The need to balance fear with hope

When I need to learn how to do something around the house or with the computer, I will go to the internet and will frequently find a video on YouTube that gives instructions on what to do and those are usually helpful. But I only do this for things that are relatively minor. I can tell when I am getting out of my depth and need to call in a real expert.

But the easy availability of self-help videos can mislead us into thinking that that is sufficient even for major tasks and lead to tragic consequences, when people think that they can use that information for life-changing decisions. This is apparently what happened to three people who died in the wilderness of Colorado in their attempt to live off the grid.

A Colorado family whose partially mummified remains were discovered at a remote campsite were trying to live off the grid and escape civilization, family said.

Authorities have identified the bodies as those of sisters Christine Vance, 41, and Rebecca Vance, 42, as well as Rebecca’s 14-year-old son. The remains were recovered in and around a tent near a campsite in the Gunnison National Forest about 9 miles (14.5km) from Ohio City, Colorado, Michael Barnes, the Gunnison county coroner, said Tuesday.

The women’s stepsister, Trevala Jara, told media that the family set off for the remote area last summer, seeking to escape the world. The sisters did not have survival experience and had only done research online and watched YouTube videos on the subject.

“We tried to stop them,” Jara told the Gazette. “But they wouldn’t listen. Their minds were made up.”

It appeared they had begun to build a “lean-to” type shelter but not finished by the time last year’s harsh winter began, he said.

“I wonder if winter came on quickly and suddenly they were just in survival mode in the tent,” Barnes said. “They had a lot of literature with them about outdoor survival and foraging and stuff like that. But it looked like they supplied at a grocery store.”

Jara, the family’s relative, said that the sisters were worried about the state of the world, and that Rebecca’s concerns were magnified by the pandemic.

“The fear overwhelmed her, most definitely,” Jara said of her sister in an interview with the Washington Post.

Christine Vance ultimately joined her sister and nephew so that the pair wouldn’t be alone, Jara told the newspaper. Her sisters were not crazy and felt what they were doing was right, she said, but they were not prepared.

“You need years of practice before you go off the grid,” Jara said in the interview. “They watched some YouTube videos, but doing it is totally different if you have no experience.”

It is just so sad that people take drastic actions without fully being aware that the risks they are subjecting themselves to by choice are much greater that the risks they are fleeing but have little control over.

The desire to go off the grid and live close to nature has long had a romantic appeal for adventurers, misanthropes, poets, philosophers ,and others seeking meaning in isolation, free of the trappings of civilization. But the pandemic also did a number on the minds of many ordinary people, making them excessively fearful of the world around them. Add to that the excessive fear mongering by the media about all manner of potential problems that seem to be threatening them on all sides and one can understand the desire by some to escape from it all. It is unfortunate that they are not good at evaluating the risks involved in their actions.

This is also a problem with climate change coverage. We need to make people aware of the danger to the planet of the course that we are currently on that is generating more and more greenhouse gases. But the dire warnings can not only spur action, it can also drive people to passivity and even despair, that we are all doomed. Rebecca Solnit argues that we need to combat those whom she calls the ‘doomers’ and strike a better balance.

Stanford engineering professor and renewable energy expert Mark Z Jacobson tweeted the other day, “Given that scientists who study 100% renewable energy systems are unanimous that it can be done why do we hear daily on twitter and everywhere else by those who don’t study such systems that it can’t be done?” A significant percentage of the general public speaks of climate change with a strange combination of confidence and defeatism: confidence in positions often based on inaccurate or outdated or maybe no information; defeatism about what we can do to make a livable future. Maybe they just get their facts from other doom evangelists, who flourish on the internet, no matter how much reputable scientists demonstrate their errors.

They’re surrendering in advance and inspiring others to do the same. If you announce that the outcome has already been decided and we’ve already lost, you strip away the motivation to participate – and of course if we do nothing we settle for the worst outcome. It often seems that people are searching harder for evidence we’re defeated than that we can win. Warnings are a valuable thing, given with the sense that there’s something we can do to prevent the anticipated outcome; prophesies assume the future is settled and there’s nothing we can do. But the defeatists often describe a present they assert are locking in the worst outcomes.

The climate scientist Zeke Hausfather told journalist Shannon Osaka recently “It’s fair to say that recently many of us climate scientists have spent more time arguing with the doomers than with the deniers” for a Washington Post story titled, “Why climate ‘doomers’ are replacing climate ‘deniers’”. The people putting out defeatist frameworks have more impact than outright deniers, not least because deniers are rightwingers and the right is already committed to climate inaction. Doomers discourage people who otherwise might act, so they’re working toward the worst outcomes they claim to dread. You would expect them to be quietly unmotivated, but a lot of them seem to have an evangelical passion for recruiting others to their views.

