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Attack of the Chicken Littles

 - James

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For some time now I've had this ...urge, if you will... to write a post about environmentalism and its different stupidities (I wonder--can stupidity be a noun? And pluralized, too? No? Oh well, too late). And here it is.

Ah, environmentalism, you are a wonder. So silly at times, so scary at others. And so terribly common as to become very irritating. I guess the main idea of environmentalism is a good one--simply that we humans need to do our part in keeping this planet, and its inhabitants, in good shape--but the idea has been around for so long now that it's mutated into a terrifying blob of paranoia and sometimes stupidity. I'm all for things like solar-panels and those hybrid cars. In moderation, environmentalism is good. Don't get me wrong, the Earth is a bit of a mess. But I highly doubt it's that much of a mess. Michael Crichton wrote an interesting article in the magazine Parade a month or so ago, about how the human race seems to have developed a tendency to scare itself. He says: "From world overpopulation to Y2K to killer bees, many of the dangers we're warned about never materialize. Isn't it time for some healthy skepticism?" Some of environmentalisms biggest beefs with mankind are debunked in his article. For example:

W'e're all going to freeze! Or is it sizzle?
It may be mostly forgotten now, but back then [1972] many climate scientists shared his [a scientist who was concerned that temperatures on Earth were dropping, and that we were on our way to another Ice Age] concern: Temperatures around the world had fallen steadily for 30 years, dropping half a degree in the Northern Hemisphere between 1945 and 1968. Pack ice was increasing. Glaciers were advancing. Growing seasons had shortened by two weeks in only a few years.

In 1975, Newsweek noted “ominous signs that weather patterns have begun to change…with serious political implications for just about every nation.” Scientists were predicting that “the resulting famines could be catastrophic.”

But it is now clear that even as Newsweek was printing its fears, temperatures already had begun to rise. Within a decade, scientists would be decrying a global warming trend that threatened to raise temperatures as much as 30 degrees in the 21st century. Such predictions implied palm trees in Montana, and they have since been revised downward. By 1995, the UN midrange estimates were about 4 degrees over the next 100 years. Although concern about warming remains, the prospect of catastrophic change seems increasingly unlikely.
Next, Crichton takes on one of my least-favorite bits of environmentalist paranoia: overpopulation:

Oh no, it's a population explosion!

In the 1960s, experts like Paul Ehrlich spoke with conviction: “In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” Ehrlich argued for compulsory population control if voluntary methods failed. In the 1970s, The Club of Rome (a global think tank) predicted a world population of 14 billion in the year 2030, with no end in sight.

Instead, fertility rates fell steadily. By the end of the century, they were about half what they were in 1950, with the result that many now expect world population to peak at 9 billion or so and then to decline. (It’s estimated to be about 6 billion today.)

And mass starvation never occurred either. Instead, per capita food production increased through the end of the century because of the “green revolution” resulting from increased agricultural efficiency and better seeds. Grain production increased as much as 600% per acre, bringing unprecedented crop yields around the world.

These changes were exemplified by the rise of India, which in the 1960s was widely acknowledged to be a symbol of the overpopulation disaster. Western children were chided to finish their food because of the starving children in India. By 2000, however, India had become a net exporter of grain, and Americans were worried about outsourced jobs to that nation’s highly educated workforce. Almost no one concerned about population spoke of an explosion anymore. Instead, they discussed the new problems: an aging population and a declining population.

Another one of environmentalism's favorite claims is that we are draining Earth of its natural resources. Crichton puts in his two cents about this, too:

We're running out...of everything!

The 1970s saw the use of computers to predict future world trends. In 1972, The Club of Rome used its computers to warn us that raw materials were fast running out. By 1993 we would have exhausted our supplies of gold, mercury, tin, zinc, oil, copper, lead and natural gas. Yet 1993 came and went. We still have all these things, at prices that fluctuate but over the long term have generally declined.

What seems to be more accurate is that there is a perennial market for dire predictions of resource depletion. Human beings never tire of discussing the latest report that tells us the end is near. But, at some point, we might start regarding each breathless new claim with skepticism. I have learned to do so.

That's all of Crichton's article that was especially relevant to this post, but there's more to it, so you can read the rest of it (and then some) here. I suggest you do.


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