The Earth Day apocalypses

Jeff Jacoby observes that Sunday …

… was the 48th annual Earth Day, and to mark the occasion, USA Today ran a column by John Heritage exhorting readers to “defend their planet like it’s 1970.” Heritage was a legislative aide to the late Senator Gaylord Nelson, the Wisconsin Democrat credited with founding Earth Day.

The column began by celebrating the environmental awareness that the first Earth Day helped promote, and credited it with helping prod Congress into enacting legislation to reduce air pollution and water pollution, which were urgent environmental problems of the time. The cleanup of America’s air and waterways was a remarkable accomplishment; no one who remembers what the nation’s cities and many of its rivers were like in the 1960s and 1970s would dispute that the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act effected a wonderful and salutary change in our natural surroundings.

But after a few paragraphs of good news, Heritage pivots to the usual message of gloom, doom, and impending disaster that so often characterizes environmental writing.

“Look at what is happening now,” he writes.

Trump and his minions are rolling back hard-fought environmental regulations as fast as they can. And while Arctic and Antarctic ice melts and seas rise, Trump walks out of the most significant world conference yet to get a handle on global warming.

Meanwhile, the Trump rollback targets federally-protected lands. . . . The lands are being opened even though safer energy sources are coming online.

And lobbyists have invaded the Environmental Protection Agency, shoving dedicated environmental experts aside . . . .

To be truthful and blunt about it, environmental policy is being devastated by the Trump administration.

To be truthful and blunt about it, the environment is cleaner and healthier than it has been in generations, and the Earth supports more human beings with less hunger, less disease, less infant mortality, and less poverty than ever before. But for too many environmentalists, good news is a distraction from their ongoing need to maintain an aura of crisis. That is as true today as it was when Earth Day began.

A timely reminder of that reality comes from Mark J. Perry, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. On his invaluable blog, Carpe Diem, he reminded readers over the weekend of some of the “spectacularly wrong predictions made around the time of first Earth Day in 1970.” Here are a few of the 18 predictions Perry quotes:

  • Harvard biologist George Wald estimated that “civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.”
  • “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make,” Paul Ehrlich confidently declared in the April 1970 issue of Mademoiselle. “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”
  • “It is already too late to avoid mass starvation,” declared Denis Hayes, the chief organizer for Earth Day, in the Spring 1970 issue of The Living Wilderness.
  • Peter Gunter, a North Texas State University professor, wrote in 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.”
  • In January 1970, Life reported, “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.”
  • Ecologist Kenneth Watt told Time that, “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.”
  • Sen. Gaylord Nelson wrote in Look: “Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, believes that in 25 years, somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct.”

Fears about climate change were also prevalent in the alarmist predictions made at the time of the first Earth Day. Watt, speaking at Swarthmore College in 1970, described the calamity he was sure was on its way:

“The world has been chilling sharply for about 20 years,” he said. If present trends continued, that meant “the world will be about four degrees colder . . . in 1990, but 11 degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.”

You remember the Ice Age of 2000, don’t you?

Apocalyptic rhetoric has accompanied environmental activism for many decades, yet the failure of the apocalypse to materialize never seems to reduce the “green” believers’ conviction that catastrophe is just around the corner. To be sure, many environmentalists — Paul Ehrlich, Al Gore, James Hansen — have amassed great fame and fortune by foretelling ecological disaster, and as Upton Sinclair observed, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

But the rest of us ought to be able to resist the hysteria and the hype. The spectacularly misguided predictions from the first Earth Day in 1970 should supply some perspective on today’s alarmist environmental rhetoric. Life on Earth wasn’t coming to an end 48 years ago. It’s not coming to an end today.

There’s an old joke that economists have predicted nine of the last five recessions. What is not a joke is that environmentalists’ zeal to save Gaia is really their zeal to control our lives. When celebrity environmentalists such as Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio sell their gas-guzzling private jets and huge houses, they may have more credibility than me. Until then, I will remind you of Instapundit Glenn Harlan Reynolds’ dictum that he will believe that global warming — oops, “climate change” — is a crisis when people in charge start acting like it’s a crisis.

 

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