Fear pervades our culture. That’s because fear sells. And marketers figured this out long ago, so we all get a healthy dose of fear, every day. We’ve become a society that fears far too much, and usually the wrong things.

That’s because fear sells news. It sells all sorts of products to keep you “safe”. And it makes people crazy.

Fear is one of the basest of human emotions. It drives all sorts of negative behaviors – from violence to anger to greed. Why is someone greedy? Often because they fear going “without” so they hoard.

Fear is often misplaced. We fear the “unknown” more than the “known”. For example, many people fear biking because of the “unknown” factor of car drivers on the road who might hit us. Yet the number one killer, heart disease, does not raise the same specter of fear. Why not? Every time a cyclist gets killed in my area (about once or twice a year), that news gets rapidly spread all around amongst the cycling community. What if the same propagation of news happened every time someone had a heart attack, or cancer? There would certainly be far, far more news reports of it than the cyclist deaths. And so it becomes familiar. And because it is familiar, it is not feared. Yet many fear the very thing (biking) that would drastically help reduce the chance of heart attack. People fear a minor killer that would avoid a major killer. Fear is not rational.

But there is a more insidious difference. Why do we fear biking? For one thing, bike helmet campaigns. (I wear a bike helmet, so please don’t consider me anti-helmet). There are many people who benefit from promoting helmets through fear. If you are afraid of getting hit by a car and splitting your head open, you’re much more likely to buy a helmet than if you’re not afraid. And so marketing campaigns for helmets are often fear based – it sells more helmets. This is true not only of helmet sellers, but a small group of people who believe their will should be imposed on everyone because they are sure that helmets would save lives (contrary to the facts).

The thing all this fear does is very insidious. So many people that come into our shop have fear as the number one reason for not biking. Yet it is that very fear that makes biking less safe. It has been very strongly proved that the more people are out biking, the safer it is for everyone (helmeted or not). If many people are afraid of biking, there will be (and are) less cyclists on the road, so it is more dangerous for all of us who do cycle. Fear is self-fullfilling. Even though helmets may be good for the individual, their fear-based promotion is not good for society. That’s because so many people end up just driving their cars rather than biking, which leads to all manner of ills like hear disease, cancer, pollution, oil dependency, etc.

Perhaps an even more egregious case is another product that I see advertised in all the bike magazines, an identification device to wear in case something happens while biking and one needs to be taken to the hospital. Every one of those ads has a story about some cyclist who got hit by a car and wound up in the hospital, with the ID helping “save their lives.” Talk about promoting fear of cycling. The last time I read one of those ads, my active imagination took over, and I had repeated visions of waking up in a hospital after being hit (and no, I’ve not had similar visions of waking up in the hospital after a heart attack, though the latter is more likely). This does nobody any good whatsoever, except for the seller of the device. I’m sure they will sell more IDs through the fear they generate. But they will also convince people that biking is unsafe. In general, it might be a good idea of having an ID for any activity where one isn’t carrying another form of ID. But targeting it specifically at cycling in this fear-based way will only turn people away from cycling, which, again, makes cycling less safe for everyone.

It reminds me of something that happened last year. I was in a bike race where a fellow died, after loosing control on a steep and fast descent (he was going at least 50 mph down the hill, and the accident didn’t involve a car). Everyone in the race was shocked. I was quite amazed to see his daughter state after the fact that he died doing the thing that he loved, and she sounded very sad but not overwrought. After having lost a family member to cancer, which was a slow and painful process for everyone, it makes me wonder – is that really a better way to go (hooked up to a machine and slowly degenerating), than doing something one loves to do?

It is not that cycling is without any dangers. It is that everything else we do in life is dangerous – living itself is dangerous. Fear often misplaces that perspective. And fear causes anxiety, a form of stress that is not at all healthy. We all are going to die, and only a few of us will be lucky enough to have that death be peacefully in our sleep when we are in our late 90’s. I can’t find statistics for it, but it is probably only 1 in 10 or less that will survive that long and in good health.

