There’s fear in Fort Collins. The city’s well-meaning officials are afraid of global warming, and they want to impose an ambitious climate action plan on local families and businesses. Meanwhile, some of those families and businesses fear the costs and consequences of another bureaucratic incursion into their lives.
In politics, people alternately demonize and idealize fear. While the left accuses the right of fearing social change, marijuana, and Islam, the right chides the left for its fear of climate change, microaggressions, and Christianity.
Most of us are terrible at calculating which threats to address and which to ignore. We frequently overemphasize invisible hazards, however unlikely they may be. That’s why we American parents are collectively out of our minds with anxiety that our children will be abducted (odds: 1 in 1.4 million) while rarely dwelling on the far greater possibility of losing them in car accidents (odds: 1 in 87,000).
Our brains were made for outsmarting predators, trapping prey, and stocking up for the winter. They are terrible at handling etherial, abstract threats that leave people and societies feeling anxious and powerless.
Early humans undoubtedly invented angry gods to quell that anxiety. Appeasing those gods by lopping heads off virgins didn’t bring rain or keep the great fireball in the sky, but it surely offered some illusion that they could postpone catastrophe for one more day.
Doomsday scenarios play on a quirk of human reasoning. When tragedy doesn’t arrive, we thank our superstitions and rituals rather than acknowledging the fact that our biggest fears rarely come true.
Humanity’s terrible track record for predicting the apocalypse is one of the reasons I don’t lose sleep over climate change. (That, and certain climatologists’ acts of coercion and data “enhancement.”)
Since climate scientists have convinced me of their unreliability, I’m forced to revert to my knowledge of human nature to guide my concerns. As a group, we are freaked-out, paranoid goofballs. In my short life alone, humanity was supposed to have perished by the population bomb, global cooling, Y2K, and New Coke. None of it came to pass.
Still, fear is valuable. The trick is to confine it to realistic threats. Left unattended, fear is the mind’s spackling paste, filling in the cracks where facts ought to be and leaving us with horror stories that will never happen.
So what frightens me in politics? Statists and authoritarians both large and small, whether it’s the presidential candidate who promises to save me from myself, the city council that would reach into my pocket to quell its existential anxieties, or the lowliest government functionary who has the power to impede and torment productive citizens.
Global warming may be a genuine threat—the doomsayers may be right this time—but frankly I’m more concerned about the dangers of bureaucrats who create new problems for every one they solve. If history is any guide, the fear of global warming will pass but the costly regulations written in its name will hobble us for generations.
Shawn Smith is a clinical psychologist in Wheat Ridge, and writes about the intersection of politics and psychology for Complete Colorado.