Friday, 3 November 2006

Selling disaster: The four horsemen of modern apocalypse

"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed - and hence clamorous to be led to safety - by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." -H.L. Mencken

There's money and power and headlines aplenty in scaremongering (and much less and many fewer in good news), but how often is the scaremongering accurate? And does it matter? Disaster sells. It sells politically, and it makes a fair return through the cash register as well. But do the facts matter when we're scaring ourselves to death, or is it okay to lie in order to "wake people up" to calamity?

For the benefit of those readers either not paying attention or under thirty-five (insert obvious jokes here), let's have a look at three hugely influential granddaddies of modern environmental scaremongering: these three invented the 'sky-is-falling' 'something-must-be-done' technique peddled so effectively as a political tool in recent times. Doom and gloom, we're all going to die, the four horsemen of the apocalypse -- these three books launched that whole alarming trend in public relations and political activism; between them they raised pessimism to an art form, and "there-ought-to-be-a-law-against-it" whinging to a central part of contemporary political debate.

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) began the popularisation of environmental disaster for political ends. She claimed that DDT, used for malaria control, is killing birds, harmful to humans, and should be banned forthwith. People bought the book in droves. DDT was banned in 1972. The result of the ban was that millions died because of a resurgence in the disease that was formerly being controlled by judicious application of the chemical Carson called a killer. It wasn't. Her book was.

Paul Ehrlich wrote the 1968 best-seller The Population Bomb. Like Thomas Malthus two centuries before him, Ehrlich used shoddy arithmetic to predict a worldwide explosion of population that would see "future generations" stepping on each other's feet all day every day just to survive, and used scary rhetoric about this nonsense to fire up the activists. Fired up they were, and scary indeed were his predictions:
  • Not just millions but "hundreds of millions" would die from "a coming overpopulation crisis in the 1970s," he said, and by 1980 life expectancy in the United States would be just forty-two years.
  • "If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000."
  • "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s 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..."
Nothing except perhaps good sense, hard work and entrepreneurial activity -- and of course the facts. As PJ O'Rourke notes, "Crowded as the country is, is overcrowding even its main problem? Hong Kong and Singapore both have greater population densities (14.315 and 12.347 per square mile, respectively) than Bangladesh, and they're called success stories. The same goes for Monaco. In fact, the whole Riviera is packed in August, and neither Malthus nor Ehrlich have complained about the topless beaches of St. Tropez."

None of Ehrlich's predictions have failed to come to pass -- unless of course you do count the overcrowding of topless beaches of St. Tropz in mid-summer -- but these were not predictions, he now says, they were "scenarios." Despite his abysmal failure as a prognosticator however, the sad old hippy is still tripping over wind chimes and bothering the adults. On the release of Bjorn Lomborg's book Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World Ehrlich ranted, "If Lomborg had done some arithmetic, he could have . . . spared us a book as thick as a brick and almost as intelligent." And if Ehrlich had spared us his comment, he might have spared us forming for ourselves the fairly obvious conclusion about himself...

But perhaps Ehrlich was still just pissed off because Lomborg's hero Julian Simon had famously embarrassed him in their 1980 bet on the price of a chosen basket of resources. Ehrlich bet $10,000 and his reputation as an alarmist that the price would go through the roof as resources ran out; Simon bet the opposite. Simon won.

Which leads us on nicely to another failed pack of alarmists and their own contribution to sensationalist history, The Limits to Growth (1972). Like Ehrlich, the Club of Rome had also read Thomas Malthus and had re-used his static arithmetics in the cause of alarmism. You name it, they said, and we're running out of it. "There will . . . be a desperate [arable] land shortage before the year 2000"; we would run short of gold by 1979, they said, of silver and mercury by 1983, of tin by 1985, of zinc by 1988, of petroleum by 1990, and of natural gas by 1992. Um ...

