Our obsessive-compulsive society

CO2 control knob

A couple days ago I read about Damiaan Denys, a Belgian professor of Psychiatry at the University of Amsterdam, specialized in anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders. He is currently giving theater performances about anxiety, because he wants to make his science more accessible to the public.

In an interview in Vrij Nederland (Dutch) he explains that we live in a culture of anxiety. Fear at such is a useful thing, it prevents us from sticking our hand into the fire a second time. It always has an object (a lion, heights, a terrorist) we can relate to, we can think about it or avoid it. It becomes anxiety when it has no object or when there is an unknown threat. Anxiety is not the result of a known or specific threat. Rather it comes from our mind’s vision of the possible dangers that might result in a negative situation.

The basis for this anxiety is the existential problem that many things are uncontrollable. Yet the obsessive-compulsive patient wants to drive out his fears by means of rituals. Denys gives the example of someone who want to wash his hands hundreds of time a day, this to suppress his obsession that for example his mother will die if he doesn’t do so. By doing this ritual, he gets the illusion of control on something that is intrinsically uncontrollable and this soothes his pain.

Although Denys hardly mentioned the climate in his interview (only that phobias follow the current trends like for example global warming, inspired by the media), but what he tells makes sense in the global warming storyline.

When I was a kid there were certainly big environmental problems. There was quite some pollution of air, water and soil. This was a real issue back then. People got ill or even were killed by it. The fear had a clear object at that time.

The current fear is a different beast all together. It is about one driver in a utterly complex system, CO2, that gets almost all the blame. The catastrophic results are not now, but in the future, in 2050 or even 2100. If this pointing to one cause was done in a simple, linear system with clear and plentiful observations, I would certainly agree. But this is not the situation we are in now. Earth and its climate is an intrinsically complex system with thousand, maybe millions, of drivers/feedbacks involved, plus their possible interactions. More, we only have reliable measurements for the last couple decades, which seems incredibly short for a science that studies long-term weather trends. How can we draw solid conclusions from measurements that span maybe not even one measly cycle? Also, pointing to only one culprit is not possible in a complex and chaotic system with no possibility to do experimental studies (there is only one Earth). In such observational studies in which many variables are involved and only few are investigated, no conclusions could be draw about causality. Yet this is what is being done.

There is of course the role of the media that doesn’t like uncertainty or nuances. Fear sells, catastrophes even better. The way our mind works is that you have immediate attention for negative things. So no wonder that the media and advertisement focuses on this, but it also means that people could get the perception that our would is full of dangers. Yet the reality in our western world is that we live in a far better world than ever before.

At least to me that sounds like global warming/climate change is the obsessive-compulsive disorder of our society. Our fear currently has no object in reality. It is something that could, may, might happen somewhere in the future. We know this from studying a complex system with very few data gathered and huge uncertainties, yet communicated with certainty as if science has it all figured out. Now our politicians seem to be under the impression that they are the ones that are in control and playing with the control knob of climate. Just like the obsessive-compulsive patient tries to get grip on things he cannot control, we try to get grip on our uncontrollable climate. At least this gives us comfort by giving us the illusion that we are actually the ones that are in control.


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