Sounding the alarm or crying wolf: have we lost our sense of perspective?

Sunday 3 November, 14:0015:30, ConservatoryContemporary Controversies

It seems hard to talk about social and political issues at the moment without people resorting to ever-more overblown language. Climate change, policing, opioid addiction, low vaccination rates and homelessness are all routinely described as a ‘crisis’, ’emergency’ or even ‘existential threat’. Without any troops, bombs, or weapons in sight, Brexiteers and Remainers describe parliamentary shenanigans as ‘coups’ or ‘treason’ with rumblings of ‘civil war’. Little wonder, therefore, that a recommendation from a climate researcher that we should turn to cannibalism to avoid the effects of climate change was met with a collective shrug.

Many blame the media for this ramping up of alarmism. Good news doesn’t sell, after all. Social media only seems to amplify this tendency. Nonetheless, these seem inadequate explanations for the borderline-hysterical reactions to the cut and thrust of everyday politics. For example, when news emerged of fires in the Amazon, the phrase ‘lungs of the earth’ spread far and wide, even making it into an official statement from the French president, Emmanuel Macron. Before the day was out, Foreign Policy was asking ‘Who will invade Brazil to save the Amazon?’ That the phrase relied on a bogus statistic about the Amazon producing 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen seemed neither here nor there.

Whatever the sources of this tendency to alarmism, the consequences are very real. The phenomenon of ‘eco-anxiety’ is being discussed more and more. The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, has expressed concern that children are suffering stress because of the climate change debate. Indeed, some have argued that fear is being ramped up deliberately to promote particular kinds of political action, not just on climate change but on everything from the foods we eat to how much alcohol we drink. The way in which scary predictions rarely prove to be true could also breed distrust towards politicians, experts and the media.

Another consequence is a seeming inability to engage in serious or reasonable discussion. If we immediately reach for hyperbole every time someone proposes even modest changes, many will conclude discussion is pointless. Moreover, like the fable of the boy who cried wolf, the endless talk of crisis may mean we can’t distinguish between relatively minor difficulties and genuine emergencies. Then again, if a significant section of society does believe we are facing an emergency, should we shy away from saying so? If the lives of millions of people are at risk – even our very existence at threat – don’t we need to be clear about the dangers and demand action now?

Do we need to get a little bit of perspective, and if so, where to start? Do calls for a more level-headed politics amount to closing down of debate, or does this constant hyperbole undermine rational discussion and policymaking? Would anyone get heard in the media maelstrom, or would campaigners ever achieve political change, if they didn’t resort to inflated rhetoric? What is the difference between propagandist exaggeration and societal hysteria?