Having celebrated Earth Day and warned of various dimensions of environmental collapse since 1970, are there any circumstances even barely conceivable under which the environmental left would say that no more Earth Days are needed?
By Benjamin Zycher
Earth Day—Lenin’s birthday—stands for the proposition that environmental crises both immediate and looming are eternal, with mankind always the central cause, and that the unbroken record of failure of Earth Day doom and gloompredictions for almost five decades actually should be a source of pride.
In short, in terms of its endless predictions of apocalypse, the environmental left truly believes—indeed, it is driven to believe, it must believe, it cannot believe otherwise—that an invincible record of past failure is irrelevant with respect to future performance, a point to which we return below.
My AEI colleague Mark Perry has had considerable fun with all of this, but he misses a larger and more important point: While it always is amusing to speculate about the nature of the next environmental scare campaign, Earth Day serves a real purpose.
To wit, it tells us what the next purported environmental crisis will be: an exercise in mass propaganda about the next parade that corporations, think tanks, politicians, pundits, people with big checking accounts, GoFundMe practitioners, kids with piggy banks, undergraduates with ample spare time, and the bureaucracy have a moral obligation to join. And join they will, without need of independent thinking, lest karma in the form of public shaming and the environmental version of the Passover plagues proves to be a harsh mistress.
The Earth Day theme this year is “Protect Our Species,” a clear sign that the anthropogenic climate hysteria is likely to have peaked, due to an utter absence of evidence in support of the “climate crisis” story line, the trivial effects and massive costs of any plausible climate policies, the huge economic benefits of fossil fuels, and the resulting reality that those policy proposals are political nonstarters. Accordingly, for Earth Day this year the climate crisis has been relegated to a back burner, upstaged by the assertion that
…human beings have irrevocably upset the balance of nature and, as a result, the world is facing the greatest rate of extinction since we lost the dinosaurs more than 60 million years ago. But unlike the fate of the dinosaurs, the rapid extinction of species in our world today is the result of human activity.
It gets worse or, rather, better:
Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals—the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century.
Wow. Perhaps half of all species will be extinct in 31 years? Are the “scientists” making these forecasts among those who have predicted the other forms of environmental destruction for decades? Well, yes: One of the leading proponents of this latest hypothesis of hell on earth is the ineffable Paul Ehrlich, the very same Ehrlich who informed us repeatedly decades ago that a partial mass extinction of humanity from starvation would take place no later than the 1980s, an exercise in Malthusian silliness rather inconsistent with the reality that global food prices have remained constant even as the global population has increased by 110 percent since 1970. Oops.
In any event, it is clear that “scientists” do not know even how many species exist, even within an order of magnitude. And so it is also unclear precisely how “scientists” know how many are being lost annually, let alone the causes, notwithstanding the Pavlovian assertion from the environmental left that mankind is to blame. Of course.
Let us delve briefly into what we do know. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports in its Red List that, of the 98,512 species that it has assessed, over 27,000 are “threatened with extinction.” A recent editorial in Nature argues:
If all currently threatened species were to go extinct in a few centuries and that rate continued, the die-offs would soon reach the level of a mass extinction—the kind of biological catastrophe that ended the reign of the dinosaurs and that has happened only five times in Earth’s history. The sixth mass extinction could come in a couple of centuries or a few millennia, but it lies somewhere in the future if nations keep to their present course.
The range of dates in that statement reflects profound uncertainty about the current rate of extinction. Estimates vary a hundred-fold—from 0.01 per cent to 1 per cent of species being lost per decade. . . . So, if all of those went extinct in the next few centuries, and the rate of extinction that killed them kept right on for hundreds or thousands of years more, then we might be at the beginning of a human-caused Sixth Mass Extinction.
Even under those extreme assumptions about the future trends, a theoretical species crisis “hundreds or thousands of years” distant is rather different from the imminent Earth Day warning that “as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly [are] heading toward extinction by mid-century.” Brand notes also:
The fossil record shows that biodiversity in the world has been increasing dramatically for 200 million years and is likely to continue. The two mass extinctions in that period (at 201 million and 66 million years ago) slowed the trend only temporarily.
John C. Briggs shows in a recent journal article that “for the past 500 years, terrestrial animals (insects and vertebrates) have been losing less than two species per year due to human causes.” In a much broader context, Brand shows that the number of genera has increased from about 1,000 just before the fourth mass extinction 200 million years ago to over 5,000 now. (Genera are the next taxonomic level up from species and are easier to detect in the fossil record.) Table 1 shows the effects of the five historical mass extinctions in terms of the number of genera.
Table 1. Approximate Genera Numbers Before and After Five Mass Extinctions
|Mass Extinction||Years Ago (Millions)||Genera Before||Genera After|
Source: Stewart Brand, “Rethinking Extinction,” Aeon, April 21, 2015.
Note that the number of genera has increased sharply from about 700 to over 5,000 since the end of the Triassic period 200 million years ago. Nature seems to have recovered after each of the previous mass extinctions, and even a loss of half of the current known genera—not an outcome to be applauded, to put it mildly—still would leave more than 2,500 genera, more than existed from 540 million to almost 100 million years ago.
Again, these are hypotheticals, dubious ones far from having been demonstrated as “reality” in any sense. They are therefore little more than assertions, far from desirable, but sufficiently distant in time that under the highly questionable assumption that they come to emerge, even slow per capita increases in human incomes would allow humanity to correct them. Accordingly, they are radically different from the current Earth Day dogma that a species Armageddon looms only three decades hence.
That is an essential truth that returns us to the endless Earth Day pronouncements of imminent catastrophe. Merely conduct a simple conceptual experiment: Having celebrated Earth Day and warned of various dimensions of environmental collapse since 1970, are there any circumstances even barely conceivable under which the environmental left would say that no more Earth Days are needed?
The question answers itself. An admission that there are no more apocalypses to fear obviously would destroy the movement in a heartbeat, so retreat is unthinkable as a matter of principle. Accordingly, it is precisely the unbroken record of Earth Day predictive failures that guarantees its infinite continuation, because only those who truly believe in the dogma will be willing in the face of an unbroken record of predictive failure to remain in the trenches, together with those whose livelihoods are tied to each succeeding crisis. In short, the Earth Day tradition of apocalypse is in a trap of its own making. It is an imperative that cannot stop.
That is why modern left-wing environmentalism fundamentally is a religious movement, with Earth Day as its central holiday. No amount of contrary evidence can dissuade its believers from belief. Since ancient times, mass fires, destructive weather, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, meteor strikes, and other such environmental calamities have been interpreted as the gods’ punishment of men for the sins of Man. And so for millennia the pagans attempted to prevent such horrors by worshipping golden idols, just as modern left-wing environmentalists now attempt to do the same by bowing down before recycling bins and by proselytizing in particular to the young.
At a more general level, a reasonable summary of the permanent Earth Day religious dogma is straightforward: In the beginning, earth was the Garden of Eden. But mankind, having consumed the forbidden fruit of the tree of technological knowledge, has despoiled it. And only through repentance and economic suffering can we return to the loving embrace of Mother Gaia. That it is ordinary people—in particular the third-world poor and not the environmental elites—who will suffer the adverse effects of the Earth Day policy agenda is sufficient by itself to question the never-ending nostrums of Earth Day.
Benjamin Zycher is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute