…OF THE SCAREMONGERS!
By John Tierney
The safer the world becomes, the harder we try to scare ourselves.
Now that most people in the developed world live to a comfortable old age, now that we’re rich enough to avoid famine and plague and the other threats that routinely killed our ancestors, we can afford to fantasize about disasters that will end civilization and destroy the planet.
Doomsaying has become an industry, a jobs program for journalists, academics, politicians, and self-proclaimed experts warning that the end is nigh unless we adopt their plans for salvation – which usually involve entrusting them with new powers and tax dollars. When one of their predicted apocalypses fails to occur, they come up with another “existential threat.” They know there’s always a market for these real-life horror movies. No matter how often they’re wrong, they figure the public will wonder: What if they’re right this time?
In theory, an apocalypse is possible, but it’s less likely than ever, and the threats to worry about are not the ones that get the most attention. Most of the ones you hear about are false alarms, and the proposed solutions will do little except enrich the doomsayers. Before you waste time worrying about the wrong things, let’s take a calm look at the Big Fears and rate each one’s plausibility…
This is the granddaddy of fears that refuses to go away. Plato and Aristotle believed the government needed to control population, and economics became known as the dismal science in the 19th century because of Malthus’ warning that population growth would inevitably outstrip food production. Prophets have been warning ever since that humanity will run out of food, energy, metals, and other natural resources unless we become fervent recyclers and let our wise leaders control population and ration resources.
But today we have more food per person than ever, at lower prices than ever, thanks to farmers whose productivity per acre keeps increasing so rapidly that the amount of farmland is shrinking globally, even as the population grows. We already have more farmland than we need to feed the projected future population. We also have enough proven energy resources (including nuclear power) to last tens of thousands of years.
Dire shortages of food and other resources have occurred in socialist countries with price controls – the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Venezuela – but when supplies run low anywhere else, the rising price spurs entrepreneurs to find new reserves or cheaper substitutes. That’s why, despite temporary shortages like the “energy crisis” of the 1970s, the inflation-adjusted prices of metals and other natural resources have been falling for centuries. It’s also why recycling programs lose so much money – with raw materials so cheap, no one is willing to pay much for the stuff in your garbage.
How much to worry: Not at all, if you’re living in a capitalist country.
What to do about it: Don’t vote for socialists.
Terrorists With Weapons of Mass Destruction
For more than 50 years, an array of experts and leaders like President Bill Clinton and Vice President Dick Cheney have been warning that a catastrophic nuclear or biological terror attack was inevitable within a decade – “100% certain,” according to Clinton in the 1990s. The prophets have all been wrong, but they’ve succeeded in their mission: boosting spending on anti-terrorism programs.
Today’s prophets warn that the Internet has made it easier for terrorists to learn how to build WMDs, which is true, but getting materials for the weapons remains a daunting challenge, and new information technologies have also made it easier for authorities to spot terrorists. In recent years there have actually been fewer terrorist attacks and fatalities than in the 1970s and 1980s (the heyday of the Irish Republican Army and Basque separatists in Spain).
Some terrorists may eventually strike with a WMD, with devastating local impact, but it would hardly be an existential threat. Why would it threaten the existence of any nation, let alone civilization? Nations have routinely endured far, far worse casualties from wars, epidemics, and natural disasters. If, as the late Sen. John McCain once said, terrorism is the “transcendental challenge of the 21st century,” that just shows how much safer this century is than all the previous ones.
How much to worry: Not much, since an attack is unlikely – and really unlikely to happen near you.
What to do about it: Not a whole lot beyond what’s already being done. In fact, we’re already wasting money on programs with no proven effectiveness.
As the energy crisis disappeared in the early 1980s, doomsayers found new work by pivoting to another threat: the extinction of humanity and most life on Earth from the climatic after-effects of an all-out nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. One climate-modeling scenario had the ozone layer disappearing, while another had the entire planet freezing in a long “nuclear winter” due to the smoke and soot blocking sunlight.
