Futures and Options

Just another town along the road.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Earth Day, a retrospective

Reason had an excellent piece back in 2000 about the history of Earth Day and the doom and gloom predictions made by the people who organized the very first Earth Day back in 1970.  I came across it last night and decided that it would be fun to pull out a few of more interesting assertions made by the proponents nearly 40 years ago.

Let’s start with my favorite.

“The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years.  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.” – Kenneth Watt (Ecologist at UC Davis, from a speech given at Swarthmore in 1970)

Well now.  That was spectacularly wrong.  Of course, maybe in 40 years it will be “right” again; after all, the scientific support for global warming does appear to be waning.

And, let’s not forget what the issue was for the first Earth Day, the “Population Bomb.”

“Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make.” – Paul Erlich, biologist, Stanford University, 1970

“The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.” – Paul Erlich, 1970

“It is already too late to avoid mass starvation.” – Denis Hayes, chief organizer of the first Earth Day, 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.” – Peter Gunter, professor, North Texas State University, 1970 (emphasis original)

And now, what actually happened:

  • Since 1970, food production per person has increased by 26%
  • The increase in food production has not been accompanied by increased land use, so habitats have not been destroyed

As Reason points out, the driving cause of world hunger is not overpopulation, but poverty.  Famine is caused almost entirely by political events and oppressive governments.  To truly combat poverty and world hunger one would be better to forcibly eliminate dictatorships and military governments like those found in Somalia or Darfur.  The answer is not giving the people aid (though this is, of course, a legitimate means of helping during the interim), but in deposing dictators and helping to establish more progressive governments.

Of course, the doom and gloomers made some nasty predictions about pollution too.

“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….” – Life magazine, 1970

“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.” – Kenneth Watt

“Air pollution…is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone.” – Paul Erlich

And now, what really happened:

  • Carbon monoxide and sulfur levels in air have dropped more than 75% since 1970
  • Particulates are down over 50% since the 1950s, despite the fact that current tests for particulates include particles far smaller than those included in the 1950s numbers
  • Ozone and nitrogen dioxide levels have dropped 30% since 1970
  • The number of days with smog in major US cities have dropped by more than 60% since 1988
  • Between 1960 and 1970 (before any clean air laws came into effect), particulates dropped by 25%
  • It takes more than 20 new cars to match the same total emissions as one 1960’s-era vehicle

And let’s not forget pesticides.

Paul Erlich predicted, in 1970, that a 1973 study by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare would find “that Americans born since 1946…now had a life expectancy of only 49 years, and predicted that if current patterns continued this expectancy would reach 42 years by 1980, when it might level out.”

Of course, we now know that DDT is not responsible for the multitude of negative effects that were once assigned to it.  We do know, however, that nearly 100 million people have died from malaria and over 14.5 billion cases of malaria have been reported since DDT was banned.  However, in Sri Lanka in 1963, when DDT spraying was still in effect, there were only 17 cases of malaria and no deaths.  Prior to the introduction of DDT, Sri Lanka experienced as many as 2.8 million infections and 7,300 deaths per year from malaria.  Thank heavens that we have banned this damnable life-saving pesticide!  Of course, if DDT is banned and more people are dying, I guess that makes the “population bomb” less worrisome, which makes a cynical part of me wonder if that’s not what the Earth Day people were after all along.

The Reason article goes into more detail and it’s definitely worth a read; I strongly encourage everyone to look through it.  As for myself, I’ll close with a quote from Robert Heinlein’s Lazarus Long character that seems particularly appropriate here:

There hidden contradictions in the minds of people who “love Nature” while deploring the “artificialities” with which “Man has spoiled ‘Nature.'” The obvious contradiction lies in their choice of words, which imply that Man and his artifacts are not part of “Nature”—but beavers and their dams are. But the contradictions go deeper than this primafacie absurdity. In declaring his love for a beaver dam (erected by beavers for beavers’ purposes) and his hatred for dams erected by men (for the purpose of men) the “Naturist” reveals his hatred for his own race—i.e., his own self-hatred. In the case of “Naturist” such self-hatred is understandable; they are such a sorry lot. But hatred is too strong an emotion to feel toward them; pity and contempt are the most they rate. As for me, willy-nilly I am a man, not a beaver, and H. sapiens is the only race I have or can have. Fortunately for me, I like being part of a race made up of men and women—it strikes me as a fine arrangement and perfectly “natural.”

posted by Zenmervolt at 08:07  

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

In ignorantia confidenter praegredi.