Unsustainable Alarmism

The crisis mindset is a finite resource — and we’ve exhausted it. From Covid to climate change, we need a new way to manage chronic problems.
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Covid has been compared to countless disasters, from wars to hurricanes to terrorist attacks. Sometimes, these comparisons aim to indict officials for failing to act more decisively to protect the public from the pandemic. But they also get aimed at the public itself, expressing frustration that people weren’t horrified enough by the crisis to keep bearing its burdens.

For example, Joe Berkowitz, writing in January to rebuke Bari Weiss for saying she was “done” with the pandemic, compared Covid to 9/11. He labeled her admission that she had come to take restrictions less seriously as “sociopathic.” The daily scale of the catastrophe, for Berkowitz, merited ongoing personal vigilance, even if it meant “present inconvenience and future trauma.”

With a pandemic like Covid, comparisons to 9/11 and the like were only to be expected, and for a while it was appropriate. But the alarmism we have gotten during Covid has actually made pandemic politics worse. When natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or tragic accidents strike, we expect governments to take decisive measures to save lives. Instead, public figures during the pandemic have used catastrophizing rhetoric to divert blame away from their own decisions and onto the obstruction of dissenters. They have used alarmism to imply that it is only Americans’ lack of intelligence and moral resolve that stands in the way of victory.

The cost of alarmist talk is that it demands an emergency response, and this blinds us to the often slow and subtle changes to our infrastructure that could severely reduce risk over the long term. Fortunately, Covid catastrophism is lessening its hold on Americans’ collective imaginations, finally allowing us to focus on developing a more resilient pandemic infrastructure.

Are You Taking This Seriously?

Covid is far from the only global challenge we see depicted as a cataclysm in the making. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich predicted impending famine and social collapse driven by overpopulation. He compared the threat to a ticking bomb — the “population bomb.” And the claim that only a few years remain to prevent climate doom has become a familiar refrain. The recent film Don’t Look Up, about a comet barreling toward Earth, is obviously meant as an allegory for climate catastrophe.

But catastrophism fails to capture the complexities of problems that play out over a long time scale, like Covid and climate change. In a tornado or a flood, which are not only undeniably serious but also require immediate action to prevent destruction, people drop political disputes to do what is necessary to save lives. They bring their loved ones to higher ground. They stack sandbags. They gather in tornado shelters. They evacuate. Covid began as a flood in early 2020, but once a danger becomes long and grinding, catastrophism loses its purchase, and more measured public thinking is required.

Even if the extension of catastrophic rhetoric to longer-term and more complex problems is well-intentioned, it unavoidably implies that something is morally or mentally wrong with the people who fail to take heed. It makes those who are not already horrified, who do not treat the crisis as an undeniable, act-now-or-never calamity, harder to comprehend: What idiot wouldn’t do everything possible to avert catastrophe? This kind of thinking is why global challenges are no longer multifaceted dilemmas to negotiate together; they have become conflicts between those who recognize the self-evident truth and those who have taken flight from reality.

Consider alarmism in the climate debate. Presenting climate change in catastrophic terms has allowed activists to discredit anyone who doubts worst-case climate scenarios as “denialists.” While crusading against denialism might seem like a strategy for achieving a consensus about the problem’s seriousness, it often ends up undermining the very conditions that make public deliberation possible. As Matthew Nisbet has argued, the “denialist” label is a way of “controlling who has the authority to speak on the subject.” When expressions of personal alarm become a litmus test for who has a reasonable understanding of the problem, alarmists naturally have sole authority. The effect, as Nisbet writes, is a “culture where protecting one’s own identity, group, and preferred storyline takes priority over constructive consideration of knowledge and evidence.”

The aim of strengthening the alarmist storyline has led many to exaggerate the likelihood of the most cataclysmic scenarios and defend outlandish solutions, like dismantling capitalism to cut emissions. Anti-capitalist narratives may help for expressing how to take climate change more seriously, but they also turn potential allies elsewhere on the political spectrum into implacable enemies. No wonder climate change is no longer a bipartisan concern. We hear a great deal about how corporations have sowed doubt about climate science and helped turn it into a wedge issue, but catastrophism, wedded to extreme solutionism, has also played a part in undermining the prospects for building coalitions.

Covid discourse has been similarly antagonistic. Explanations for this are manifold, but an underappreciated one is that, as in the climate debate, alarmism implies that the less-alarmed are simply in denial and are in fact the source of the problem. Anthony Fauci has repeatedly portrayed denial and partisan opposition as among the main barriers to overcoming the pandemic. But policing denialism has only intensified public division. In April 2021, CNN’s John Avlon said about the “denial” of the vaccine-hesitant that “there’s no cure for stupid.” In September, President Biden called Covid a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” and told unvaccinated Americans “your refusal has cost all of us.” It was, perhaps unintentionally, an echo of George W. Bush’s infamous line after 9/11: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Yet the specter of denialism distracted from more prosaic causes of people’s resistance to pandemic measures, such as mistrust of the government and the pharmaceutical industry, fear of needles and vaccine side effects, and young people’s high tolerance for risk. Earnest questions about the efficacy of cloth masks and the existence of natural immunity were at first widely dismissed as denialist-serving misinformation, only to become legitimate points of public conversation by early 2022.

