Summary: Despite predictions of certain environmental doom for 2017, Los Angeles has survived. While we celebrate, let’s learn from these and 50 years of other confident predictions designed to frighten us into obedience. Let’s learn from them.
On 15 January 1971 Americans watched a TV show by a hot new director, the 24-year old Steven Spielberg. It was “L.A. 2017”, an episode of The Name of the Game. In it the hero has a vision of Los Angeles 46 years in the future, after pollution had destroyed the Earth’s ecology and forced the remnants of humanity to live underground. Los Angeles has one cow; its milk is a delicacy for the rich. For more about the plot see this.
The script was by Philip Wylie, a science fiction writer with a specialty in stories about nuclear war and ecological doom. Those were as popular then as stories about climate apocalypses are today. He novelized it as Los Angeles: A.D. 2017. See a review here.
This was part of Hollywood’s campaign to terrify the public into action about pollution. It was aired before the second anniversary of Earth Day, near the peak of the hysteria. But while the Left warned about the coming doom, experts had been working for decades to clean up America. The key laws and regulations had already been enacted when “LA 2017” was broadcast.
The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 began the long process of cleaning America’s waters, with major amendments enacted in 1961, 1966, 1970, 1972 (a complete revision), 1977, and 1987. The Clean Air Acts of 1955, 1963, 1967, and 1970 broke the back of that problem; subsequent amendments in 1977 and 1990 continued that progress. The Environmental Protection Agency opened shop on 2 December 1970, and has accomplished great things in its brief history.
The improvement in America’s environment since 1960 is amazing. We can take pride in this public policy accomplishment. It is a rebuttal to those who deny America’s history and claim that our government seldom (or never) does anything good for us. This should give us confidence that even the most confident predictions of doom by political activists should be regarded skeptically — including those that fill the newspapers.
Another prediction of doom for 2017!
This year was the setting for “The Fire Next Time“, a 1993 made-for-TV applauded as a realistic warning about climate change. It told the tale of family trekking from Louisiana to New York. They sought a home not yet destroyed by the effects of global warming — droughts, floods, and hurricanes. It included a TV interview with Stephen Schneider (Professor of Environmental Biology at Stanford) playing himself, explaining how we caused this destruction. Now 2017 has arrived and the people of Louisiana are still safe!
Other predictions of doom from 1971
In 1971 we read about the horrific future of 2000 AD in a serious journal, the New Scientist: “In Praise of Prophets” by Bernard Dixon.
“If current trends continue by the year 2000 the United Kingdom will simply be a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people, of little or no concern to the other 5-7 billion inhabitants of a sick world. …If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”
— Paul R. Ehrlich speaking in London at the Institute of Biology in autumn 1969.
Ehrlich also predicted worldwide plague, thermonuclear war, death of the seas, “rocketing” death rates, and ecological catastrophe. Dixon reported that “the audience loved it and gasped for more”. Oddly, people still praise Paul Ehrlich as a prophet.
A new round begins: climate doomster films
During the last 20 years the Left has focused its warnings about the environment almost exclusively on the dangers of global warming (rebranded as climate change). We were told about the imminent end of snow, the parade of superstorms predicted to follow Katrina, and other grim tidings that have not arrived.
Again Hollywood contributes its visions of doom. Climate change is the new supervillain. Hope that this time it will work lives at the New York Times, which asks “Can Hollywood Movies About Climate Change Make a Difference?” Have minds been changed by Day After Tomorrow (2004), The Last Winter (2006), Snowpiercer (2013), Interstellar (2014), Blade Runner 2049, and now Geostorm? Anyone not yet convinced can see Downsizing in December.
Effects of these fear barrages
Those spinning these stories mean well, often telling “noble lies” to encourage the public to adopt the “correct” opinions — for our own good. We have had five decades of fear barrages. In the 1970s and 1980s they predicted massive famines. Resource exhaustion was always coming soon (including three decades of warnings about peak oil). Plus warnings of lethal plagues, from swine flu in 1976 to Ebola in 2014.
