When Should We Be Afraid?

In her Platform Address on 1.14.2018, Kate Lovelady continued our exploration of fear and hatred (our theme for January) by examining ways in which we can overcome fear. She stressed that fear is a natural reaction, a physical set of responses meant to help us survive, which can sometimes backfire by making us afraid when we shouldn’t be. Fear, she said, is often like a smoke alarm: it’s there in case there’s an emergency, but more often than not goes off when we’ve burnt something in the toaster. Our fear response, in other words, is over-reactive: it triggers too easily, making us fearful when we should be calm.

There are times, though, when our evolved fear reaction is under-reactive: it doesn’t make us afraid when we should be. The purpose of fear is to get us to take action when we are threatened, but our fear response evolved in situations when danger was most often individual, immediate and nearby. When the dangers we face are communal, long-term, and far-spread, our fear response will often fail to trigger, and we won’t take the necessary action.

Climate change is a classic – and disturbing – example of the failure of our fear response. We should be afraid of climate change – it is one of the greatest threats facing humankind and all life on this planet – but our evolved fear response doesn’t recognize climate change as an imminent danger. Because climate change is happening slowly over a long period of time; because it is the result of millions upon millions of individual decisions by people all over the world; because the effects are often felt a long time after and a long way from the major causes, we do not feel fear. We might, when we direct our mind to climate change, feel a sense of creeping unease, but this dissipates quickly when our attention moves elsewhere.

Fear, then, is an unreliable guide to danger. Our fear emotion is good at showing us when clear and present dangers are at hand, but poor when those dangers and diffuse. We need to be attentive to these times when our fear emotion fails us, because many of the dangers we face as a global community are not so clear and present.