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.
I am not an environmentalist. Nowadays saying that that doesn’t upset people so much. Back in the 80’s, especially for a liberal, that was like saying “I am a serial killer.” People would look at you in shock and hope you were joking.
To me, an environmentalist is someone who thinks a beaver dam is a thing of beauty but a hydroelectric dam is an abomination, even though hydroelectric dams provide drinking water, irrigation water, electricity and recreation for huge numbers of people. When you consider all the pluses and minuses of technology vs. “nature” it’s really no argument. Humans have to live on this planet too.
This article is one of those you should read even if you disagree with it – or maybe especially if you disagree.
I want to focus on just one part of it:
Silent Spring, published 50 years ago this year, was instrumental in the emergence of modern environmentalism. “Without this book, the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all,” Al Gore wrote in his introduction to the 1994 edition. Carson’s main theme was that the use of synthetic pesticides—DDT in particular—was causing not only a massacre of wildlife but an epidemic of cancer in human beings. One of her chief inspirations and sources for the book was Wilhelm Hueper, the first director of the environmental arm of the National Cancer Institute. So obsessed was Hueper with his notion that pesticides and other synthetic chemicals were causing cancers (and that industry was covering this up) that he strenuously opposed the suggestion that tobacco-smoking take any blame. Hueper wrote in a 1955 paper called “Lung Cancers and Their Causes,” published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, “Industrial or industry-related atmospheric pollutants are to a great part responsible for the causation of lung cancer … cigarette smoking is not a major factor in the causation of lung cancer.”
In fact, of course, the link between smoking and lung cancer was found to be ironclad. But the link between modern chemicals and cancer is sketchy at best. Even DDT, which clearly does pose health risks to those unsafely exposed, has never been definitively linked to cancer. In general, cancer incidence and death rates, when corrected for the average age of the population, have been falling now for 20 years.
There is probably no chemical that has been as unfairly maligned as DDT. I’, not gonna tell you that DDT is completely safe and harmless because it’s not. It’s a chemical pesticide – a poison. Wikipedia:
DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) is an organochlorine insecticide which is a white, crystalline solid, tasteless, and almost odorless. Technical DDT has been formulated in almost every conceivable form including solutions in xylene or petroleum distillates, emulsifiable concentrates, water-wettable powders, granules, aerosols, smoke candles, and charges for vaporisers and lotions.
First synthesized in 1874, DDT’s insecticidal properties were not discovered until 1939, and it was used with great success in the second half of World War II to control malaria and typhus among civilians and troops. The Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1948 “for his discovery of the high efficiency of DDT as a contact poison against several arthropods.” After the war, DDT was made available for use as an agricultural insecticide, and soon its production and use skyrocketed.
For most of human history pestilence has been a major threat to our survival. Insects consume crops and stored grains. Some, like locusts, can destroy entire fields in a matter of hours. After pestilence comes famine.
Insects also transmit deadly diseases. Millions of people used to die every year from malaria, typhus and other insect-borne killers. Even today hundreds of thousands of people still do.
So do the math. On one hand you have millions of deaths from disease and millions more from starvation caused by destroyed crops. On the other hand you have thousands of deaths (maybe) caused by DDT. It’s no contest – DDT wins.
When DDT first came into use as an insecticide it was like a miracle chemical. Early insecticides like nicotine were highly toxic and dangerous to use as well as expensive to mass produce. DDT was effective, cheap and relatively safe to use.
DDT isn’t perfect. There are very real problems with it.
As I have said before, in an earlier life I was a pest control technician, also known as an exterminator or more commonly, “the Bug Man.” I got started in that occupation shortly after leaving the army in 1981. Although DDT had been banned in 1972 many of the guys I worked with had used the pesticide and its analogs, Chlordane and Lindane.
When I started out the industry had switched from chlorinated hydrocarbons to organic phosphates. (If you want to know what those names mean ask a chemist.) Organic phosphates are actually more toxic when first applied but they break down quicker. That means they have to be applied more often.
They are also more expensive. This wasn’t a major problem for us here in the United States, but when you’re trying to eradicate malaria in on a low budget in underdeveloped nations you need maximum bang for your buck. That’s why DDT is still in use today.
When I say I’m not an environmentalist I don’t mean I want to destroy the environment. But humans have to live on this planet too. The eco-freaks like Earth First are full of shit. If the whole world was forced to live by their rules a billion people would die.
I don’t know about you but I kinda like it here.