Apocalypse Maybe

by Stephen S. Rosenfeld
Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
The Washington Post (February 13, 1998)

The death of Julian Simon, a leading light in the battle against popular environmental doomsday thinking, brought me to ponder why to this day the emotional hold of Malthusianism is so much stronger than its intellectual foundations would appear to merit. So many predictions of disaster have proven false: The Limits to Growth crowd of the 1970s forecast an imminent end to global oil reserves, even while Stanford entomologist Paul Ehrlich anticipated "hundreds of millions" of deaths by starvation, and so on. Why then are so many people, including scientists, still prepared to believe like-minded new predictions? The latest is that, without urgent and expensive remedy, global warming is going to inflict catastrophic harm.

From my own dealings with Simon -- a University of Maryland economist -- over the years, I gather he felt there was a cultural conspiracy to protect and praise the theoreticians of early resource exhaustion, explosive population growth, imminent mass starvation and choking chemical pollution. Meanwhile, fact-oriented scholars, as he considered himself, were widely dismissed as agents of a mindless, profit-driven right wing.

There are other explanations. One is that whatever were the merits of earlier alarms, this time the perceived environmental threat of global warming is based on superior science and is real. The commonly cited clincher in this case is that the great majority of scientists believe it.

But this is not the first time impressive numbers of learned people have settled on a diagnosis and a forecast that events have subsequently undermined. A posture of agnosticism on global warming better suits my own qualities of scientific illiteracy and political skepticism.

Another explanation for the popularity of doomsday scenarios may lie in the presumed motives of the script writers. One can sniff the political culture: alarmism sells, it puts you in approved company, green is good. In the global warming debate, to go with the flow is to expect ecological disaster. It takes some independence to be more comfortable with a wait-and-see approach.

In fact, due to people like Julian Simon, a noticeable dent has been made in a largely unspoken assumption that underlines one tendency of environmental appreciation, namely, that man in general and perhaps capitalist man in particular are flawed creatures who lack full respect for their precious natural inheritance.

Simon's contrary view was that it was not what people took away from that inheritance but what they added to it -- not their greedy consumption but their efficient production -- that makes the difference between a society's error and success. He emphasized the contributions of people in discovering new resources or substitutes or uses -- in using their minds and imaginations to escape the limits on growth imposed by conventional thinking.

Ed Regis writes in the current Wired magazine: "The paradox is that those abstract [forecasts of environmental doom] seem so very logical and believable, whereas the facts themselves, the story of what has happened, appear wholly illogical and impossible to explain. After all, people are fruitful and they multiply, but the stores of raw materials in the earth's crust certainly don't, so how can it be possible that, as the world's population doubles, the price of raw materials is cut in half?

"It makes no sense. Yet it has happened. So there must be an explanation.

"And there is: Resources, for the most part, don't grow on trees. People produce them, they create them, whether it be food, factories, machines, new technologies, or stockpiles of mined, refined, and purified raw materials. . . .

"The defect of the Malthusian models, superficially plausible but invariably wrong, is that they leave the human mind out of the equation."

The bitterness of the battle between doomsayers and doomslayers has alternately amused and turned off the public. Many people come to the Malthusian question looking not to enlist in a cultural war but simply to understand things better. Julian Simon had a certainty to his judgments -- the family obituary declared that his 30 years of forecasts had been "completely borne out by events" -- that did not exactly encourage discussion. His views allowed the complacent reading that temporary local shortfalls in food supply or whatever arose from bad decisions, not from real shortages, and would pretty much take care of themselves.

Predicting apocalypse has been part of the intellectual tradition of the industrialized world for the two centuries since Malthus predicted Britain's imminent starvation. But debunking apocalypse is also a tradition, born of its mate's failures. The tension between these two tendencies is useful. It helps ensure that the costs and benefits of the producing of wealth are taken into fair account.

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