We are living in an age of catastrophic thinking. Our social and cultural discourse on any number of subjects—the environment, the economy, public health, technology—is defined by a vocabulary and a worldview that can only be described as apocalyptic. The world, we are constantly told, is in a state of mortal crisis, and unless we act fast enough to stop it, we are all facing disaster and oblivion. Everything, it seems, is swiftly accelerating toward a terrible end….
…While technology has almost ceased to be regarded as a means of engineering a better future for mankind, it has certainly not lost its capacity to terrify us. Scientific and medical breakthroughs that would once have inspired the human imagination are now routinely met with suspicion and even outright, unreasoning terror. A striking case of this occurred with the construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a massive particle accelerator built on the Swiss-French border. The scientific community greeted the event with unreserved enthusiasm. Indeed, many physicists claimed that the LHC would lead to major scientific breakthroughs that might grant them unprecedented insight into the origins of the cosmos. As the world-renowned scientist Stephen Hawking explained,
“The LHC will increase the energy at which we can study particle interactions by a factor of four. According to present thinking, this should be enough to discover the Higgs particle, the particle that gives mass to all the other particles…. Their existence would be a key confirmation of string theory, and they could make up the mysterious dark matter that holds galaxies together. Whatever the LHC finds, or fails to find, the results will tell us a lot about the structure of the universe.”
A great many people, however, were convinced—or convinced themselves—that the LHC would, upon ignition, destroy the Earth. MSNBC correspondent Alan Boyle reported “fears that the experiment might create globe-gobbling black holes or never-before-seen strains of matter that would destroy the planet.” One opponent referred to the device as “a cosmological bomb billions of times more powerful than the atomic bomb.” The assurances of noted physicists that the LHC was perfectly safe did little to assuage the sense of dread, which spread through the media and quickly took on a life of its own…
…Certainly, fear of impending disaster is usually seen as a negative emotion. In fact, however, it has unquestionably positive aspects. First and perhaps foremost, it is exciting. In a world given over to comfort and entertainment, in which we are more and more interconnected while having less and less to say, fear provides a profound antidote to boredom and stasis. It motivates people and convinces them that their lives are important and meaningful. This is especially true if catastrophic thinking is combined—as it almost always is—with the belief that the disaster can be averted. All of today’s popular apocalyptic scenarios make the claim that if we act now, and above all act together, there is a chance of preventing the end. The task of prevention, in turn, provides a sense of purpose, however misguided it may be. Moreover, it gives people the feeling that they have power over their surroundings, that they can influence the world around them for the better through conscious action. In many ways, this bears a strong resemblance to the religious impulse, especially in its need to proselytize.
It also serves to ameliorate another universal source of distress: the sense of alienation that haunts the modern world. Indeed, Dr. Chan reflected this malaise when she spoke of potential disaster as “an opportunity for global solidarity.” As she correctly perceived, the fear of a worldwide calamity unites us by putting us all under the same threat and, thus, in the same boat. It provides a very real sense of global brotherhood and the feeling that one really is a part of all humanity. And, it must be said, this feeling is not entirely an illusion. People who join activist groups, political parties, and religious organizations usually do exhibit a communal spirit that is lacking in other aspects of their lives. Even in the face of calamity—perhaps especially so—comradeship can be forged between strangers. Indeed, apocalyptic trepidation may well be the only way that many people today can even conceive of a single destiny for all of mankind.
It is difficult, however, to be entirely sanguine about the phenomenon as it exists today. Panic is not only a cheap and somewhat dishonorable way of motivating people. It is also a dangerous one. Fear, especially irrational fear, can be easily harnessed for nefarious purposes, as the history of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century amply demonstrates. People in the grip of apocalyptic terror are quite often willing to take extreme measures in order to prevent or even hasten the end they are certain is coming. The enthusiasm generated by catastrophic thinking can motivate people to do good, but it can just as easily give license to evil.
The most harmful aspect of all this, however, is that, while such thinking may bring us closer, in certain ways, to other people, it also fundamentally cuts us off from life. A life lived in fear, after all, is a wretched thing…
I wonder if this mass neurosis is responsible for the lunatic red vs. blue partisanship we’ve been seeing lately? Many Democrats and Republicans believe that when their side loses an election, it’s the end of the world as we know it. From 2000 ’till 2008, the left believed that Bush was a proto-Hitler. Now it’s Obama’s turn. Republican political pundits, who are paid to obsess about these things, can immediately predict the ripple of evil that will result from the continued existence of Democrats. Democrats do the same, encouraging a sectarian divide that makes Lebanon look united in comparison.
In any case, a quick look at Fox News or MSNBC confirms that living in fear is indeed a wretched thing.