Social construction of a crisis

by Eduardo Estellita on março 2, 2016

Crisis! The world today seems to be immersed in one after the other.

Just the past 5 years, I’ve had the opportunity to experience in loco the 2012 European crisis and the 2015-2016 Brazilian one. Although the political and economic contours have been fairly different, their evolution were quite similar.

Let’s forget for a second the specific reasons, the smoking gun, that get economists all excited and contentious. Some of them argue that the cycles of bubble and bust around the world point to the capitalist model reaching its limits (a position I agree with), while others identify political, social or circumstantial reasons to explain each one, claiming that capitalism is as healthy as it’s always been and that we need more of it to fight the crisis.

To be honest, I’m not that interested in the smoking gun or the culprit. I’m not an economist and the whole thing feels too abstract and subjective anyways, so, instead, I’m curious about what happens inside our minds when a crisis is “declared”. I’m curious about what takes an initial deflagration into a full blown poor-African-nation-type of crisis: no food in the supermarkets, no jobs available, hundreds of bankruptcies per day, civil war, criminality on the rise, diseases, hunger and suicides by the truckloads. Because I’m hopeful that, maybe, if we’re able to look into how we get from point A to B, we might be able to avoid it.

Psychologists have long proven that fear and imminent threat sells. It gets newspapers off the stand, it does wonders for ratings and it’s very effective on shifting people’s mindsets.The first signs of a crisis are so powerful because, in fact, they’re invisible. One day, we tune in the news and hear about challenges, bad indicator and government negotiations, all in a very pessimistic manner, and the sheer repetition of the word “crisis” starts to have an effect on us. We become paranoid: “There’s a really bad crisis coming over. I hear about it everywhere but it hasn’t affected me yet in any way. I go about my day and nothing has changed.” The anticipation of something, anything, is nerve-wrecking and leads us to “buckle up and watch our backs.”

And it is at this time that the crisis really begins. When our collective consciousness start to create it! What happens is that the stress generated by the media hijacks our brains and we move into reptilian/survival mode. In survival mode, we cannot make executive decisions or prioritize anymore. We experience tunnel vision. We become helpless victims to our emotions. We neglect our social needs in order to cater for our survival, our individualistic needs. Under crisis stress, we disconnect from ourselves, from the other and from the environment.

We scan the environment looking for signs of the crisis, we turn on the news for more information about it and that’s precisely what we get. It’s confirmation bias at its best, a vicious circle of doom and gloom. Eastern philosophy has long ago alerted us to the power of our thoughts in creating reality, but in the Western world we’re still inclined to see mind and matter as two distinct entities.

Crisis stem from a belief in scarcity, that there won’t be enough for you in the near future. When a society truly believes in abundance, no circumstance is difficult enough to generate a crisis. At the same rate, when there’s a mindset of scarcity, we cling to our positions, our possessions and our knowledge. Sharing stops. Empathy and helping each other stops. Creativity and innovation stops.

Take the example of Greece, amidst the horrific crisis that hit it recently, several university students moved to the islands and established thriving self-sufficient communities. That’s the power of the mind!

When we stop connecting and become handicapped in finding solutions, we resort to the oldest tricks in the book. Won’t reach your quarterly targets, fire some employees to cut costs. Want to keep your job, make yourself indispensable by hogging a strategic knowledge. Need some cash, rob someone. Must pay the bills, raise taxes. These are solutions for one particular group and, yet, they fail to take into account their impact on the system. Slowly and surely, companies, society and government work together to fuel the fire, rather than to extinguish it. And unemployment, criminality, suicide and hunger ensues.

Have you realized how societies with collectivist preferences tend to be more resilient to crisis? Or how the reaction of the Japanese government and society to Fukushima differ from America’s to Katrina? Or how much help are we providing to the growing unemployed population in Brazil?

At the same time, how many media-generated crisis never came to be? Despite the fear mongering, the world did not stop on its axis when Sarkozy won the election in France (or Bush, in the US) or when Belgium found itself without government. In both cases, people simply chose not to bite the bait and went on with their lives.

It’s comforting to find excuses in external factors. But guess what? We’re deep in this crisis because of you and me! Because we spend too much energy repeating the same mantras to each other and too little time extending our hands, creating abundance. Because we reach for the quick fix to our problem, while sinking the nation.

Want to get out of the crisis? Turn off the TV and go help someone!

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