Apocalypse Not!

I have a theory that within a hundred years we will be bemoaning the lack of world population. The collapse of society will be forecast as an impending catastrophe as the total world population stabilises at less than 10 billion with the proportion of the young working population decreasing relative to the increasing numbers of the “leisured” population.  And that apocalypse too shall not come to pass.

Matt Ridley has a new essay in Wired which needs to be read. Just some excerpts below:

Apocalypse Not: Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Worry About End Times

When the sun rises on December 22, as it surely will, do not expect apologies or even a rethink. No matter how often apocalyptic predictions fail to come true, another one soon arrives. And the prophets of apocalypse always draw a following—from the 100,000 Millerites who took to the hills in 1843, awaiting the end of the world, to the thousands who believed in Harold Camping, the Christian radio broadcaster who forecast the final rapture in both 1994 and 2011. ………

Predictions of global famine and the end of oil in the 1970s proved just as wrong as end-of-the-world forecasts from millennialist priests. Yet there is no sign that experts are becoming more cautious about apocalyptic promises. If anything, the rhetoric has ramped up in recent years. Echoing the Mayan calendar folk, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock one minute closer to midnight at the start of 2012, commenting: “The global community may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe from changes in Earth’s atmosphere.”

Over the five decades since the success of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the four decades since the success of the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth in 1972, prophecies of doom on a colossal scale have become routine. Indeed, we seem to crave ever-more-frightening predictions—we are now, in writer Gary Alexander’s word, apocaholic. The past half century has brought us warnings of population explosions, global famines, plagues, water wars, oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, Y2K bugs, mad cow epidemics, killer bees, sex-change fish, cell-phone-induced brain-cancer epidemics, and climate catastrophes. ………..

There was an international agreement to cease using CFCs by 1996. But the predicted recovery of the ozone layer never happened: The hole stopped growing before the ban took effect, then failed to shrink afterward. The ozone hole still grows every Antarctic spring, to roughly the same extent each year. Nobody quite knows why. Some scientists think it is simply taking longer than expected for the chemicals to disintegrate; a few believe that the cause of the hole was misdiagnosed in the first place. Either way, the ozone hole cannot yet be claimed as a looming catastrophe, let alone one averted by political action. ……….

All these predictions failed to come true. Oil and gas production have continued to rise during the past 50 years. Gas reserves took an enormous leap upward after 2007, as engineers learned how to exploit abundant shale gas. In 2011 the International Energy Agency estimated that global gas resources would last 250 years. Although it seems likely that cheap sources of oil may indeed start to peter out in coming decades, gigantic quantities of shale oil and oil sands will remain available, at least at a price. Once again, obstacles have materialized, but the apocalypse has not. Ever since Thomas Robert Malthus, doomsayers have tended to underestimate the power of innovation. In reality, driven by price increases, people simply developed new technologies, such as the horizontal drilling technique that has helped us extract more oil from shale. ….. 

Just as policy can make the climate crisis worse—mandating biofuels has not only encouraged rain forest destruction, releasing carbon, but driven millions into poverty and hunger—technology can make it better. If plant breeders boost rice yields, then people may get richer and afford better protection against extreme weather. If nuclear engineers make fusion (or thorium fission) cost-effective, then carbon emissions may suddenly fall. If gas replaces coal because of horizontal drilling, then carbon emissions may rise more slowly. Humanity is a fast-moving target. We will combat our ecological threats in the future by innovating to meet them as they arise, not through the mass fear stoked by worst-case scenarios.

The whole essay is well worth reading.

Doom-sayers have always existed and are perhaps a necessary part of human society. They have always – so far – been wrong and every time they have introduced “policy” or resorted to coercion to try and turn the clock back they have failed. But perhaps it is the conflict interface between them and rational people which does contribute to the creativity and innovation which moves the race forward.

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One Response to “Apocalypse Not!”

  1. lehautegryphon Says:

    You are spot on. The thing is that apocalypse is part of the human psyche. A great, at least perceived evil rises up as part of the cosmic good versus evil struggle. There is a behavioral way to salvation through living the accepted way.

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