Apocalypse Not: I love the smell of skepticism in the morning

2009 bugMatt Ridley has just had a tremendous essay published in WIRED magazine, one that everyone should take a few minutes to read, because it sums up the issues of all the end time fears, fallacies, and failures we have collectively experienced in one tidy little package. – Anthony

By Matt Ridley

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.

Religious zealots hardly have a monopoly on apocalyptic thinking. Consider some of the environmental cataclysms that so many experts promised were inevitable. Best-selling economist Robert Heilbroner in 1974: “The outlook for man, I believe, is painful, difficult, perhaps desperate, and the hope that can be held out for his future prospects seem to be very slim indeed.” Or best-selling ecologist Paul Ehrlich in 1968: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.

In the 1970s [“and 1980s” was added in a later edition] the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked on now … nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Or Jimmy Carter in a televised speech in 1977: “We could use up all of the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade.”

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.

So far all of these specters have turned out to be exaggerated. True, we have encountered obstacles, public-health emergencies, and even mass tragedies. But the promised Armageddons—the thresholds that cannot be uncrossed, the tipping points that cannot be untipped, the existential threats to Life as We Know It—have consistently failed to materialize. To see the full depth of our apocaholism, and to understand why we keep getting it so wrong, we need to consult the past 50 years of history.

The classic apocalypse has four horsemen, and our modern version follows that pattern, with the four riders being chemicals (DDT, CFCs, acid rain), diseases (bird flu, swine flu, SARS, AIDS, Ebola, mad cow disease), people (population, famine), and resources (oil, metals). Let’s visit them each in turn.

Read the entire essay here: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/08/ff_apocalypsenot/all

Be thankful for all the good things we have, and worry not for the future as described by alarmists.

Advertisements

  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Peridot

I have just finished reading “The End-of-the-World Delusion” by Justin Deering. This is a romp through the Prophets of Doom from ancient Greece to today. Deering calls Climate Change ‘the Secular Apocolypse’ and is scathing about it.
Why do so many people get taken in so easily?
This article is a fun read although it is, at the same time, quite sad.

leftinbrooklyn

With all of our accomplishments– construction of amazing cities, exploring the universe, advancements in medical science saving lives, technology providing world-wide communication in an instant— & we still fall prey to the ‘Chicken Littles’ of the world. In that regard, we are still some cave-dwelling pre-human poking it’s own dung with a stick, wondering if it would taste good.
And the climate alarmists keep feeding it to us.

DirkH

Wired? Matt Ridley?
the first time Wired publishes somebody sane?

I’m sure this foolishness is not worth the time spend reading it. I can think of a thousand, way better fantasies, to occupy my mind such as sex, drugs and rock and roll.

DirkH says:
August 17, 2012 at 3:43 pm
Wired? Matt Ridley?
the first time Wired publishes somebody sane?

Over the years, I’ve found Wired to be a reliable and interesting magazine. I might not agree with everything they put to print, but to me that’s not a bad thing. In my opinion, if you agree with everything you read…. You’re not reading enough! 🙂

Yardbird

And of course, all these disasters, like Noah’s flood, caused by our sins; by the fact that humans are unnatural and do not belong on earth.
Misanthropy has a long pedigree.

@DirkH:
See Wired for May, 2008:
http://www.wired.com/science/planetearth/magazine/16-06/ff_heresies_intro
It was a good piece, and more focused on the climate issue.

R. Shearer

I think we have already run out of politicians worth our vote.

If we did not have the Malthusian Fallacy, what would we read about?

DirkH

leftinbrooklyn says:
August 17, 2012 at 3:42 pm
“we still fall prey to the ‘Chicken Littles’ of the world. In that regard, we are still some cave-dwelling pre-human poking it’s own dung with a stick, wondering if it would taste good.”
Careful with the “we”. I recently checked grist on alexa (I occasionally track the relative success of websites) and alexa had this to say – “Based on internet averages, grist.org is visited more frequently by females who are over 65 years old, have no children and are college educated.”

cui bono

Apocalypse just feeds our self-importance. Well done Mr. Ridley.

