Saturday, 23 April 2011

Earth Day message: Sky not falling [updated]

Given that this is 'Earth Week'—a time, this year, when old religion and new religion collide-- it seems a good time to revisit the predictions made by the most prominent environmentalists in conjunction with the very first Earth Day way back in 1970. How do their dire man-hating prognostications fare looking back from forty years on? [Hat tip Ian J., from the archives of Ron Bailey.]

“Civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind."
      • George Wald, Harvard Biologist

“We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation.”
      • Barry Commoner, Washington University biologist

“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.”
      • Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University biologist

“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.”
      • Peter Gunter, professor, North Texas State University

“It is already too late to avoid mass starvation.”
      • Denis Hayes, chief organizer for Earth Day

“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….”
      •  ‘Life’ Magazine, January 1970

“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, Stanford University biologist

“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.”
      • Kenneth Watt, Ecologist.

“Air pollution…is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone.”
    • Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University biologist

“We are prospecting for the very last of our resources and using up the nonrenewable things many times faster than we are finding new ones.”
      • Martin Litton, Sierra Club director

“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.’
      • Kenneth Watt, Ecologist

“Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.”
      • ‘New York Times’ editorial, the day after the first Earth Day

“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.”
      • Sen. Gaylord Nelson

“We have about five more years at the outside to do something.”
    • Kenneth Watt, ecologist

“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.”
      • Kenneth Watt, Ecologist

So what can we say about this litany of bogus apocalypse?

That it takes more than just misanthropy to interpret the future.

That predictions of pestilence should be taken with a grain of salt.

That scientists predicting disaster should be held to account for actions taken in their name—“action” consisting largely if not exclusively of govt action banning private action.

That Earth Day is a good time to remind ourselves that if life in earth in the human mode is possible, then it is possible only by exploiting the material the earth provides. That the earth itself is an immense solidly packed ball of chemical elements and compounds whose surface is all we’ve been able to scratch, and that just barely—that apart from what has been lost in a few rockets, the quantity of every chemical element in the whole world today is the same as it was before the Industrial Revolution—that it is only man’s ingenuity that turns these densely packed chemicals into resources to further human life—and that without that ingenuity and that effort we would all be in the position of human beings before that beneficent Revolution: of life being nasty, brutal and short.

And, perhaps, that man-hating worry worts will always be with us, that they existed long before the Industrial Revolution even began.

And, despite their best efforts, we are all still here—and the human environment is the  very best its ever been.

Let’s give thanks for that to every dirty mine, every smelly smoke stack, every smoky power station, every logged forest and every well-used waterway—and to every inventor, capitalist and entrepreneur who made them possible.

UPDATE:  Just to add irony to insult, it’s also instructive to know that the  Earth Day co-founder killed and composted his girlfriend.


  1. To be fair, within the Roman Empire there were probably many predictions of its ultimate fall that failed to materialize and were scoffed at. Until one day, the Empire fell. Predictions and reality are somewhat independent. I agree the sky isn't quite falling at this point though.

  2. Here's another.
    Six years ago, the United Nations issued a dramatic warning that the world would have to cope with 50 million climate refugees by 2010. But now that those migration flows have failed to materialize, the UN has distanced itself from the forecasts. On the contrary, populations are growing in the regions that had been identified as environmental danger zones.

  3. "Peak Food", sounds familiar.


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