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Scared to Death

Christopher Booker, Richard North

From BSE to Global Warming - Why Scares are Costing Us the Earth

(Continuum)

If you don't believe in something, you'll believe in anything.

It takes a bold team of authors to take on Al Gore these days. Once the Democratic Party’s dorky little brother, he is now the man who “used to be the next president of the United States”. With approval ratings for you-know-who still hanging out somewhere in the sub-basement, Gore seems a lot less dorky and more like the man to know. Yet authors Richard Booker and Christopher North are up for the challenge. They depict global warming as perhaps the most damaging in a long line of scares that have plagued the United States and European Union (their focus is on their home, the UK) since the early ‘80s.


I have to admit, I was intrigued before opening the cover. About six months ago, I told a teenage boy who hates milk that he could try eating more greens for calcium. His grandmother stepped in, finger wagging: You can’t eat spinach; it will kill you. It’s the e. coli, she said. The worst part is, we don’t even know where it comes from. Not wanting to get into a conversation with a 70-year-old woman about cow poop, I watched her light up a cigarette and let her go into her litany of warnings about things like a plant-based diet (It’s unnatural!), running (It’s dangerous! You should do water aerobics!), and The City (It’s uncivilized! All those people…). I wanted this book to tell me that I was right—about everything.


But wait, global warming? That’s not a scare for old people. They don’t even believe in it, and in general, are considered heretics in progressive circles. But that’s just the problem, say Booker and North. We are in a new age of superstition, where suppositions that claim to be based on science are not questioned. While I don’t agree with all of their conclusions, Booker and North make a valuable contribution to journalism by suggesting that we think things through before screaming, ‘but-what-about-the-children!’


As laid out in the introduction, scares start out with legitimate concerns that spiral out of control once in the hands of their evangelists, or “pushers”, who can be media, government officials or even scientists. The pushers usually defy basic rules of argument and go straight for the emotion, the scare. Usually, key terms are sloppily defined. They do not bother to tell the media consumer the difference between white and brown asbestos, or that several strains of virus can be called bird flu.


They also use statistics in a way that would earn an “F” on a freshman research paper, stating that “up to 500,000” people could die, without any idea of where that number came from. The most damaging phase of a scare, according to the authors, is when the government steps in and responds, usually disproportionately. Government responses range from cruel and wasteful, such as the destruction of millions of healthy animals in British BSE (‘mad-cow disease’) and salmonella scares, to the laughable, most notably a British AIDS response that included sending pamphlets on the dangers of unprotected anal sex to 80-year-old married farmers. 


The global warming chapter is arguably the weakest. Booker and North seem most comfortable with the food and disease scares that make up the bulk of the book, probably because North was a food and safety officer before teaming up with Booker. However, their attack on global warming brings us, at last, to the book’s boldest claim: if you don’t believe in something, you’ll believe in anything.


They call environmentalism alternately the new Marxism and the new Puritanism, where the common people take back control from the greedy, corrupt power mongers. Scares, they argue, are a part of so-called compensation culture and health and safety culture. Anyone want to sue McDonald’s for the coffee you spilled, or the owner of the house you were robbing because you hurt yourself?


An obsession with the body, safety, and political correctness fills a vacuum left by declining belief in organized religion, they say. Global warming fits in perfectly, because it is the only thing scarier than poisoned food or disease. It is the apocalypse, with Nature filling the God position, ready to destroy her defiant children unless we repent.


Government power plays seem to be another major concern for the authors and should be for the rest of us. For example, the ban on British beef during the ‘90s was put into place by EU officials, on their own admission, not because they believed the beef to be unsafe, but so that other countries could continue to export without the taint of association with the UK. Booker and North suggest that international bodies do not necessarily have the best interests of individual countries in mind. The authors also suggest that the EU government welcomes a crisis as an opportunity to step in and save the day, while quietly moving another area of legislation from the control of the national government in question, to themselves.


So, do we despair? While reading this book may make the reader want to punch his or her local elected official and the news correspondent he rode in on, the responsibility for controlling these scares ultimately rests with each of us. We’re paying these people, aren’t we? We have to expect better from our journalists, scientists, and politicians, and support those who aren’t total idiots. Research before you freak out, people. And for global warming’s sake, wear a condom.

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