Selling disaster: The four horsemen of the modern apocalypse

Peter Cresswell's picture
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Fri, 2006-11-03 01:37

"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 -- these were not predictions, he now says, they were "scenarios" -- yet 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 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.

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

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Time to stock up on canned tuna, 'cuz...

Summer Serravillo's picture

...there won't be any seafood by the year 2050.


Two quick excerpts:  

By 2048, to be exact, catches of all the presently fished seafoods will have declined on average by more than 90 per cent since 1950.

To be exact?  Man, I want to know where these folks buy their crystal balls.  Mine won't even give me an accurate weather forecast.



Dr Boris Worm, of Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, the lead author, said: "This is what is projected, not predicted, to happen.

Dr. Worm comments on over-fishing...   Can't make this stuff up...




Hard work ahead

Rick Giles's picture

Scaremongering sells -- but you don't have to buy it. And neither should you sell it on anyone else's behalf.

It appears to be compatable with the political revolution and moral revolution Objectivists seek though doesn't it? Suppose we'll have to have a moral revolution as well then.

Excellent post Peter. Thank

Sandi's picture

Excellent post Peter.

Thank you.

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