alan little’s weblog

selling fear

23rd November 2004 permanent link

Interesting documentary on German TV last night – interesting not only for what it was about but also for the way it was pitched, which was almost diametrically opposite to what it was actually saying.

It was about Acid Fog in the Bayerischen Wald (Bavarian Forest) National Park. The Bavarian Forest is on the German-Czech border and is one of the world’s most severely acid-damaged forests. According to the researcher in the documentary, more of the damage is actually caused by fog than by acid rain. Fog forms and moves close to the ground, and so picks up much higher concentrations of acid and other pollutants than rainclouds. In the Bavarian Forest fog from the east, that has passed over the Czech, Polish and former East German industrial regions, is particularly noxious.

So far, so alarming.

The next bit is mentioned almost as an aside. Admittedly pollutant levels in fog now, especially fog from the east, are a tenth of what they were fifteen years ago, and the forest is recovering. Hurrah. Excellent news. But let’s not get complacent: pollutant levels in the soil are still high, and the pollutants haven’t worked their way down into the groundwater yet. It won’t be good when they do.

What I think we have here: mostly excellent news. There was very serious environmental damage, mainly caused by the way communists ran their heavy industry. The cause of the problem has largely been solved, although its aftereffects haven’t fully worked their way through the system yet and could still be nasty. But this is me reading between the lines. The tone of the documentary was shock and gloom: acid fog even scarier than acid rain! Acid Fog Will Eat The World!

Climate researchers and documentary producers don’t pitch for funds by saying “oh yeah, it’s largely a solved problem, we just need to keep an eye on the aftereffects”. I respect the work these people are doing and I’m glad somebody is doing it. It may be that they have to believe the world is ending in order to keep themselves motivated to do it. But it isn’t. They’re literally selling to our lowest instincts: the reptile hindbrain reacts to threat first and opportunity second. This is what TV journalists do for a living:

If something seems scary (suggested by tone of voice, excitement, stridency and soundtrack) our unblinking lizard brain pays close attention, while ignoring the more relevant news: green grass, skies of blue; people all around us, saying how d'ya do.

The Bavarian Forest is just a couple of hours’ drive from where I live, and (even in a state of recovery from acid poisoning) it’s supposed to be very beautiful. I must go there instead of to the Alps one weekend.

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