Who benefits from our culture of fear? Not us, that’s for sure.

When and how did we Americans cross the line into crazy? Why do we continue to put up with this absurdity?

This rant has been building for a while now. Every time I see an article about yet another mother who was arrested for allowing her child to play in the park alone or walk to a friend’s house a few blocks away, I cringe. New products come on the market continuously, proudly touted as the next best thing to keep our kids safe. CPS, it appears, is now regularly called in response to parents choosing an alternate, but very loving and safe, lifestyle for their kids.

We Americans have developed an unrealistic and irrational fear of the boogieman.

hydraAnd the worst part is that the boogieman has more faces than the proverbial Hydra. Each time we figure out a way to reduce the fear of one head, two more grow.

I’ve been involved in a few discussions on Facebook about this issue lately. On the one hand, many parents feel that the danger is too great and their children too precious to risk. If they can keep their children safe by not allowing them to leave the house unsupervised, that’s better, no? Other parents feel the long-term harm that comes about as a result of over-protective parents negates the feeling of safety, and then some. I tend to side with that latter group.

But lately I’ve been trying to figure out how we, as a society, have sunk so low. How has this culture of fear developed? When did this happen?

I will freely admit that I’m an old lady, but when I was a kid just a few decades ago, we kids roamed the streets. My parents headed out every morning to go to work; we kids roamed freely until dinner time. During the summers, we walked to the local swimming pool if we felt like it. Or the library. Or maybe we just stayed at home. Our parents spent their days blissfully unaware of where we were, but knowing that we were safe.

And yet now, a mother is arrested for leaving her 11-year-old daughter in the car while Mom runs in to buy a few items. Hello? I am reasonably certain that 11-year-old girl was perfectly capable of opening the door if it got too hot in the car. What has happened to common sense?

common sense

I was out of the country for most of the past three decades, so was not here to see the rapid freefall from a prevalence of common sense to where we are today. I don’t claim to understand how it happened, or when. But I have my suspicions, and I think I’m right. If you have a different opinion, please do chime in down below in the comments.

I suspect if we follow the money, we’ll find our answer. This ridiculous situation is in nobody’s best interest except for corporate America. If they can foster and perpetuate a culture of fear, they stand to make money. A lot of it.

Right now, I happen to be in Toledo Ohio, dog-sitting for my sister for the weekend. We woke up this morning to find an alert that the water supply is unsafe. High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in Lake Erie led to a harmful algae bloom, which causes an unsafe chemical imbalance in the water.

My sister raced down to the store just a few hours after it was announced, but the shelves were already empty. Not a bottle of water was to be found. We are just holding tight, drinking soda (blech!) and juice for the day, hoping they get the issue figured out. Or, at the very least, stores can get truckloads of water shipped in so we can buy a few gallons later today.

I, naturally, posted this on Facebook. It’s a nuisance, but nothing to freak out about. We’ve dealt with no water before, and I have no doubt we’ll deal with it again. This is not something to panic about. And it most certainly is not something to “prepare for.” Or at least in my mind it isn’t.

A friend feels differently. “If people prepared for events like this,” she wrote, “they wouldn’t need to buy out the store when it happened. ALWAYS keep two or three days’ worth of water, food, etc. on hand. Silly Muricans.”

Really? REALLY? Let’s walk through that scenario… While I will agree that it would be nice to have two or three days’ worth of water on hand right now, at what expense would that come? Let’s just say that I always keep 20 gallons on hand – that’s really a small amount. A VERY small amount, but let’s go with it. So I go buy 20 gallons of water and shove it under the house for “just in case.”

Because the water will not stay fresh forever, I would not want to use water stored longer than about four months. So four months later, I need to go buy another twenty gallons, to the tune of $20. And now what do I do with the old water? Heck – I’ve got a perfectly good supply of water coming out my tap; I really don’t see any reason to use this old water. I dump it out, throwing away twenty bucks. But… well… you know… it’s only twenty bucks. What’s twenty bucks so you can be prepared for “just in case?”

Fast forward another four months and repeat the process. I dump another twenty bucks down the toilet.

And four months later, yet another twenty bucks. In one year, we’ve dumped out $60 worth of water.

Granted, I have not lived in the USA for much of the past few decades, but the last time I remember not having potable water in my tap was on our wedding day – August 31, 1991. A water main broke, and we were without water for ten hours.

According to my friend’s reckonings that I need to always maintain a few days’ water supply, and given that it’s going to cost me $60/year to do that, I would have thrown away $1380 on water between when I could have used it in 1991 and now. And for what? So that I wouldn’t have to drink juice for a day or two?

