WE could have a grown-up discussion about the outbreak of flu in Mexico which has led to between 150 and 180 deaths and spread to numerous countries across the globe. And we could take comfort from the fact that in almost all cases outside Mexico those infected have been mildly ill and appear to be making a recovery.

But, unfortunately, that is not the discussion we are having. "All of humanity is under threat," the World Health Organisation warns. "Killer flu arrives in Britain," a newspaper informs us. We live in a world where just about any outbreak of flu is transformed into a health scare and treated as a precursor of a global pandemic. Typically, a health warning soon turns into a threat alert and once again we are reminded that we live in unusually dangerous times.

It is not hope but fear that excites and shapes the cultural imagination of the early 21st century. Indeed, fear is fast becoming a caricature of itself. It is no longer simply an emotion or a response to the perception of threat. It has become a cultural idiom through which we signal a sense of growing unease about our place in the world. Popular culture continually encourages an expansive alarmist imagination by providing the public with a steady diet of fearful programmes about impending calamities - man-made and natural. Alarmist television programmes about old and impending disasters and films such as The Day After Tomorrow, which transmit the idea that a sudden change in climatic conditions threatens the destruction of the planet, self-consciously erode the line between fact and fiction.

Some experts and health professionals are quite happy to deploy alarmist fiction to promote their cause. Raising awareness through the promotion of fear is frequently justified by zealous crusaders. One climatologist, David Viner, acknowledged that the film The Day After Tomorrow "got a lot of details wrong". But hey, so what! He argued that anything that "raises awareness about climate change must be a good thing".

The open advocacy of fear indicates that it has become a cultural metaphor for interpreting and representing the world around us. Indeed, in some circles fear is used as a form of affectation to signify a sensitivity to the many hidden perils facing people. "I am really worried about my child surfing the net," parents tell one another, as a way of displaying their parental responsibility. To acknowledge fear is to demonstrate awareness. This self-conscious affectation does not mean that people are necessarily more scared than previously. It merely signals the idea that they ought to be.

It is not necessary for our imagination of fear to correspond to our experience of life. Compared with the past, people living in Western societies have less familiarity with pain, debilitating disease and death than ever before. We are far better placed to deal with the outbreak of new disease than was the case in the past. Recent outbreaks of Ebola, Sars and West Nilus virus have been contained with relatively small loss of lives. In 2006, Thailand and Vietnam were able to report that bird flu had been contained, even though they had been at the epicentre of the epidemic a year previously. Yet despite our growing capacity to deal with the problems facing humanity, we are led to believe that we are likely to be overwhelmed by the disasters that loom ahead.

Fear can be a sensible response to the circumstances we face. As individuals, fear often helps us to concentrate the mind when we engage with unexpected and unpredictable circumstances. There are many experiences that we should rightly fear. These are threats that are based on our personal experience. It is reasonable to fear a gang of drunken louts who cross our path or the behaviour of a vindictive employer. However, today, many of the threats that we are instructed to fear are not based on direct experience. They are often shaped by alarmist media accounts of swine flu in Mexico, paedophiles preying on our children or desperate Middle Eastern terrorists plotting our downfall. These are threats that do not emerge out of our immediate personal experience. We can neither fight them nor flee from them. They are about dangers that we can not directly confront but simply experience passively.

The growing divergence of our sensibility of fear from our daily routine indicates that we are not talking about simply an emotional response to our experience. What is at issue is a more general cultural perspective on how we make sense of our lives. One of the principal features of our culture of fear is the belief that humanity is confronted by powerful destructive forces that threaten our existence. With so much at stake, how can responsible people fail to raise the alarm? That is why it has become so easy for television producers to blur the line that used to divide reality from science fiction. That is also why officialdom appears to be in the business of transmitting scare stories to the public. Politicians and officials take the view that if they warn us to be afraid about some impending catastrophe they will protect themselves from the accusation of irresponsibility.

Recently, the White House announced that "there is no need to panic about the outbreak of swine flu". But when is there ever a need to panic? The very attempt to reassure conveys the assumption that fear is the default state of mind. This sentiment was implicit in a recent report of the Mental Health Foundation, which claimed that more than three-quarters of the UK population believe that the world is more frightening today than 10 years ago. The aim of this well-meaning report was to warn us about the destructive consequence of the promotion of fear (It claims that 15% of us are suffering from so-called anxiety disorders). Unfortunately, its focus on the fearful consequences of fearing reinforces the very outlook the report seeks to tackle.

So why is a relatively prosperous, secure and healthy society afflicted by the myth that it is living through an unprecedented dangerous era? The principal reason for the flourishing of fear-mongering is the relative weakness of a moral code through which society can confidently give meaning to what is right and what is wrong. A moral code helps give meaning to the many compensates for its moral disorientation through embracing health warnings, threat alerts and the rituals of risk management. We no longer tell young teenagers that pre-marital sex is immoral or bad but that it is bad for their health and their emotional wellbeing. Instead of denouncing moral transgressions, fear entrepreneurs are more likely to castigate "risky behaviour", "unhealthy choices" or "green sins". And the swine flu outbreak? According to one moral tale, it is a punishment for the evil of factory farming - nature biting back at industrial animal production.

