Earth Day and the Sorry History of Doomsday Predictions

 

Professional Doomsayers Revisited

On Wednesday, April 22 last week, Earth Day came around for the 45th time. Even Pope Francis got in on the act, urging “all people to protect the earth” (we hereby solemnly promise to stand guard whenever we find the time). This day of ritual incantations of imminent doom and all-around finger-wagging was inaugurated in 1970. Readers may recall our article “The End is Nigh” from last year, in which we listed predictions from professional doomsayers beginning with what is believed to be the oldest forecast of the impending end of the world ever found, inscribed on an Assyrian stone tablet around 2800 BC. Obviously, every single prediction of this type made since then has turned out to be wrong. Nevertheless, an entire professional caste has made and continues to make an often very good living from predicting the imminent end of the world, seemingly undeterred by this 4,800 year record of failure. The number of doomsters has actually gone through the roof in modern times, so clearly there is a market for this stuff (sadly, a depressingly large portion of it is funded involuntarily by tax payers).

 

HearthstoneThe dude that awaits unrepentant sinners …

Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment

 

 

To be sure, we are not entirely innocent of doom-saying activities ourselves. For instance, we believe that the current debt-based fiat money system with its large central economic planning component is going to end in a major calamity. However, while it will undoubtedly be an uncomfortable experience, it won’t be the end of the world. Nearly every mainstream economist disagrees with this of course, at least officially. This lack of support can be easily explained though. Most mainstream economists must surely realize that if not for statist central planning, there would be very little demand for macro-economists. Obviously they are not inclined to bite the hand that feeds them. In addition, the idea of having a shot at central planning, or at least a shot at advising central planners, presumably appeals to many people (everybody thinks he has the best plan, and if only it were implemented, Nirvana would be shortly at hand).

We insist also that there is another essential difference between our kind of gloominess and that of people like, say, Paul Ehrlich. We believe strongly in human ingenuity. We are awed that the market economy – severely hampered as it is – still manages to create so much real wealth that at the tail end of most boom-bust cycles, society still tends to better off than it was before the boom phase started. It is just not doing as well as it could have in the absence of business cycles fueled by credit expansion. Accordingly, we also believe that if the market economy were left to its own devices, a veritable explosion in general prosperity would ensue (note here that this wouldn’t involve making coercive plans telling other people what they should or shouldn’t do). In short, we are actually inherently optimistic, because we believe in the transformational power of voluntary social cooperation (a.k.a., the free market). In this we are happily supported by both theory and economic history.

However, there is very little inherent optimism found among members of the professional doomsayer caste that is for the most part inspired by environmentalism and scarcity memes nowadays. This caste used to be inspired by religion, and a strong religious undercurrent can still be detected in almost all so-called “scientific” doom-saying exercises of modern times. Almost all of them revolve around man and his alleged sins.

How many issues of a book entitled “There is absolutely nothing to worry about” would Paul Ehrlich have sold? Probably not too many. Admittedly, one could spice the title up a little, as in e.g. “Everything’s going to be awesome!”. Still, “The Population Bomb” offered a lot more titillation. You only needed to glance at the first few sentences in the book to see what we mean (this was written in 1968):

 

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate …”

 

(emphasis added)

Since then, the global population has doubled – and while there has been the occasional localized famine, these days humanity certainly looks better fed than ever before. In fact, in many parts of the world an increasingly large percentage of the population looks decidedly too well fed.

 

fat gals47 years after the publication of the “Population Bomb”, the number of people who are light years removed from the fate known as “death from starvation” has exploded even faster than the global population as such …

Photo credit: Mike Blake / Reuters

 

Not Just Wrong, but Spectacularly Wrong

As Mark J. Perry points out at the Carpe Diem blog, Earth Day often results in a veritable flood of apocalyptic predictions being flung liberally in all directions. Apparently on the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, some of the predictions made around its inauguration were already discussed in an article by Ronald Bailey at Reason, and Perry takes the opportunity to revisit them. Some of this stuff is truly hilarious in retrospect, and the above discussed Paul Ehrlich actually rates several mentions (he is the proud progenitor of some of the most outrageously wrong predictions of doom ever put to paper). Perry writes:

 

“Well, it’s now the 45th anniversary of  Earth Day, and a good time to ask the question again that Bailey asked 15 years ago: How accurate were the predictions made around the time of the first Earth Day in 1970? The answer: “The prophets of doom were not simply wrong, but spectacularly wrong,” according to Bailey. Here are 18 examples of the spectacularly wrong predictions made around 1970 when the “green holy day” (aka Earth Day) started:

 

  1. Harvard biologist George Wald estimated that “civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.”
  2. “We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation,” wrote Washington University biologist Barry Commoner in the Earth Day issue of the scholarly journal Environment.
  3. The day after the first Earth Day, the New York Times editorial page warned, “Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.”
  4. “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make,” Paul Ehrlich confidently declared in the April 1970 Mademoiselle. “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”
  5. “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born,” wrote Paul Ehrlich in a 1969 essay titled “Eco-Catastrophe! “By…[1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s.”
  6. Ehrlich sketched out his most alarmist scenario for the 1970 Earth Day issue of The Progressive, assuring readers that between 1980 and 1989, some 4 billion people, including 65 million Americans, would perish in the “Great Die-Off.”
  7. “It is already too late to avoid mass starvation,” declared Denis Hayes, the chief organizer for Earth Day, in the Spring 1970 issue of The Living Wilderness.
  8. Peter Gunter, a North Texas State University professor, wrote in 1970, “Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions….By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.”
  9. In January 1970, Life reported, “Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support…the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution…by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half….”
  10. Ecologist Kenneth Watt told Time that, “At the present rate of nitrogen buildup, it’s only a matter of time before light will be filtered out of the atmosphere and none of our land will be usable.”
  11. Barry Commoner predicted that decaying organic pollutants would use up all of the oxygen in America’s rivers, causing freshwater fish to suffocate.
  12. Paul Ehrlich chimed in, predicting in his 1970 that “air pollution…is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone.” Ehrlich sketched a scenario in which 200,000 Americans would die in 1973 during “smog disasters” in New York and Los Angeles.
  13. Paul Ehrlich warned in the May 1970 issue of Audubon that DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons “may have substantially reduced the life expectancy of people born since 1945.” Ehrlich warned that Americans born since 1946…now had a life expectancy of only 49 years, and he predicted that if current patterns continued this expectancy would reach 42 years by 1980, when it might level out.
  14. Ecologist Kenneth Watt declared, “By the year 2000, if present trends continue, we will be using up crude oil at such a rate…that there won’t be any more crude oil. You’ll drive up to the pump and say, `Fill ‘er up, buddy,’ and he’ll say, `I am very sorry, there isn’t any.’”
  15. Harrison Brown, a scientist at the National Academy of Sciences, published a chart in Scientific American that looked at metal reserves and estimated the humanity would totally run out of copper shortly after 2000. Lead, zinc, tin, gold, and silver would be gone before 1990.
  16. Sen. Gaylord Nelson wrote in Look that, “Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, believes that in 25 years, somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct.”
  17. In 1975, Paul Ehrlich predicted that “since more than nine-tenths of the original tropical rainforests will be removed in most areas within the next 30 years or so, it is expected that half of the organisms in these areas will vanish with it.”
  18. Kenneth Watt warned about a pending Ice Age in a speech. “The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years,” he declared. “If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.”

 

What makes this so fascinating is that almost all of the people quoted above were or are intelligent and well-educated – many indeed are scientists, giving voice to the “scientific consensus” that existed at the time. For instance, between 1970 and 1975, the “climate consensus” was that an ice age was on the verge of beginning and that we would therefore soon face starvation and other unpleasantries associated with an extremely cold environment (Ehrlich may have been partially influenced by this climate consensus).

This should serve as a warning with respect to the current “climate consensus”. To our mind, modern-day climate science is completely politicized and essentially amounts to an attempt to push through wealth redistribution by force. At times one gets the impression that its aim is to destroy what is left of free market capitalism through the green back door – as opposed to doing it through the still thoroughly discredited red front door. As Michel Crichton once remarked with respect to the constant incantations about this consensus:

 

“In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.

