Monday, April 22, 2024

Happy Earth Day: "What Big Thing Are We Getting Wrong About the Future?"

See you at the face-painting booth!

From Discourse Magazine, April 15:

The old overpopulation scare is a warning about our cultural blind spots

I recently tracked down a copy of a fascinating old book, “Our World in Space,” by Isaac Asimov with illustrations by Robert McCall. Published in 1974, five years after the moon landing, it wonderfully captures a moment of exuberant excitement about the achievements of space exploration. But in one section, it also captures the way the people of an era can be blind to their own big errors.

If you’re not familiar with them, Asimov and McCall are two of the biggest names from a mid-20th-century era of techno-optimism. Every time you hear someone complain about today’s negative views of technology—which is nearly always portrayed as leading to dystopia—these are the guys they are comparing it to.

Asimov was a writer of classic science fiction (his Foundation series was recently brought to the screen) and a prolific popularizer of science. McCall was an artist known for his portrayals of space exploration—real NASA missions as well as imagined future technology—and for the giant mural, “The Prologue and the Promise,” that he created for Disney’s Horizons pavilion at EPCOT, which set a standard for optimistic portrayals of the future. You can see his visual influence in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the Star Trek franchise. And his 1974 illustration of a spherical space station just might have had an influence on another big science fiction franchise.

Yet the error here is not an excess of optimism. It’s Asimov’s one big moment of pessimism that’s a problem.

The Population Flop
In some respects, Asimov’s description of the future of space exploration—essentially, a giant brochure for NASA’s most ambitious dreams—is not just optimistic but wildly over-optimistic. In “Our World in Space,” he projects that by now we should have whole cities of humans living under the surface of the moon as a springboard for colonizing the asteroids and the moons of Jupiter. But then at the end of one chapter is this jarringly pessimistic warning:

In one respect, a Moon colony, or any colony or combination of colonies outside the Earth, cannot help us. No one of them, nor all of them together, can help us solve our population dilemma. If anyone thinks that the important reason for exploring space is to find outlets for our expanding population, let him think again ... .

We must, of our own determination, and here on Earth, halt the population increase by balancing the birth and death rates ... . That leaves us with the necessity of decreasing the birth rate ... .

Remember that, above all.

It’s the hyper-emphatic ending that gets me. “Remember that,” Asimov says, “above all.”

What should strike you about this is how wrong it turned out to be. Asimov was writing at the height of the “population bomb” hysteria, when Paul Ehrlich was predicting mass starvation by the 1980s as a rising population outstripped the capacity of the Earth to feed them. But the population bomb was a flop. None of the catastrophes happened. India, for example, was supposed to be the first to starve as its population exploded. Instead, it embraced the Green Revolution and became a net exporter of food. Even the New York Times threw in the towel on overpopulation hysteria a few years back with a retrospective on how wrong Ehrlich turned out to be.

In fact, the current worry—far more realistically grounded—is that our biggest problem in the next century will be a falling global population.

Yet at the time Asimov wrote his gloomy words, he would have been solidly in the middle of the elite consensus. It’s clear he thinks others would regard him as irresponsible for not mentioning so important and well established a fact.

This started me thinking: What big thing are we getting wrong about the world, and the future, today? What idea is so universally accepted that we don’t realize all the things that are wrong with it?

There are undoubtedly several such ideas. (I will even acknowledge—purely in theory, mind you—that I might be wrong about something.) But I can propose one idea that enjoys much the same status as the “population bomb” in Asimov’s time—and which is wrong for many of the same reasons....


Ron Baily at Reason Magazine put together some of the forecasts from the period surrounding the first Earth Day in 1970 for the thirtieth anniversary. By far the worst was Paul Ehrlich, partly because he had an impressive bullhorn (still on the faculty at Stanford) and partly because he was so spectacularly wrong,  Here's a a condensation via AEI Ideas in 2019:

1. Harvard biologist George Wald estimated that “civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.”

2. “We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation,” wrote Washington University biologist Barry Commoner in the Earth Day issue of the scholarly journal Environment.

3. The day after the first Earth Day, the New York Times editorial page warned, “Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.”

4. “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make,” Paul Ehrlich confidently declared in the April 1970 issue of Mademoiselle. “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”

5. “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born,” wrote Paul Ehrlich in a 1969 essay titled “Eco-Catastrophe! “By…[1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s.”