Jonathan Schell, who promoted these fears in The New Yorker, concluded that the only solution was to abolish nation-states and institute a global government – presumably run by someone like himself. No one adopted his proposal, fortunately, since it turned out that the climate models were either flat-out wrong or absurdly pessimistic, and the threat receded further when the United States and the remnants of the Soviet Union eliminated more than 80% of their nuclear warheads.
How much to worry: Not at all. Nuclear war would be horrible, of course, but it wouldn’t wipe out humanity. And for all the fears of nuclear weapons, they’ve so far proven a wonderful deterrent to war. The era since 1945 has probably been the most peaceful in history.
What to do about it: Keep reducing the world’s nuclear arsenals.
Mass Extinction of Species
Before you fret about the “mass extinction” that is supposedly underway because of evil humanity, consider a couple statistics. There are least 1 million species on earth. In the past 500 years, the number of species that are confirmed to have gone extinct is less than 1,000. While there have surely been other extinctions we don’t know about, the total pales next to the mass extinctions that wiped out species in the past.
Yes, some populations have declined due to loss of habitat, but that problem is easing now that the global trend in deforestation has reversed. As farmers produce more food on less land, and as ruralites move to cities, the amount of forestland in the world has been growing. So, by the way, has the population of polar bears, as well as other species that are enjoying new protections from hunters and new wildlife refuges. We’re perfectly capable of ensuring the survival of animals – and we may soon be capable of bringing back extinct animals, like the mammoths that scientists are currently trying to create from their DNA.
How much to worry: There’s not going to be a mass extinction, but some animals will need help in dealing with changing conditions.
What to do about it: Identify the animals that need protection – and that are worth protecting.
Global warming and rising sea levels are genuine threats, but remember that the climate apocalypse is being promoted by many of the same doomsayers who warned of overpopulation, the energy crisis, and nuclear winter as a way of augmenting their pocketbooks and political power. And keep the threat in perspective. Even the worst-case scenarios (which have been looking less likely as the climate models are refined) pale next to the challenges that humans have already overcome without any of the technology we have today – or the more advanced technology that will be available later this century.
The Malthusian prophets of the 19th and 20th centuries, while woefully underestimating human ingenuity, did at least identify genuine dangers to civilization: We can’t survive if we run out of food or energy. But we can certainly adapt to changes in temperature and sea level. Humans have been doing it for hundreds of thousands of years, through ice ages and warm periods, in ecosystems ranging from tropical rainforests to the Arctic tundra.
Farmers and burghers in the Low Countries have been holding back the sea – and expanding their fields and cities – for more than 1,500 years. In the past two centuries, Manhattanites have had to cope with a two-foot rise in sea level and a seven-degree-Fahrenheit increase in temperature (due to the urban heat-island effect from buildings), which are roughly equivalent to the gloomier planetary forecasts for the rest of this century from global warming. Yet Manhattan, far from being swamped by the sea, has expanded thanks to the landfill added along the shoreline. The population is larger and healthier than ever, and the death toll from summer heat waves has plummeted thanks to air-conditioning.
Adapting to climate change costs money, but it’s not an economic catastrophe.
In fact, for now and the next few decades, there’s a net economic benefit from the rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because it stimulates plant growth and improves agricultural productivity (as well as promoting the growth of grasslands and forests in what used to be barren land). Economists calculate that these benefits will eventually be outweighed by the rising costs of global warming in the second half of this century, assuming that by then we haven’t figured out how to forestall it. But by then humans around the world will be far wealthier than today. Extrapolating from long-term trends, it’s a good bet that the average person’s income in 2100 will be at least be at six times higher than today.
So our descendants will be much better equipped than we are to deal with any challenges from a warmer world. They’ll have far more resources to reduce pollution, conserve wildlife, and improve public health. People’s well-being in 2100 will depend much less on the temperature than on their income, so our main task is to make sure that we don’t adopt policies that stifle economic growth – like much of the green agenda.
How much to worry: Climate change is hardly the biggest problem on earth – the world’s poor have more pressing concerns – but it’s worth studying, particularly the climate-engineering technology to deal the worst-case scenarios. If the climate suddenly starts warming much more quickly than expected, we should know how to quickly cool it down, perhaps by injecting particles into the atmosphere that mimic the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption.
What to do about it: Support research into climate-engineering and new technologies to bring down the cost of low-carbon energy sources. Encourage the switch from coal to natural gas (that means encouraging fracking) and nuclear power, but don’t dole out corporate welfare to windmills and solar panels and other “sustainable” sources that can’t actually sustain themselves without massive subsidies or laws forcing consumers to use them. They’re still too expensive, especially for the nearly one billion people who are without electricity. Those people need cheap fossil fuels, and it makes no moral sense to make them sacrifice today in order to keep temperatures slightly cooler in 2100 for their wealthy descendants.
Pathogens spread more easily than ever, thanks to all the international traveling we do. But even though the global population has increased, the number of people dying in plagues has declined over the past century. That’s because people have gotten healthier (making them better able to survive infections) and medical technology has improved so much. Quarantine used to be the only way to stop a plague… Now we can quickly engineer vaccines and other weapons against pathogens.
Again, the best protection against this threat is economic growth. Climate catastrophists like to warn of rampant malaria on a warmer planet, but malaria is primarily a disease of poverty, not climate. It used to be endemic as far north as Scandinavia, but it essentially disappears once a country’s per-capita income rises above $3,000, which should be the case everywhere by mid-century. As long as everyone keeps getting richer, we’ll keep winning the war against pathogens.
How much to worry: There will always be new viruses and microbes to fend off, but they’re not going to wipe out humanity.
What to do about it: Keep funding medical research.
No, robots are not going to put everyone out of work. This fear is just an updated version of the original Luddite scare, when automated textile factories were supposed to be terrible for workers. They never imagined future workers would find other jobs and save so much on machine-made clothes that they’d be regularly dining out and hiring personal trainers. The more jobs that robots do for us, the richer we’ll be, and the more new desires we’ll pay other humans to satisfy.
But there is a longer-term danger: Robots that are a lot smarter than we are. If they ever become as intelligent as humans, they won’t stay that way for long, because their intelligence would increase exponentially as they upgraded their circuitry, and before long they’d regard us the way we regard lower animals.
How much to worry: It’s debatable whether robots will ever become independently intelligent, but if they do, we could have a problem.
What to do about it: Design software with built-in safeguards and upgrade our own brains so we can stay ahead of them. If that doesn’t work, then welcome our new robot overlords and hope they feel inclined to keep us around, if only for entertainment value. We want them to see us as the equivalent of Labrador retrievers or giant pandas, not the smallpox virus.
If there’s any other intelligent life in the universe, might it include intergalactic conquistadores? You can’t rule it out. In fact, it’s hypothesized that the reason we haven’t detected any signals from other worlds is that other civilizations are smart enough not to broadcast their location to potential predators. We’ve already done that, thanks to several SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) projects that have sent out radio signals with information about Earth, and some academics argue that we shouldn’t send any more – that we should confine SETI to passive listening.
How much to worry: It’s not clear that anyone else is out there, much less anyone with the technology to get here. And if they’re smart enough to get here, they may well not need to kill us for our land and resources. They may just want to send their anthropologists to study us, and we could benefit from their advanced knowledge. But then again, we have no idea what their minds or morality would be like.
What to do about it: Think twice before sending out any more messages.
The Asteroid of Death
Earth has repeatedly been struck by asteroids big enough to cause the equivalent of a nuclear winter, resulting in mass extinctions. Unlike the dinosaurs, we’re smart enough to adapt to sudden environmental changes, but it wouldn’t be pretty.
How much to worry: You don’t have to panic today, but this Big Fear is quite real. More big asteroids will come our way, and one of them could be even bigger than the ones that caused earlier mass extinctions.
What to do about it: Spend whatever it takes – and it won’t be all that much – to monitor asteroids approaching Earth and develop the technology to nudge them on a different path.
And once you’ve done that, relax. Ignore the doomsayers. The end is not nigh.
John Tierney is a contributing editor at City Journal and a contributing science columnist at the New York Times. He is the co-author, with Roy Baumeister, of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.