The World Is Full … of Something

“You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century — when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, tornados plowed through cities, floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all” – Thomas Friedman

A few weeks back the country was “gripped” with Harold Camping’s predictions that the end-of-the-world was imminent. He was, umm, wrong. He turned around a few days later and re-predicted the end, some six months further out (October if I recall) – some folks should just quit. Call it feedback or a humbling experience, but sooner or later one should be embarrassed by being consistently wrong. I’m not talking about the attendant mockery – Christians get mocked all the time for nothing more than their beliefs. I’m talking about the harm you do to your “cause” when you are wrong, and wrong, and wrong, and wrong again; sooner or later you’re the boy who cried wolf having zero credibility.

Christians aren’t the only ones here; the eco-fanatics are just as bad. They usually avoid calling specific days for destruction, but that doesn’t stop their alarmism or even giving some time frames.

Try these:

  • “We have about five more years at the outside to do something” – Kenneth Watt, ecologist
  • “Civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind” – George Wald, biologist
  • “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years” – Paul Ehrlich, biologist
  • “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 [15 years from now] air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half….” – Life Magazine

It sounds dire, dire indeed. Of course, these predictions were all made in 1970, better than 40 years ago.

It’s a tough lesson to learn. You have to be an alarmist without giving specific dates. Never let them get you on the record making a specific prediction that will later come back to bite you.

(Side note, I suspect it will also be a tough lesson for President Obama as well – back when he pushed for massive deficit spending “stimulus” he promised that we would keep the unemployment rate under 8.3%. We haven’t seen 8.3% in a long time. Don’t give specifics!)

(Another side note, also predicted by Kenneth Watt in 1970: “The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. 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.” … awesome!)

It’s not just the specific predictions that cost you credibility though. It can also be a repeated, continual “shoe-horning” of a political ideology into what should be a scientific discussion. Enter Thomas Friedman, who just released a column titled “The Earth is Full.” He pulls on the work of environmentalist Paul Gilding regarding the standard mantra of impending doom for the planet (Gilding stays away from specific dates though – he has learned that much).

Gilding states “We are heading for a crisis-driven choice … We either allow collapse to overtake us or develop a new sustainable economic model. We will choose the latter. We may be slow, but we’re not stupid.” Friedman also translates Gilding’s work into this: “We will realize, he predicts, that the consumer-driven growth model is broken and we have to move to a more happiness-driven growth model, based on people working less and owning less.”

Several thoughts …

Much of the column appears to be Friedman’s recapitulation of Gilding’s work, and I have not taken time to read all of Gilding’s work (nor will I … being rather busy). However, both sets of commentary snippets (Friedman’s and Gilding’s) would lead you to think that this is a crisis of economy. But this is an environmental argument. Why is it that the eco-warriors always end up promoting a “new” economic model to solve the environmental issues? Perhaps it is the only way, but it would be nice to see someone, somewhere make an “save the environment” argument that doesn’t require socialism. (In Gilding’s defense, at least he uses the words “we will choose” … a promising sign.)

As for Friedman, the opening quote appears to be the words of an alarmist finding his cause in every calamity. In Christian-speak we call this “finding the devil under every rock.” One wonders how he will respond when these calamities dissipate of their own. Will he recant?

I remember during the 2008 presidential campaign when Christian author Donald Miller (author of Blue Like Jazz) supported then candidate Obama and actually defended his pro-choice stance on the basis of “abortion is an economic issue, if you solve the economy then abortions will dissipate” (that’s a paraphrase). I wondered at the time whether continued economic calamity under Obama’s policies would draw a change-of-heart from Miller … I haven’t heard anything yet though.

Now, as for the assertion by Gilding that we may “allow collapse to overtake us” – I’m at the very least dubious of his mathematical models. Are there natural limits to population growth and energy consumption? Perhaps, though we apparently haven’t hit them yet. If they do exist they will quite naturally limit population. It seems like a bad mathematical model indeed to believe we will grow and grow up to and over some natural limit – and then collapse in catastrophe.

Of course there can be system shocks, such as a volcano eruption like Mount Tombora in 1815, which would cause massive food shortages. But that would be true in a world with much sparser populations as well. Adopting Gilding’s “new” economic model will do nothing to prevent such an event or forestall the impact.

In the end, Gilding and Friedman have suffered enough damage from the earlier prognostications of doom by their forerunners. The rest of us are skeptical of alarmism – because they’ve been wrong every time so far.

(Similarly, we are skeptical of Harold Camping style alarmism as well. Perhaps, just perhaps, God doesn’t want you to know when the end will be …)

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