(First published in the Manawatu Standard, Stuff regional papers and Stuff.co.nz, February 5.)
There are two types of panic. There’s ordinary, everyday panic, and then there’s moral panic.
The first is the type that happens when you look out the window of your plane while flying at 30,000 feet and notice the wing has fallen off.
With this type of panic you either quickly recover once the danger has passed, or you face a genuine risk of death. If the wing of your plane has fallen off, it’s likely to be the latter.
The other type of panic, moral panic, is a socio-political phenomenon. It’s defined as a contagious fear that some hazard threatens social wellbeing.
A textbook example was the prohibition movement, which succeeded in having alcohol made illegal in the United States in 1920 and came very close to achieving the same result here. In fact moral panic over alcohol has never completely subsided and is complemented today by rising apprehension – encouraged by finger-wagging academics – over the food we eat.
A more recent moral panic involved fears of satanic sexual abuse in the 1990s, for which Christchurch childcare worker Peter Ellis paid the price with his liberty. Some people may even recall an outbreak of anxiety over the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, which was suspected of messing with kids’ heads and promoting witchcraft.
No one ever died as a result of moral panic, to my knowledge, but it tends to stick around a bit longer than the type that occurs when a wing falls off.
One moral panic has been with us since 1947. That’s when a bunch of American scientists, concerned at the development of nuclear weapons, created something called the Doomsday Clock.
The Doomsday Clock is a metaphorical representation of how close humanity is thought to be to annihilation. In 1947 the clock was set at seven minutes to midnight, that being the hypothetical hour when the world would end.
Over the decades, the minute hand has moved back and forth in response to the supposed threat of nuclear war. In 1953, at the height of the Cold War, it was set at two minutes to midnight. A learned professor gloomily pronounced that with a few more swings of the pendulum, atomic explosions would strike midnight for Western Civilisation.
Well, we’re now one-fifth of the way through the 21st century, and although the scientists keep adjusting the clock every January, I’m not sure that people take much notice anymore. This may be due to the fact that we’re all still here.
The truth is that the Doomsday Clock was never an objective scientific measurement, though its creators wanted us – indeed still want us – to think it is.
It was more a political device than a scientific one, intended to serve as a warning of what might happen if the White House or the Kremlin got trigger-happy. But the people who occupied the White House and the Kremlin, for all their huffing and bluffing, were just as frightened of mutually assured annihilation as the rest of us, and always pulled back from the brink.
The Bureau of Atomic Scientists, which determines the clock’s setting, still insists nuclear war is a global threat, but it has struggled to sound convincing in recent years.
It’s true that the threat is still with us, but these days the most likely aggressor is not one of the great powers but the rogue state controlled by the unpredictable Kim Jong-un, and any nuclear conflict, horrific though the prospect is, is more likely to be containable rather than global in scale. (That's assuming Kim Jong-un is mad enough to use nuclear weapons. It's far more likely that he will use North Korea's nuclear capability to gain diplomatic leverage.)
That’s okay though, because climate change – arguably the mother of all moral panics – has provided the keepers of the clock with another putative global threat to dramatise.
Accordingly, the minute hand has been moving steadily closer to midnight since 2007, when climate change first entered the scientists’ calculations. We were then said to be five minutes from global catastrophe, and in 2015 the ominously ticking hand advanced to 11.57pm.
We’re now told we’re just 100 seconds from midnight – the closest the world has yet come, if the Doomsday Clock people are to be believed, to the Apocalypse.
This theatrical announcement was given heft by a ceremony in Washington DC attended by several sainted figures of the global political elite, including United Nations human rights luminary Mary Robinson, former UN chief Ban-Ki Moon and former California governor Jerry Brown, an elder statesman of the Democratic Party.
Their involvement confirmed that while the Doomsday Clock purports to be based on science, it’s heavily overlaid with politics – which means that while we shouldn't disregard it altogether, it should be treated with much the same cautious scepticism as any other political exercise.
Does this mean we shouldn’t be concerned about climate change? Not at all. It would be silly and dangerous not to keep an open mind about climate change and its possible causes, and take sensible steps to mitigate it.
But we are entitled to be suspicious of what appear to be arbitrary determinations, often wrapped in statements that are more emotive than scientific, about the imminence of global catastrophe.
One function of moral panics, after all, is to convince people of the urgent need for political, economic or societal change which they might otherwise resist. There’s an old political axiom that you should never waste a good crisis.
Fortunately, age is a helpful antidote. The older you get, the more moral panics you’ve seen come and go.