Banish the doomsters. Make Earth Day a celebration!

Summary: We face unprecedented environmental challenges in the next 50 years. Exaggerated warnings by greens, often wildly inaccurate, reduce our ability to cope with likely problems. Hysterical single-issue advocacy groups are part of the problem, not the solution.

The enemy is us
A 1970 poster Walt Kelly made for the first Earth Day.

Here is an essential perspective to know on the 48th anniversary of a valuable but ultimately botched idea.

Earth Day, Then and Now.

By Ronald Bailey in Reason, May 2000.
“The planet’s future has never looked better. Here’s why.”

The environment in the developed nations has improved since the first Earth Day in 1970, but the damage in most developing nations has been severe or worse. We are wrecking the oceans. As the rest of the world industrializes and the population grows to 10 (or 12 billion), there will be more damage.

Bailey concludes with a prediction. I believe he is probably wrong about 2030. But his optimism will probably prove right about 2060, and almost certainly right about 2090.

“… {In 2030} as many developing countries become wealthier, they will start to pass through the environmental-transition thresholds for various pollutants, and their air and water quality will begin to improve. Certainly air and water quality in the United States, Europe, Japan, and other developed countries will be even better than it is today. Enormous progress will be made on the medical front, and diseases like AIDS and malaria may well be finally conquered. As for climate change, concern may be abating because the world’s energy production mix is shifting toward natural gas and nuclear power. There is always the possibility that a technological breakthrough – say, cheap, efficient, non-polluting fuel cells – could radically reshape the energy sector. In any case a richer world will be much better able to cope with any environmental problems that might crop up.

“One final prediction, of which I’m most absolutely certain: There will be a disproportionately influential group of doomsters predicting that the future–and the present – never looked so bleak.”

The core of Bailey’s essay is the description of Leftists’ many failed predictions. Most of these had little or no analytical foundation when they were made. Earth Day inaugurated the modern era of Big Exaggerations for the News Media as a path to career success for green activists.

Fearful faces in the dark

Using fear to pushing the public to change public policy

“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. Reported by Bernard Dixon in the New Scientist: “In Praise of Prophets.”

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”. Just like today, as we applaud and cry for more doomster stories about the climate Armageddon.

After decades of this, Earth Day has becomes a doomster festival, as St. Patrick’s Day is for the Irish (but less fun). Parties, predictions of doom, and two-minute hates against the complacent majority.

These scare tactics have accomplished nothing. The great laws regulating air and water pollution were enacted in the 1960s, before these tactics became widespread. The EPA was created in 1970. These stories seemed powerful because they extrapolated past trends into the future, ignoring countermeasures that had already been started. Just as today’s climate doomsters ignore the replacement of coal by cleaner sources and the even better sources under development (details here).

Panic button

Now for the bad news

 “Nobody believes a liar…even when he is telling the truth!”
— Conclusion to Aesop’s “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

For four decades activists have screamed predictions of certain doom. The Boomers have lived long enough to see most of them proven false: nuclear war, famine from overpopulation, devastation from polluted air and water (doom by 2017!), peak oil, the bee-pocalypse, and many others.

The result: Doom Fatigue – a pervasive disbelief in experts and their warnings. This is different from rational skepticism. Too many false warnings. Too many shrill and self-serving warnings. The daily bombardment of doomsday warnings leaves people feeling helpless, with the natural result of ignoring all warnings. Worse, their shock value decreases with each round, so the next generation of doomster warnings must be more vivid, more extreme, and more exciting.

Fear: Sinatra
From The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’ by Bill Zehme.

A better way

There are many possible shockwaves. But preparation for a shockwave is expensive. There is not enough money in the world to prepare for all of them. Many studies have shown the people have little grasp of these kinds of issue, and less understanding of the relevant statistics (i.e., probability and risk).  So we allocate resources to shockwave scenarios based on irrational factors.

  1. Activists’ access to influence elite opinion and journalists.
  2. Activists’ ability to raise funds for publicity campaigns.
  3. The appeal of their shockwave with the public.

Risk management is a vital skill for the 21st century world. Fortunately, there is a better way to do this.

A modest suggestion

“Apocalyptic and misanthropic environmental narratives …contributed to widespread resignation and cynicism. So far, they have fallen short of mobilizing enough people to bring about real political change. ”

Journalist Andy Revkin in the NYT.

We need to prioritize our preventive efforts, spending what we can afford to most effectively prevent and mitigate shockwaves. First, we must understand the full universe of such shockwaves. Otherwise they are just a series of nightmares, with no rational response possible.

We should commission a group to collect as many shockwave scenarios as possible, and produce a brief analysis of each.  Then apply a common analytical framework to rate them in terms of probability and impact. This would allow a rational public policy discussion.

Survival in the 21st century might depend on how well we manage shockwaves. For more about this see The first step to protecting the world from its many dangers.

