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Expired · 13th May 2009
Ray Grigg
Fear has been unfashionable for the last half century. Since the end of the Great Depression and World War II, modern civilization has adopted a persona of happy optimism. The industrial and technological energy that was unleashed during the war years transformed itself into consumerism and a boundless confidence that human ingenuity could materialize and even surpass all the imaginings of our most luscious dreams.

This confidence and optimism have come at a cost. We invented the nuclear industry with the assumption that we could control the proliferation of reactors, bombs, intercontinental ballistic missiles and radioactive contamination. We did the same with pesticides – advertisements of the 1950s show happy householders nonchalantly spraying clouds of DDT on the family lawn while their children laughed and played nearby. Plastics became a miracle product, so strong, versatile, cheap and ubiquitous that we never considered they might contain dangerous carcinogens and hormone disruptors. We let our factories spew their wastes into air, water and land, naively assuming that nature was infinitely resilient and forgiving.

Our sense of entitlement and hopefulness has created a blinding spell of optimism and trust that has been difficult to dislodge. This attitudinal barrier has been the unspoken obstacle that environmentalists and health-care professions have struggled against for decades. People who are neither fearful nor doubtful are unable to anticipate the sorry consequences of careless behaviour. So we still insist on incontrovertible proof to counteract our faith that whatever we make is good. The deleterious health effects of smoking have finally been established. But do we still need more evidence about trans fats, pesticides, asbestos, mercury, arsenic or a plethora of complex concoctions produced by the ingenuity of our chemical industries? How many more statistics do we need to establish that oil tankers will inevitably spill their toxic cargo? How many more studies do we need to establish that open-net salmon farms are environmentally unsound? The unquestioned trust and boundless optimism of a society without fear has made a mockery of the Precautionary Principle's sensible carefulness.

This lack of caution keeps us moving toward escalating trouble. Our industrial fishing of the world's oceans irrationally assumes that an endless harvest awaits those who can devise ever-more ingenious methods of increasing catches. The same applies to our extraction of non-renewable resources such as minerals and oil ‹ we are using even more of the planet's biota than nature can replace. Most people have still not psychologically internalized the warnings about carbon dioxide emissions and the consequences of global warming because the catastrophic dangers contradict the collective euphoria of endless making, buying and inventing. The prospect that global food production may not be able to match population growth and soil exhaustion is a realization too sobering for blissful innocence. And human reproduction on a planet of nearly seven billion people is still more a reflex of biological urge or cultural habit than an ethical issue. If we actually gave a modicum of thought to our individual and collective actions, our optimism might be shadowed by a moment of fear.

But, as Thomas Homer-Dixon insightfully observes, "Our innate capacity for fear clashes with another deep human characteristic – a tendency toward optimism... [and] a bias toward hopefulness when we gauge possible threats to our environment and our ability to respond to these threats. Most of us underestimate the difficulties facing us, just as we overestimate our ability to respond to these difficulties (Globe & Mail, (Apr. 4/09). As Homer-Dixon reminds us, we are still "adolescents" in our evolution toward being "grownup" human beings.

Possibly – just possibly – the current financial crisis gripping the world's economies might become a moment of awakening. If we can ask how Bernard Madoff's ponzi scheme could have swindled $60 billion from some of the world's smartest investors, then we might be able to ask about our expectations with a shortage of oil. If we can ask how unsupportable subprime mortgages became packaged into respectable investment securities, then we might be able to ask how we can continue to add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere without causing catastrophic climate change. If we can ask how we can allow personal debt to rise to delusionary levels of self-indulgence, then we might be able to ask if future considerations deserve more attention than immediate gratification. If we can ask how the "rational exuberance" and "animal spirits" of reckless financial attitudes came to dominate sound financial judgments, then we might be able to ask if we are treating the environment with the same imprudence.

The problem with our optimism is that it has conspired to create an unrealistic disconnection from the risks and dangers inherent in our individual and collective behaviour. In the process, we have forgotten that fear is actually a practical response that prevents harm by forewarning us of threatening danger. Our precautionary instinct has been overshadowed by an unfounded naivety and trust. As a technological civilization bedazzled with its wealth and prospects, we have forgotten to balance our innocence with our skepticism, our exuberance with our restraint, our confidence with our caution.