Fright in perspective

Feb. 18, 2013
A tip for survival in 21st Century America: When someone on television warns of grave threats to human welfare from the environmental consequences of some regular activity, change channels.

A tip for survival in 21st Century America: When someone on television warns of grave threats to human welfare from the environmental consequences of some regular activity, change channels. When someone approaches in person with a similar message, turn and run. These people want to frighten you, and fright is bad for the heart.

Fright is the go-to tool of environmental activism. When pressure groups want to stifle something—oil well drilling, pipeline construction, whatever—they first arouse fear about the activity among local populations. Then they besiege public officials with their coalition of the frightened. The officials usually relent.

Fright helps pressure groups achieve their goals by short-circuiting debate. People convinced that collective endeavor threatens their health, or even their lives, tend not to want to quibble over details such as comparative risks or the costs of work not performed.

Warming fright

Fright's grand triumph, of course, is global warming. In the 1980s, Al Gore, then a US senator, began warning about dangerous overheating of the atmosphere, preventable only if people quit burning fossil fuels. Since then the campaign for urgent precaution has studded its message with "tipping points"—stages in the rise of greenhouse-gas concentration after which the presumed damage will be irreversible. The appeal has always been to make sacrificial changes in behavior before the need to do so is well-established—even before there can be reasonable hope that costly precaution might actually do any good.

As if calamitous warming weren't enough to make people anxious, now the inciters of fright turn popular attention to drinking water. There's nothing like poison in the water supply to make a population perk up and take note.

When activists wanted to block extension of the Keystone pipeline system between the Canadian oil sands and the US, they first warned of a threat to underground water supplies. When activists wanted to block development of high-permeability oil and gas reservoirs, they warned of a threat, sure enough, to water supplies.

In both cases, of course, the threat was wildly overblown. The Keystone XL pipeline nevertheless has been rerouted around the sensitive area of Nebraska, and the state government has declared its support of the project. In the politics buffeting development of unconventional resources, recognition has grown that if water is threatened by hydraulic fracturing, it's water on the surface and not underground.

But the fright factory never rests. Now that water supply has lost its potency as a weapon against the Keystone XL project, opponents have shifted the focus of anxiety to an old stand-by. They now argue that the pipeline will aggravate global warming by accommodating an increase in production of bitumen, which they call "dirty oil." And even if alarm over drinking water no longer animates popular discussion of unconventional resource development to the extent it once did, hydraulic fracturing remains branded "controversial" everywhere except within the industry that has practiced it safely for many decades.

Fright works. And to some degree it's warranted. No activity lacks risk. Accidents, some of them indeed frightful, happen. If it's fright that brings attention to the need to balance reward and risk and the need for responsible behavior, fright is constructive.

Paralyzing deliberation

But when fright paralyzes deliberation, it is not. Without fright, blocking Keystone XL could not have become a do-or-die goal of environmental extremism. Without fright, risks generated by construction and operation of the project easily would be seen as acceptably low and eminently manageable. Without fright, rewards of the project would be seen as high enough to offset whatever increase might occur in emissions of greenhouse gases, the warming associated with which, if any, would be immeasurably low. But fright so far has obscured those simple points. The project's border crossing still hasn't been approved.

Industrial societies must be able to assess the industrial activity central to their progress with informed judgment. Those too easily frightened lose that ability and too readily foreswear work.