For more about this See the Left’s past warnings, and also We love scary stories. The reason why reveals a secret about America.
So far most of these have been failures. The climate change campaign of fear has been the biggest of them all, and perhaps the least successful. It has neither convinced the public that climate change is a high-priority problem nor forced substantial changes in public policy (even his supporters admit that Obama’s mild measures will have minimal effect on the climate, if they survive court challenges and the Trump years).
These fear barrages had some effects. They blinded many Americans to the dramatic improvements in our environment. They helped break our optimism about the future. And, perhaps worst of all, they helped created widespread cynicism — often outright disbelief — about warnings. We have a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” blowback, so that now warnings are regarded skeptically or ignored nor matter how good the evidence. That might prove costly in the future, or even disastrous.
Of course, the Right also relies on fear barrages to influence the American public (e.g., decades of commies everywhere!, plus hysteria about crime as crime rates fall). As does the government. Why don’t our elites rely more heavily on the truth in their campaigns? Perhaps they believe that fear is the most effective way to communicate with us. Let’s prove to them that we are better than that.
For More Information
If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see all posts about Information and Disinformation, about fear as a political tool, and especially these…
- Today’s conservative doomster warning (ludicrous but fun) — Paul Craig Roberts sees the End.
- Requiem for fear. Let’s learn from failed predictions to have confidence in ourselves & our future.
- Threats come & go, leaving us in perpetual fear & forgetful of the past.
- Dreams of apocalypses show the brotherhood of America’s Left & Right.
- Collapsitarians and their doomster porn.
- Journalists suffer from the crisis crisis, warping America’s vision.
- So many of our hit films show dystopias. This shows how we’ve changed.
27 thoughts on “Celebrate Los Angeles’ survival, despite the predictions”
On my Barcelona trip where the sky was brown most days I was unhappily reminded of the bad old days when I could travel to any major American city and land in a fog of pollution. Now virtually anywhere I go in the US, including (though still to a somewhat lesser extent Los Angeles), the sky is mostly a glorious blue.
Hopefully the link below works, but this story entitled Chinese Manufacturing Claims First Fully Automated Production Line for a Type of Solar Cell tells a lot.
— We are moving very rapidly to a solar and wind based economy globally regardless of the rear guard efforts of the fossil fuels industries.
— That economy will be powered by robots and automation, meaning that issues related to employment and inequality are not going away.
— The US “lost” the solar cell industry because China was willing to subsidize production to an extent that manufacture of these products became uneconomical, even there. As robotic manufacture becomes more economical, some of these activities will move back onshore to the US unless they are so polluting that we as a society would prefer to to continue to export those problems elsewhere.
“We are moving very rapidly to a solar and wind based economy globally ”
Growing, yes. Very rapidly, no. The data we have a solar/wind based economy — if ever — is too far away to reliably predict. With subsidies, in 2016 wind was 5.6% of total US electric generation and solar was 0.9% (per EiA). All non-carbon renewables (excluding hydro) were aprox 3.5% of total US energy generation in 2016 (the rest is petroleum for vehicles, natural gas for heat, etc) – per EIA.
Non-carbon renewables comprise an even smaller fraction of the global totals.
These numbers are growing, but only at modest speeds. The EIA projects in 2026 non-carbon renewables will be 6.2% of total US energy generation. Speculating, they predict that that will grow to 9.2% in 2015 — for a 2016-2050 growth rate of 3.5% per year. per EIA.
Larry, I’m not doubting your data, but believe it is built on an incorrect premise. Solar in particular is a digital technology and the industry is in the midst of a cost curve akin to Moore’s law, but with limitations due to the physical scale of the devices required. Current projection extrapolate a world where subsidies have been required for initial technology adoption. In many regions costs of solar without subsidy are now competitive with fossil fuels and will become increasingly so over the next few years. Once that economic threshold becomes obvious the rate of growth in adoption will increase significantly. It’s taken about twenty years for broadband internet availability to move from nominal to almost ubiquitous. That’s effectively a total transformation of the communications system in the developed world. I’d call that quite rapid. Transformation of the global energy grid is a larger task so maybe it takes a bit longer. However the adoption curve of new technologies has continued to speed up, not slow down so I would not discount a twenty year transition window.