Because, let’s be real – this issue is unlikely to last longer than a day or two. The city engineers will figure out something to address the issue. And if they can’t? If Toledo ends up going weeks or months without potable water? Then would my pitiful 20 gallons really help? As it happened, within 12 hours, free water was available at all local fire stations – we just had to take containers there and they would fill them from their truck.

Follow the Money

In the end, who benefits from this fear-mongering? Corporate America.

Within a few minutes of posting about the water situation here in Toledo, somebody had shared my status. I clicked over to see what they were saying, and found this:

fear mongering


Oh yes, indeedy! Let’s use this unfortunate algae bloom to sell people filtration systems that most likely would be ineffectual against this problem anyway!

I am fully aware that this is a greater issue. I know that most likely the algae bloom was caused by corporations dumping their waste in the lake. I know that there are ways of maintaining a reserve water supply that does not involve gallon jugs. But for now, let’s just pretend that the algae bloom was just a random unfortunate event, and let’s look at the mindset behind preparing for an extremely unlikely event to occur.

* What forces would be at play to encourage one to always maintain a water supply, when chances are so unlikely that it would be needed?

*What kinds of thought processes would one have to go through to deem that a worthwhile way of spending one’s precious time, money, and energy?

First, one would have to be convinced that it’s likely to be needed. When we lived in Ethiopia, we only had running water a few hours per week. It was in our best interest to have a series of tanks set up to store water since we rarely had water coming from the tap. When the water was running, we diligently filled all our tanks, hoping we would have enough to get us through to the next time the water came on. That made sense. In most of America, it doesn’t.

In our cottage, we have a system set up to collect rain water. We can only store 550 gallons and we hope that rain will come to replenish our supplies before we run out. Still, we are fully aware that we could go weeks between rains, and will be getting another small collection site set up next year for a 50-gallon barrel “just in case.” That makes sense – there is a reasonable chance that we will need to tap into that barrel, so it’s worth the hassle of maintaining it.

But in our house in Boise? No. Not worth it. While I will agree that it’s possible that we might have our water shut off, it’s highly improbable. Maybe the water supply will be tainted like here in Toledo. Maybe a water main will break. There is a whole host of things that might go wrong that could lead to a few hours or a few days without water, but so what? Is it really worth “preparing” for that? Is that a good use of my time, energy, and money? And yet it’s pretty easy to run a campaign to make people think it’s necessary.

I cannot figure out why an individual person would think it is a good use of resources when it’s so unlikely to occur, but it doesn’t take long to see how corporate America will benefit. If corporate America can promote that culture of fear, they will profit in many ways. They’ll sell plenty of jugs of water and filtration systems. They’ll sell barrels and pipes and pumps. Get Americans to think that some highly improbable event might actually happen, and they’ll buy anything – and corporate America laughs all the way to the bank.

It’s not hard to see how corporate America is selling fear. How many readers of this post have installed a home security system? How many refuse to allow their children to walk to the park to play? How many cross to the other side of the street when they see a black or Hispanic teen walking toward them? How many religiously get flu shots every year? How many carry a gun “just in case” they meet the boogieman in real life?

After the Sandy Hook shootings, we saw the emergence of bullet proof blankets and backpacks.

Whenever a child is kidnapped (most often by a family member), we see ads touting child id bracelets or tiny gps trackers.

After too many children (but still very few) died in hot cars, we see companies developing systems to help us remember that our children are in the car. At what cost will those be added to cars, knowing that the vast majority of us will never need it?

There is no end to the plethora of ways that corporate America dupes us into handing over our money. They prey upon our fears, and we fall right into their hands. I propose we stop allowing them control over us.

What we can do

1) Read all media reports with an eye on perspective. In today’s age of instantaneous news coverage, remember how rare each event is. If it made it onto the news, it is most likely a very rare occurrence and one we most likely don’t need to worry about. The Dalai Lama once said that the very prevalence of bad stuff in the news indicates it’s rarity in real life. When all we hear about in the news is good stories, then we need to fear – that will mean that the bad has become the norm. Until then, remember to put it all into perspective.

2) Consider the propaganda. Remember that corporate America wants you to fear. The more you live in fear, the more money they stand to make. Just as we teach our kids to see through marketing messages when it comes to sugary cereals or silly toys, we need to see through the marketing messages that are targeted for us adults. Accept it for what it is, but don’t allow their hype and hysteria to make you freak out.