Fear entrepreneurs rarely attempt to spread alarm for its own sake. As in the case of the boy who cried wolf, fear-mongering represents a call for attention. Through raising the alarm, individuals and groups draw attention to their cause and claims in order to influence the public's behaviour. So public campaigns against obesity often justify their alarmist message on the grounds that it puts pressure on people to change their behaviour. As a result, a public health professional such as Ian Roberts can boast that "the social stigma attached to obesity is one of the few forces slowing the epidemic". The message is: change the way you live, get on your bike or walk, eat less, cut out meat and you will save yourself and the planet. One environmental researcher claims that "given the crushing burden of obesity on individuals and society, all potential sources of motivation need to be stressed".

Entrepreneurs regularly harness the prevailing culture of fear to promote their businesses and sell their products. They can sell us digital devices to track the movement of our children, vitamin supplements to prevent them becoming ill, and health insurance to try and ensure that we, and even our pets, are in a position to obtain the relevant help should catastrophe strike. They continually warn that the public faces all kinds of dangers that threaten health, security or wellbeing. In some cases, hazards - such as the supposed unsafety of tap water - are fabricated, leading to a significant transformation in lifestyle and behaviour. The health and pharmaceutical industry - one of the most profitable sectors of the economy - has been well served by the constant outbreaks of health panics. Shares in Roche, which makes anti-flu drug Tamiflu, and GlaxoSmithKline, which makes anti-flu drug Relenza, have seen significant growth over the past few days.

Meanwhile, food scares have significantly influenced our eating habits, and concern with global warming has led to the emergence of a new cadre of green entrepreneurs who argue that unless the entire economy is reorganised, we are doomed. But it is important to note that fear-mongers are principally moral entrepreneurs. Their warnings often convey a message about how people ought to behave in order to avoid consequences that are not only dangerous but also evil. Frequently, through raising concern about problems, they turn physical threats into moral hazards. Through their crusades, physical threats also come to constitute evils. So warnings about climate change quickly metamorphose into calls for a responsible low-carbon lifestyle. Going green, ethical living, vegetarianism or carbon rationing are promoted because they alleviate the threat of a catastrophe and because they represent morally sanctioned forms of behaviour. They also constitute an alternative to "green sins". This term, initially used tongue-in-cheek, refers to new forms of moral transgressions.

Eating and food has also become a morally charged activity. Consequently, scaremongering about the "epidemic" of child obesity continually shifts from its alarmist propaganda about health consequences to a moral condemnation of slothful behaviour. The traditional sin of sloth has been recycled into a health warning that demands that people alter their behaviour. Obesity serves as an exemplar of 21st-century moral hazard. The main protagonist of this scare is the flabby indolent child whose parents are indifferent to his diet and feed him on a regular diet of junk food.

The massive growth of fear-mongering campaigns and crusades during the past quarter-century is unprecedented. The dramatisation of fear acquires its most extravagant form in relation to the very big catastrophic hazards that apparently threaten the survival of the planet. International terrorism, climate change, influenza type pandemic, the Aids epidemic, over-population and potential for disastrous technological accidents are only a few of the many mega-hazards confronting society.

Health scares targeting children and women have become a flourishing enterprise, and are often linked to anxieties about food or the alleged side-effects of drugs, pollution and new technologies. Personal security constitutes another important subject for fear-mongering. Anxieties about crime, immigration and anti-social behaviour are regularly promoted by law and order advocacy organisations.

Fear promotion even attaches itself to the domain of personal relationships. Parenting has turned into a minefield and children are continually depicted as "at risk". Powerful warnings about child abuse, peer abuse, bullying, harassment, rape, domestic violence and elder abuse communicate a health warning about the perils of personal relations. Finally, many scares convey a warning about the danger of moral corruption. Possibly the most potent symbol of the threat of moral degradation is the paedophile: a threat which is further amplified through sensationalist accounts about paedophile rings, internet pornography, and other forms of immoral sexual behaviour.

Most of us are far too busy trying to tackle the challenges of day-to-day existence to live our lives, according to the dictates of fear entrepreneurs. Research indicates that what concerns people are the problems of everyday life - jobs, money, the wellbeing and future security of their children. Of the high-profile public panics, crime and perceived threats to children have the gravest impact on our imagination. Most research suggests that there is a discrepancy between how fear is represented, discussed and reported in public and the way it is experienced by individuals.

Our private fears are often about our status - not being taken seriously or respected - and about knowing our place in the world. Nevertheless the dramatisation of fear influences behaviour by encouraging anxiety about the future, along with cynicism and confusion.

Worse still, it incites us to regard ourselves as victims of circumstances beyond our control instead of authors of our destiny. That is why it is so important to rebel against the power of the fear entrepreneurs. Most of the time - as in the case of the current swine flu scare - that means getting on with life. Instead of relying on the experts, we need to cultivate the informal ties that bind us to friends and family, who are the best guarantors of our security.


About the author

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent and author of Invitation To Terror (Continuum Press). His research is oriented towards the study of the workings of precautionary culture and risk aversion in Western societies, and explores controversies and panics over issues such as health, children, food, new technology and terrorism. A regular commentator on radio and television, he has used his insights as a professional sociologist to produce agenda-setting books, including Therapy Culture and Paranoid Parenting, which have been translated into 11 languages.