“I’m not doubting your data, but believe it is built on an incorrect premise.”
You must be kidding. it’s not my data. It’s the Department of Energy’s data about past energy use. If you believe that you know more then they do about US energy use, well good luck with that.
“solar in particular is a digital technology ”
I assume you are now talking about their forecast. I’m sure you are a smart guy. But these forecasts are made by teams of experts in multiple disciplines, working with the major companies in that biz. I can’t imagine why you think that you know more than they do.
Multiple “experts’ have been projecting a stock market crash since 2010. Most expert analyses are based on extrapolation of existing trends or historical analogs. We live in an age of disruption which leads to asymmetric results, which are impossible to predict with regression analysis. I would be surprised if these same experts correctly predicted a 2/3s drop in petroleum prices as a result of the explosion of fracking technology.
“Multiple “experts’ have been projecting a stock market crash since 2010.”
Name one. The guys who fill the financial press with their predictions are not experts in any meaningful sense. They are more like entertainers.
Journalists select the people they select as “experts” by their ability to give exciting sound bites — not proven expertise by their credentials or track record (often their “experts” have a track record much worse than random change would give). They seldom like actual experts, who speak in terms of probability and uncertainty about the complex and poorly understood phenomena that drive our world. I do marketing for high tech firms, so confront this problem every day.
Follow-up to “Multiple “experts’ have been projecting a stock market crash since 2010.”
Also, that statement shows a misunderstanding how probability works. There is some probability of a stock market crash every day (aka “flash crash”), and a much higher (but still low) probability of one every year. It might come from an unexpected event (e.g., August 1914, Fall 2008) or breakdown of market mechanisms (e.g., 1987).
So risk managers always “project a stock market crash”. Each and every day. Forecasting is done not because we know the future, but because we don’t.
My understanding of probabilities is based on a bell curve. Within the range of predictable outcomes, the asymptote predicts a ten sigma outcome of the asteroid hitting earth and destroying humanity. A discontinuous outcome occurs when the entire curve is moved in an unpredictable way. We have seen a number of such events in recent years related to digital transformation (e.g. the destruction of the newspaper and record industries in very short periods of time). Predictions from government bureaucracies are notoriously bad at taking into account discontinuities.
Exactly. Now apply that to restating your statement “Multiple “experts’ have been projecting a stock market crash since 2010″ in a fashion that applies to expert forecasts.
“Predictions from government bureaucracies are notoriously bad at taking into account discontinuities.”
(1) What is the basis for your implication that non-govt forecasts are worse than those from the private sector?
(2) Discontinuities are by definition difficult or impossible to predict, and so are usually ignored.
(3) In every field I know, the standard govt forecasts are as good as the consensus of experts in that field. For example, compare Fed forecasts vs. the Blue Chip forecasts or averages from the quarterly Survey of Professional Forecasters.
I suspect you are correct that my critique with regard to discontinuities generally applies equally to the private sector and the government. Michael Lewis has done a good a job explaining why so few people are able to predict discontinuities, often even after they have become evident. In that regard I particularly recommend The Big Short and The Undoing Project.
“I suspect you are correct”
Even a blind squirrel…
We are lousy at evaluating big, slow moving risks. And of course, timing is the hardest thing to pin down. No question that in the name of profit, media capitalizes on our fascination with disaster, thus resulting in the “cry wolf” syndrome.
Big, slow moving disasters do happen though, we just don’t want to spend the up front effort to minimize the damage when they do arrive. Let’s consider where California was before the rains finally came last year. If not for the “atmospheric river” event, there would have been some serious hardships on the west coast this year. Is the briefly ameliorated drought a symptom of global warming? A rare but inevitable statistical event ? Part of a multi decadal cyclical phenomenon? Doesn’t matter, we saw it coming for years. Our political system does nor respond very well to these types of things.
