"More than machinery, we need humanity."

“The Courage to Be Afraid”

Of the various emotions that we are alternately encouraged or discouraged from feeling – fear is one that occupies an odd position. After all, fear is a very powerful emotional state and being able to manipulate it in canny ways can provoke in people a range of behaviors; simultaneously a surplus of fear can easily tip over into apathy, indolence, or an inured acceptance of the somber state of things.

A confluence of factors in the world around us primes us to fear all manner of people, things and situations: people who do not look like us, people who live in other countries, people who pray to other gods, people who violently prey on each other, wild animals that may suddenly appear, tainted food, defective vehicles, terrorism, all manner of “isms,” political schisms, being out of fashion, being out of work, lacking the newest devices, being alone, and the list could go on. While the previous list contains many questionable or exaggerated fears, the intention is not to suggest that all of these are artificial or manufactured. Tragically, the threat of violence, repression and oppression is something that many people experience acutely and seriously – for the current age is still one in which people are targeted for attack based upon their gender identity, skin color, religious affiliation, sexual identity, and (sadly) so forth.

Yet even as we are taught to fear the other, and even as we are taught to fear becoming the other, we are told that there is nothing much to worry about – not really, anyways. Fear, we are exhorted to believe, will keep us from reaching our true potential, it will hem us in, hold us back, and leave us as quivering individuals unable to effectively take action. The words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ring like a positive-thinking leitmotiv as we look out at the world, telling ourselves that “we have nothing to fear except fear itself.” Here as well there is a certain measure of truth stirred in with the pop-psychology, for a surplus of fear may well result in lethargy, and making an ideology or a fetish out of fear can prove paralytic. A barrage of unceasing negative emotions may produce interesting art – but it functions rather poorly as an organizing tactic.

Many of the fears, and the remedies that follow from them, hinge to some degree upon either a type of acceptance or a brave disavowal. For many of these fears focus particularly upon the person as individual: “this might happen to you and your family!” The threat may be an existential one, but the existence in question is on a small and rather manageable scale – we know how to fear for our own life and safety, but we lack the empathetic imagination to be able to expand this fear to encompass too much wider a circle. This fearful dissonance is mostly clearly seen at present when it comes to the issue of climate change – which manages to at once pose a rather horrific threat to life on Earth (which encompasses more than just humanity) but which seems to provoke shrugs more than a fearful demand that action be taken to ensure safety. While there are certainly those who choose to balk at the evidence, it is becoming increasingly clear that the writing is on the proverbial wall, yet for some people this is simply disfiguring graffiti ruining the smiling faces of the advertisement on which it has been sprayed.

A fear is best managed when there is a clear and logical set of steps to salve (if not truly solve) the source of discomfort, particularly when these steps do not require much in the way of personal sacrifice. More military force, more police, more surveillance, more technology – these are the ways of addressing fear that are promoted and advanced, for they require an amplification of what we already know, and ask rather little of us except for calm acquiescence. Indeed, they may even encourage us to accumulate more things – which we have become quite adept at doing. The challenges and threats may be presented as existential but to address them we are assured that we need not make any existential changes – we need more, not less. In such situations our fears are assaulting us from the world without – and we need not consider that they may have roots within.

In our current moment, when it truly seems as though the future of our species and life on this planet is at stake it may be worth looking back at a previous historical moment when fear was felt with equal gravity. Amidst the celebrations that greeted the closing of the Second World War there was a group who saw in the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki a portent every bit as frightful as that which had been defeated in the war. For many, the specter of the nuclear bomb represented something of a profound shift in the history of humanity – for it ushered in an era where it was not simply individual lives that were at stake but the survival of the planet. The nuclear bomb represented the human harnessing of the power of extinction – this was not a threat of a rogue asteroid from without, but of the human power to create being harnessed in the cause of destruction. A new vocabulary and imagination to cope with this fearful potential was needed – a way of capturing the profound and total danger that nuclear weapons presented.

Writing in 1939, before the United States entered World War II, the writer Lewis Mumford penned a short book that was something of a call to action. The work – titled Men Must Act (the gendered title a sign of the times) – was not a bellicose beating of the war drum or an excited battle hymn, but a demand that people take seriously the threat posed by fascism, that they be willing to recognize the danger it posed and engage with the fear that it elicited in them. In calling his readership to act against fascism, Mumford wrote:

“To close one’s eyes to the present international situation because the remedy for it is a difficult and hazardous one is a form of self indulgence that the honest critical mind must not permit itself. Sheer inertia makes people minimize the danger,” (Mumford, 7 [1939])

That inaction was dangerous did not mean that action was not also perilous – and Mumford was forced to reckon with the tragic fears of action personally when his son Geddes was killed in combat in 1944. Yet this personal experience of tragedy did nothing to diminish Mumford’s ethical commitment – and scarcely had the war ended before he turned his attention to sounding the alarm about the peril represented by nuclear weapons. It is worth considering the symmetry between the lines quoted above and the following lines from 1954 (which was not the first time Mumford spoke out against nuclear weapons). After recognizing that some may treat his call for the dismantling of nuclear weaponry as a fantasy Mumford writes:

“Is this a dream? Naturally, it is a dream, for all challenges to animal lethargy and inertia begin in a dream…But it is better to sink one’s last hopes in such a dream than to be destroyed by a nightmare. Only those who can still dream will dare to be human; and only those who dare to be human, with the saving remnant of their reason, will have the audacity to rescue mankind from the compulsions and irrationalities that now undermine our whole civilization.” (Mumford, 9 [1954])

And yet the specter of nuclear weapons is not what we fear today – though the above lines could function just as well if one simply switches the threat of nuclear annihilation with the threat of collapse conjured by climate change. Indeed, it would have been all too easy to present the above lines as those written by a contemporary individual concerned about the climate.

