Fear and loathing

20150705_104224Morning smoke haze over Cadboro Bay

Where does the fear come from? By all measures we in Canada have never been safer, never had so much security and stability, and yet you wouldn’t know it by the behaviour of a lot of people. So many seem to see danger and threat everywhere, and yet in almost all cases they fret about the rare and innocuous.

What I’m thinking about today is the wildfire smoke that has descended on Vancouver Island. It’s unusual, but given the drought conditions not at all unexpected: with the forest this dry, you will get lots of wildfires. In fact, it’s a completely normal, natural process and even our wet coastal forests have evolved to cope with fire, indicating that it’s long been a part of the ecosystem. The suppression of wildfire is the part that’s unnatural, leading up below-canopy buildup of flammable detritus.

This afternoon CBC had a special call-in show to hear what people had to say about the smoke, which in reality is nothing more than a very temporary annoyance for most people, and I was surprised at the fear and anxiety of those who called in, people afraid to go outside, people locking themselves in their basements, people afraid of what breathing this smoke could do to them. One women was afraid of breathing in the cyanide that apparently is found in the flame suppressants they drop on the fires.

Not to be cruel, but how do these folks get out of bed in the morning?

Maybe it’s because I’ve been a global antipoverty activist, but in the scale of human risks and suffering, this doesn’t even begin to measure as an issue. So many – billions actually – live on the edge of disaster every day, without health care, adequate food, clean water, or security. Half of the world has to drop where they are and shit, without a latrine or toilet, with all the colossal health implications that arise from that. Right now the largest mass migration of refugees in history is occurring in the Middle East. 3,000 children die each day from malaria. The list of adversity most people confront every day could fill an entire page here, but you get the point.

In Canada, the only armed conflicts we have to deal with are the ones we chose to engage in on the other side of the planet; we have universal health care, a robust economy, an excellent education system, and live in one of the safest countries in the world. For most of us, we have nothing, absolutely nothing to worry about.

It’s true that many of our lives are far from perfect, especially those of us who are Aboriginal, but when you compare the standard here with the global norm, we should shoulder off our petty concerns and head out into the day with gratitude and confidence. But when a forest fires 500 miles away sends a plume of smoke over us, we hunker in our basements and dream of Armageddon at the door.

This rant isn’t about judging those tremulous souls who called in to CBC, but wondering where this fear comes from? Like the CBC example, I think the various media has a responsibility for “fanning the flames” of anxiety and worry, but people can’t be frightened against their will, and why are we still so afraid when we have it so good? And how do you explain how most of the time we are afraid of the wrong things – ISIS instead of climate change, stranger danger instead of the high risk of injury in an automobile accident?

I have to believe that we are simply wired for fear, and as the human wont, we project that fear onto the world. H. Sapiens evolved as a frail, fragile entity, so incompetent and defenseless that at one time was reduced in total number to between 3 and 10 thousand individuals. Only our collective intelligence (and enormous luck) allowed us to survive as a species, and as individuals we are so very, very vulnerable. At our core we know this, which is why so much human energy and effort has been directed towards security of the individual. We in the wealthy West have excelled at this: most of us now have no day-to-day survival worries. Yet we are still afraid, still see rampant threats to our families and ourselves, via strangers or government or our food, our water or air.

One could just shrug and ignore such ninnies, but these kinds of irrational fears too often dictate policy. Conservative individuals – especially those on the more extreme right – are a group notoriously frightened and suspicious, and their political representatives have seriously trammelled on Canadian human rights in the name of fighting Islamic extremism., even though you are far more likely to be killed by a cop than a terrorist. Yet their same preferred government vigorously promotes fossil fuel extraction, while climate change threatens the very foundations of civilization. It’s irrational and it’s dangerous.

Sometimes anxiety is productive as a motivator for change, but in my life and in many others I’ve witnessed, anxiety is an unwanted and detrimental evolutionary holdover from a much more tenuous and dangerous era, and the only defense we have against it is knowledge and rationality. We might still be afraid, but we can choose to be aware that our fear comes from us, not the world around us, that it is not objective. Personally I’m sometimes afraid of strangers – when an unknown person walks towards me on the sidewalk, my stomach tightens a little and my breath shallows (it’s not just women who feel this). I could blame people – people are unpredictable assholes, people are dangerous – but I understand my social anxiety comes from growing up in a chaotic and insecure home and the bullying I experienced as a teen, and has nothing to do with the here and now. The problem is mine, and nobody needs to do anything about it.

So when I see people overreact to a simple nuisance I see people projecting their experience on the world, and blaming the world for their anxiety. That’s a dangerous place to go, because too often attempting to ameliorate someone’s subjective anxiety, means irrational and oppressive impositions on the rest of us.


Just a follow-up on last week’s post: Dubby came to within a whisker of losing her life, but she responded to treatment and is well on her way to recovery, with a healthy appetite and greatly improved energy. I still have very mixed feelings about the money we spent on her, though.

My new novel. Click on the pic to be transported to a wonderful adventure.

Dark and Promised Land

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