The Third Layer of Fear

The Third Layer of Fear

Psychologists call it "anticipatory anxiety."

It's also known as the third layer of fear.

It's a little complicated.

Basically, you're so scared of something you start to avoid anything that has anything remotely to do with the object of your fear. That would be a good way to describe the current discourse around pretty much any serious topic now, including pandemics and climate collapse. Most people are so deeply terrified they don't even want to know what's going on. They get panicked at the mere sight of an air purifier or a mask. Even though we're making progress on that front, this attitude remains entrenched.

If you considered the last year an "oh fuck" moment for everyone with half a brain, you would be right. We crossed the 1.5C threshold. Along with that came record heatwaves, droughts, floods, storms, and wildfires so vast they choked half the U.S. with smoke for most of the summer. For all practical purposes, we're living in a 1.5C world now.

For a growing number of us, it's not theoretical anymore. Those of us who live in reality have broken through the third layer of fear.

We're on the other side now.

We're running from the fires. We're baking in the heat. We're breathing in the smoke. We're hiding from the storms. My family has gone through more tornado warnings this year than I did my entire time living in the middle of Tornado Alley.

We're not doomscrolling anymore. Doomscrolling was a behavior triggered by all the anticipatory anxiety we felt. It was a very real and legitimate anxiety, because we didn't have the slightest clue what to expect. Now, more of us do know what to expect. We're fairly well acquainted with doom at this point.

We're not just scrolling doom anymore.

We're the doom that's scrolled.

I mean that in the most literal sense. When an F3 tornado ripped through my town, video of it wound up online. I can't even show you the video because my house is in there in the background.

Imagine someone telling you to stop doomscrolling when you have literally been the doom on someone's phone.

You know?

So, it's ironic that as climate change becomes an ever present reality for us, the corporate news media now spends less time than ever talking about it. Honestly, I didn't see that coming. Now that I've spent a year digging through psychology and learning about everything from reactance to cognitive dissonance to elite panic, it makes perfect sense. Sarah Connor gives a nice breakdown of a report by Media Matters showing a 20-25 percent decline in coverage of climate change by major news networks. That's not even really counting all the bullshit op-eds telling us to build up our heat tolerance during the hottest summer on record, a summer where entire cities shut down because it was too hot to do anything, a summer where breeds of cactus known for their heat tolerance dropped dead.

It's not terribly surprising to those of us who've spent the last two or three years dumbstruck at all the corrupt, lazy, straight up incompetent reporting we've seen from major news networks and newspapers. And all those stupid blogs telling us to make small talk with strangers during Covid surges, or telling us about that smiling seminar in Japan? It's increasingly clear that all of this nonsense is part of the plan, to keep the public as misinformed and misguided as possible. Because surely Covid must be over if, as according to the average news site, the biggest threat to our health now isn't the slow breakdown of our organs and immune systems, but loneliness.

This report might address climate change in particular, but it confirms something we've observed in the media more and more this decade. They aren't really trying to inform anyone of anything anymore.

They're not even trying to try.

You have to wonder for a moment why on earth the largest and most powerful news agencies in the world would suddenly start covering climate change less just as it's starting to impact our lives more. It lines up very neatly with what we've seen during the pandemic. The more widespread and dangerous the virus becomes, the less you hear about it. The more we hear that the pandemic is "over," the more we hear about how everyone is moving on, the more we hear that Long Covid is either made up or just like other conditions.

So if the news isn't talking about pandemics or climate change, even as they become everpresent threats in our lives...

What are they talking about?

Well, here's a list:

  1. War.
  2. Donald Trump.
  3. The latest disaster, shooting, political scandal, etc. (Always covered in the most superficial manner possible, devoid of context.)
  4. Celebrity bullshit.

Mixed in with all of this, I've noticed a steady stream of op-eds engineered to make you feel terrible about yourself. Despite the very well-known fact that Americans are sleep-deprived and overworked, my browser spent several days showing me an article with the headline, "Are You Sleeping Too Much?"

"Do You Care Too Much About Other People?"

"Do You Expect Too Much from Your Boss?"


It was always like this to some extent, but it's been getting a lot worse and a lot more transparent lately.

There's a plausible explanation for it all:

Quarterly profits.