[…]

I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.”

 

(emphasis added)

There is probably no need to reiterate it, but we’ll do it anyway: not a single major prediction made by climate alarmists since at least the 1870s has come true. Not even one!

 

1-data vs modelsActually measured global temperatures (black) since 1980, vs. the predictions of 33 IPCC approved climate models (yes, the error keeps growing).

 

Incidentally we have come across a recent editorial at the WSJ by Lamar Smith, entitled “The Climate Change Religion”. If you read the excerpts below, you will immediately notice that the tone is exactly the same as that employed in the list of failed predictions above. Repent ye sinners! Thou art befouling the planet and shall be punished! Act before it is too late!

And there we thought it was already too late! Apparently it isn’t, just as long as one agrees to higher taxes and more regulations:

 

Today, our planet faces new challenges, but none pose a greater threat to future generations than climate change,” President Obama wrote in his proclamation for Earth Day on Wednesday. “As a Nation, we must act before it is too late.

Secretary of State John Kerry, in an Earth Day op-ed for USA Today, declared that climate change has put America “on a dangerous path—along with the rest of the world.”

[…]

At least the United Nations’ then-top climate scientist, Rajendra Pachauri, acknowledged—however inadvertently—the faith-based nature of climate-change rhetoric when he resigned amid scandal in February. In a farewell letter, he said that “the protection of Planet Earth, the survival of all species and sustainability of our ecosystems is more than a mission. It is my religion and my dharma.

 

(emphasis added)

If it’s Pachauri’s “religion and dharma”, then we must obviously do something. Surely there is something hasn’t been taxed and regulated to death yet? Smith has a more pragmatic approach – in addition, he has the alarmists’ number:

 

“Instead of letting political ideology or climate “religion” guide government policy, we should focus on good science. The facts alone should determine what climate policy options the U.S. considers. That is what the scientific method calls for: inquiry based on measurable evidence.

[…]

Climate reports from the U.N.—which the Obama administration consistently embraces—are designed to provide scientific cover for a preordained policy. This is not good science. Christiana Figueres, the official leading the U.N.’s effort to forge a new international climate treaty later this year in Paris, told reporters in February that the real goal is “to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years.” In other words, a central objective of these negotiations is the redistribution of wealth among nations.”

 

(emphasis added)

As Smith points out, even the imposition of the extremely costly and burdensome new regulations proposed by the administration would have almost no measurable effect on the climate. Moreover, the demands to impose these measures are routinely accompanied by long debunked pseudo-scientific propaganda, such as the 180 degree false assertion that “storms and other extreme weather events have worsened due to global warming”. The exact opposite is true.

 

2-hurricane_frequencyHurricane frequency by decade – tropical cyclones have declined even more sharply, and the number of tornadoes has also taken a nosedive. And yet, the stories about the mythical surge in inclement weather keep being repeated over and over.

 

One only needs to stop and think for a moment what acting on every alarmist “consensus” prediction since that first Earth Day in 1970 would have entailed. How could any of these imaginary dangers have been averted? There is only one way this could have been done: by instituting a command economy. It should be remembered though that command economies have already been tried, and they turned out to be the by far worst environmental polluters on the planet.

 

Conclusion

There is a tendency to overestimate the role human beings play in influencing the environment, coupled with a tendency to underestimate human ingenuity in finding solutions to perceived problems. Finding ways to produce food for twice as many people as 50 years ago and the fact that we haven’t run out of a single of the resources that were supposed to have disappeared decades ago are pertinent examples.

We are not saying that one shouldn’t take care of the environment. There definitely exist a number of environmental problems that are worth tackling – but many of them are actually tragedy of the commons type problems (overfishing is an obvious example). Given that we lack the strong property rights that would be required to ensure optimal protection of the environment, we should at the very least insist on a debate that is free of hysterical pronouncements and includes a proper weighing of costs and benefits. Lastly, the perennial alarmists should be called out for their absolutely atrocious predictive record. After all, we certainly have the data on that.
Charts by: Wattsupwiththat

 

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