3) Be on high alert immediately after some unlikely event. Just as the marketer above jumped in immediately to cash in on the water situation here in Toledo to sell filtration systems, they will take advantage of every unlikely event. Is there another school shooting? Look for marketers out there selling absurd gadgets to protect your kids at school. A hurricane hit the coast? Somebody is sure to try to take advantage of that to sell something. Put your internal snake-oil-salesman antenna up and ask yourself if you truly need that item.

4) Trust in your fellow man. People are good – they really are. People will go to great lengths to help one another. Don’t discount that and think you will need to everything in case the unthinkable really does happen.




books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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12 Responses to Who benefits from our culture of fear? Not us, that’s for sure.

  1. Alberto August 3, 2014 at 12:24 am #

    Hi Nancy,
    Great post.
    I agree: some companies go over the top and spread the paranoia in the population.
    Some others just make and/or sell stuff… maybe useful, maybe not. If people buy it, then it doesn’t matter how useful it is: The company will go on making and selling it.
    By the time I was reading the sentence “Put your internal snake-oil-salesman antenna up and ask yourself if you truly need that item.”, I could already see the picture of your 4 books and the sentence “click here to order”… fortunately, your books don’t spread the fear (all the opposite, I expect)

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel August 3, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

      @Alberto, There is nothing wrong with selling – just don’t artifically create an environment of fear in order to sell to them.

  2. Rob August 3, 2014 at 8:46 am #

    Nancy, I believe you partially right but it not the corporations. It is the government. Governments foster a culture of fear in order to control the population. While corporations may benefit financially as a side effect, it is government that instills the fear.
    To use your examples, the water issue in Lake Erie, who told you it was bad water? Government. Who controls the water supply? Government. If the corporations had known about the water issue their would have been truck loads and truck loads, they would not have run out of bottled water. If they aren’t selling it they are’t making money, in fact the corp that makes the water didn’t make any extra money at all because the grocery store had already paid them for the water.
    You are looking at the problem at a superficial level. You need to dig deeper. Corporations respond to the fear to provide a good or service but they don’t need fear to make money.
    Governments need fear to stay in power and to control the population.

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel August 3, 2014 at 1:30 pm #

      @Rob, This one comes down to who do you trust more? Corporations or government? While I will readily agree that there are problems with both, I would place my bet with the government. Private corporations with little to no regulation have shown themselves time and again to be irresponsible and to have little regard for our health and well being. For them, it’s all about the bottom line in the short term.

      I guess I’m just not seeing how the government benefits from Toledo’s water situation, but I do see how corporations will benefit.

      • Rob August 3, 2014 at 8:41 pm #

        Ever though the algae bloom is a result of phosphorus from farm fertilizer runoff and sewage treatment plants. I am sure that the govn’t will find a way to say that it is made worse because of climate change, thus enabling it to perpetuate and justify the money spent, regulations passed and tax increases to fight climate change.
        How much money has the govn’t spent? Free water at the fire stations, it is not free, someone spent money to have the fire dept’s go and get the water.
        The State, I am sure will also apply for federal funding based on this emergency.
        and here is an interesting tidbit, Toledo, needs to puch through a massive rate hike for sewage treatment. “City officials committed themselves to the $521 million construction program… Established deadlines must be met, the work has to get done, and it has to be paid for. This surely is no time for grandstanding or obstructionism; council members need to approve the rate increase promptly.
        The last paragraph says it all.
        “City officials say completion of TMI will eliminate 80 percent of untreated sewage from Toledo waterways. Realization of that objective is not just desirable but vital, as the current emergency makes clear. In the next few weeks, council members must authorize the money needed to finish the program.”

        @Nancy Sathre-Vogel,

        • Nancy Sathre-Vogel August 6, 2014 at 6:55 am #

          @Rob, There probably is some truth in the climate thing – that area has been hit by 3 polar vortexes this year. Just a few weeks before we got there, my sister said they were wearing sweaters – in the middle of July when it should have been blazing hot. That said, I hadn’t heard anybody blame it on climate – not that nobody had, just that I hadn’t heard that.

          I am always fascinated hearing from people who are opposed to government expenditure on water/sewer/electric/road projects. How are those projects supposed to get built/fixed if not the government? Wouldn’t it make MUCH more sense to have the government do it rather than each one of us try to do it individually?

          The house I grew up in had its own well. It was great to have our own well… until the water started coming up contaminated. Our water was unsafe to drink and it would cost many thousands of dollars to get it fixed. We started using bottled water for all food preparations and waited until city water reached our house. My mom was soooooo excited when the water main finally made it after having to use bottled water for 2 years. She hooked the house into city water and abandoned our well.

