We have a little inside joke among the staff at the Earth Island Journal. As production ramps up for each issue, we must read, over and over, each article covering the surprisingly bad news in which the Journal specializes. Writers caught up in the enormity of their topics will tend to pile atrocity on outrage on disappointment, seemingly trying to raise the stakes with each paragraph. I am no exception. A couple years ago, after plowing through three or four such articles in the course of an afternoon, my co-worker Audrey and our then-intern Adam started chuckling, and then mocking me mercilessly. They were reading an article I’d written in a bit of a hurry, and came to the third time in 3,000 words in which I’d used the phrase “As if that wasn’t bad enough…”
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the phrase appeared two more times in the piece. By that last one, Audrey was laughing so hard she seemed to be having a little trouble breathing. Since then, we’ve written the phrase in the margins of many pieces we’re editing when we find an author ramping up the carnage seemingly endlessly.
The problem is, there are just so damn many opportunities to use the phrase. Try, for instance, writing a synopsis of the events during and after Hurricane Katrina’s rampage through the Gulf Coast without using that phrase, or its close equivalents. It’s hard work. By the time you get to FEMA cutting Jefferson Parish’s emergency phone lines, I guarantee you will have wanted to use the phrase at least four times.
This sort of cascade of bad news is inevitable in a society that is 1) part of a complex ecological system, 2) run for the most part without paying attention to how complex systems operate, but instead 3) run as if positive feedback were a sensible regulating mechanism, and 4) run in that fashion by idiots.
The more people inhabit the society, the worse the news will get. For one thing, even a small catastrophe — a minor earthquake, for instance — can wipe out thousands of people if they are crammed closely enough together. As human population grows, the divide between rich and poor grows along with it. (More people dividing finite resources and all that.) And as the number of people in the world grows, and the ease and immediacy of information movement increases, the bad news that we get seems multiplied. Where once we read of massacres or plagues in abstract 9-point Bodoni on newsprint, we now have full-motion video available to us in our shirt pockets.
As increasing strain is put on those complex systems that support us, an increasing number of those systems will go through abrupt changes. Unprecedented events are rapidly becoming the norm. Most of them will be unpleasant.
So we have more bad news affecting more people, and their responses to that bad news often causing worse news. And as if that weren’t, well, you know, we have word of that news getting to us faster and in more detail. How does one react to this bleak situation? What effect does this tsunami of bad news have on the human psyche?
Roughly speaking, there are two ways a person can react to the onslaught. While my temptation is to declare one or the other the “better” reaction — and it will be no secret which one I prefer — neither one is perfect. Both have their drawbacks. Both hold the potential for catastrophic positive feedback cascades. And both have their advantages as well. In fact, most of us — likely recognizing that no possible single response to today’s world can be entirely healthy — use a combination of the two approaches.
Those two possible reactions to a world of bad news? One is to build walls in an attempt to shield yourself from the bad news. The other is to knock down those walls, to embrace reality in an attempt to come to terms with it, and — with luck — to effect some change where possible.
I’ll talk about the wall-building strategy first, in the next post in this series.