Discover more from Vic's Verdict
Alarmism and Its Discontents
An Alternative Approach to Our Biggest Problems
As we march onwards in our brave new world of the internet and its interconnectedness, fascinating trends have emerged. Today we will discuss the ramifications of one of these trends and propose a better path. This trend is alarmism. Its tiresome ideas are frequently sewn and seem to have taken root among our youth:
“The world will be uninhabitable in 30 years due to climate change”
“Rising prices and stagnant wages mean most of the youth will never own property”
“None of us will have money for retirement because the government won’t be able to afford to pay out social security”
These are well-intentioned statements since they aim to raise awareness of significant problems and inspire positive change. Alarmist statements are also reasonable because they stem from taking an empirically factual trend and projecting it into the future.
There are two fundamental flaws within alarmist statements:
Despite being well-intentioned, they have a negative impact - especially on our impressionable youth
By projecting past trends into the future, you assume that the conditions of the future will match the conditions that created the past
We will start with the first point. Alarmist statements share concerning trends from highly complicated systems like the climate or the economy. Their goal is to convince their audience that something needs to change which is undoubtedly well-intentioned. However, in such complicated systems, any efforts towards reversing a trend requires a high tolerance for delayed gratification.
Let’s say you’ve incorporated an alarmist statement into your repertoire of beliefs. To see results from your actions on a global trend would require a near-lifetime commitment to this problem: changes to lifestyle, acquisition of influence over others’ opinions, and substantial donations towards benevolent causes. You could even commit your entire life to such a goal and never see a payoff on your efforts, requiring you to delay gratification beyond your death. Such a life of delayed gratification beyond death is the ultimate form of selflessness, as we’ll discuss later, but it is naïve to think that this is a viable life path for the average person. Not all of us are Mother Teresas willing to devote our lives to the greater good.
The average person has a preference for instant gratification, especially our impulsive youth. Just look at personal savings and obesity rates as evidence. The average person that internalizes alarmist sentiment would attempt to make changes to their lifestyle, continue to monitor such trends, and eventually give in because they don’t receive the gratification associated with witnessing progress. This is why so many people don’t stick with diet or exercise regiments: because they don’t see consistent progress despite consistent effort - there must be a high tolerance for delayed gratification. Many that are inundated with alarmist beliefs begin to feel that the situation is hopeless, no matter what they do. Their belief of alarmist sentiment would eventually become a belief in nihilism.
In a nihilistic belief system, specifically around alarmism, the value of the future is discounted when weighing your decisions because it feels like no matter what you do, the future will either never materialize or be awful regardless. So you might as well enjoy the present while it’s here, even if it’s at the expense of the future. This nihilistic approach to alarmism is recognizable by statements like this:
“Why would I save my money? So I can be rich when the planet is uninhabitable in
5 1020 years? I’d rather buy experiences.”
“We’re doomed anyways, why shouldn’t I enjoy the moment?”
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the present moment. Enjoying the present at the expense of the future is a bit more nuanced, but if it is a consistent trend, it becomes a problem. If we consistently act on those nihilistic thoughts - or choose immediate gratification - we have no ability to pursue future goals. The author is a firm believer that we find meaning through a striving towards betterment. Whether that is betterment of the self or community, the pursuit of a better future is what gives us a sense of purpose: an antidote to depression. It’s hard to be stuck in your head when your actions align with a greater purpose you are passionate about. Of course an ambition towards a better future must hang in balance with a gratitude for the present. The point isn’t that ambition is more important than gratitude. Rather, both must exist and there must be respect for both virtues. Through nihilistic behavior, there is only an extreme bias for the present.
This bias for the present seen with nihilistic behavior generally leads to further instant gratification and hence obesity, addiction, and regrets. Nihilism that stems from alarmism frequently breeds two mental health disorders: depression and anxiety, which are essentially hopelessness and worry about the future, respectively. As alluded to in the previous paragraph, an inability to pursue goals due to a propensity for instant gratification are major contributors to feelings of hopelessness and depression. Pair that with knowledge of alarming trends and you see anxiety skyrocket. To oversimplify depression and anxiety, they happen when your attention is focused on the future, but your actions sacrifice the future for the present moment. The antidote to this phenomenon is through inversion: bring your attention to present action that aligns with a future goal. In other words, you can paradoxically be happier in the present by delaying gratification for a future goal.