          And then… that same house (which we now own – we bought it from Mom) had it’s own septic leachfield. It was wonderful and we enjoyed not having to pay for city sewage. Until it failed. All of a sudden, sewage was backing up into the house and our entire system had failed. It was going to cost $20K to dig up the whole backyard and put in a new system or $14K to tap into city sewer. Needless to say, we tapped into city sewer.

          I, personally, feel that a very good use of tax money is to build/repair/maintain/upgrade those systems.

  3. Deborah August 3, 2014 at 10:41 am #

    I think there’s a moderate middle ground. I live in an area that has wildfires every summer and fairly frequent power outages…our ice storm last winter brought 73 hours of no electricity, and our house is all-electric. So it seems like common sense to have our important papers and a box of family photos and medications and pet cages fairly accessible if fire threatens, and to make plans to try to be warm when the house isn’t. (Since I’ve lived here, we were put on notice for potential mandatory evacuation twice, but the fire was stopped a half mile away, thanks to five million federal dollars.) We have a couple dozen milk jugs full of water in the garage…the ones that are earmarked for drinking are used to water the plants and refilled or replaced when it seems reasonable. We have extra food in case we have to evacuate, because some family members cannot eat what is likely to be served in a disaster shelter.

    My 16 year old rides her bike to town (15 miles) by herself, and drives herself there and to the next town to play Ultimate with friends, but I’ve told her I’m not comfortable for her to ride her bike to the next town by herself. I’ve tried to entice my kids into doing activities with buddies, for a lot of reasons, one of them being the safety issue.

    I don’t think it’s so much a conspiracy as it is the rapid spread of information that makes today’s parents more cautious than my parents’ generation. In the small Montana town I lived in as a kid, I was accosted and could have been badly injured by a gang of bullies the summer after my 7th grade year (1971) when a female classmate (who hated me, even though she didn’t know me) a foot taller than I, and six boys, all on banana seat bikes, surrounded me, a sister, and a friend. “We’re the Bat Brigade” she said, before she slugged me in the stomach, hard. We broke through the ring and they fled. (No one came to the door at the house where we sought shelter, but they didn’t know that.)

    An employee at a motel where our family stayed exposed himself to the children playing by the pool. One of my classmates’ brother was killed in his tent by a serial murderer when he went on a campout with his Scout troop. Our Scout troop went on a five day bike tour, coincidentally staying at that same campground. Nothing happened. But the murderer was still in business at that time, just out of town for a stint in the military. A few years later he was arrested with his freezer providing solid evidence for his crimes.

    I have never lived anywhere that random crimes didn’t happen to innocent people. Even the town I don’t want my daughter riding to had a recent shooting in the middle of town that killed two, right across the street from where we sit outside with our dog on hot summer days, drinking milkshakes. My solution is not to stay inside a locked house, but to be fully aware that not everyone has our best interests at heart, and that the person who doesn’t is on the prowl for the next victim…be it a 7 year old playing by herself at the playground, a house that looks empty, an open car with a purse on the front seat. Situational awareness is crucial; paranoia is not.

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel August 3, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

      @Deborah, I think the difference between being prudent and irrational is a fine line. For somebody who lives in an area where she has a reasonable chance of evacuation due to fire, being prepared for that event makes sense. In my house in Idaho, where chances are very slim that a wildfire is going to burn down my house, it doesn’t.

      The key is to think about the chance that it might happen. If you truly have reason to believe “it” might happen to you – and that belief is not based on propaganda from corporations trying to sell you stuff – then prepare for it. If you have no rational reason to believe it might happen, then skip the preparation.

  4. Adam August 16, 2014 at 8:48 pm #

    Convincing someone that your garden variety filtration system would be effective against toxic algae is dangerous … you’ll kill or maim them that way. But I agree that the culture of fear overall in America is just our of control … can’t wait to get back to the developing world in 4 days, where people haven’t lost their minds!

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel August 25, 2014 at 2:24 pm #

      @Adam, It’s funny how so many Americans can’t see that. This country is totally ruled by fear, which leads us to makes some pretty darn silly decisions.

  5. Bhavya August 26, 2014 at 1:35 am #

    Whereas in India, we thrive on algae 😀

    Mothers here, lend a kick on the rear if you are overtly cautious. We believe that being carefree is one of the best ways to stay healthy.

    Kudos for the post though. It is a grim reality of the fear psychosis which rules America.


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