In psychology, it’s called catastrophic thinking.
It happens when there is an overestimation of the danger of a situation combined with the underestimation of one’s control of that danger. Contemporary American politics is rife with it. The end result is the failure of American politics.
Growing numbers of Americans are apathetic about politics, while millions simply refuse to participate, convinced it will not make a difference. Catastrophic thinking tends to have that effect.
Successful areas of American life are markedly free of this form of thought. Business, working on a foundation of enlightened self-interest, suffers minimally from this plague. The end result is that business in America is immensely successful.
The case in point is the immensely unpopular, but amazingly profitable, Wal-Mart. The corporation recently announced at the inaugural conference of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition that it would be making a switch from petroleum-based plastics to corn-based plastics for use in packaging.
According to Matt Kistler, vice president of product development for the company’s Sam’s Club division, Wal-Mart “will save the equivalent of 800,000 gallons of gasoline and reduce more than 11 million pounds of greenhouse gas emissions.”
The decision does not only stem from the fact that Wal-Mart fears harming the environment.
In fact, Wal-Mart is an exceptional example of how some corporations disregard environmental concerns whenever possible. The change is due to the fact that the costs of petroleum and natural gas, the sources of most plastics, are growing. Therefore, it’s in Wal-Mart’s self-interest to find a product made from sources less volatile and less expensive.
This change, unsurprisingly, doesn’t lessen the fear of the chronically anxious.
Arguments have been posed to Wal-Mart disputing the change, all citing imminent doom. It has been stated that the supply of corn will dwindle.
The rising costs of the fertilizers used to make corn will rise. Competition between companies vying for limited amounts of corn could drive up prices. Since Wal-Mart and agribusiness are both in the business of making money, the assumption is that they will not care, all the pessimism will come to pass and the Earth will be ruined.
One can only hope that the death of all of the chickens in America – thanks to a lack of corn to feed them brought about by the profit-driven apathy of a tyrannical Wal-Mart – will prevent all of us from death by the dreaded avian flu.
The logic is plausible, but follows from the mindset of catastrophic thinking.
The fact of the matter is that the supply of corn may dwindle and costs may rise. When corn becomes cost-prohibitive, an alternative will be found. If fertilizer costs rise, today’s fertilizers will be succeeded by products yielding more profit.
The idea that competition between companies could drive up prices is evidence of the need for a rudimentary lesson in economics. Competition has always driven costs down instead of up. If the cost cannot be driven down, an alternative with higher prospects of profit will be discovered, or invented, and implemented.
It cannot be overlooked that self-interest led to this change. Government mandates and societal compulsion usually lead to resistance and minimal change. Similar advancements in the future will also happen due to self-interest – not the fear of the constant impending catastrophe.
Economic systems that have ignored the fact that self-interest as humanity’s primary impetus have repetitively failed.
The fact that Wal-Mart is primarily interested in making money is not an obstruction. It is, in fact, solely because Wal-Mart and agricultural corporations are acting in their self-interest that the changes are possible and sustainable.
There are serious issues that face America. For serious issues, there are serious answers. Fear and guilt do not lead to advisable or well-reasoned outcomes. The rhetoric of those who have no faith in enlightened self-interest will fail.
It is the freedom and enlightened self-interest of America that will pave the road to continued excellence. Those who engage in catastrophic thinking may slow it down, but progress cannot be stopped. Even the chronically fearful will be dragged, kicking and screaming, into a world rich with brilliant opportunity.
Jordan Capobianco is a senior majoring in English literature.