It is not only in cycling that fear has run amok. There are many other examples:

1. Peak oil. Peak oil is a real and important phenomenon, where once we pass the production peak in world oil, it will become more expensive and more scarce. Since our economy is quite dependent on cheap oil, this will be a major hiccup for us. I don’t debate the basis for peak oil, nor do I debate that we are likely past the world’s oil production peak (Summer 2008). But for many people who inhabit places like the Oil Drum and other peak oil sites, one may notice that a sense of fear (i.e. “gloom and doom”) pervades. There are many folks who follow the views of James Kunstler that society will degenerate and fall apart. Every blog post by Kunstler indicates that the degeneration is just about to begin.
These are fear based responses. People like Kunstler gain a great amount of traction, because fear sells. And there is actually a chance that peak oil could lead to a worldwide collapse of human societies, if a lot of things go wrong. But, these folks underestimate the human penchant for muddling through. While they may point to past societies that have collapsed — the most famous case being Easter Island — there are many more societies that have survived drastic calamity and not collapsed. For example, Europe suffered the Black Death, killing more than 1/2 of the population. Yet with 1/2 of the people gone, society did not collapse. Nor did it collapse after the Irish potato famine. Nor did Germany collapse after its hyperinflation in the 20’s, the rise to power by Hitler, and its defeat in World War II. Economies have often collapsed without a societal collapse.
Economic collapse – a quite common occurrence throughout history — happens when societies and governments overspend and overreach. It is just like a household that overspends and has to declare bankruptcy. It is not fun or pleasant. But it is not the end of life, either. Collapsed economies lead to some years of hardship and pain for many, they are also opportunities – for new businesses, and for forging closer ties with ones community. And so the world keeps turning. Economic collapse has happened many times, and in only a very few of those has society itself collapsed.
My point is that the fear revolving around peak oil is useless, and worse, often incapacitating. If one pictures total collapse of society, then what is the point in doing anything to prepare? One cannot prepare for utter collapse of society. There would be nowhere to hide (unless you have access to a mighty nice spaceship). But it is possible to prepare for lesser forms of hardship, such as oil price spikes due to a US dollar devaluation. Bikes are one way to prepare, and there are many others. Those include moving closer to town, growing a garden, raising chickens, etc. Preparation shouldn’t be about fear, it should be calm and rational preparation for the unexpected disruption of things we rely on for daily survival (food, shelter, transportation). This preparation will be useful regardless of the cause of disruption – whether due to hurricane, earthquake, economic collapse, or one of many other things that could happen.

2. Fat. Seriously, people fear fat. Somehow, marketers have convinced folks that everything they eat must not have fat, or they will collapse right away due to a heart attack. But the funny thing is that the link between fat and heart attack is still not that clear. What’s more, there are many fats that are absolutely essential to body function. In fact, the Omega-3 and monounsaturated fats look like they prevent heart disease. And there’s even accumulating evidence that butter is good for you. The only true “bad” fats that consistently are linked to heart disease are – get this – trans fats that were sold as an “alternative” to butter because they were supposedly “healthier”. Talk about fear leading us up a blind alley.

3. Child abduction/etc (parental fears). When I was a kid, I started walking to school 4 blocks each way, every day, when I was in 2nd grade. Parents would never do that now. It would be considered crazy to let a child walk on their own. Yet fears of things like abduction are far overblown, it is an extremely rare occurrence. What is not so rare are cases of childhood obesity (an epidemic), childhood ADD, and many other ailments associated with kids being kept indoors and not getting enough exercise. Yes, an abduction of a child is horrific. But isn’t a child developing arteriosclerosis by age 10 similarly horrific, especially if it is 100 times more common? A lifetime of health problems and medical costs for all of us? And fear of going outside? That seems plenty horrific.

I could go on and on – the examples of fear being used to sell are all around us, and as a result, so many people I know live in fear. I have been trapped in it myself at times. When I learned of Peak Oil, I became trapped in a cycle of fear about it for quite a while. But when I’m in that mode, I can’t live life happily. A while ago, I began practicing a martial art. The initial reason was fear – wanting to be better prepared in self defense. But I soon realized that fear was not the best reason to do it. What I figured out was that I enjoyed the exercise, focus, release of aggression, and that those benefits far outweigh the whole fear thing. And doing it for those reasons, I find myself more relaxed about it, which leads to faster progress.

Fear of the future prevents enjoyment of the present. And then, what’s the point of living?

I have recently started a campaign: “say no to fear”. Except in rare instances, fear is a waste of human energy.

For more reading on the subject, check out the book “The Culture of Fear” by Barry Glassner, or “False Alarm: The Truth about the Epidemic of Fear” by Marc Siegel. Also, there’s a great podcast on Fear by Gil Fronsdal courtesy of Audio Dharma.

One thought

  1. It's sad how the government, media and corporations have virtually destroyed our ability to analyze risk.

    I had some guy roll down his car window to tell me to wear a helmet yesterday. What he failed to realize was that his antagonizing me was a FAR riskier activity than my riding without a helmet. If he was so concerned about my safety maybe he will volunteer to stop polluting our with his car.

    Glassner made some good points in his book, but I seem to remember it being fairly repetitive and not having a good feeling about it overall. I'll have to check out the other one though.

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