What they got wrong of course was not just their arithmetic, but their whole understanding of the role of price signals and entrepreneurialism -- indeed of the capitalist economy as a dynamic rather than a static engine of production. The capitalist engine of creation is a supple beast when left free and unshackled, allowing human minds to read price signals and opportunities, and to adapt their own resources to suit. The results are astonishing. As Ronald Bailey observed in 2001,
Since the 1970s, the weight of the average car has fallen by 25 percent. Food cans are 50 per cent lighter than they were 50 years ago. A flexible plastic pouch that replaces a steel can reduces the packaging weight by 93 percent. Plastic soda bottles are 30 percent lighter than they were in the 1970s -- which were already much lighter than the glass ones that preceded them. Similarly, plastic grocery bags are 50 percent thinner than they were 20 years ago and lighter than the paper bags they replaced. The invention of the steel frame building did away with structures that needed heavy thick walls to support their own weight.

Functionality is increasing throughout the economy as well—as computers get smaller and faster, air conditioners, refrigerators, furnaces, and all manner of appliances become more efficient and longer-lasting.

. . . [C]orn yields per acre in the United States have more than tripled since 1950. Improving crop productivity is based entirely on technological improvements such as fertilizer, pesticides, and better seeds.
He also notes,
A copper wire can transmit 24 voice channels or about 1.5 megabytes of information per second. Far thinner and lighter optical fiber can transmit more than 32,000 voice channels and more than 2.5 gigabytes of information per second. The first American communications satellite, Telstar 1, was launched in 1962 and could handle 600 telephone calls simultaneously. Modern Intelsat satellites can handle 120,000 calls and 3 TV channels at the same time.
So much then for the three granddaddies of today's scaremongering. Everything about them was wrong, tragically wrong in the case of Carson, but the spectre of their various apocalypses still haunt debate today.

Bidding to joining this prestigious club this week is a new candidate on the scene, a fourth horsemen predicting global apocalypse if Something Isn't Done Now. The already famous Stern Report on Climate Catastrophe is a "bombshell study" was greeted even before its release by a whole Stern Gang of waiting politicians -- it reports We Face Depression If We Don't Act Now! Worse, much worse, Than Even the Great Depression of the 30s! Calamity, catastrophe and 20% of our wealth stripped from our pockets if We Don't Do Something Now! Right Now!!

Guess what? Says Bjorn Lomborg of that headline-grabbing figure:
This figure, 20%, was the number that rocketed around the world, although it is simply a much-massaged reworking of the standard 3% GDP cost in 2100--a figure accepted among most economists to be a reasonable estimate.
In a series of ingenious steps, the modest 3% figure for a century hence if nothing is done now has been "tricked" and finessed and inflated with more imaginary "scenarios" -- Stern, says Lomborg, is "inventing, in effect, a "worst-case scenario" even worse than any others on the table" -- in order to grab headlines and to scream disaster. (And that's just one problem with Stern's report, as Lomborg and others have been pointing out since its release.)

Inventing catastrophe for political effect. What could be more ingenious.

"It's okay to lie," say activists, if you're doing it in the name of a good cause. Is it? Say those same activists: "Bush lied; people died." If it's wrong for Bush to lie, as they claim he has, then why doesn't that work both ways? A founder of Greenpeace Patrick Moore split recently over exactly this issue. "Beginning in the mid-1980s," he says, "Greenpeace, and much of the environmental movement, made a sharp turn to the political left and began adopting extreme agendas that abandoned science and logic in favor of emotion and sensationalism..."
Environmentalism has turned into anti-globalization and anti-industry. Activists have abandoned science in favour of sensationalism. Their zero-tolerance, fear-mongering campaigns would ultimately prevent a cure for Vitamin A deficiency blindness, increase pesticide use, increase heart disease, deplete wild salmon stocks, raise the cost and reduce the safety of health care, raise construction costs, deprive developing nations of clean electricity, stop renewable wind energy, block a solution to global warming, and contribute to deforestation. How sick is that?
Answer: Very bloody sick. Scaremongering sells -- but you don't have to buy it. And neither should you sell it on anyone else's behalf.

UPDATE: George Reisman's in an end-of-days mood, but one of a rather different character to the apocalyptic four. He argues that the Stern Review on Global Warming could be environmentalism’s swan song.

