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Fearing a Ten or Eleven
March 22, 2011
by William P. Meyers

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If the late Japanese earthquake had been a 8.0 (on the Richter scale), there would have been almost no damage in northern coastal Japan. The sea walls would have stopped the tsunami, saving thousands of people from drowning. The waters would not have washed over the nuclear power plant backup generators, leading to overheating to the edge of catastrophe. But the quake measured in at 9.0, which is 10 times as powerful as 8.0. A Ten would be another 10 times as powerful, or 100 times as powerful as an Eight.

Human fear comes in a lesser variety of magnitudes. The emotional intensity of fear from social embarrassment can be greater than the fear created by a real, potential death situation. Fear guides more human action than most people will admit. Because of our limited emotional range, we tend to exaggerate small risks and minimize larger risks.

Somewhere out there is a Ten. Somewhere out there is an Eleven, even. A scenario of apocalyptic proportions. Strangely, it is hard to prepare for a Ten or Eleven. Hence we have stopped preparing for a nuclear war. If an atomic weapon goes off over a city, survival in that city is purely an accident, and probably an unhappy one.

Instead, depending on our personalities and cultures, we might fear immigrants, germs, vaccinations, foods containing wheat or peanuts, ideas, or a harsh word from some local community member.

Some fear, however, is rational. That is, our emotions and our pragmatic responses line up with real danger pretty well. We avoid hot things and electrified things. Most of us don't drive too fast, most of the time. We don't jump off high spots, and we don't drink from containers marked poison.

Social and economic fears occupy a middling ground that tell us much about a person's character. Some of us think nothing of telling a boss to "take this job and shove it," others never leave a job unless they are fired. Some feel safe dressed conservatively, others go out of their way to dress strangely. Some are savers, some spendthrifts. Mostly these choices are not life endangering, but those who are overly afraid of society can be crippled, while those who are socially fearless may also find themselves friendless.

The recent recession looked like it might develop into a Nine or Ten, but in retrospect it was a warning shot, an Eight. This illustrates the danger of generalization, because the recession affected some Americans (and global citizens) not at all, while for some it was economically catastrophic, resulting in bankruptcy, or even death.

Famine used to be the big worry of people and governments. Because the history of the United States is largely the history of converting near-wilderness to farmland, famine has not been an issue here. During the Cold War, when officials worried about Atomic War, the U.S. put together a food reserve system (which also helped keep farm commodity prices high). Now there is very little in the way of stored food or production reserves of food in the U.S. Yet almost no one worries about that. People on the West Coast and in China have been hoarding Iodine this last week, but they expect food to be available in the usual places the next time they shop, and for as far as they can see into the future. Because they do it every day, they forget that driving to the supermarket is more dangerous than almost anything else they do.

In the end, we all die. Yet we fear death not just for ourselves, but for our friends and loved ones. We grieve when someone we knows dies; we even grieve for our pets. Yet we must accept death, both our own and for others. To deny death is to deny reality, and that leads to all sorts of problems, including many people being trapped by their fears in religious cults that suck the life out of life.

Most of the risks we run are inherent in where we are born, geographically, economically and culturally. Being born in a refugee camp brings different risks than being born in a mansion of the possessors of the land where the refugees once lived. Most of the world's people are neither refugees nor millionaires. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is famous for saying "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," during the Great Depression, but then again he was from an incredibly wealthy family and had an nice salary as President of the United States on top of that.

We all figure out what is going on as best we can. Calm, wise people can prepare for the Fives, Sixes, and Sevens of life. With an Eight you hope you survive the initial shock, then deal with the hand that is dealt you as best you can. As to Nines, they are rare, and survival is mostly pure luck. When the Tens and Elevens come, one can only hope they are local, not global, and that they are in someone else's locality.


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