Here are some things about which, according to the headlines, it’s “time to panic”: the threat of big technology, the failure of capitalism, the appointment of John Bolton as US national security adviser, and the performance of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team. Oh, and climate change. “We live during a time of extreme rhetorical inflation,” the commentator Damon Linker wrote, noting how absurd it was for Donald Trump to declare a “national emergency” over immigration, or for others to deem China an “existential threat” to the US.
Then again, few of us are immune. The fact that Brexit looks set to be a calamity doesn’t mean it’s not tempting, for remainers on social media, to predict it’ll be even more of a calamity than that. For reasons of consistency, I shouldn’t claim that this epidemic of alarmism is the worst crisis in the history of human civilisation. Still, it’s pretty bad – not least because it’s far from clear that panicking ever makes anything better.
One motivation for all this extreme talk is that it’s the only way to get heard above the din. In our “attention economy”, the most compelling voices prevail, and one of the easiest ways to be compelling is to insist that your message is the one people can’t afford to ignore. Unfortunately, precisely because it’s so easy, this fuels an arms race of exaggeration, so even those who’d rather refrain have no option but to take part. If you run a charity helping, say, homeless refugees, or young carers, there’s no point claiming it’s the third or seventh biggest problem facing the nation; you might as well replace your website with a banner reading, “Nothing to see here.” Getting any portion of people’s scarce attention depends on convincing them it’s the number one crisis, and an unprecedentedly grave one, too.
In his new book The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells paints a terrifying picture of the crisis that has the best claim to the number one slot. He makes an excellent case that “climate alarmism”, which scientists are usually desperate to avoid, is in fact amply justified. But “justified” isn’t the same as “useful”. Will it help for us to be more scared about a warmer future? Here, he has less to say, and fair enough: the psychological evidence remains extremely murky. Fear definitely sometimes motivates, but usually in immediate ways, where a solution is obvious – as when you leap from the path of an oncoming bus, or hurry to file your taxes to avoid a fine. With a threat as collective and complex as climate change, the truth is, nobody really knows.
What we do know is that the mental habit known as “catastrophising” – concluding, on the basis of something bad, that everything’s going to be absolutely, permanently bad – is closely associated with depression, hardly the ideal springboard for constructive action.
To be sure, global warming may be a catastrophe in the making. But that’s all the more reason to dial back the hyperbole on everything else. You can’t dismantle the attention economy on your own – but you can aspire to think before you tweet in apocalyptic terms. (I’m trying.) And you can remember, the next time somebody tells you it’s time to panic, that it almost certainly isn’t.