Their major error is the Malthusian Fallacy. It predicts catastrophe by making strong pessimistic assumptions about limitations on resource supplies, including environmental carrying capacities, and about future increases in demands (consumption), due to population and economic growth. The result is future disaster, unless the supposedly inevitable trends are interrupted by prompt draconian governmental intervention.
Although the first such projection was made in 1798, this mechanism was still the primary model at the first Earth Day. So it remains. For alleged impending climate catastrophes, today’s disaster du jour, nothing less than collective coercion by many governments or a world government can stop future cataclysm, some people claim.
Their original Doomsday was projected as mass global starvation. Now it’s runaway heating of the earth, threatening all life. Where early goals were to avoid Silent Spring and to Save the Whales, we now must Save the Earth.
Early on, there were more scientific and sensible analyses than The Population Bomb, and competent analysts have for half-a-century debunked predictions of catastrophe. Further, the measured results on the ground and in the air and waters have refuted such predictions. This has not deterred many true believers from coughing up ever new nightmarish fantasies.
Julian Simon saw their key error: The only meaningfully limited resource is human creativity. It mitigates pollution, finds resources no one imagined and extends supplies via technological change until substitutes are developed. And higher population concentrations produce more creativity.
Government intervention stifles such creativity and exacerbates resource constraints and pollution. Free people do much of this on their own, without central planning. But catastrophists fail to foresee that, instead relying on their static, not broadly dynamic models.
One view is that people try to give their lives significance by placing themselves in a narrative arc. Ronald Bailey explained recently in Reason magazine: “That arc typically traces civilization’s fall from a golden age through a current stage of decadence to an impending apocalypse—one that may, through the bold efforts of the current generation, usher in a new age.”
Frank Kermode, originator of these ideas in his 1967 book, The Sense of an Ending, said: “The great majority of interpretations of Apocalypse assume that the End is pretty near.” But because it never arrives, “the historical allegory is always having to be revised. … Apocalypse can be disconfirmed without being discredited. That is part of its extraordinary resilience.”
A similar version is that extreme environmentalism is ersatz religion. It posits a Garden of Eden that was primitive nature on Mother Earth before the ascent of man. Man committed original sin by eating the apple of knowledge and then began to subdue the fields and forests, animals of the land, sea and air, and exploit heedlessly all resources and pollute everything.
Salvation is possible only via the contrition of forsaking the evil human and technological progress and returning to life at the only “sustainable” level: primitivism. Thus will we save our sinning selves by saving Mother Earth. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.”
A third version is that environmentalism is political ideology. In this view, adherents’ main goal is to control other people and events: the ultimate extension of progressivism. The enlightened environmentalists and scientific experts know what’s best for we unschooled masses and for society as a whole. That’s why they claim a monopoly on science, which they bastardize. Their science involves not continuous searching, hypothesizing and testing, but instead consensus.
Bailey concludes: “The dire prophecies of the first Earth Day have been mostly proven wrong, but the prophets of an always-impending environmental apocalypse have not thereby been discredited. Auguries of imminent catastrophe remain resilient, even as the world of 2020 is in a much happier state than the Catastrophists of 1970 ever expected.”
Ultimately, all these versions seek to explain why environmental doomsayers are quite willing to sacrifice the broad public interest of maximizing human wellbeing and fairness – our prosperity delivered via individual liberty, private property and market freedom – to their special interests.
Ron Knecht, MSc, JD & PE(CA), has served Nevadans as state controller, a higher education regent, economist, college teacher and legislator. Contact him at RonKnecht@aol.com.
On Earth Day, no less. Enjoy and share. -- RK