Thursday, March 08, 2007

For the love of disaster

With the global warming disaster scenario so much in the news, it seems useful to review past popular disaster scenarios. Michael Fumento reviews a past king of disaster predictions, Paul Ehrlich. History has proven Mr. Ehrlich wrong again and again. Yet his popularity and fame only grow. In 1996, Mr. Fumento wrote:

Ehrlich, a butterfly specialist, began his spectacular doomsaying career back in 1968 with his best-selling book "The Population Bomb." Among his predictions then and since:

  • "The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines . . . hundreds of millions of people (including Americans) are going to starve to death." (1968)
  • "Smog disasters" in 1973 might kill 200,000 people in New York and Los Angeles. (1969)
  • "I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000." (1969)
  • "Before 1985, mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity . . . in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion." (1976)

Yet today: 1) Food production is well ahead of population growth and obesity now kills 300,000 Americans a year, 2) the air in New York and L.A. is cleaner than it has been in decades, 3) with two years until 2000, England's odds are looking mighty good, and 4) there are no key minerals facing depletion. Almost all of them, along with raw materials in general, are far cheaper now relative either to the Consumer Price Index or wages.

But have Ehrlich's preposterous predictions hurt his reputation? Far from it - they've made him both celebrated and rich.

In one year - 1990 - he published a sequel to "Bomb" called "The Population Explosion," received the MacArthur Foundation's famous "genius award" with a $345,000 check, and split a Swedish Royal Academy of Science prize worth $120,000.

Just a few months ago, the New York Times published an Op-Ed by Thomas Homer-Dixon who, despite everything, claims that maybe Ehrlich will somehow turn out to be right after all. From Malthus to Ehrlich to Gore, whether the cause is pollution or population or divine retribution, many people seem to have a need to believe in the coming apocalypse.

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