Handwringing about denialism is also an all-too-convenient distraction from leadership failure. As Rutgers law professors Jacob Hale Russell and Dennis Patterson wrote in STAT, the “myth” that denialism is itself an epidemic “deflects blame from the policy failures of politicians.” Officials can pretend that their hands are tied as long as the public isn’t taking the issue seriously enough. Many Americans did their part by “canceling” relatives and friends for their Covid beliefs and gleefully participating in online shaming. But, by turning on each other, we let government officials off the hook.

And we lost our chances at reasonable disagreement. When a tornado is coming, there may be no time to debate what to do. But shunning disagreement during Covid has only hurt America’s collective response.

A ‘Small’ Sacrifice

When we look at long-lasting challenges as though they are impending cataclysms, we suffer a circumscribed political imagination that cannot see beyond the logic of individual sacrifice. We have seen this especially with climate change. Media portrayals have consistently reminded us that we have only so many years left to avoid a climate apocalypse, and that doing so will mean giving up on our standard of living. Climate change, thus understood, is a problem either solved through heroic personal sacrifices, or not at all.

Seeing personal virtue as a necessary condition for victory turns our shortcomings into moral failings. We shame others and ourselves about our individual carbon footprints. We make promises to have the courage of our climate convictions, resolving to forgo flying, meat consumption, or fossil-fuel vehicles, even though we invariably fall short. These promises appear to be little more than politically charged New Year’s resolutions. Why do we expect personal sacrifices we know we can’t make and then resort to shaming when we fail?

We should ask the same about pandemic precautions like masks and vaccines. In July 2020, CDC director Robert Redfield insisted that “If we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I really think in the next four, six, eight weeks, we could bring this epidemic under control.” Wearing a cloth mask was a “civic duty,” he said, and a “small sacrifice.” In November 2021, Ron Klain, President Biden’s chief of staff, described the White House’s vaccine mandate for large businesses as “common sense.”

But the demand for personal sacrifice ignored the real costs for many Americans. Wearing a mask for a trip to the grocery store may have been a small sacrifice for people who spent their days working on their laptops from home. But the mandates were a hefty burden for workers who wore a mask day-in, day-out for months, with little certainty — and for cloth masks, with contrary evidence — that it was providing meaningful protection. Likewise, Covid vaccination demanded more than many people recognized. An unvaccinated person is not necessarily destined for severe illness from the virus, nor for transmitting it to others, and the vaccine comes with side effects, even if rarely serious ones. The question of whether the vaccine confers greater benefit than risk for any given individual cannot be answered with the same degree of certainty as whether you should evacuate when floodwaters are about to reach your house.

Calls for personal sacrifice in the interest of the common good have often drawn on the example of how, during World War II, ordinary Americans put up with rationing of consumer goods to support the war effort. But as historian Nicole Hemmer has noted, we have forgotten that even then there was popular resistance. Contrary to rosy images of the Greatest Generation willingly sacrificing comfort for the greater good, they also created black markets in rationed goods and hoarded staples. To ensure compliance, the government employed propaganda and social sanctions. Regulations that required New Yorkers to dim their lights at night to protect ships offshore — the glow of the city made their silhouettes easy for lurking German subs to see — had to be enforced by the Army when not enough people complied.

The lesson in all this is that while catastrophes often demand large personal sacrifices to overcome, the public’s capacity to sustain these sacrifices has hard limits, and we should not simply treat this as a moral failure. The temptation to do so may itself be an effect of prolonged catastrophic thinking — it has a way of downplaying the sacrifice it demands, while shaming those who, for understandable reasons, have reached their limit.

Where Is My Federal HEPA Filter?

The greatest cost of catastrophism about long-term problems is that it insists on highly visible, instant solutions while neglecting less-flashy, incremental improvements. The reason people are now less likely to die in weather-related disasters than they used to be, and that car and airplane safety have dramatically increased, has largely to do with infrastructure changes that receive little public attention.

Infrastructure works often in the background to enable safer decisions and reduce the burden of accidents. For instance, reducing road fatalities is not just a matter of enforcing traffic laws. Improved braking, better inclement-weather handling, safe road design, and car crumple zones work in concert to make accidents less common, and less severe when they do happen. Sweden and other countries have achieved a road fatality rate a fraction of America’s, partly from better passing lanes and guardrails, better protection of pedestrian crossings, and switching to roundabouts.