Contrari

So, why are we so addicted to these doomsdaysayers? One reason, IMO, is that people are fairly well off. Not all, of course, but those who raise their worried heads are generally on the right side of the street. If fact, I would say that the level of alarmism reflects the level of wealth in the social layers that are most addicted to predicting disasters.
And behind it all lies the ancient fear of hubris. Lest the gods punish us for our disgusting comfort, we must make the right kind of sacrifices and repent. Well, other people mainly make our sacrifices, but that’s not so important.
When will we see a study of correlation between doomsday culture and religious culture? Why are the western academic societies the primary proponents of CAGW? There is no Hansen in China.

Steven Hoffer

how uncomfortable for today’s end of the world enthusiast, stuck mumbling the words
“this time it’s different”

DocMartyn

You will note that the person who actually did something about treating HIV in Africa goes unnamed. Even wired can’t give George W. Bush credit for anything.

leftinbrooklyn

DirkH says:
‘Careful with the “we”. ‘
Well, ‘we’ as a species. Not every member of the species of course, but enough to keep the alarmists in business. And the troubling thing is, the availability of the gullible never seems to wane, even as we advance intellectually. From the first lunatic to stand on a hill and shout ‘the end is near!’, to the ‘Bill McKibbens’ of today.

Apocaholic… no, its not an addiction, its a mental disorder. We call it disasturbationism.

clipe
corio37

I really think there is scope for a psychologist (or psychiatrist) who has experience in dealing with religion to examine the sayings and writings of Green opinion leaders and point out the many parallels between environmental zealotry and religious fervour. I’ve already identified many cases in which the arguments of religious apologists have been adapted to defend AGW alarmism, and I think the parallels run far deeper than this. Somewhere at the bottom of it all there is an enormous reservoir of guilt and self-loathing.

Tim

And add in the idea that our species has the knowledge of our own eventual destruction. So I suspect we selfishly wish for the Earth go down in flames while we are still alive. It gives some sense of importance to our little spec of dust-like life…

Oatley

Rest easy all. The general public doesn’t buy all this crap. It’s the few who gobble up whatever the media feeds them…

jorgekafkazar

“Apocalypse Not.” Great title. Despite what Ridley says in the article, DDT is NOT toxic to humans. Dr. J. Gordon Edwards, once an environmentalist, referred to Rachel Carson as a liar. Edwards was famous for eating a spoonful of DDT while giving a lecture on it. He died from a heart attack while hiking at age 85.

William McClenney

PHYSICAL REVIEW E 84, 011130 (2011)
Social consensus through the influence of committed minorities
“We show how the prevailing majority opinion in a population can be rapidly reversed by a small fraction p of randomly distributed committed agents who consistently proselytize the opposing opinion and are immune to influence. Specifically, we show that when the committed fraction grows beyond a critical value pc ≈ 10%, there is a dramatic decrease in the time Tc taken for the entire population to adopt the committed opinion. In particular, for complete graphs we showthat whenp pc, Tc ∼ lnN.We conclude with simulation results for Erd˝os-R´enyi random graphs and scale-free networks which show qualitatively similar behavior.”
http://arxiv.org/abs/1102.3931

Jeffrey Ziegler

Apoca-lips-blubbing Now! But Mike Lorrey’s “disasturbation” is even better, I admit.

Re: Peridot: “Why do so many people get taken in so easily?”
I think it is tied to people liking to be scared. The bigger the scare, the better. It is why SciFi and horror movies make money. It is why we have lots of cable channels with programming on this disaster or the next one. Some vaguely connected to reality. Most not. History, History 2, Discovery, SciFi, NatGeo, etc are all examples
I find most of it funny. Probably some sort of sick view of entertainment on my part. Always liked the old SciFi “B” movies. First date I took a young lady to decades ago was a late 1960’s Japanese movie entitled “Green Slime.” The beastie ended up looking like a one-eyed pickle. What’s not to like about that? Laughed until it hurt. She went out with me again. Cheers –

Jim P.

