Only the confident survive

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Since the 1970s, I’ve been fascinated with (at times, scared of) an American sub-culture who are convinced that the nation’s economy — and existence — is about to collapse. I first noticed this group in the 1970s, when Howard Ruff gained momentary fame by preaching a coming hyperinflationary economic depression (along with predictions of an imminent earthquake that would wipe out California). With appearances on Louis Rukeyser’s Wall Street Week, Ruff was able to attract a large cult of loyal followers who were rewarded by missing out on one of history’s most incredible economic expansions. Ruff was just one of a large group of 70s-era “crash” evangelists. Since then, I’ve learned that “end-times obsession” and various forms of survivalist movements have been a part of history for centuries.

On this blog, I have discussed that fear is a good thing. Being afraid they would lose everything, without warning, at any moment, was a critical factor in the survival of our evolutionary ancestors. They gorged themselves with protein and fat when it was available, knowing they would have to survive on seeds and roots when it was not.

Our realistic and fearful ancestors are the Darwinian “fittest” who survived and evolved into us. That we cannot handle prosperity and plenty should be no surprise. That we line up to buy unaffordable shelter when banks want to provide us financing cheaper than rent is no surprise. That we drive 50 miles to save 2% on sales tax is no surprise. That we line up to purchase and horde gasoline when we hear rumors there may be a shortage in our area is no surprise. That we feel like we’re going to lose anything good that we may have — any day now — is no surprise. There is nothing in the evolution of humankind that makes it natural for anyone to be comfortable and joyful in a place of prosperity and peace. And knowing that societies continue to collapse and genocide continues to take place provides all the evidence necessary to convince anyone who wants to be convinced that the natural state of human existence is one of apocalyptic chaos and doom.

Indeed, it can be argued that many religious doctrines are built upon the foundational belief that nothing of this world is permanent, and therefore comfort can only be found in embracing and learning to love the only things that are real — this very moment, or the hereafter. All else is fleeting. All else is, in the words of a great poet, dust in the wind.

So that fear you are sensing right now — the one I often call “being convinced the world is heading to hell in a handcart” — is about as natural as anything can be. It takes an amazing depth of intellect and will (or, if you’d like to use terms like “faith” and “conviction,” those work) to overcome the baked-in anxiety our predecessors provided us and that evangelists of all economic, philosophical, religious and commercial persuasions continue to pitch in convincing books and infomercials.

What I believe

So here is what I believe.

I refuse to be victimized by a predisposition to dismiss reality and embrace the doomsayer’s survivalist scam.

From my observations of the past three decades of living in a uniquely prosperous place and moment in history (we know how to freeze protein and fat) — with economic opportunity available to more people than in any generation preceding it, I can see why it is easy to convince people that everything they have is about to be taken away.

Prosperity, freedom, relative peace — are not natural.

It is easy — it is natural down to our DNA — to believe we live in a country that is being taken over by whomever we fear the most: the right-wing, the socialists, the fundamentalists, the secular humanists, the religious zealots, the atheists, the pinkos, the rednecks, the elitists, Joe six-pack.

But succumbing to such fears — to be frozen by such fear — is a far greater threat to the world’s economy than any freezing of credit.

It causes us to become obsessed with threats where there are none. It causes us to store up roots and seeds when we still know how to grow and preserve crops.

It makes us act — or react — when we should not. It makes us ignore — or become obsessed with — things that may or may not be important.

It takes a lot to remain confident when you belong to the human race.

But we’ve reached a place in evolutionary history where survival is to the most confident — not to the ones with the most MREs stockpiled.

Later: I take exception to this post being characterized as a suggestion that people wear “rose-colored glasses.” Discouraging people from succumbing to fear-mongering is not the same as suggesting they wear rose-colored glasses. And while I am not necessarily talking about the stock market in this post, tomorrow’s (10.06.2008) Wall Street Journal’s ‘Abreast of the Market’ column includes this reminder of the reward that has come to those who kept their heads in previous markets when all those around them were losing theirs:

In late 1974, the Dow hit a trough of 577.60, and a year later had risen to almost 820 points, or a roughly 42% gain from its low. On Black Monday, Oct. 19, 1987, the Dow hit a nadir at 1738.74, a veritable nosedive from a peak reached some two months earlier. But a year later, the Dow had gained about 23%, to 2137.27 points. In 2002, the Dow hit another bear-market trough, at 7286.27; a year later, it traded at 9680.01, or almost a 33% gain.

  • Rex, I hooted when you mentioned Howard Ruff! Hey, I recall all that 70s survivalism too. That had to be the worst decade in American history. Stagflation, the Oil Crisis, the protests over the war in Vietnam, etc, etc. Then Reagan came along and change the mood totally (too bad it was with crooked accounting!).

    You’ve seen my Doom posts. I don’t like doing them, but to ignore the fact of two decades of runaway greed — well, there has to be a consequence to that. And that’s what everyone is trying to prevent like crazy right now.

    That said, I don’t have a bunker or freeze-fried food stocked up!

  • Nice post. It reminds me of those “No Fear” stickers that we all too common in the late 1990s. Yet the past 7 years have moved us to a fear based culture.

    I am not quite ready to accept the “most confident” hypothesis though. I can think of plenty of anecdotes that support that position, but I think the common denominator is persistence and not confidence. Which would make sense because fear is paralyzing which would seem to be the opposite of persistence.

    Maybe I am just not willing to accept that ignorance really is bliss (which is how I read “confidence wins”).

    But I am splitting hairs. I know I can be too fearful at times and this post is a great reminder.

  • @Mike, @Jackson – There is more than enough evidence to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are just two-three weeks from being in the streets killing one-another over loaves of bread. Even the cover of magazines have illustrations of us (our economy, at least) standing on the ledge of a canyon. And if that’s what we all choose to believe, it will happen. However, I’d rather be pushed over than jump — and that’s what happens when we choose to succumb to false-fears rather than real opportunities. That said, I’m not advocating stupidity and laa-laa land belief that everything’s gonna be hunkee-doree without hard work and resolution. In other words, I think we’re all saying about the same thing.