This blog is closed. For more recent content, visit Chris Clarke's new site Coyote Crossing.

Creek Running North

<< ... | Main | When coincidences conspire >>


September 29, 2005

The Anatomy of Bad News: as if things weren't bad enough already

We have a little inside joke among the staff at the Earth Island Journal. As production ramps up for each issue, we must read, over and over, each article covering the surprisingly bad news in which the Journal specializes. Writers caught up in the enormity of their topics will tend to pile atrocity on outrage on disappointment, seemingly trying to raise the stakes with each paragraph. I am no exception. A couple years ago, after plowing through three or four such articles in the course of an afternoon, my co-worker Audrey and our then-intern Adam started chuckling, and then mocking me mercilessly. They were reading an article I'd written in a bit of a hurry, and came to the third time in 3,000 words in which I'd used the phrase "As if that wasn't bad enough..."

And as if that wasn't bad enough, the phrase appeared two more times in the piece. By that last one, Audrey was laughing so hard she seemed to be having a little trouble breathing. Since then, we've written the phrase in the margins of many pieces we're editing when we find an author ramping up the carnage seemingly endlessly.

The problem is, there are just so damn many opportunities to use the phrase. Try, for instance, writing a synopsis of the events during and after Hurricane Katrina's rampage through the Gulf Coast without using that phrase, or its close equivalents. It's hard work. By the time you get to FEMA cutting Jefferson Parish's emergency phone lines, I guarantee you will have wanted to use the phrase at least four times.

This sort of cascade of bad news is inevitable in a society that is 1) part of a complex ecological system, 2) run for the most part without paying attention to how complex systems operate, but instead 3) run as if positive feedback were a sensible regulating mechanism, and 4) run in that fashion by idiots.

The more people inhabit the society, the worse the news will get. For one thing, even a small catastrophe – a minor earthquake, for instance – can wipe out thousands of people if they are crammed closely enough together. As human population grows, the divide between rich and poor grows along with it. (More people dividing finite resources and all that.) And as the number of people in the world grows, and the ease and immediacy of information movement increases, the bad news that we get seems multiplied. Where once we read of massacres or plagues in abstract 9-point Bodoni on newsprint, we now have full-motion video available to us in our shirt pockets.

As increasing strain is put on those complex systems that support us, an increasing number of those systems will go through abrupt changes. Unprecedented events are rapidly becoming the norm. Most of them will be unpleasant.

So we have more bad news affecting more people, and their responses to that bad news often causing worse news. And as if that weren't, well, you know, we have word of that news getting to us faster and in more detail. How does one react to this bleak situation? What effect does this tsunami of bad news have on the human psyche?

Roughly speaking, there are two ways a person can react to the onslaught. While my temptation is to declare one or the other the "better" reaction – and it will be no secret which one I prefer – neither one is perfect. Both have their drawbacks. Both hold the potential for catastrophic positive feedback cascades. And both have their advantages as well. In fact, most of us – likely recognizing that no possible single response to today's world can be entirely healthy – use a combination of the two approaches.

Those two possible reactions to a world of bad news? One is to build walls in an attempt to shield yourself from the bad news. The other is to knock down those walls, to embrace reality in an attempt to come to terms with it, and – with luck - to effect some change where possible.

I'll talk about the wall-building strategy first, in the next post in this series.

Posted by Chris Clarke at September 29, 2005 03:48 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.faultline.org/cgi-bin/mt-tb.cgi/1359

0 blog(s) linking to this post:


decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Comments


A great summary of a problem that most of us are having in spades right now, indeed one that has partly caused the intermittence of my own blogging. Not content to censure myself for "As if that weren't ..." I've learned to stop myself whenever a cliche'd emotive word comes up: atrocity, outrage, betrayal. So I've been stopping myself a lot lately.

I assume you're steering us toward the Buddhist answer, "embrace the bad news," but to do this, it's important to be able to push back on the concept of badness, even in the face of your impressive piling-on.

Two ways to do this, I think:

One is to take the long-view, in which population crashes and extinctions have always been routine. There's a wisdom in this line despite the way that devastation-apologists abuse it. Does technology really make our rise-and-fall any more devastating than the rise and fall of an ancient culture due to natural causes? Can't we take that consolation without dulling our desire to do what we can here and now? I find this perspective helpful when I try to get out of bed and attack problems locally, which is the only level at which I can make a difference.

The second way I try to push back is to resist positing an evil agency to explain evil results. Just because the world is going to hell doesn't mean anyone in particular is sending it to hell. For example, I wonder whether our society is really "run," in the sense that you describe, by anyone. And even if it's run by idiots, well, we go easy on sentencing mentally-retarded offenders precisely because low IQ somehow seems to exculpate. Bush will never be as guilty as Nixon, because Nixon was a brilliant mind who clearly intended everything he did. Bush seems to be a spectator to his own presidency, and I'm not sure that (a) anyone is running the show at the White House and (b) that the Federal government is really running the country, let alone the "society." For example, when it comes to emissions standards for autos, there's a good argument that California is running the country, and that's a good thing.