Doing this well would make future Earth Days into celebrations of success and re-dedication to more successes in the future.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see posts about pollution, about doomsters, about shockwaves, about the precautionary principle, and the keys to understanding climate change, and especially these …

  1. Important: climate scientists can restart the climate change debate – & win.
  2. How we broke the climate change debates. Lessons learned for the future.
  3. A candid climate scientist explains how to fix the debate.
  4. Professor Michael Mann destroys the case for massive immediate action on climate change.
  5. Good news from America about climate change, leading the way to success.
  6. Good news for the New Year! Salon explains that the global climate emergency is over.
  7. Good news about climate change from an amazing source! — From The Guardian.
  8. Polls about climate change point to a dark truth – Thirty years of massive effort produced few policy changes to fight climate change.

Leftists’ amnesia about their past predictions

The Population Bomb
Available at Amazon.

The 1968 preface of Ehrlich’s 1971 book The Population Bomb summarizes his forecast (also see Wikipedia).

“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.”

The Left gives their new predictions of doom with no awareness of their past failed predictions. Before we panic, see the Left’s past warnings. And their false claims and exaggerations.

They still do it. Remember the ludicrous “30,000 extinctions every year” stories? The stories about the super-hurricanes coming after 2005 (we got a 12 year long “drought”) and the super-extraordinary 2017 hurricane season (that wasn’t). The long-ago predictions about the End of Snow. And some of the many other predictions about climate change that proved to be false.

Leftists’ amnesia about these predictions does not mean that we should forget them.


3 thoughts on “Banish the doomsters. Make Earth Day a celebration!”

  1. “There are many possible shockwaves. But preparation for a shockwave is expensive. There is not enough money in the world to prepare for all of them.”

    Excellent post. Good point.

    This is what explodes the Precautionary Principle argument for drastic CO2 reduction. A similar point explodes the similar Pascal Wager. You cannot get away from rational choice and sensible allocation of limited resources.

    Just as you can only believe one religion, and the Wager gives you no clue how to choose between incompatible ones which all promise eternal damnation should you not believe them.

  2. “Bailey concludes with a prediction. I believe he is probably wrong about 2030. But his optimism will probably prove right about 2060, and almost certainly right about 2090.”

    I am more optimistic than you, at least for the kind of large-scale environmental damage I saw in the 1980s in southern Europe, when I was studying environmental engineering. We moved much faster than we thought was possible, due to a large extent to expertise from the US and northern Europe, and I think we achieved in 20 years what they achieved in 40; I think we have been at the same level for at least a decade.

    We’ve been transferring know-how to the developing world for almost two decades, starting with China, but there is also a lot more information available (especially from remote sensing) and information support methods (numerical models, indices, databases…). I’ve had a lot of first-hand experience, and I’m impressed not only with the level of expertise and environmental awareness I’ve seen, but especially with the amount of data and knowledge available even for poorly developed countries, thanks to a large degree to developments in remote sensing and informatics, but also data collection efforts made or coordinated by institutions such as the WMO, FAO, NOAA, JRC, IPCC and others. Simple example, I used to pay a lot of money for a single unprocessed satellite image, now I can download the processed products here or here

    An environmental engineer in a developing country knows a lot more about his country than his US counterpart did back in 1970, has better access to a lot more theoretical knowledge and practical manuals, and can use cheaper technological solutions to the problems he finds.

    I think we still face huge challenges. Climate change will likely be a problem, although I think that we’re on track to bring it down to a manageable level (that’s the conclusion I make from the impact studies I’ve seen for RCP 4.5). I’m concerned with the emerging issue of micropollutants such as microplastics, complex chemicals or hormones, which affect the environment in more subtle and complex ways and have low-level, long term effects such as cancer, allergies or subtle ecosystem-wide impacts (e.g. the impact of insecticides on bee populations). But we can argue that the fact that we’re focusing on these problems is also an indicator that we learned how to handle the simple ones such as air and water contamination, which seemed pretty intractable back in the 1970s.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      (1) “We’ve been transferring know-how to the developing world for almost two decades, starting with China, but there is also a lot more information available”

      I somewhat agree. But information almost irrelevant to the problem – imo. Just as we knew about our environmental problems in the 1950s, but did little, China full well understood them in 2000 — and understands them today.

      It’s a question of values. Priorities. China is just now taking serious steps to reduced the environmental damage of rapid industrialization. I’m unsure if they are even making net progress. Ditto, India.

      But even when China and India begin net improvements — Africa will enter center state. Their combination of weak governments (i.e., little regulation, much exploitation of commons), rapid population growth and industrialization might result in an environmental holocaust.

      (2) “I think that we’re on track to bring it down to a manageable level (that’s the conclusion I make from the impact studies I’ve seen for RCP 4.5).”

      More accurately, we were on track for RCP 8.5, but with continued improvement might get emissions (not greenhouse gas levels) down to RCP2.6 by 2050 – 2070. That would still create massive impacts, but not like the doomsters so confidently predict. More accurately, there would be large but unpredictable impacts (models are not yet good enough for accurate forecast, esp since key variables are not yet know except with wide ranges).

      Time will tell.

      (3) “but we can argue that the fact that we’re focusing on these problems is also an indicator that we learned how to handle the simple ones”

      Yes. That’s why I believe Earth Day should not only remind us of future challenges but also celebrate past successes.

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