6. Ehrlich sketched out his most alarmist scenario for the 1970 Earth Day issue of The Progressive, assuring readers that between 1980 and 1989, some 4 billion people, including 65 million Americans, would perish in the “Great Die-Off.”

7. “It is already too late to avoid mass starvation,” declared Denis Hayes, the chief organizer for Earth Day, in the Spring 1970 issue of The Living Wilderness.

8. Peter Gunter, a North Texas State University professor, wrote in 1970, “Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions….By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.”

9. In January 1970, Life reported, “Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support…the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution…by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half….”

10. Ecologist Kenneth Watt told Time that, “At the present rate of nitrogen buildup, it’s only a matter of time before light will be filtered out of the atmosphere and none of our land will be usable.”

11. Barry Commoner predicted that decaying organic pollutants would use up all of the oxygen in America’s rivers, causing freshwater fish to suffocate.

12. Paul Ehrlich chimed in, predicting in 1970 that “air pollution…is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone.” Ehrlich sketched a scenario in which 200,000 Americans would die in 1973 during “smog disasters” in New York and Los Angeles.

13. Paul Ehrlich warned in the May 1970 issue of Audubon that DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons “may have substantially reduced the life expectancy of people born since 1945.” Ehrlich warned that Americans born since 1946…now had a life expectancy of only 49 years, and he predicted that if current patterns continued this expectancy would reach 42 years by 1980, when it might level out. (Note: According to the most recent CDC report, life expectancy in the US is 78.8 years).

14. Ecologist Kenneth Watt declared, “By the year 2000, if present trends continue, we will be using up crude oil at such a rate…that there won’t be any more crude oil. You’ll drive up to the pump and say, `Fill ‘er up, buddy,’ and he’ll say, `I am very sorry, there isn’t any.'”

15. Harrison Brown, a scientist at the National Academy of Sciences, published a chart in Scientific American that looked at metal reserves and estimated the humanity would totally run out of copper shortly after 2000. Lead, zinc, tin, gold, and silver would be gone before 1990.

16. Sen. Gaylord Nelson wrote in Look that, “Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, believes that in 25 years, somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct.”

17. In 1975, Paul Ehrlich predicted that “since more than nine-tenths of the original tropical rainforests will be removed in most areas within the next 30 years or so, it is expected that half of the organisms in these areas will vanish with it.”

18. Kenneth Watt warned about a pending Ice Age in a speech. “The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years,” he declared. “If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.”

And from a 2020 post on commodities:

May 2013 
Last month I tangentially mentioned Paul Ehrlich:
See also: the spectacularly wrong and wrong-headed forecasts made by Paul Ehrlich for which he has been rewarded with an endowed chair at Stanford-definitely a mark against Stanford.
And fully intended to gather some of his wrong-beyond-wrong predictions.
I forgot.
I'll get around to a full post on his doom-mongering but for now here are a couple of his comments on India:

"I don't see how India could possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980."
-Population Bomb, 1968 

"I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks that India 
will be self-sufficient in food by 1971." 
-Population Bomb, 1968

In the book's 1971 edition, the latter prediction was removed, green revolution and all that.
The World Bank estimates India's population was 511 million in January 1968.
India is feeding 700 million more people than when Ehrlich wrote his 200 mil. line.
Meet M.S. Swaminathan and his students.

Giving society cheap, abundant energy . . . 
would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.
Paul Ehrlich, “An Ecologist’s Perspective on Nuclear Power,”
May/June 1978 issue of Federation of American Scientists Public Issue Report

It's not just Erlich who thinks like that, here's Amory Lovins:

 If you ask me, it’d be a little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we would do with it. We ought to be looking for energy sources that are adequate for our needs, but that won’t give us the excesses of concentrated energy with which we could do mischief to the earth or to each other.
Amory Lovins in The Mother Earth–Plowboy Interview, 
Nov/Dec 1977, p. 22

There are many, many more examples but for now, you get the point.

"Commodities: 'The Case for Human Ingenuity'":

“When you buy commodities, you’re selling human ingenuity.”
Dylan Grice on why investing in commodities for the long run is a bad idea (SocGen Cross Asset Research, December 2010)

And the last word:

"It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter
how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong."  
-Richard P. Feynman, Nobel Laureate-Physics, 1965

Of course Feynman hung his hat at CalTech, not Stanford.