It has to be quarterly, because if these CEOs and hedge fund managers and billionaires actually cared about profits over the long term, they might actually stop and think about the egregious stupidity of infecting your entire workforce with a virus that destroys everything from the brain to the immune system while literally aging everyone it touches. They would think twice about doing it while trashing the only habitable planet we know about.

The more I talk about this, the more I realize how not shocking it is. Did any of us think Jeff Bezos, the guy who now wants to populate the galaxy with trillions of humans, had not completely lost his mind? Did anyone think Mark Zuckerberg, who now brags about raising beef cattle on an island bunker, had any redeemable qualities left?

Speaking of Zuckerberg, did you hear? He's apparently selling his mansion and buying a $300 million yacht.

The dude has gone full doomsday.

I guess there's one pinch of realization here for us. In case it needs to be spelled out, this is the new normal. As the world sinks deeper into crisis, it doesn't look like the leaders of the free world are going to have any wake-up calls or epiphanies. They're just going to go crazy and crazier. They're going to give less and less of a fuck about any of us. They're going to try like hell to insulate themselves from all the doom with cybertrucks and robots. And it's going to go about as well as that billionaire submarine that imploded.

These billionaires are stuck in the third layer of fear. If they actually stopped for a moment to think about the doom they've inflicted on us all, including themselves, they would realize just how futile and even hilarious it sounds to think you can just sail around on an uninhabitable planet.

It's nice to have some actual numbers to confirm what's going on. I don't know about you, but it makes me feel a little more sane.


It's interesting how the word "doomscrolling" got lodged in the public discourse right when doom was becoming a real thing we had to contend with. We've seen quite a transformation since then. The worse things get, the less ordinary people seem to care. The harder it is to shake them out of their feigned apathy and indifference. The harder it is to cut through the noise and misinformation.

Here's how much things have changed:

If you'd told me four years ago that the Covid situation would be a hundred times worse, that measles and pneumonia and tuberculosis would also be spreading largely unchecked, that N95 masks would be widely available but nobody would want them, that Donald Trump would be running for president again, that we would breach key climate tipping points, that I would breathe wildfire smoke from Canada, and that tornadoes would tear through my town multiple times a year, even I would've called you a doomer. Oh, and don't forget that dairy cows are now testing positive for bird flu, previously described by our friends in mass media as yet another "mystery illness."


I'm living all of this, and I shrug.

I'm not worried about climate change. A tornado almost hit my house. I'm not worried about Covid compromising my immune system. An ER doctor offered to test me for HIV. It's compromised. I can't get sick with anything else. I don't know what exactly will happen. I just know I don't want to find out. I'm dealing with doom, but I'm not doomed yet.

When I convinced my spouse to help me homeschool our kid, I didn't talk about fear. I said I wasn't "scared" of our daughter ending up with brain and organ damage from multiple Covid infections. I said I knew it would happen. It was a certainty. That worked.

Maybe you shrug, too. You're not worried about the future because now you know, more or less, what's going to happen.

I've wondered why.

It's not because I don't care. It's not because I'm indifferent or fatigued, at least not by the events themselves. While the rest of the world has chosen to live in ignorance and complacency, people like you and me have stayed plugged into reality. We're not shocked because we stay informed. Bird flu? That's been coming at us for nearly three years now. We've had time to process the threat, and we know how to handle it. Whether it's Trump or a measles outbreak, not much changes in terms of what we do.

We're prepared for tornadoes. We have emergency bags. We have protective clothing. We even have helmets. We know what a tornado means now in a real sense, not a vague doomy sense.

There's a difference.

Doomscrolling is what idiots think we do. It's not actually what we do. For the last several years, we've been learning how to read medical journals. We've been learning how to store food and water. We've been learning about N95 masks and how they work. We've learned how ventilation and filtration works. We've learned how to gather water from morning dew. We've learned a lot, and that knowledge provides an increasing amount of confidence and even comfort in the face of doom.

So, are we better off for being the kind of people who know that dairy cows are testing positive for bird flu, when the average person probably has no idea that bird flu has been decimating animal populations for the last two years and slowly building up to humans? Are we better off paying attention to doom, instead of staying stuck in the third layer of fear?

I think so.

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