Such a decision between instant and delayed gratification has more than this profound personal impact, it also impacts your community.
Only through delayed gratification can we work towards a better future. Hence, all advancements in civilization have stemmed from someone choosing to circumvent their immediate needs for a later payday. Our contemporaries and future generations benefit when gratification is delayed but they gain little when you indulge in the comforts of instant gratification. To make a crude generalization, the choice of instant gratification is that of selfishness while that of delayed gratification is selflessness.
Think about ultimate acts of selflessness: the old man that devotes his retirement to planting trees that only future generations will enjoy their fruits. Here, gratification is delayed beyond death - he sows the seeds while only others reap their benefits. Slide a little to the left on the scale, and you’ll find the original inventor - the caveman that let himself go hungry for a few days to devote his time towards the development of a new tool. Instead of spending all day trying to catch fish with his hands, he sacrificed immediate hunger to create a fishing rod that lets him catch fish more efficiently at a later date. This delayed gratification benefits others and future generations because they can copy the design of the fishing rod without sacrificing hours towards trial-and-error. The modern equivalent to this is the entrepreneur that sacrificed the comforts of his corporate job to create something to better people - the one that declines taking profits to reinvest those into his company’s ability to better serve the public.
Slide further to the left and you enter the world of moral ambiguity where the lines between selfishness and selflessness become unclear. An example could be the C-suite executive that prioritizes immediate profits at the expense of future generations by dumping pollutant manufacturing by-products into the water instead of paying for proper disposal. This is undoubtedly a selfish decision, but what if he aims to collect as many profits as possible now to fund a revolutionary technology that eliminates human suffering at a later date?1 Such bounds between selfless and selfish behavior become blurry. If we go to the far left end of the spectrum, we see the addict embodying selfishness and instant gratification. The addict chases a high in the present at the expense of their future and those that love them.
To return to the original premise of this essay, if more people prone to instant gratification accept alarmist sentiment, we see more people succumb to nihilism which encourages instant gratification. This is a problem since the very problems that wrought alarmist statements stemmed from the pursuit of instant gratification: companies pedestalizing profits over the environment have contributed to alarming climate trends, excessive government spending to appease the present population has created a growing elephant in an oxygen-deprived room. Indeed, we see an insidious feedback loop between instant gratification and alarming trends.
To summarize the ramblings thus far, alarmist statements increase feelings of hopelessness and nihilistic sentiment for the vast majority of the population. People feel that the world is going down the gutter and there’s nothing that can be done about it because the causal relationships between their actions and alarming trends are unclear in an increasingly complex world. This hopelessness encourages people to rob Peter (the future) to pay Paul (the present) because we might as well enjoy our short-lived time, right? This instant gratification of course contributes further to the very alarming trends that bred these activities.
There are two points where this feedback loop can be broken. We can choose to simply reject alarmist sentiment or we can follow the path of delayed gratification.
Rejecting alarmist sentiment is the easier path but it is also less personal. When we don’t engage with alarmist content, we stop its propagation, thereby reducing its impact on others. However, just like how avoiding a risk is less noticeable than realizing a reward, witnessing the impact of inaction is much more difficult than seeing the impact of action, especially in a feedback loop operating on such a large scale. Since we are wired for action, inaction may not be enough to qualm nihilistic sentiment from alarming trends, especially if you are continuously inundated with it. It could be quite difficult to reject if you see it everywhere. Contrast this approach with the path of delayed gratification, which requires a trust that your actions contribute to a goal larger than yourself. As the saying goes, idle hands are the devil’s playthings, so taking action towards delayed gratification may be more satisfactory than simply ignoring alarmist sentiment. Further, the choice of delayed gratification starts another, more positive feedback loop.