A similar story can be told about why more Americans now die from lightning strikes than commercial airplane accidents. Improved pilot training and cockpit procedures have played a role, but so have more resilient airplane components and industry-wide reporting of errors among mechanics, pilots, and air traffic controllers. Air travel has been made safer by building smarter organizations and better coordinating the people working closest to the hazards.

Likewise, carbon-dioxide emissions per capita have dropped by over twenty percent in the United States since the year 2000, despite little change in Americans’ worries about climate change. As Roger Pielke, Jr. has argued, the most pessimistic — meaning also the most reported — climate scenarios no longer seem likely. How did this happen? Reductions in American carbon emissions have resulted from investments in renewable energy technologies, converting from coal to natural gas, and improvements in energy efficiency.

Of course, no one knows how the last decades would have played out without alarmist rhetoric. But, given that Americans today don’t drive any less or eat fewer pounds of meat, moral hectoring over carbon footprints seems to have been more a sideshow than the main act.

Should we have expected anything different for the pandemic? Here, too, squabbling over individual adherence to masking and vaccination distracted from the task of building more resilient pandemic infrastructures. Whenever Americans were exhorted to do “their part,” there were additional tools available, complementary strategies that would have put less of the onus on individuals.

Instead of relying so heavily on exhorting people to wear masks, much more work should have been done to provide better air quality infrastructure for indoor environments. Improved building ventilation and simple HEPA filters reduce viral spread, with the side benefit of making indoor spaces healthier overall. But these measures took second stage. And efforts by schools to upgrade their HVAC systems were hampered by lack of federal guidance.

Likewise, more research funds could have gone into prophylactic medicines to add to our toolbox for preventing illness. But we put most of our eggs in the vaccine basket, which turned out not to be as perfect as many had hoped.

The exhortation to test and self-isolate was also more a plea than a workable policy. The federal government temporarily funded paid sick leave for Covid, but even when that policy was available, most workers weren’t aware of it. After that temporary policy expired, plans to bring it back got stuck in limbo. Widespread availability of affordable and rapid testing came far too late, after the White House rejected efforts to expand free testing in the fall of 2021. And many Americans have been confused by contradictory test results. It may be too much to expect the United States to have gone as far as South Korea, which provided emergency funds and quarantine supply boxes. But surely something more could have been done to make quarantining less of a sacrifice for Americans.

Governments also made the public responsible for keeping hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, abdicating their own responsibility to improve health care infrastructure. Hospitals are run with minimal extra capacity in order to control costs, a situation only exacerbated by chronic staffing shortages. Even bad flu years bring overtime, triage tents, and the cancelation of elective procedures. But the conversation during Covid stubbornly focused on lessening demand for health services, with little effort to increase supply. National Guard units supported logistics and gave out vaccines, but only more recently have states provided them with medical training. Maintaining a reserve guard of medically trained service people and stockpiling of equipment could act as a kind of crumple zone, helping to prevent epidemic tragedies from becoming full-blown catastrophes.

The deficient infrastructure has been made worse by the absence of effective pandemic leadership. Public health spending has been insufficient for years, especially for the poorest Americans. And as Ari Schulman has pointed out in these pages (“What Is the CDC?,” Fall 2021), the CDC is woefully ill-positioned to offer the leadership we need, even as we assume that it can, because “we lack a shared sense of what the agency is for,” much less “what the agency even is.” Where are businesses, churches, and other organizations to turn to for basic pandemic safety guidelines? Should the CDC be trying to steer public psychology toward doing the “right” thing? Should it be a clearinghouse for pandemic science or for practical advice regarding what works? That we remain confused about the CDC cannot bode well for better coordinating the public response to future epidemics.

After Alarmism

Catastrophism has failed us because it has turned our attention away from the broad arsenal of tools available for averting catastrophe. When historians look back at the Covid pandemic, the story they tell must be of a failure to learn and evolve. Governments acted as if they could not think outside of catastrophism, which focused too much attention on what people believed rather than on finding solutions that worked for everyone. Officials stuck to an approach that asked much of the public and little from themselves.

As Leah Libresco Sargeant has written, “the victories of public health infrastructure disappear into the background of everyday life.” By keeping public focus too much on the foreground, on whether everyone is doing their part, alarmism distracts us from developing the public health infrastructure we need.

Two years of Covid alarmism have left the public weary from restrictions and more polarized than ever, making the country even less prepared for the future. The rollback of pandemic measures this year has been more an act of resignation, the acceptance of a stalemate, than a sign of success. No doubt, the restrictions could not have continued forever. But it would have been far better to have scaled them back in light of the strength of our public health infrastructure, not because Americans became tired and disillusioned.

Perhaps future generations will judge us harshly for deciding we were “done” with Covid too soon. People may look back and see a failure of public resolve. But moving on may also be what opens the door to the next stage of pandemic governance, one freed from the moral burden of catastrophism.

Taylor Dotson, “Unsustainable Alarmism,” The New Atlantis, Number 69, Summer 2022, pp. 41–48.
Header image: iStock

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