The ecology and politics of fear

 

Here’s some good news: In Yellowstone National Park, the cottonwood groves are thriving. Cottonwoods are a key element in the Yellowstone ecosystem, but not so long ago it seemed that they were doomed by dense herds of elk that clustered along the park’s rivers and browsed the trees so heavily that no young saplings survived.

Then, nine years ago, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone after a 70-year absence. The wolves quickly learned that elk in the river valleys were easy hunting. Today, Yellowstone elk have drastically changed their behavior in response to the threat of wolf attack and are much more scattered, easing pressure on the cottonwoods. Biologists have come up with a term to describe such far-reaching effects of predators on the behavior of their prey: "the ecology of fear."

Fear, it turns out, is not simply an emotion. Fear is a powerful force in the world, a force whose impact may far surpass the direct effects of what is feared. Biologists are learning that many aspects of animals’ lives are a response to the fear of predation. Take away that fear, and behaviors that were assumed to be genetically determined may simply disappear. Reintroduce that fear, and old patterns quickly return, even if it has been generations since the species faced predators.

On Sept. 11, 2001, a particular sort of fear was reintroduced to an American population that had long ago come to take security as our birthright. When hijacked planes destroyed the World Trade Center towers and struck the Pentagon, almost 3,000 people died. It was a horrible moment in our nation’s history, and the enduring tragedy of those deaths continues to reverberate through the lives of all of us.

And yet, these deaths are far fewer than the 42,900 Americans who died in 2001 from traffic accidents, not to mention the 700,142 who died of heart disease or the 553,768 who died from cancer and all those who died from a myriad of other diseases. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 400,000 Americans die every year as the result of poor diet and inactivity, though poor diet and inactivity cause us to feel, if anything, mild guilt and not paralyzing fear. Clearly, our reaction to being attacked on our home ground transcends the simply rational.

It has become a truism that Sept. 11 "changed everything." Who would dispute that our country today is radically different from the America we lived in before the attacks? These sudden deaths convinced most Americans that we were "at war." That conviction made possible not only the immediate retaliation against Afghanistan, but the war in Iraq, even though we now know that the Iraq invasion was unjustified by any threat posed to the United States by Saddam Hussein or his ties to Al Quaeda.

At home, opinion polls indicate that most Americans will willingly sacrifice some freedom in exchange for security, and, sure enough, our civil and privacy rights have been drastically reduced as a result of the Patriot Act. Most telling of all, we have just passed through a presidential campaign that seemed a contest between a vision of hope and a vision of fear. In the end, the fearful vision prevailed.

It is impossible to know exactly what fear feels like to an elk as it scans the hills, looking for the sight of an onrushing wolf pack. But it must be a very, very bad feeling -- bad enough for the elk to change its way of life in order to avoid that fear. This, it seems, is what we are trying to do. But the more we try to escape fear, the more it pursues us.

It is America’s misfortune that at this moment in our history we have ceded power to those who use fear to gain and maintain their position. In the presidential campaign, a television ad featured wolves circling ever closer to the camera, as the narrator intoned, "Weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm." Immediately following those words, we heard, "I’m George W. Bush and I approve this message." Delivering his message in the nearly instinctual language of fear may have made all the difference in this election.

Over the next four years, all of us will learn just how far the ecology and politics of fear will transform the America we thought we knew.

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a biologist and writer in Ashland, Oregon.