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Be Very AfraidThe Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats$
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Robert Wuthnow

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780199730872

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199730872.001.0001

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Environmental Catastrophe

Environmental Catastrophe

(p.151) Seven Environmental Catastrophe
Be Very Afraid

Robert Wuthnow (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

This chapter focuses on the cultural response to environmental devastation. The debate about environmental devastation in the months preceding 9/11 were both the latest in a quarter century of discussions and a prelude to concerns that would ripen in the coming months. In the threat of global warming the fragility of life was evident in ways similar to that of nuclear annihilation and terrorism. Things were neither out of control nor fully under control, but perilously close to endangering all of humanity and thus a source of profound worry. The differences lay more in how immediate, unanticipated, or catastrophic the threat might be. Global warming would not obliterate the world in a sudden flash or wipe out large buildings in a vicious moment. If it was happening at all, as scientists largely agreed, it was a slow burn, like water in a kettle reaching the boiling point sooner than anyone realized. The cultural response to this sort of peril was thus in some ways unique, and yet in others, conditioned by the patterns of thought and relations of power that had become customary in the last third of the 20th century. Fear served both as an underlying current and as a force that could be manipulated. With no single event as pivotal as the bombing of Hiroshima or the attacks on 9/11, interpretations were less frequent, more scattered, and less subject to the agenda-setting influence of government. Yet the same inclination to transcend fear with action, to engage in individual and collective problem solving, was evident, and with it, the same emphasis on seeking technological solutions and debating administrative policies. The cultural response was shaped by the creative use of the imagination and focused decisively on questions of moral responsibility.

Keywords:   peril, threat, global warming, environmental change, cultural response

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