The reason some of these apocalyptic myths are allowed to take hold is because in a lot of cases there is that kernel of truth. With respect to climate change, I don’t think many would argue that it hasn’t warmed somewhat over the last 150 years. I personally believe it’s warmed a bit over that timeframe, not just from the temperature records but also from other lines of physical evidence. Nevertheless, there’s absolutely no truth to the environmentalist myth that we’re on the precipice of some sort of apocalypse.
Many scientists don’t buy this nonsense, but they just don’t get the media coverage. So instead we hear from Al Gore telling us to prepare for a barrage of hurricanes and a 20′ ocean rise, Hansen telling us that that Manhattan should have been swallowed by the sea three years ago, Lovelock telling us humanity will be reduced to a few breeding pairs by 2100 as Gaia exacts its revenge through climate change (of course, he’s since backed down from that nonsense). When Dr. Hoerling of NOAA released his studies on some of the recent heat waves and concluded they could be explained entirely by natural variation, this wasn’t good enough for the alarmists so they came up with their own explanation about a loaded die. The current drought? Is it caused by global warming? Well, probably not, considering drought is a regular occurrence in the Plains and its incidence has been decreasing with time.
What’s crazy is even the actual IPCC report doesn’t come close to supporting half of the nonsense some of the crazies spew. The IPCC projects improved crop yields from global warming, and projects a manageable 7 to possibly 23 inches of sea level rise during the 21st century, not the meters often portrayed in the media. Even the high range seems questionable though, considering sea levels have been rising around 3 mm per year, which would correspond to just under a foot over the next 100 years. These charlatans NEVER discuss any of the positives of warming either — it’s strictly verboten according to the Gospel of Al (Gore). You hear about heat waves killing people, but global warming is projected to prevent many more deaths from cold than cause additional heat-related deaths.

The four horseman are going to need more powers!
http://qntm.org/destroy

Rest easy all. The general public doesn’t buy all this crap. It’s the few who gobble up whatever the media feeds them…

Unfortunately it is the few who rule our lives, seize our money, piss it away on new restrictions on our freedom.

T-Bird

“cui bono says:
August 17, 2012 at 3:57 pm
Apocalypse just feeds our self-importance. Well done Mr. Ridley.”
Yes, sort of. Apocalypticism is a result of our self-importance, the belief that we must be living in the most important moment in history. Why? Well, because … we’re here.

Paul C, Armstrong

Contrari:
you hit it on the head. Hansen, Mann, etc. & Co. know that they are getting large amounts of tax-payers money for their bad science and they feel guilty. So to compensate for their sub-conscious guilt, they are compelled to throw sacrificial lambs (you and me who are not ripping anyone off) into the propaganda volcano. The rich and ignorant left, especially Hollywood, are true examples of this.
shameless.
Paul from the Bronx

Jim P.

When will we see a study of correlation between doomsday culture and religious culture? Why are the western academic societies the primary proponents of CAGW? There is no Hansen in China.

So true. These alarmists have no idea what the world is like outside their world. China is building a new coal plant every two weeks. While the West is saddling its economy with unduly burdensome regulations, China is laughing all the way to the bank. And don’t forget about Russia. Russia has zero intention of ever giving up fossil fuels. Russia has nothing to lose. How in the world could global warming be anything but a good thing for Russia?

dorlomin

[snip – racist hate speech – you are banned from WUWT, pemanently]

