mitigate their effects. The apocalyptic storyline tells us that most of these events are probable, largely unpreventable, and destined to be catastrophic. But none of this is true -- their probability is either low or can be made lower through preventive means, or their impact is containable.

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Presented by

Mathew Barrett Gross & Mel Gilles

Mathew Barrett served as the Director of Internet Communications for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. Mel Gilles is the Director of Sol Kula Healing. Gross and Gilles are the authors of The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us About America (Prometheus Books). They live in Moab, Utah.

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