Takes ‘em a long time to get around to it but global warming is really, truely ruely gonna getcha, unlike all that other unlikely stuff
Flip through the cable channels for long enough, and you’ll inevitably find the apocalypse. On Discovery or National Geographic or History you’ll find shows like MegaDisasters, Doomsday Preppers, or The Last Days on Earth chronicling, in an hour of programming, dozens of ways the world might end: a gamma ray burst from a nearby star peeling away the Earth’s ozone layer like an onion; a mega-volcano erupting and plunging our planet into a new ice age; the magnetic poles reversing. Turn to a news channel, and the headlines appear equally apocalyptic, declaring that the “UN Warns of Rapid Decay in Environment” or that “Humanity’s Very Survival” is at risk. On another station, you’ll find people arguing that the true apocalyptic threat to our way of life is not the impending collapse of ecosystems and biodiversity but the collapse of the dollar as the world’s global currency. Change the channel again, and you’ll see still others insisting that malarial mosquitoes, drunk on West Nile virus, are the looming specter of apocalypse darkening our nation’s horizon.
How to make sense of it all? After all, not every scenario can be an apocalyptic threat to our way of life — can it? For many, the tendency is to dismiss all the potential crises we are facing as overblown: perhaps cap and trade is just a smoke screen designed to earn Al Gore billions from his clean-energy investments; perhaps terrorism is just an excuse to increase the power and reach of the government. For others, the panoply of potential disasters becomes overwhelming, leading to a distorted and paranoid vision of reality and the threats facing our world — as seen on shows like Doomsday Preppers. Will an epidemic wipe out humanity, or could a meteor destroy all life on earth? By the time you’re done watching Armageddon Week on the History Channel, even a rapid reversal of the world’s magnetic poles might seem terrifyingly likely and imminent.
The last time apocalyptic anxiety spilled into the mainstream to the extent that it altered the course of history — during the Reformation — it relied on a revolutionary new communications technology: the printing press. In a similar way, could the current surge in apocalyptic anxiety be attributed in part to our own revolution in communications technology?
The media, of course, have long mastered the formula of packaging remote possibilities as urgent threats, as sociologist Barry Glassner pointed out in his bestseller The Culture of Fear. We’re all familiar with the formula: “It’s worse than you think,” the anchor intones before delivering an alarming report on date-rape drugs, stalking pedophiles, flesh-eating bacteria, the Ebola virus (née avian flu cum swine flu). You name it (or rename it): if a threat has even a remote chance of materializing, it is treated as an imminent inevitability by television news. It’s not just that if it bleeds, it leads. If it might bleed, it still leads. Such sensationalist speculation attracts eyeballs and sells advertising, because fear sells — and it can sell everything from pharmaceuticals to handguns to duct tape to insurance policies. “People react to fear, not love,” Richard Nixon once said. “They don’t teach that in Sunday school, but it’s true.”
Nothing inspires fear like the end of the world, and ever since Y2K, the media’s tendency toward overwrought speculation has been increasingly married to the rhetoric of apocalypse. Today, nearly any event can be explained through apocalyptic language, from birds falling out of the sky (the Birdocalypse?) to a major nor’easter (Snowmageddon!) to a double-dip recession (Barackalypse! Obamageddon!). Armageddon is here at last — and your local news team is live on the scene! We’ve seen the equivalent of grade inflation (A for Apocalypse!) for every social, political, or ecological challenge before us, an escalating game of one-upmanship to gain the public’s attention. Why worry about global warming and rising sea levels when the collapse of the housing bubble has already put your mortgage underwater? Why worry that increasing droughts will threaten the supply of drinking water in America’s major cities when a far greater threat lies in the possibility of an Arab terrorist poisoning that drinking supply, resulting in millions of casualties?
Yet not all of the crises or potential threats before us are equal, nor are they equally probable — a fact that gets glossed over when the media equate the remote threat of a possible event, like epidemics, with real trends like global warming.