michaeljmcfadden

Excellent article. I wonder sometimes though how much of this is a leftover from the baby-boomer’s very real fears of world nuclear holocaust? When that didn’t happen in the 60s and 70s, I think many of them began looking elsewhere to replace the assurance they’d had that most likely they’d never have to pay back credit cards, mortgages, and student loans — particularly after we survived Ronald Reagan without blowing ourselves up (which, personally, *I* believe was one of the closest things to a real miracle that humanity will ever be able to claim, although I give Gorby some fair credit in there as well.)
To some extent we’ve also moved into “individualizing” Apocalypse. Herpes was treated as a near apocalyptic event by the older flower children, and it was followed up in the 80s with far more serious predictions of a worldwide AIDS epidemic striking virtually everyone without hairy palms. Secondhand smoke is still out there with millions of children just in California suffering from the “plague” with its “no safe level” (See: http://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/health/Secondhand-Smoke-132808978.html ) and in the last week or so we’re even seeing a resurgence of the wackoid Thirdhand Smoke poisoning all those growing, glowing, children with Polonium (See: http://globalhealthlaw.wordpress.com/2009/01/11/third-hand-smoke/ although the original article seems to have been sadly rewritten to make it scarier since my comments there. I’m pretty sure the original admitted the “research” had just been based on a random public opinion poll.) And now we’re seeing the public uncritically accepting the disaster of our babies being poisoned by deadly Formaldehyde in baby shampoo ( See: http://www.pharmalot.com/2012/08/jj-agrees-to-remove-chemicals-from-products/ ) while we’re hiding them from chemtrails and worrying about their cell phones giving them brain cancer.
Before the 1950s it would seem that a lot of people always looked to religious apocali (or whatever you’d call them) but now those same neurotics are looking to science for their disasters. I wonder if they’re the “same” people in terms of psychological problems etc? Might make for an interesting research project!
– MJM

michaeljmcfadden

JimP: “How in the world could global warming be anything but a good thing for Russia?”
::picturing the remake of Dr. Zhivago shot someplace in the Bahamas::
– MJM

Contrari says:
August 17, 2012 at 4:01 pm
So, why are we so addicted to these doomsdaysayers? One reason, IMO, is that people are fairly well off. Not all, of course, but those who raise their worried heads are generally on the right side of the street. If fact, I would say that the level of alarmism reflects the level of wealth in the social layers that are most addicted to predicting disasters.

I’d go further and say the demographic most susceptible is the 20 and 30 somethings who live lives of ease, even affluence, generally don’t work at anything important or productive, and feel guilt and anxiety about it.
I base this observation having lived for a few months in the only federal electorate in Australia who have elected a Green MP.
But having said that, a really big volcanic eruption, is going to cause some serious problems for a lot of people.

James Padgett

Very good article.
It looks like the essay I wrote for his contest would go very well with it.
My fingers are crossed to win.

People must be miserable to keep falling for these apocalyptic bromides over the decades because they are in the way of rational thinking.

One curious apocalyptic belief ingrained in most greenies which is never talked about is a belief in the collapse of ecological balance. Personally I have never believed in the concept of an ecological balance in the first place, sure nature tries to reach equilibrium between hunters and preys. But basically what all organisms just try to do are to survive and multiply in a changing environment.
The mantra is always, we are destroying the environment and causing an ecological collapse by our wicked consumption. To explain to these people that nature is resilient and always changing is difficult.

Retired Engineer

Doom sells. As simple as that. No news outlet can survive printing just good news. And sooner or later, something bad will happen, all the alarmists will say “See? We warned you.” and go on to even more alarmism. Politicians have to “do something”, usually spending lots of other people’s money, so a good fit with the doomsayers. Stimulus didn’t work? Think of how bad it would have been without it. If we didn’t spend billions on global warming research, we would all melt. (or something like that) So, not at all surprising, and I doubt much will change.

Henry Clark

The comments on the ozone hole in the article are interesting. While I have not yet, someday I’ll get around to looking into such more. I used to auto-assume it was validly represented, from mention in a chemistry textbook, but, in the years since, on every activist scare on other topics which I have looked into more, digging deeper tends to find a little partial truth mixed with loads of smelly leaps of logic. Little is more common than to use a qualitative partial truth to justify a quantitative fallacy in binary thought within mentioning important complexities and context, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the ratio of anthropogenic to natural effects was much overstated.

tgmccoy

Norman Borlaug was my hero. while Erilch was screaming:”we’re all gonna dieeee!!”
(Or a least not him) Borlaug was going and doing real research.
It is never the headline grabber it is always the quiet ones who do the work…

u.k.(us)

If they would just stop putting up the stupid windmills, it would indicate a semblance of reasoned restraint.
Too much money in the pipeline, I guess.
History will not be kind.

u.k.(us),
You are so right.