So when we look at human activity on a large enough scale, it looks stupid, like a huge, scary, not-so-bright mammal running on fear-and-desire. But isn't that always how it's looked, if you step back far enough? And isn't it only logical that we'll often endure not-so-bright-mammals as leaders?

I hope that doesn't sound evasive of your jeremiad. I respect and admire a good jeremiah. But I think we confont the badness, in part, by seeing it from different angles, seeing the natural cycles at play, and the ways it's been ever thus. Then we remember that all politics has always been local, and go to work.

Posted by: Jarrett at September 29, 2005 06:45 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Good points all, Jarrett, some of which I already have in mind addressing.

And of course I ought to clarify that the idiots running society to which I referred are all of us. For certain values of "running."

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 29, 2005 07:00 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs


Ditto everything Jarrett said.

Another thing we need to keep in mind is that (things that cause) Bad News has always happened, but now it's more widely and instantaneously reported. While allowing that population increases mean that more people are affected more often, it's also true that mo' betta' reporting (including the blogosphere) exposes more people to the Bad News that does happen.

I think some of our collective angst is due to just knowing about stuff that always was there on a local level.

Mike

Posted by: Miguel Alondra at September 29, 2005 07:20 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Another thing we need to keep in mind is that (things that cause) Bad News has always happened, but now it's more widely and instantaneously reported.

Which is pretty much why I said so.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 29, 2005 07:37 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

"Which is pretty much why I said so."

Granted. Well said.

Posted by: Miguel Alondra at September 29, 2005 07:54 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Great piece. Looking forward to the next installment. Jarrett, your comments are also very enlightening.

Posted by: Barbara at September 30, 2005 05:13 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

This is why what Cassandra had was called a curse. I guess it's easier to see why even the good people in the corporate media turn to the dark side. Investigative reporting isn't only dangerous, the constant requisite immersion in slime takes a huge emotional toll.

Posted by: eRobin at September 30, 2005 10:49 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

You do understand that this world of bad news is something you work assiduously to create, right? That it's not "the world as it is"?

We perceive an infinitesimal proportion of a huge world, and we select a tiny proportion of that infinitesimal bit to pay attention to. You could make worlds all day long that were as true as they could possibly be without making a world of bad news.

I'm not saying your world of bad news is untrue. I'm just saying it's not a world you passively encounter. It's a world you create by active selection and careful screening. I appreciate that it feels like it's just the world as it is, because everybody, including me, feels like the world they choose to attend to is the world as it is. Some people live in worlds primarily made up of the emotional lives of the members of their families. Some in worlds made up of competitors for their own status and possessions. Some in worlds made up of unattainable objects of desire.
They aren't false worlds, either.

There are two possible responses to the world of bad news, you say -- walling it out or embracing it. But another possibility is to refrain from creating it in the first place.

I *think* -- I don't know this, but I think so -- that you could do this even while pursuing a career in enironmental journalism. The actual thinking and gleaning of facts is one thing -- it doesn't really take that long. We create a world, not by thinking new thoughts and finding new facts, but but by endlessly replaying old thoughts, and steeping our minds in a favorite selection of old facts. I used to think this was a virtue. In fact I called it thinking, when it was nothing of the sort; it was just running old tapes through my head over and over and over, running old stories with occasionally maybe new characters and new settings. Karl Rove in the starring role rather than Henry Kissinger. The Sunni Triangle rather than Cambodia. But on and on and on it goes. If I let it.

I hit a point when I realized that this was not reality, even though all my facts might be real and all my interpretations of them might be correct. (In fact they mostly were.) Notwithstanding, my *thoughts* were not real. They were a world of poison that I was drowning myself in. I had to stop. They were not making me a better revolutionary and more effective activist -- they were making me an alcoholic and a piss-poor husband.

So here I am again, talking about myself and pretending I'm talking about you. Ay. This sequence of thoughts here is part of the new world I've built. A healthier place to live, but I don't want to get to believing it's the world as it is, either.

If you'd just ban me from your comments, Chris, I wouldn't ending up embarassing myself like this all the time :-)

Posted by: dale at September 30, 2005 12:04 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Don't make me get all bodhicitta on your ass, dale.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 30, 2005 12:22 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Thanks, dale, that was excactly the perspective I needed on this series so far. I've been turning it around and around in my mind (and my heart) and have been unsatisfied with any response I could come up with.

Posted by: nina at September 30, 2005 07:28 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

The problem, however, is that refraining from focusing on the bad news is a luxury, and one that will become increasingly difficult to attain in a few short years, even for those of us who are comfortable at the moment.

Which is the subject of the next installment.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 30, 2005 07:52 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

I don't think that what he was talking about was as simple as "refraining from focusing on the bad news". At least that's not the way I interpreted it. If it were, then there'd really be no dilemma. I look forward to reading the next post.

Posted by: nina at September 30, 2005 09:35 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

I don't think that what he was talking about was as simple as "refraining from focusing on the bad news". At least that's not the way I interpreted it.

Well, what I saw was this:

You do understand that this world of bad news is something you work assiduously to create, right? That it's not "the world as it is"?

The problem is, that this is to a great degree untrue, and to the extent that it's true it's unhelpful.

