Sunday, July 3, 2011

"The very existence of society is in peril"

"We are living in a time of unprecedented change and uncertainty. All around us are threats no one could have imagined even a few years ago. Unless we take swift and immediate action, the very existence of society is in peril."
That isn't actually a quote from anyone - I just made it up. But the essence of it - that the world is facing a near-insurmountable challenge that cannot be overcome unless dramatic action is taken immediately - can be recognized anywhere today: presidential speeches, books, articles, college application essays, wherever.

For example, Tom Friedman, channeling Malthus, wrote a column in the New York Times a few weeks ago called The Earth Is Full. It begins this way:
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 — and ask ourselves: What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?
And continues:
We will not change systems, though, without a crisis. But don’t worry, we’re getting there.

[quoting an expert] “We are heading for a crisis-driven choice,” he says. “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."

I don't doubt that these authors, columnists and Ivy League hopefuls truly believe these ideas but a dose of skepticism and a glance at history are in order.

Published in 1968, the popular book The Population Bomb written by a Stanford professor named Paul Ehrlich, selling over 1M copies, began this way:
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.
Explaining the book's premise, Ehrlich said:
There are 3.6 billion people in the world today. We're adding about seventy million a year and that's too many. It's too many because we are getting desperately short of food."
It's clear that these predictions didn't come to pass: between 1961 and 2000, the world's population doubled but calories consumed per person increased 24%.

Dan Gardner, in his excellent book Future Babble, points out that these weren't isolated claims:
Paul Ehrlich's bleak vision in The Population Bomb was anything but that of a lone crank. Countless experts made similar forecasts in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1967, the year before Ehrlich's book appeared, Wiliam and Paul Paddock - one an agronomist, the other a foreign service officer - published a book whose title said it all: Famine 1975!  When biologist James Bonner reviewed the Paddocks' book in the journal Science, he emphasized that "all serious students of the plight of the underdeveloped nations agree that famine among the peoples of the underdeveloped nations is inevitable." The only question was when. 
"The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, sees 1985 as the beginning of the years of huger. I have guessed publicly that the interval 1977-1985 will bring the moment of truth, will bring a dividing point at which the human race will split into the rich and the poor, the well-fed and the hungry - two cultures, the affluent and the miserable, one of which must inevitably exterminate the other… I stress again that all responsible investigators agree that the tragedy will occur."
History is littered with these kinds of failed doomsday predictions. That should lead us to be skeptical whenever a person in a position on authority informs us of our pending demise. That isn't to say that because something's been predicted before and the prediction utterly flopped that we should brush it aside. Examine the reasoning and facts behind the claim, but be skeptical.

No comments:

Post a Comment