Thus, the question remains – how do we cope with our “inertia?”

Balancing this relationship with fear and inertia is a particular problem at present for those seeking to raise awareness of the impending threats of climate change (the effects of which are already there to be seen if one cares to look). There is a need to at once engage people’s fear in sufficient quantity as to make them take the matter seriously and yet a simultaneous need to make sure this fear does not turn into apathy and inertia. The grave concern is that too much emphasis upon “all is lost” will result in people deciding that there is no need to act – no obligation to act – seeing as it “is too late, anyways.” One can see this challenge at work around the People’s Climate March which will attempt to put huge numbers of people in the streets of New York City in the run up to the UN Climate Summit. The advertisements that have been plastered around NYC in the run-up have shown buildings under water, desolate landscapes, and warnings about super storms, but these fearful images are paired with a rather simple and fairly painless step: march, tell the world leaders to take action, and maybe recycle more or buy an energy efficient car.

It is important to march, it is important to demand world leaders take action – but the true hope is that this march will be the start of a strong movement instead of a one off occurrence. After all, the anti-nuclear movement certainly marched and called upon elected officials – but it was also part of a broader social movement that raised matters of justice and equity (much of which is also repeated by various groups active around environmental issues today).

Nevertheless, the question that may be subtly scraped by the specter of climate change is that we do not fear the catastrophic possibilities of the future quite as much as we fear a future in which the scale of mass consumption and energy use to which we have become accustomed must be cut back. This is part of the reason why technology remains a site in which we invest so much hope – as it holds out the promise that we can save our species and still get the next model smart phone. While there are certainly some technological advances that seem based upon updating humanity for a planet on which human life has become increasingly precarious – there are many other things held up as solutions that simply offer to preserve the now. And yet it is folly to talk seriously of sustainability if one is not willing to consider that certain lifestyles are simply not sustainable – one cannot have sustainability at a level that is pushing the world to the brink of catastrophe, no matter how many wind turbines we build.

Whereas the anti-nuclear movement was concerned with the pressing of a button, our current calamitous threat comes from far too much pushing and tapping of buttons.

The fear of the somewhat known thus comes to powerfully replace a deeper fear of that which we cannot comprehend. For we have been primed by a mountain of disaster films and post-apocalyptic fiction for a harsher future, but have a much harder time imagining how we will avert the disaster. We can conjure up mental images of dystopian wastelands but we dare not speak of utopian longings, we can imagine the next five generations of smart phones more easily than we can imagine the state of the biosphere we are creating for the next five generations.

Do we fear climate change – we certainly do. But is the greater fear a quiet recognition that to truly address it we might have to radically change our lifestyles? This is not an anti-technology paean, nor is it a call for us to flee to the shelter of the woods – for the woods cannot shelter us from the change that is afoot. Individual lifestyle changes may be meaningful to the individual, but we need to alter the lifestyle of industrial society, and one way to make this shift is to alter the way we are discussing the matter.

People are already afraid and it is a waste of effort to tell them they should be frightened.

What is important is recognition of another sort: that there is nothing wrong with fear.

Indeed, at a moment such as ours there is something thoroughly rational about being afraid. Writing about the dangers posed to the world by nuclear weapons, the philosopher Günther Anders penned a list of “Commandments in the Atomic Age” in which the second sentence accosted readers that:

“you should not begin your day with the illusion that what surrounds you is a stable world.” (Anders, 11)

This steadily builds towards a particularly jarring pronouncement:

“don’t be a coward. Have the courage to be afraid. Force yourself to produce that amount of fear that corresponds to the magnitude of the apocalyptic danger.” (Anders, 14)

That fear produces indolence and inertia is a danger, but this challenge is amplified by the loneliness that fear engenders in us. Coming together, marching together, working together – provide us with important ways of overcoming our isolation and lethargy, and yet in these circumstances we should not be ashamed of being afraid. Bravery is not the absence of fear, nor is it the overcoming of fear, it is being able to carry your fear with you instead of allowing it to be transformed into an anchor that drags you to a halt. We must not let our fear of calamity make us afraid to take action.

For that which we need most seriously fear at the moment is not catastrophe, but inaction in the face of catastrophe. As Lewis Mumford put it:

“Hoping for the best, we must still prepare for the worst. To face the future in any other spirit is to invite destruction.” (Mumford 8 [1939])

Works Cited

Anders, Günther. Burning Conscience: The case of the Hiroshima pilot, Claude Eatherly, told in his letters to GüntherAnders. Monthly Review Press, 1962. (this contains a re-print of Anders essay “Commandments in the Atomic Age”)

Mumford, Lewis. Men Must Act. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939.

Mumford, Lewis. In the Name of Sanity. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.

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About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

9 comments on ““The Courage to Be Afraid”

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  9. Rowena McGregor
    December 21, 2018

    Great post and thank you for the ‘Burning conscience’ recommendation. I have ordered a copy from my library.

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