Planning ahead for drought and other predictable problems is important and useful. Pretending they are caused by something we can control is not helpful because it will direct our efforts in the wrong direction. Century long drought is a historical fact for the CA area and they were not caused by humans. (http://www.mercurynews.com/2014/01/25/california-drought-past-dry-periods-have-lasted-more-than-200-years-scientists-say/) We can expect similar droughts to come and it is within our capability to prepare for them — but not to prevent them.
“Pretending they are caused by something we can control is not helpful ”
I doubt if any climate scientists agree with your confident broad statement. First, our GHG emissions can be substantially “controlled” over long time horizons (with material changes beginning 2 decades out if we start today. Second, the IPCC’s AR5 report said the following about the effect of continued greenhouse gas emissions on the intensity and severity of droughts.
I think what Andrew was getting at, is that California’s climate history includes two 200-year long droughts in the last 1200 (?) years and the wettest 200 years most recently. It is within normal climate variability to have a 200 year-long drought in the long term, regardless of human influences. There needs to be a plan to deal with drought and sort out the politically difficult topic of water rights regardless of efforts to reduce GHG emissions. We need to plan for the past.
“California’s climate history includes two 200-year long droughts ”
Yes. I’ve written over a dozen posts about that. See them here.
“There needs to be a plan to deal with drought”
Very true. Almost every post about climate change (this post is about predictions) includes this quote:
“I think what Andrew was getting at”
We don’t know what he was getting at. We do know that an important — imo the most important — aspect of his statement was materially incorrect.
“There needs to be a plan to deal with drought and sort out the politically difficult topic of water rights regardless of efforts to reduce GHG emissions. We need to plan for the past.”
Here’s a comic illustration of why we don’t do that, from the National Drought Mitigation Center:
The sad thing is that it’s from 1990
Thanks for the reminder of that great illustration! I’ve used it in several of my posts about drought.
I think the limit case for scare stories was always nuclear winter. We needed to ban the bomb because if there was ever a nuclear war, then the world would freeze. I recall a lot of argument about the theory in political magazines at the time, with people on the Right arguing that it was just liberals trying to scare people into disarmament with this bogus scare story.
The problem here is that even if the theory of nuclear winter is false, the effects of nuclear war would be so bad that n sensible person would ever want to fight one. So it really shouldn’t be necessary to use the nuclear winter theory to convince people that avoidance if nuclear war is a good idea. (How best to avoid nuclear war, and who was “right” in the 80s era debates over nuclear strategy is beyond the scope of this discussion) So in the end maybe the use of scare tactics about any given issue tells you more about the people using the scare tactics than about the issue itself. They think we’re too stupid to reason with, and so they have to scare us, and they assume we’ll always fall for it.
When there’s something real to be concerned about, the overuse of fear can be counterproductive. There’s only a finite amount of oil and fossil fuels, but the doomster talk about peak oil probably ended up costing a lot of credibility as technology stretched available supplies. (Fracking, for example, and improvements in efficiency) Don’t call wolf unless there’s an actual wolf, because wolves are real.
By the way, thanks for the preview trailer. I enjoyed a slice of that good old seventies cheese.
How could I have forgotten Nuclear Winter! Thank you for the reminder. I mentioned that in one of my early posts about climate change. See the link to Brian Martin’s great paper about nuclear winter – the prototype for the climate change campaign.
Oddly, climate activists adopted the model with few or no revisions — despite the fact that it failed (just like all most of their campaigns). But they don’t learn.
Larry, thanks for this reminder!
Same thing in Europe: we have more forests, cleaner waters, cleaner air, cleaner energy, recycling, more efficient transportation… I studied Environmental Engineering in the 1990s and we were taught to follow the examples from the US. Now we try to inspire Chinese students to follow our own example. I’m relatively optimistic that they’ll also tackle the huge environemntal problems they’re facing.
Brown air in Barcelona: it’s difficult to do anything about Saharan dust storms, which are a plague in the Iberian peninsula. Brown skies, red rain, dust all over. Some things we have to live with.
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