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16 October 2008

Fear and the city

These are alarming times, but what are we all most afraid of? From London to Cairo to Beijing, a new

By Frank Furedi

Are we living in an age of fear? Is fear, rather than hope, shaping the cultural imagination of the early 21st century?

This new era has already offered the world a succession of apocalyptic invitations to panic, from the millennium bug onwards. In 2005, bird flu was compared to “a combination of global warming and HIV/Aids” by UN health officials, predicting a pandemic that could kill up to 150 million people. In March 2006, the US surgeon general, Richard Carmona, described obesity as a greater danger to national security than terrorism and said that, unless something was done about it, “the magnitude of the dilemma will dwarf 9/11”. This steady promotion of dramatic warnings about human survival suggests that the market of fear is thriving.

In July, citizens of ten major world cities were surveyed for the World Social Summit (WSS) to find out how London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, New York, Mumbai, Beijing, Tokyo, São Paulo and Cairo experience fear and insecurity. The report, Fear in the Mega-Cities, was presented to the WSS in Rome last month and reveals much about the state of global anxiety.

While the experience of worry is universal, the report shows how in some urban centres, such as São Paulo and Cairo, uncertainty often mutates into outright fear. Of the western cities, Rome turned out to be the least – and London, curiously, the most – optimistic. Of the great Asian centres, Beijing not only scored highly on confidence, but was also the only city whose citizens said their fears had actually decreased in recent years: economic dynamism seems to have had a significant impact on their outlook.

On the whole it is not global threats that people fear the most. Across the world, anxieties are focused on local and individual problems that directly touch everyday life – death, losing a loved one and physical and mental suffering top the list. Anxiety about the threat of terrorism, for instance, was most pronounced in New York; but even there, more people were afraid about not being able to maintain their quality of life. Even before the recent meltdown of the banking system, concerns about unemployment and economic security preoccupied a significant proportion of those interviewed, as did apprehension about becoming a victim of violence or antisocial behaviour.

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Overall, the respondents were more worried about losing their homes or jobs or being a victim of crime than about a terrorist attack. Fear of natural disasters was strongest in cities that had experienced them in the past, such as Mumbai and Beijing. Relatively few appeared to be worried about the threat of war or international conflict. The survey highlights the highly personalised, almost “privatised”, way that fear is experienced. This trend is particularly striking in the large European centres. In contrast, what the report calls collective fears – such as of earthquakes – remain quite important in Asian cities.

Many of the findings of this study resonate with previous global surveys. Although dramatic global threats grab the headlines, most anxieties are focused on the mundane and ordinary problems of existence. Citizens in Cairo and São Paulo may feel fear differently from those in Paris and London, but in all these places it is individualised fears that dominate.

Twenty-first-century fears stand in sharp contrast to those of previous centuries. Throughout history, communities tended to experience their fears in common. In the 20th century, people living through the interwar period feared un employment and old age. In the 1950s, it was fear of nuclear war that exercised the public imagination. In all these cases people feared a common threat, and the anxiety of the age often defined and bound communities together.

At the time the WSS report was researched, the term “credit crunch” had only just entered into the public consciousness, but the huge upheavals that overwhelmed the banking system in September were yet to come. The global financial crisis now presents us with a threat that directly resonates with pre-existing social and economic insecurities. In response to the crisis, a global language of fear is emerging: this is a threat that has captured the imagination of the public from Russia to China, through to Australia and western Europe. The reaction is evident even among societies in Asia, where the economies are relatively robust. Given the findings of Fear in the Mega-Cities, this is not surprising.

The global economic meltdown will be experienced not merely as a threat to the individual, but as a disaster that affects the entire world community. Perceptions will vary from culture to culture. However, if we are also gradually developing a common vocabulary for expressing our anxieties, this may hold out the prospect that we need not suffer in isolation, but confront our fear of the future as a world community.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent