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Ending Misdirected Fear

by ELLIOT SPERBER

With each passing hour more and more motor oil, fertilizers, and other toxins stream into the waterways of the world, not only causing dead zones to multiply throughout the oceans; the ceaseless influx causes these dead zones to expand, prefiguring a not-too-distant future in which these dilating dead regions meld into one anoxic sea. And as the very air we breathe has been polluted to such a degree (identified by the WHO as the single most significant cause of cancer) that it sickens us all, it is worth considering the curious fact that though the “mutually assured destruction” of nuclear war that threatened the world during the Cold War aroused deep dread, leading to popular anti-nuclear weapons movements, anti-proliferation treaties and other responses, the danger attending global warming (systematically denied by business interests, but still largely recognized by the public) fails to elicit comparable popular concern.

Among other reasons, this relation is intriguing for, if no deviation from the status quo were to transpire – if no error, mechanical malfunction, or unanticipated, willful act or intervention occurred – a nuclear war would not (and will not) ensue. With nuclear war, a positive act of some sort is required to trigger the destruction of the planet. Absence of annihilation is the default. Unlike the nuclear threat which terrified generations, however, the destruction attending global warming does not require any sort of deviation from the status quo. As ongoing ecocidal (and what can, without hyperbole, be described as passively genocidal) practices cannibalize the world, global devastation is the default. Should present trends continue – if no intervention or radical change transpires – the world will be largely uninhabitable by the end of the century.

If conservative estimates of a 4 or 5 degree centigrade increase over preindustrial temperatures occurs over the next 90 years, the world will not only be wracked by incessant super-hurricanes; with its fresh water sources depleted, and agriculture vastly limited, and nuclear power plants like those at Fukushima in various stages of meltdown, mass devastation will assuredly ensue. In spite of the practical certainty of catastrophe, however, the inertial situation continues. Mass support for a radical departure from the status quo has so far failed to arrive.

Yet while fear may not be an effect of the desecration of the planet, it may be, ironically, among its primary causes. To be sure, when asked to speculate about the sources of today’s problems – not just environmental problems, but socio-economic and political problems in general – tellingly, an inordinate number of people, from across the political spectrum, respond with the single word explanation: greed. Greed, they say, is to blame.

The fact that societies have been organized in radically egalitarian ways throughout history, and that this society inordinately rewards greed – breeding greed, so to speak – is not scrutinized; nor is the apparently contra-natural fact that this apparently natural condition has to be maintained through a vast system of disciplinary, military, and paramilitary police forces. Though this society’s tolerance, encouragement, and amplification of greed is systemic and cultural, as opposed to strictly “natural” (as though any thing could proceed from something other than nature), this response should not be entirely dismissed. Insofar as it derives from the Gothic Gredus, which means hunger, greed is related to fear. And this fear of hunger and privation is in turn inextricable from the political-economics of domination, conquest, and hoarding of resources that rests at the root of the ecological devastation we presently confront.

Needless to say, practitioners and promoters of this type of economics – the business class and their acolytes in office, for instance – don’t see things this way. Largely unaware of but a selective slice of history, sense of the world is concocted predominantly through, among other things, ideological and nationalistic myths, and instrumental science. As modern neurophysiology confirms, 80% of our perceptions are in fact constituted by memory rather than observation. Blind to the actual connections and relations of domination at play, people see what they are expecting to see – which is to say, most people don’t really see at all.

Obsessed with terrorists, and underarm deodorant, among the other things our culture teaches people to fear and desire and value, people walk around largely unaware or in denial of their complicity in ecocide; this is not simply the case because we drive around in cars, and eat hamburgers, but because many of us believe in, and recognize as legitimate – and thereby contribute to the reproduction of – this society of domination. Even those who reject the values of this exploitative order are compelled to cooperate. Held hostage and conditioned by the landlords and warlords, not to mention the Order’s police, many develop a condition analogous to a type of Stockholm Syndrome. Not only taught to defend their captors, the hostages learn to admire and emulate them as well.

In spite of all of this misdirected fear and desire, however, learning to fear this ecocidal Order won’t necessarily help matters. It is not fear that we need to learn so much as what is often mistaken for fear; we need to learn to respect the world and the people and animals and the plants around us. Rather than an Order of domination, exploitation, and profit, we need to develop a political-economy of respect. And though respect is not something that one can easily define, an examination of the word itself supplies some guidance. To respect requires that one first look – one inspects – and then look again – re-spects. As mentioned above, one doesn’t see much at all aside from one’s own preconceptions until one learns to critically inspect pretty much everything – and even then one won’t see much.
Though many have a vested interest in distracting us from thinking critically about it – and so disparage the practice – it’s a very strange world we inhabit. It’s a superlatively strange thing to exist. And though priests and pundits and other disseminators of dogma may proclaim otherwise, nobody knows for sure where we actually are. In light of this general ignorance, face to face with the great mystery of it all, the only sane way to proceed is not with fear, but with respect. Look again.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to hygiecracy.blogspot.com He lives in New York City, and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com, or on twitter @elliot_sperber

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com and on twitter @elliot_sperber

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