The world is collapsing ecologically. Democratic political institutions in the US are being ransacked by people for their own short-term profit. People will die from these disruptions, and not just on television. You and I will lose people we care about.

We can mitigate the damage, but we have to do something different than we're doing now. And one of the things people are doing now is writing off warnings of the bad news as people "assiduously creating" pessimistic scenarios.

I should say that Dale and I have had discussions very similar to this before, and I know we're not all that far apart. But people need to pay more attention to the bad news than they have been.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 30, 2005 10:19 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

I don't know that its something to generalize about, whether the bad news is something we need to pay attention to or not.
For example, did the worldwide participation via the media in last year's tsunami have any appreciable impact on the long term outcome for the people who were directly affected? Would the world relief agencies have kicked in as much aid with or without the coverage on the evening news? Would the Oregon disaster agencies still assess our preparedness locally with or without internet coverage and blog accounts? I would argue that the indirect participation in the bad news or specifically in the human suffering depicted in this case had very little direct affect on either response or prevention. On the other hand, the coverage of the changes resulting from global warming SHOULD affect how we react to this issue, and I would argue that if the media could get the public to acknowledge the real threat involved, that there would be service played by the focus on the bad news. But the thing is, I don't really think it changes people's actions either. And maybe its because of bad news burnout, or maybe its because people have little confidence in their ability to change the outcome, or maybe its because people just can't face that level of fear and the requisite change required to do something about it.

Posted by: susurra at September 30, 2005 11:11 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

But I guess I'm trying to say, as a receiver, I don't think I needed to see people dragged out into the churning surf to die, or people beating their faces over a loved one's dead body, but I do think I need to hear that the ice cap is melting. And maybe I do need to see the person beating their face when their loved one was killed by one of our bombs.

Posted by: susurra at September 30, 2005 11:17 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Great comments, sus. (And all of you.)

The tsunami may seem like a random event unconnected to anything over which we have control, but in many places people died not because of the tsunami, but because the fringing protective mangrove forests and/or coral reefs - which would have blunted the wave's impact - had been destroyed. The tropical fish industry, supplying one of the largest hobby communities in the US, is responsible for destruction of a huge amount of coral reefs. Mangroves are increasingly cut down to be replaced with aquaculture farms growing shrimp and prawns.

There are bombs made of metal and explosives by which we inflict suffring on people in poor countries. And then there are bombs that we set lovingly on our tables to feed our children, or to amuse and educate them.

If the worldwide attention paid to the tsunami victims helped the fight to save the remaining mangroves at all, then it will have appreciable impact on the victims of the next tsunami.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 30, 2005 11:51 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

We can mitigate the damage, but we have to do something different than we're doing now. And one of the things people are doing now is writing off warnings of the bad news as people "assiduously creating" pessimistic scenarios.

I guess I saw his remarks more as a way to personlly prevent being overwhelmed by the bad news, as a way to avoid the bad news from becoming the only way to view the world. I feel I need some sort of personal defense against the onslaught, and I realize that's part of why you're writing this. So, yes, I agree with you that attention must be paid, and actions taken, but I need a framework for myself to see the world that doesn't render me numb and helpless, and some of dale's remarks seemed useful for that.

Posted by: nina at October 1, 2005 09:04 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

No argument there. That's something I'll be covering as well.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 1, 2005 09:15 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

But the tsunami coverage was overwhelmingly exploiting of tragic imagery which feeds our news, rather than giving of useful facts which might change people's behaviors. I would have to go seek out sources of information about environmental issues to find out that the tsunami's impact was worsened by those problems, and meantime the other news has overwhelmed any capacity I had for looking.

Posted by: susurra at October 1, 2005 10:11 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

The challenge, I think, is to do both: pay close attention to what is happening to our interconnected world, taking appropriate and definite personal action in response - to me that is one major point of Zen - and also to see that we have the capacity to live within whatever personal reality we are in at the moment. I can be a loving, hopeful person who sees and cherishes the beauty of the world, while also seeing the dark side and trying to do something about it. There's a big difference between being open and aware of all that life is, and being escapist (and I'm not implying that's what you're saying, Dale). It seems like Chris has worked through a lot of this - I'm also looking forward to the next installment (while, meanwhile, writing about Cassandra and how we repeat our mistakes despite warnings, over at my own blog).

Posted by: beth at October 1, 2005 10:42 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

What a great message string! I'm sorry, Jarrett, but I don't see any "not-so-bright" mammals, here. (I would argue that it's our too-short collective memory, combined with our technological precocity, that does us in - though the counter-example of the Andaman Islanders who knew enough to run for the hills when the sea suddenly withdrew, because their oral histories described similar events in the distant past, make me think that the failure isn't as endemic to the human condition as we might like to suppose. I tend to be extremely wary of extrapolating from examples in our own society and a few others to "the way humans are/have always been." Anyway.)

Looking forward to the next installments here. In particular, I'm anxious to find out what embracing the bad news means, because I do have the sense that despair is very valuable to me. I don't know what I'd do without my daily workout.

Posted by: Dave at October 2, 2005 11:22 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs