The New York Times writes about an early environmentalist who realized he might be wrong about a few things and changed his perspective.
One of the arguments used by those who believe that religion is a bigger threat to civilization than the anti-industrial revolution is that environmental claims ultimately concern reality, and can (eventually) be proven false, whereas supernatural claims cannot. Could this be evidence of an emerging trend?
Professor Ehrlich’s theories of the coming “age of scarcity” were subsequently challenged by the economist Julian Sinon, who bet Mr. Ehrlich that the prices of natural resources would fall during the 1980’s despite the growth in population. The prices fell, just as predicted by Professor Simon’s cornucopian theories.
Professor Ehrlich dismissed Professor Simon’s victory as a fluke, but Mr. Brand saw something his mentor didn’t. He considered the bet a useful lesson about the adaptability of humans — and the dangers of apocalyptic thinking.
“It is one of the great revelatory bets,” he now says. “Any time that people are forced to acknowledge publicly that they’re wrong, it’s really good for the commonweal. I love to be busted for apocalyptic proclamations that turned out to be 180 degrees wrong. In 1973 I thought the energy crisis was so intolerable that we’d have police on the streets by Christmas. The times I’ve been wrong is when I assume there’s a brittleness in a complex system that turns out to be way more resilient than I thought.”
He now looks at the rapidly growing megacities of the third world not as a crisis but as good news: as villagers move to town, they find new opportunities and leave behind farms that can revert to forests and nature preserves. Instead of worrying about population growth, he’s afraid birth rates are declining too quickly, leaving future societies with a shortage of young people.
Old-fashioned rural simplicity still has great appeal for romantic environmentalists. But when the romantics who disdain frankenfoods choose locally grown heirloom plants and livestock, they’re benefiting from technological advances made by past plant and animal breeders. Are the risks of genetically engineered breeds of wheat or cloned animals so great, or do they just ruin the romance? (Emp. mine)
Mr. Brand classifies environmentalists into “romantics” and “scientists” — a distinction between those who treat it as a religion, and those who are sucked in by environmental claims, but still open to reason.
Can we really expect any significant faction of the environmentalist movement to see reason? The article lists only a few of the predictions environmentalists and their precursors have been preaching since 1798, with no sign that they will see the light. The persistent Malthusian prediction of imminent global starvation for over 200 years makes sense only when compared with Christian expectations of imminent rapture for 2000 years.
I experienced both kinds of “romantics” in college. One of my college roommates was convinced that the Second Coming would come “any day now,” while members of the secular student group assured me that we were in the midst of a global eco-apocalypse, and that we were rapidly turning turning earth into a desert. What basis do we have for assuming that one group is any more rational than the other?