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What Scares You?

“Do you want to see something really scary?” Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

As we head into the Halloween season, it is hard to find anything scarier than the latest news headlines.

As Vanity Fair succinctly titles an article, “Americans Are Freaking Out About Ebola, and the Media Is Helping Them.” But while Ebola is indeed deadly, it actually rates rather low on the infection spread risk. Bottom line: Your chances of contracting Ebola here in the U.S. are pretty much nil:

Chart outlining the number of people that one sick person will infect on average who has Ebola versus other diseases.
(Image Source: Adam Cole/NPR)

On the other hand, as Gwynn Guilford points out on Quartz, “Forget Ebola. This is the viral epidemic that should really terrify Americans.” As you might guess from the graph above, it is not Ebola: It’s measles. “The US was able to eliminate native strains of the measles virus thanks to several nationwide childhood vaccination campaigns,” writes Guilford. “But the disease still strikes Americans because, like the unfortunate Dallas patient, people bring viral strains into the US all the time. And those foreign strains can infect people who are unvaccinated.”

Why am I writing about Ebola and measles in a sustainability blog? Because the same lack of critical thinking – our misplaced fears and misjudgment of relative risk – causes us to make poor decisions about both sustainability and health care.

Guilford explains that, “In the three biggest [measles] outbreaks in 2014, the virus was transmitted when someone introduced a measles strain from outside the US into communities where pockets of people had refused vaccination because of philosophical, religious, or personal beliefs.”

Often these “philosophical, religious, or personal beliefs” are influenced by a small but vocal minority of anti-vaccine fear-mongers and conspiracy theorists… in some cases, the same fear-mongers who are claiming that wind turbines adversely affect human health – or that sustainability is just a United Nations plot to rob us of our freedom.

For those of you who are technically-minded, here is a relative risk calculator to help you decide whether any particular event is worth worrying about. (As wikiHow explains, “Relative risk is a statistical term used to describe the risk of a certain event happening in one group versus another. It is commonly used in epidemiology and evidenced based medicine, where relative risk helps identify the risk of developing a disease after an exposure (i.e. a drug/treatment or an environmental exposure) versus the risk of developing a disease in absence of the exposure.”) Or here is a handy “What Should You REALLY Be Afraid Of?” cheat sheet for some of our more common fears.

For those of us in sustainability: Fear dangerous, dirty, climate-changing fossil fuels—not clean, free renewable energy from the sun and wind.

Do you want to see something really scary?

Kyle G. Crider (MPA, LEED AP ND) is a professional science and sustainability “story teller.” In his spare time he is pursuing his Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary (Environmental Health) Engineering and traveling the highways and by-ways of home state with his wife Beverly in search of fact, fiction, and folklore for Strange Alabama.