“We have nothing to fear but fear itself”. These words spoken by US President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s seem far removed from the modern society we live in. From transgenic food to industrial chemicals, from nuclear radiation to economic recessions, we appear to be living in a cloud of fear and insecurity. While it is undeniable that some of our contemporary fears are well-founded, it would be too absolute to assert that modern life is afflicted by apprehension and anxiety to the point where we cannot function normally as a people. Notwithstanding the constant barrage of new threats appearing on our airwaves, there are other aspects of modern society that provide us with assurance and stability, and hence while I agree that modern life is fraught with fear and insecurity, it is not necessarily plagued by them.
For a start, there is little doubt that many of the fears that we experience stem from the advent of new technologies which have offered us wonderful new benefits, but also present a host of new risks and dangers. Modern science is full of examples of technologies and inventions that can be used for ill as well as good – useful technologies that have done harm, intentionally or not. Take for instance, nuclear power. Our growing reliance on nuclear power to provide us with a source of clean and efficient energy in the face of dwindling oil reserves has invariably led to the rise of real fears of nuclear conflagration and radiation. Witness the scare in the aftermath of the tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011 which led to damages to the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Up to today, tourism to the region (and indeed to the whole of Japan) has been hit badly due to fears of nuclear contamination of water, food and air. Another area of scientific research that has also conjured much alarm and dread is that of biotechnology. Developments such as cloning, stem cell research, and cross-species transplant surgery have led to fearful cries that we are unwisely tampering with the natural order of things with potentially frightening and unforeseen consequences. Indeed, whether it is pushing the boundaries of the sanctity of life or challenging existing values, modern science has presented us with a litany of novel challenges and risks that have inevitably created a growing sense of fear and alarm in our modern world.
In the economic sphere, the vicissitudes of what has been termed ‘the roller-coaster global economy’ has certainly contributed to a feeling of insecurity over the financial and economic institutions that underpin our modern international economic system. With shorter and consequently more unpredictable business cycles, the fluctuations within the global economy have caused much instability and volatility. This financial turbulence is compounded by the actions of irresponsible and greedy speculators and financial organizations such as Barnard Madoff and Lehman Brothers who take advantage of sophisticated loopholes and blind spots in the system for their own selfish gain. The result of a multitude of people worldwide who have lost their hard-earned savings from these scams and irresponsible investments has definitely left an impact on the collective psyche that our global economy is increasingly insecure and unstable. Add to this mix the brewing Eurozone crisis in countries like Greece, Spain and Italy; the mounting national debt of the US; and the slowdown in growth in the erstwhile economic giants of China and India, and it is not difficult to see how economic developments in our modern world have resulted in a prevalent feeling of uncertainty and doubt.
In addition to the fear and insecurity that exists at the global level, we can also witness how worry and anxiety have crept into the everyday life of modern man. At the societal level, rapid urbanization has resulted in a much more stressful pace of life with high-rise living causing people to feel more and more isolated in an increasingly impersonal world. The rise of online communications may have made our lives more convenient, yet it has also created a yawning gap between virtual reality and ‘real’, physical, human interaction. The social malaise can also be felt in institutions such as marriage which has become more tenuous: marriage is less and less viewed as a sacred union between two people but more and more as a contract that can now be easily and conveniently terminated. At the same time, what used to be condemned as sins or crimes – abortion, homosexuality, children born out of wedlock – are now perceived as manifestations of an alternative lifestyle. With moral values in a shifting state of perpetual flux, it is no wonder that in the modern world we live in today, we are faced with greater uncertainty in our social lives.
Yet, it would be a mistake to focus merely on the negative aspects of modern society that evoke fear and insecurity, while neglecting those areas of our modern world that offer us enhanced security and reassurance. One area where this can be seen is the increased ease of life facilitated by modernization, where higher standards of living are achieved through a combination of the technological advancements and economic growth that we experience in our modern society. No doubt these may also generate a measure of fear and insecurity as discussed above, however we must also acknowledge that the greater convenience and comfort they bring through improved facilities and amenities have contributed to the well-being of our modern life. At the same time, the increased connectivity that we experience in our modern world can also bring about a stronger sense of community – both in real life and online – which can translate into easier access to overcome life’s difficulties through counselling services and support groups from all over the world. This can in turn lead to a greater sense of assurance and stability in today’s world.
Moreover, it can also be argued that a measure of fear and insecurity can be desirable in our modern world as this serves to make us more vigilant and take precautionary measures to alleviate future ills. For instance, in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami of 2004, fears of similar future devastation drove many governments to set up advanced tsunami warning systems in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, which brought much assurance to peoples living in coastal areas in these regions. Another example was the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003 which caused widespread global panic and fear, yet following this incident, governments and hospitals started to implement tighter quarantine and monitoring procedures. This consequently contributed to more stability and less panic amongst medical personnel and the public when similar viruses such as H1N1 and avian flu struck in the following years. Hence to a certain extent, it can be said that fear and insecurity in our modern society may not always be something to avoid or be plagued with.
In essence, there is no denying that our modern world contains much to be fearful and insecure about as the daily newspapers continue to herald new threats, unprecedented challenges and previously-undiscovered risks. Yet, as the title of a recent book – “Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?” – implies, we have to be careful not to be overly pessimistic of the world we live in, or else we may become paralyzed and plagued by fear to the point that we fail to appreciate there is also much in our modern world that provides us with joy, safety and security.