He raises a crucial point about the "action" called for in the report, a similar problem to Erlich's and the Club of Rome's own nightmare "scenarios": Stern simply fails to understand that a capitalist economy is a dynamic, not a static entity. Stern declares that disaster and hellfire and that depressive 20% drop in wealth production will be the inevitable conseqences of "not acting," but as Reisman points out,
Sir Nicholas’s use of the words “don’t act” is very misleading. What he is urging when he speaks of “action” is a mass of laws and decrees—i.e., government action. This government action will forcibly prevent hundreds of millions, indeed, billions of individual human beings from engaging in their, personal and business private action—that is, from acting in ways that they judge to serve their own self-interests. Thus, what he is actually urging is not action, but government action intended to stop private action.
LINKS: Hooray for DDT's life-saving comeback - Africa Fighting Malaria (AFM)
Julian Simon's bet with Paul Ehrlich - Overpopulation.Com
Dematerializing the economy: We're doing more with less. That's good for Planet Earth - Ronald Bailey, Reason Magazine (2001)
Stern review: The dodgy numbers behind the latest warming scare - Bjorn Lomborg, Wall Street Journal
How sick is that? Environmental movement has lost its way - Patrick Moore, Greenspirit

RELATED: Environment, Global Warming, Conservation, Economics, Politics, Politics-UK


  1. great, great summary pc, thanks for all the work that went into this. It's very useful to have a good reference.

  2. It might be worth mentioning that fish will allegedly be extinct in 50 years now.

  3. Amen. Excellent post.

    From George Reisman's comment...
    [capitalist economy is a dynamic, not a static entity.]

    I agree completely here, even though I am not an economist. I have seen some economic papers of how this dynamic systems is modelled. Some of the models are very complex and some are simple which approximates the true dynamics.

    The climate systems is exactly the same, and that is , a dynamic evolving systems rather than a static entity. It is just been recent ( a few years) that scientists who are involved in climate modeling have start pumping out papers on 'climate dynamical systems' both linear & non-linear models. It is clearly stated in those papers that WE don't know yet of how the structure of the climate dynamics work. On the other hand, if you scan the IPCC (Inter-government Panel on Climate Change), none of the models described in the report treated the climate as a 'dynamical systems'. There are some climate scientists who know how to model 'dynamical systems' and some have no clue to what it is. I suspect that the ones who are alarmists are the ones who have no clue about 'dynamical systems' modelling.

    Dynamical Systems Modelling was started in the 1960s at MIT. It then captured the attentions of Physicists shortly afterwards, then largely the engineering communities (Electronics, which is Physics really), then adopted it for designing purposes. Now, Dynamical Systems Modelling has been spilled over to Biology, Economics, Business, Climate, Environment, Populations, etc,..., and the mathematics is the same except that the domain of application is different. There are important outcomes that could only be revealed when a systems is treated dynamically rather than a static entity. Since Climate Dynamical Systems Modelling has just started to be recognized by the majority of the climate scientists of today as a technique which could solve our misunderstanding of the climate systems. We should wait for the application of advanced science of Dynamical Systems Modelling to help us in understanding the climate, and hopefully solve our current misunderstandings, and therefore lead to better predictions and not adopt a doom view of the world by alarmists.

    "Institute for Systems Biology"

    "MIT Business System Dynamics Group"

    "John Sterman's Business Dynamics Page"

  4. Good article PC.

    To understand just how dishonest Stern had to be to get that famous 20%, it is worth reading Lomborg's description of the method:

    "Even including risks of catastrophe and non-market costs, [Stern] agrees that an increase of four degrees Celsius will cost about 3% of GDP. But he assumes that we will continue to pump out carbon far into the 22nd century--a rather unlikely scenario given the falling cost of alternative fuels, and especially if some of his predictions become clear to us toward the end of this century. Thus he estimates that the higher temperatures of eight degrees Celsius in the 2180s will be very damaging, costing 11% to 14% of GDP.

    The Stern review then analyzes what the cost would be if everyone in the present and the future paid equally. Suddenly the cost estimate is not 0% now and 3% in 2100--but 11% of GDP right now and forever. If this seems like a trick, it is certainly underscored by the fact that the Stern review picks an extremely low discount rate, which makes the cost look much more ominous now.

    But even 11% is not the last word. Mr. Stern suggests that there is a risk that the cost of global warming will be higher than the top end of the U.N. climate panel's estimates, inventing, in effect, a "worst-case scenario" even worse than any others on the table. Therefore, the estimated damage to GDP jumps to 15% from 11%. Moreover, Mr. Stern admonishes that poor people count for less in the economic calculus, so he then inflates 15% to 20%."


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