Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats

Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats

Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats

Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats

Synopsis

Robert Wuthnow has been praised as one of "the country's best social scientists" by columnist David Brooks, who hails his writing as "tremendously valuable." The New York Times calls him "temperate, balanced, compassionate," adding, "one can't but admire Mr. Wuthnow's views." A leading authority on religion, he now addresses one of the most profound subjects: the end of the world.

In Be Very Afraid, Wuthnow examines the human response to existential threats--once a matter for theology, but now looming before us in multiple forms. Nuclear weapons, pandemics, global warming: each threatens to destroy the planet, or at least to annihilate our species. Freud, he notes, famously taught that the standard psychological response to an overwhelming danger is denial. In fact, Wuthnow writes, the opposite is true: we seek ways of positively meeting the threat, of doing something--anything--even if it's wasteful and time-consuming. The atomic era that began with the bombing of Hiroshima sparked a flurry of activity, ranging from duck-and-cover drills, basement bomb shelters, and marches for a nuclear freeze. All were arguably ineffectual, yet each sprang from an innate desire to take action. It would be one thing if our responses were merely pointless, Wuthnow observes, but they can actually be harmful. Both the public and policymakers tend to model reactions to grave threats on how we met previous ones. The response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, for example, echoed the Cold War--citizens went out to buy duct tape, mimicking 1950s-era civil defense measures, and the administration launched two costly conflicts overseas.

Offering insight into our responses to everything from An Inconvenient Truth to the bird and swine flu epidemics, Robert Wuthnow provides a profound new understanding of the human reaction to existential vulnerability.

Excerpt

For more than six decades, humankind has lived with the knowledge that it could be the agent of its own annihilation. We are constantly reminded of crises, large and small, present and anticipated. What effect has this awareness had on us? How have we responded?

The simple answer is that we have responded quite aggressively. Faced with the possibility of nuclear annihilation, terrorism, and the prospect of pandemics, we have hardly sat back and done nothing. We have rolled up our collective sleeves and spent billions—billions waging the Cold War, billions fighting terror, and billions on vaccines and medical research.

Now that climate change is seen as a threat to our very existence, our response is the same. Plans are in the works to spend billions of dollars seeking solutions. Everything from wind power to fuel-efficient vehicles is on the table.

Critics argue that a lot of the money will be spent needlessly. Some point to preparations for the Y2K (the year 2000, or millennium bug) crisis and to pandemics that never materialized. The problem, some argue, is that big government bureaucracies have come into existence, and the bureaucrats at these agencies are promoting fear to fatten their budgets.

But of course that argument is too simple. Climate change really does threaten our existence. Millions could die from a pandemic or a dirty bomb strategically planted in a metropolitan area. We do need action to prepare for and guard against these threats.

The crux of the matter is this: We have a built-in propensity to act, but we need to engage in the right actions. We err so often because we are like generals fighting the last war. Terror strikes and we respond as if we are resuming the Cold War. Avian flu appears and we look to the epidemic of 1918 for guidance. Government agencies notoriously do so, but we as citizens do too. A threat appears and we buy duct tape because we did that the last time.

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