When you choose to delay gratification, you sacrifice your present desires for a future payoff. Spend a day cleaning trash off the highway, save your money for a large investment in a cause you support, or live below your means so you aren’t reliant on government spending. All these actions do not fulfill present desires, but they actively reverse alarming trends. When you are personally engaged in a problem and can witness progress firsthand - so long as your metric for progress is at a personal scale (e.g. personal bank account rising, amount of trash on your local highway, etc.) you feel as though you are making a difference, you feel optimistic about the future, which encourages you to continue delaying gratification for a better future.
The problem with alarmist statements is that they orient you towards problems on a broader scale than you are capable of influencing. We are better off focusing on problems at a scale we can tangibly influence because we can witness the impact of our actions, hence we feel inspired to continue on our path. As Alcoholics Anonymous has taught us, the first step is admitting you have a problem. This is a fine approach for small-scale situations where you exert a high degree of control over your problems such as alcohol abuse, spending habits, local pollution, or any other personal problem; but admitting you have a problem in an uncontrollable situation quickly leads to despair and the feedback loop between instant gratification and alarming trends. In this sense, ignorance may actually be bliss.
Social media activist posts that share alarming trends are dangerous because they feel like worthwhile actions that raise awareness and inspire positive change, but as we’ve discussed, they inspire nihilism and further instant gratification. A much better approach is to dedicate your day towards reversing that trend on a scale you can influence and if you feel so inclined, share pictures of it with others to lead by example - so long as your post does not become a pseudo-event. Relative to each other, the repost of a cutesy infographic is the pursuit of instant gratification that contributes to more instant gratification while a day spent contributing to a grand problem on a local scale is the pursuit of delayed gratification that breeds more optimism.
So we have dismantled the argument to engage in cheap alarmism because of its impact on others and identified better approaches towards alarming trends, which should be enough to reject it in all forms, but let’s look at it more intellectually in case you are one of those people that is more interested in facts and being right than your impact on others and being a force for good.
This leads us to the second fundamental flaw with alarmist statements:
By projecting past trends into the future, you assume that the conditions of the future will match the conditions that impacted the past
I’m not going to beat a dead horse since I’ve written about this topic fairly extensively in previous essays and my book, but it isn’t easy to forecast future trends in complex systems such as global climate change, economics, and stock markets. As demonstrated by Edward Lorenz’s Butterfly Effect, these systems are dependent on a plethora of factors that we cannot accurately model, such as geopolitical conditions, individual behavior, and popular sentiment. To assume the conditions that led to a past trend will be identical in the future is myopic. To assume we are doomed because of alarming trends is a pessimistic view I do not share because it discounts our ability to problem-solve. Call me a dreamer, but I’ll never bet against human ingenuity and our ability to solve problems.
The intent of this essay isn’t to guilt the audience into always choosing delayed gratification. We are humans that prefer to be selfish time to time and should indulge in instant gratification every once in awhile. Rather, it is to illuminate the dangerous feedback loop between robbing the future to pay the present and alarmist sentiment. The second-order effects of alarmism are nihilism and further enjoyment of the present at the expense of the future. These second-order effects offset any benefits created by raising awareness.
The downstream impact of alarmism is why I refuse to partake in peddling such ideas - they actively harm others and I have no way to validate if they are true without a time machine. Do I think pollution is bad? Of course. Do I think corporations and individuals that pollute our world should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law? Absolutely. Do I think the world is going to end from climate change? No, I’ll believe it when it happens. I’d only adopt this belief if I was willing to devote my time to constructive activities in this realm: highway cleanups, green technology, etc. As far as I know, this isn’t my calling in life and I have faith in the resourcefulness of those that are dedicating their lives towards such initiatives.
Adopting such beliefs without follow-through would lead me to live as if there is no future, which is a great way to become anxious and depressed. Sadly, this is a contrarian take in an age where self-help espouses presentism and living like it’s your last day. This essay presents the humble case to replace indulgence in alarmism with a goal that betters the future for yourself and others, while aligning your present attention towards personally meaningful action.
Vic's Verdict is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
This correlation between delayed gratification and selflessness relies on the assumption that you have your head screwed on properly and that you wish to leave the world better than you found it. There are certainly people who delay gratification to buy yachts and other status symbols ad infinitum with no regard for how their choices impact others.