Fairy Tales

…the fairy tales are more powerful than the facts.”

George Monbiot, Feral

The big bad wolf blew down the little piggies’ houses. He also ate grandma and terrorized Little Red Riding Hood — not to mention Peter, the boy who cried wolf. TV shows and movies present wolves as the ever-present danger in the woods. The lonely howl of a wolf sends chills down our spines.

Did you know that only one person has been killed by a wolf in North America since 1900? That’s only slightly more than the number killed by vampires, zombies and werewolves combined, and a lot less than are killed in the U.S. annually by swallowing toothpicks or by tilting vending machines. As George Monbiot points out, “we wish to believe we are surrounded by ancient terrors.”

An environmental reporter for the Denver Post loves the word, “disaster,” and applies it to every story he writes. But, at some point, we should step back and try to understand what is and is not a disaster. Some bad things are just bad. They may be disastrous to a given person or group, but that doesn’t mean they are community- or nation-wide disasters, much less globally-significant catastrophes. Some events that don’t reach the disaster level are truly horrible, but may not be on the scale of a disaster.

Over 2.5 million people die in the U.S. each year. Many die from ‘natural’ causes, but we annually kill thousands of people through car wrecks, murders, smoking and other unhealthy behaviors. Auto accidents account for over 30,000 deaths per year and gun deaths for over 11,000, plus another 21,000 by suicide with a firearm. Smoking kills roughly 480,000 per year, including those from second hand smoke. Are these disasters?

The catastrophic Bhopal chemical release in India killed 3,787 people, with up to 19,000 more contracting cancer from the event. The Chernobyl meltdown killed between 31 to 64 people directly and another 4000 are estimated to contract cancer in their lifetimes. In contrast, the nuclear incident at Three Mile Island and the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown didn’t kill anyone. However, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami associated with that event is thought to have killed 18,500. It’s usually labeled a “nuclear disaster,” not a “natural disaster.”

Activists advertise “environmental disasters” in their fund-raising and political activities. Sometimes, the disasters are just bad things. This misuse of the ‘catastrophic’ label is numbing us down to the point that it is very hard to know what is actually a real issue. Misrepresentation undercuts the credibility of the argument and its proponent. After a while, the very strident nature of the claim leads to disbelief. We have enough trouble conveying the nuances of serious issues to the public without the distraction of fear-mongering and outright falsehoods. This over-the-top language has only added to the growing lack of confidence in the scientific community and “the dark forces of science and reason.” (George Monbiot)

Remember Peter and the wolf? In that case, there actually was a wolf, but Peter’s actions worsened the risk.

Not to imply that public opinion and activism isn’t or shouldn’t be effective, but in truth not using plastic grocery bags at the store has little to no impact on landfill space or global warming. Activists know that in order to get individuals interested and committed to a cause, you need to make it personally relevant. Show people how it affects them, and give them something they can do to buy in to the cause and, hopefully, the solution. Thus, the message isn’t that some massive crisis is occurring, but that you will be personally impacted by it unless you act. It’s your fault if it isn’t stopped.

A friend recently completed a Master’s project that evaluated where we place the responsibility for fixing major environmental problems. Most of the time, we hold individuals accountable for generating too much trash, using too much electricity or gasoline, and polluting the environment. However, she noted that individuals have very little say in creating solutions or changing these major problems. Consumers and the public are not the decision makers, and shouldn’t have to bear a disproportionate share of the blame when things go badly.

We believe the fairy tale that it’s our fault.

Maybe it is our fault for not paying more attention. We should be able to distinguish fact from fiction, but we’re often too lazy or distracted to do so. Maybe we should be more aggressive about crying “foul” and challenging the wild statements we hear. The internet offers a world of information at our fingertips. We need to check sources and verify what we learn, but it no longer requires a trip to the library or a government office to get the real scoop.

So, I guess it is a crisis of misinformation, a disaster for facts, and a catastrophic failure of reason. And, it’s obviously your fault.

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