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Responding to the fearmongerers March 3, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in change, communication, environment, global warming, language, nature, world.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
scary stuff

I don’t know about you, but I’m not very comfortable with risk, and genuine opportunities for a better life (whatever that means) don’t come around everyday. So it’s hard to resist marketing campaigns that prey on my fears; after all, I might miss a special offer, or leave my loved ones vulnerable to unspecified dangers, or be held personally responsible for the End Of The World As We Know It.

Fear is the most powerful tool in the marketer’s arsenal, more powerful than fact, peer pressure or desire. Fear feeds paranoia, xenophobia, hypochondria, and a growing sense of vulnerability. Fear is now the invisible but crushingly huge elephant in the room, and western society has become claustrophic.

Fear causes people to do irrational things, from stepping over cracks in the sidewalk to committing hate crimes. And fear is one of the prime instruments being used to motivate people around environmental issues. Earnest campaigners not only call up the spectre of a new ice age and global disaster (although I haven’t heard a lot about the threat of nuclear meltdown lately), but they also prey on our insecurities, our need to be socially acceptable and conform by doing, wearing, buying, and eating the “right” things.

I’m not arguing against the models being used to predict future affects of climate change and I agree that acting to improve the health of the planet (and our health as well) is a benefit no matter which side of the issue you stand on. It’s just that nothing makes me so suspicious as words like “catastrophe” and “crisis”, and I think that the mayday rhetoric currently being used around the issue of global warming, in particular, is reaching a point of doing more harm than good.

Nedra Weinreich, in her blog on fear-based social marketing, offers some advice to social marketers about balancing a scary message with a clear call for specific action, and talks about how fear-based appeals can bring about behaviour change: “When people are confronted with messages that arouse fear in them, they will take one of two courses of action to dispel those unpleasant feelings — either taking preventive action to deal with the threat or controlling the fear through denial or avoidance of the issue.”

It could be argued that fear is the only way to rouse our comfortable western society from apathy. After all, look at the shamefully low participation in voting, or the apparent lack of interest we have in other people and countries — with the exception of natural disasters. Perhaps “disaster” is the only word that can still be heard over the din of information that daily bombards us.

In the case of health or safety-related issues, the pain may be worth the gain. Fear of causing death or injury might stop someone from drinking and driving, or fear of having a heart attack might stop someone from eating too much rich food. Nedra refers to a recent study which “showed that patients with high cholesterol are more likely to be motivated to stay on their medication after seeing an actual scan of their own arteries showing blockage from plaque.”

The environment is both health and safety, it is both personal and political. There are many good reasons to support environmental causes and to become more aware of our “footprint” on the earth. But the language of catastrophe has been undermined with overuse. It’s time to drop the overheated hype and focus on the positive benefits of caring for our earth.

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Related Links:
Savage Chickens
Helium Debate: “Is the Modern World Filled with More Fear Than Times Past?”
New York Times: “A Call to Cool the Hype”
BBC: “Chaotic World of Climate Truth”
“Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt”
Spare Change: “When science becomes dogma
Spare Change: “Making fear-based campaigns work



1. Nedra - March 3, 2008

Thanks for the link to my blog. A while ago I wrote another post that speaks directly to the quote you have at the top of your blog about how global warming is becoming akin to religious dogma. You might be interested: http://www.social-marketing.com/blog/2007/01/when-science-becomes-dogma.html

2. eyegillian - March 3, 2008

Thank you for your comment, Nedra, and referring me to your article “When science becomes dogma”. I really like the way you challenge the rhetoric of environmental fundamentalism; and I will add this link to the article as well.

It’s no wonder the issue of global warming is getting so polarized — my response to extremism is to run in the opposite direction. I don’t like it when people tell me what to think, and fear closed-mindedness and thought-control more than environmental catastrophe. What is needed is behavioural change, not brain-washing.

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