Hal G.P. Colebatch: The prophets of eco-doom: a perfect record of failure

CULTURAL HISTORY
The prophets of eco-doom: a perfect record of failure

by Hal G.P. Colebatch

News Weekly, June 3, 2017

Environmentalism, or at least its deep-green variety, has, by the clownishly failed predictions of its gurus and prophets, confirmed its place as a leader among those “sciences” in which a complete lack of factual accuracy bears not the slightest relationship to its proponents’ reputations or careers.

“Earth Day” was conceived 47 years ago, time enough for any catastrophic threats to the Earth forecast then to have materialised. At that time the late George Wald, a Nobel Laureate and professor of Biology at Harvard, predicted: “Civilisation will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.”

It didn’t.

The problems facing civilisation come chiefly from uncivilised men who denude landscapes by chopping down trees for fuel. Civilised men have available safe, clean nuclear energy, and if they live in a country like Australia, the means to quiet superstitious fears by building reactors in deserts.

At the same time as Professor Wald’s predictions of universal doom, Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University boosted his bank account with the best seller, The Population Bomb. This declared that the world’s population would soon outstrip food supplies. He stated that the “battle to feed humanity” was lost. In 1969 he told Britain’s Institute of Biology: “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”

The ludicrous nature of this doom mongering, looked back at from 2017, should speak for itself. Ehrlich was peddling a sort of doom pornography.

If anyone had taken it seriously, rather than as a subject for a cheap thrill, they would have been laying down stocks of food, guns and ammunition, and, like some American “survivalists” (whose fears came from a different direction), preparing refuges in the Outback against the coming Armageddon. On that first Earth Day, Ehrlich warned: “In 10 years, all important animal life in the sea will be extinct.”

Instead of being sacked from his chair, or being offered a job as a circus clown, since then, showing the limitless human appetite for flim-flam, Ehrlich has won no fewer than 16 awards, including the 1990 Crafoord Prize, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ highest award. As that well-known social philosopher Charles Manson put it: “You can convince anyone of anything if you push it to them all the time.”

In an article for The Progressive, Ehrlich predicted: “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next 10 years.”

Of course, the first influential proponent of ecological doom was Thomas Malthus, the first edition of whose Essay on the Principle of Population was published in 1798. Neither Malthus nor Karl Marx, with the Theory of Increasing Misery, foresaw that improved agricultural and industrial production and technology would lead to the Earth being able to support populations many times larger and at a much higher level than they imagined.

Thus, with the “green revolution” allowing at least countries with good governments to feed themselves, a new hobgoblin was called for. How many of us remember that in the 1970s the existential threat hanging over mankind was not global warming but global cooling?

In International Wildlife of July 1975, one Nigel Calder warned: “The threat of a new ice age must now stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery for mankind.” In Science News the same year, C.C. Wallen of the World Meteorological Organisation is reported as saying: “The cooling since 1940 has been large enough and consistent enough that it will not soon be reversed.”

In 2000, climate researcher David Viner told The Independent that within “a few years”, snowfalls would become “a very rare and exciting event” in Britain. “Children just aren’t going to know what snow is,” he said. “Snowfalls are now just a thing of the past.” In the following years, Britain saw some of its largest snowfalls and lowest temperatures since records started being kept in 1914.

In 1970, ecologist Kenneth Watt told a Swarthmore College audience: “The world has been chilling sharply for about 20 years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990 but 11 degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.”

2000 has come and gone, and there is no ice age in sight.

Also in 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson wrote in Look magazine: “Dr S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian, believes that in 25 years [ie, by 1995], somewhere between 75 and 80 per cent of all the species of living animals will be extinct.”

A chart in Scientific American that year estimated that mankind would run out of copper shortly after 2000. Lead, zinc, tin, gold and silver would disappear before 1990. In 1974 the U.S. Geological Survey said that the U.S. had only a 10-year supply of natural gas.

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