A lot of people in this society also like certainty and while it’s obviously foolish to be certain we will win, somehow certainty we will lose isn’t subject to the same judgments.

I don’t know why so many people seem to think it’s their job to spread discouragement, but it seems to be a muddle about the relationship between facts and feelings. I keep saying I respect despair as an emotion, but not as an analysis. You can feel absolutely devastated about the situation and not assume this predicts outcome; you can have your feelings and can still chase down facts from reliable sources, and the facts tell us that the general public is not the problem; the fossil fuel industry and other vested interests are; that we have the solutions, that we know what to do, and that the obstacles are political; that when we fight we sometimes win; and that we are deciding the future now.

I think that maybe we should change our tone from constantly focusing on the impending disaster to arguing that we know how to solve this problem and what is missing is the will to change course that also involves acting against those who are opposing the necessary actions to save the planet.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    “Given that scientists who study 100% renewable energy systems are unanimous that it can be done why do we hear daily on twitter and everywhere else by those who don’t study such systems that it can’t be done?”

    Calls for an update to Clarke’s First Law.

    Original formulation: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. (Clarke there using some early 1960s science fiction writer pronouns, we can fix that too…).

    Update: When a distinguished scientist actively engaged in their area of speciality states that something is possible, they are almost certainly right. When a braying mob of ignorant arseholes on the internet, led or influenced by people paid to promote the status quo by the very deep-pocketed fossil fuel industry, states that that same thing is IMPOSSIBLE, they are very probably wrong.

  2. larpar says

    In my youth, I spent several summers backpacking throughout Gunnison National Forest. When the apocalypse hits, that’s my bugout destination. : )

  3. says

    YouTube videos.
    My opinion is that, in general, YT is a little like capitalism. It’s a good source for small things, minor info, and such. It’s generally an unreliable and inefficient source for major stuff that your life depends on. Capitalism is great if what you want is the cheapest possible toaster. For healthcare, not so much. YouTube is fine if you need to figure out how to replace a bulb or some such in your car, but for other stuff…

    And before anyone jumps on me, yes, I agree there are some great videos and channels out there. The problem is sifting through all of the noise to find them. If YT was an audio system, the signal-to-noise ratio would be just a couple of dB.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    Important things (like staying alive) are important enough to warrant a serious effort to learn how to survive in the intended environment (on the sea, in the wilderness etc).

    Scott and his men perished- like countless others- because they thought can-do spirit would trump anything nature could throw at them.
    Amundsen learned the necessary skills and survived.
    BTW as mushroom-collecting season approaches I recomennd people never to try mushrooms they are unfamiliar with. The same goes for berries. Bears and other animals have a sense of smell strong enough to keep them safe from poison. We do not.

  5. Matt G says

    My funny/frustrating occasional experience with YT instructional videos is the one step I need help with. If there are 20 steps to the procedure and I already know 19 of them, that one will be the one they just gloss over.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    YouTube videos for living off the grid … how could anybody not see the contradiction?

  7. birgerjohansson says

    Matt G @ 6
    Having watched Nicholas Moran aka the Chieftain at YT I am now perfectly competent to write the requirements for a tank… in a conflict that ended 78 years ago.
    Likewise I now understand that the NASA post-Apollo requirements should avoid reliance on space planes.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    Her sisters were not crazy

    Citation needed.

    I do wonder why not even one of them thought “bollocks to this” and went for help. I know if my mum and sister had dragged me off into the woods at 14 they’d have had to break my legs to stop me just buggering off the minute the food ran out. I’m only surprised that there’s no mention of a religious motivation to it. It’s tragic, of course -- that kid deserved better.

  9. says

    sonofrojblake@2: Been there, done that. Less gnomically, you’ve independently rediscovered Asimov’s Corollary to Clarke’s First Law:

    When, however, the lay public rallies round an idea that is denounced by distinguished but elderly scientists and supports that idea with great fervour and emotion – the distinguished but elderly scientists are then, after all, probably right.

  10. seachange says

    I don’t agree with this. People are people.

    Given the way that politics actually works, and given the outrageous amount of death being slung at us by the reactionary forces of the Religious Reich and rapacious wealth, I think more doom is necessary. People need some kind of doomy deadline -apparently- in order to rev up the very very slow nature of American democracy to do the right thing. Up until now there’s no reason given to choose the one of our choosing instead of theirs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *