Environmental Doomsdayers Are Often Wrong In Their Predictions

Here's an excellent article in The Economist from 1997 titled Plenty of Gloom.

It's an article that discusses how spectacularly wrong environmentalists have been. Yet, they continue to wield an unhealthy influence on public policy across the globe while maintaining an alarmist posture.


"IN 1798 Thomas Robert Malthus inaugurated a grand tradition of environmentalism with his best-selling pamphlet on population. Malthus argued with impeccable logic but distinctly peccable premises that since population tended to increase geometrically (1,2,4,8 ) and food supply to increase arithmetically (1,2,3,4 ), the starvation of Great Britain was inevitable and imminent. Almost everybody thought he was right. He was wrong.

In 1865 an influential book by Stanley Jevons argued with equally good logic and equally flawed premises that Britain would run out of coal in a few short years' time. In 1914, the United States Bureau of Mines predicted that American oil reserves would last ten years. In 1939 and again in 1951, the Department of the Interior said American oil would last 13 years. Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong.

This article argues that predictions of ecological doom, including recent ones, have such a terrible track record that people should take them with pinches of salt instead of lapping them up with relish. For reasons of their own, pressure groups, journalists and fame-seekers will no doubt continue to peddle ecological catastrophes at an undiminishing speed. These people, oddly, appear to think that having been invariably wrong in the past makes them more likely to be right in the future. The rest of us might do better to recall, when warned of the next doomsday, what ever became of the last one...."

“...Limits to Growth” said total global oil reserves amounted to 550 billion barrels. “We could use up all of the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade,” said President Jimmy Carter shortly afterwards. Sure enough, between 1970 and 1990 the world used 600 billion barrels of oil. So, according to the Club of Rome, reserves should have been overdrawn by 50 billion barrels by 1990. In fact, by 1990 unexploited reserves amounted to 900 billion barrels—not counting the tar shales, of which a single deposit in Alberta contains more than 550 billion barrels.

The Club of Rome made similarly wrong predictions about natural gas, silver, tin, uranium, aluminium, copper, lead and zinc. In every case, it said finite reserves of these minerals were approaching exhaustion and prices would rise steeply. In every case except tin, known reserves have actually grown since the Club's report; in some cases they have quadrupled. “Limits to Growth” simply misunderstood the meaning of the word “reserves”.
"...Meanwhile, environmental attention switched from resources to pollution. Cancer-causing chemicals were suddenly said to be everywhere: in water, in food, in packaging. Last summer Edward Goldsmith blamed the death of his brother, Sir James, on chemicals: all cancer is caused by chemicals, he claimed, and cancer rates are rising. Not so. The rate of mortality from cancers not related to smoking for those between 35 and 69 is actually falling steadily—by 15% since 1950. Organically grown broccoli and coffee are full of natural substances that are just as carcinogenic as man-made chemicals at high doses and just as safe at low doses.

In the early 1980s acid rain became the favourite cause of doom. Lurid reports appeared of widespread forest decline in Germany, where half the trees were said to be in trouble. By 1986, the United Nations reported that 23% of all trees in Europe were moderately or severely damaged by acid rain. What happened? They recovered. The biomass stock of European forests actually increased during the 1980s. The damage all but disappeared. Forests did not decline: they thrived.
A similar gap between perception and reality occurred in the United States. Greens fell over each other to declare the forests of North America acidified and dying. “There is no evidence of a general or unusual decline of forests in the United States or Canada due to acid rain,” concluded a ten-year, $700m official study. When asked if he had been pressured to be optimistic, one of the authors said the reverse was true. “Yes, there were political pressures Acid rain had to be an environmental catastrophe, no matter what the facts revealed...”

"...Today the mother of all environmental scares is global warming. Here the jury is still out, though not according to President Clinton. But before you rush to join the consensus he has declared, compare two quotations. The first comes from Newsweek in 1975: “Meteorologists disagree about the cause and extent of the cooling trend But they are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century.” The second comes from Vice-President Al Gore in 1992: “Scientists concluded—almost unanimously—that global warming is real and the time to act is now.” (The italics are ours.)

There are ample other causes for alarmism for the dedicated pessimist as the century's end nears. The extinction of elephants, the threat of mad-cow disease, outbreaks of the Ebola virus, and chemicals that mimic sex hormones are all fashionable. These come in a different category from the scares cited above. The trend in each is undoubtedly not benign, but it is exaggerated.
In 1984 the United Nations asserted that the desert was swallowing 21m hectares of land every year. That claim has been comprehensively demolished. There has been and is no net advance of the desert at all. In 1992 Mr Gore asserted that 20% of the Amazon had been deforested and that deforestation continued at the rate of 80m hectares a year. The true figures are now agreed to be 9% and 21m hectares a year gross at its peak in the 1980s, falling to about 10m hectares a year now...."

"...Year 7 is the year of the quiet climbdown. Without fanfare, the official consensus estimate of the size of the problem is shrunk. Thus, when nobody was looking, the population “explosion” became an asymptotic rise to a maximum of just 15 billion; this was then downgraded to 12 billion, then less than 10 billion. That means population will never double again. Greenhouse warming was originally going to be “uncontrolled”. Then it was going to be 2.5-4 degrees in a century. Then it became 1.5-3 degrees (according to the United Nations). In two years, elephants went from imminent danger of extinction to badly in need of contraception (the facts did not change, the reporting did)."

"...A new book edited by Melissa Leach and Robin Mearns at the University of Sussex (“The Lie of the Land”, published by James Currey/Heinemann) documents just how damaging the myth of deforestation and population pressure has been in parts of the Sahel. Westerners have forced inappropriate measures on puzzled local inhabitants in order to meet activists' preconceived notions of environmental change. The myth that oil and gas will imminently run out, together with worries about the greenhouse effect, is responsible for the despoliation of wild landscapes in Wales and Denmark by ugly, subsidised and therefore ultimately job-destroying wind farms. School textbooks are counsels of despair and guilt (see “Environmental Education”, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs), which offer no hope of winning the war against famine, disease and pollution, thereby inducing fatalism rather than determination.
Above all, the exaggeration of the population explosion leads to a form of misanthropy that comes dangerously close to fascism. The aforementioned Dr Ehrlich is an unashamed believer in the need for coerced family planning. His fellow eco-guru, Garrett Hardin, has said that “freedom to breed is intolerable”. If you think population is “out of control” you might be tempted to agree to such drastic curtailments of liberty...."

"...You can be in favour of the environment without being a pessimist. There ought to be room in the environmental movement for those who think that technology and economic freedom will make the world cleaner and will also take the pressure off endangered species. But at the moment such optimists are distinctly unwelcome among environmentalists. Dr Ehrlich likes to call economic growth the creed of the cancer cell. He is not alone. Sir Crispin Tickell calls economics “not so much dismal as half-witted”.
Environmentalists are quick to accuse their opponents in business of having vested interests. But their own incomes, their advancement, their fame and their very existence can depend on supporting the most alarming versions of every environmental scare...."

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