Christian Bultmann

Good article.
Norman Borlaug should had been mentioned in the people section for playing a large part in feeding the growing population of the planet. A section that perhaps was missing I found was why people who rase the alarm with there doomsday prediction gaining fame and fortune, are never healed accountable for there ultimately failed predictions. One only has to look at the population bomb by Paul Ehrlich. Imagine for a moment that we would had followed his recommendation like stop sending aid to India as it would be a pointless undertaking, What a tragedy it would had been but today in Paul’s future world perhaps with fewer people on the planet nobody would have known that all that suffering was for nothing and Paul would be the hero for saving mankind.
Still today we know better but Paul Ehrlich is still well respected in the intercellular community tragically while the real heroes are almost forgotten.

David Ross

sunsettommy wrote:
“People must be miserable to keep falling for these apocalyptic bromides over the decades”
Actually, its the other way round.
Malthusians, eugenicists, anarcho-primitives, neo-Luddites and deep-ecologists aside the real drivers of these scares are the Marxists of the New Left. They promote them because they want people to be miserable.
Suppose they gave a revolution and nobody came. The economics obsessed Marxism failed in the west because capitalism kept “delivering the goods”. Living standards kept rising. You might be pissed-off if some other guy is richer than you but not enough to revolt if you’re richer than you were the year before.
If, as a popular 19th century quote put it: “Reform delayed is revolution begun” then the obvious corollary is: “reform begun is revolution delayed.” And if you believe in a utopian collectivized society, and that it can only be achieved through revolution and that the end justifies the means (i.e. you are a Marxist) then there really is only one course open to you.
You don’t want to tinker with reform. You want people to believe that the water is poisoned; the air is poisoned; evil corporations did this; capitalism did this; it’s time for change.
The anti-consumerism, anti-corporate, anti-globalization Occupy movement is just the latest manifestation of this, but it goes way back. “Critical Theory” (which is neither a theory or about critical thinking) is a method with a specific goal. Criticize and subvert every aspect of a society’s culture (or more specifically “dominant culture”) so that its members come to despise it enough to want to totally transform it. Herbert Marcuse is the principal theorist but David Fenton has been and still is the principal practitioner.
I love Matt Ridley’s work but this article, excellent as it is, only scratches the surface.

Stick this article in the Climate Fail Files.
Ok. It is not chiefly a Climate Fail, but it is good background for the topic.

Jonathan Smith

Unfortunately, today’s disaster-mongers rope all of us in. Having the ear of our largely arts/law educated, scientifically illiterate, political imbeciles has allowed the cost of green non-remedies to be spread across the entire population of the west. I much the old-fashioned variety of doom; you could watch and laugh from a distance and watch them squirm when nothing happened. Sadly, all of us now watch and squirm as nothing happens except our money going to con-men and charlatans.

DirkH

Wired? Matt Ridley?
the first time Wired publishes somebody sane?

Not I think the first time. How about this example:

This all began in February 1997. Lomborg was in Los Angeles and he read an article in Wired magazine by the late Julian Simon, an American right-wing thinker, trashing the eco-catastrophists. He went back to Denmark and with his statistics students set about the task of proving Simon wrong. Except for a few details, they failed. By the end of the year, he had concluded that Simon was right and the green case was a wild exaggeration. In right-on, PC, left-wing, green Denmark this was heresy. But Lomborg had been trained in heresy.

That was Bryan Appleyard telling the story of Bjorn Lomborg in October 2007.
Well done also to jorgekafkazar and tgmccoy for pointing out two weaknesses in Ridley’s article: DDT is less toxic than table salt has never caused the death of a single human being and the man behind the green revolution, Norman Borlaug, wasnt even mentioned. Even so, great article. May another generation of Lomborgs arise as a result.

Heggs

Very good article, thank you for the link.

Militant Catholic

“the first time Wired publishes somebody sane?”
Sad – Wired had awesome articles but I stopped reading the site a few years back when they, like Slashdot, some of the space sites, and Fark all went fully into the tank for Obama. Every article suddenly became ‘Why Bush and his religious zealots are dangerous idiots and why Obama and Stephen Chu are going to bring us all a new era of science-wonderfulness, free from any mention of God”. Well, we all saw where science went the last three and a half years under Obama and Chu.

thingadonta

Yes Yes but science is immune from human failings, especially today’s scientists, didnt you know?