Predicted doom fails to materialize

August 19, 2012


— Sometimes the news is that something was not newsworthy. The United Nations Rio+20 conference — 50,000 participants from 188 nations — occurred in June, without consequences. A generation has passed since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, which begat other conferences and protocols (e.g., Kyoto). And, by now, apocalypse fatigue — boredom from being repeatedly told the end is nigh.  

This began two generations ago, in 1972, when we were warned (by computer models developed at MIT) that we were doomed. We were supposed to be pretty much extinct by now, or at least miserable. We are neither. So, what when wrong?

That year begat “The Limits to Growth,” a book from the Club of Rome, which called itself “a project on the predicament of mankind.” It sold 12 million copies, staggered The New York Times (“one of the most important documents of our age”) and argued that economic growth was doomed by intractable scarcities. Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish academic and “skeptical environmentalist,” writing in Foreign Affairs, says it “helped send the world down a path of worrying obsessively about misguided remedies for minor problems while ignoring much greater concerns,” such as poverty, which only economic growth can ameliorate.

MIT’s models foresaw the collapse of civilization because of “nonrenewable resource depletion” and population growth. “In an age more innocent of and reverential toward computers,” Lomborg writes, “the reams of cool printouts gave the book’s argument an air of scientific authority and inevitability” that “seemed to banish any possibility of disagreement.” Then — as now, regarding climate change — respect for science was said to require reverential suspension of skepticism about scientific hypotheses. Time magazine’s story about “The Limits to Growth” exemplified the media’s frisson of hysteria:

“The furnaces of Pittsburgh are cold; the assembly lines of Detroit are still. In Los Angeles, a few gaunt survivors of a plague desperately till freeway center strips ... Fantastic? No, only grim inevitability if society continues its present dedication to growth and ‘progress.’”

The modelers examined 19 commodities and said 12 would be gone long before now — aluminum, copper, gold, lead, mercury, molybdenum, natural gas, oil, silver, tin, tungsten and zinc. Lomborg says:

Technological innovations have replaced mercury in batteries, dental fillings and thermometers, mercury consumption is down 98 percent and its price was down 90 percent by 2000. Since 1970, when gold reserves were estimated at 10,980 tons, 81,410 tons have been mined and estimated reserves are 51,000 tons. Since 1970, when known reserves of copper were 280 million tons, about 400 million tons have been produced globally and reserves are estimated at almost 700 million tons. Aluminum consumption has increased 16-fold since 1950, the world has consumed four times the 1950 known reserves, and known reserves could sustain current consumption for 177 years. Potential U.S. gas resources have doubled in the last six years. And so on.

The modelers missed something — human ingenuity in discovering, extracting and innovating. Which did not just appear after 1972.

Aluminum, Lomborg writes, is one of earth’s most common metals. But until the 1886 invention of the Hall-Heroult process, it was so difficult and expensive to extract that “Napoleon III had bars of aluminum exhibited alongside the French crown jewels, and he gave his honored guests aluminum forks and spoons while lesser visitors had to make do with gold utensils.”

Forty years after “The Limits to Growth” imparted momentum to environmentalism, that impulse now is often reduced to children indoctrinated to “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” Lomborg calls recycling “a feel-good gesture that provides little environmental benefit at a significant cost.” He says “we pay tribute to the pagan god of token environmentalism by spending countless hours sorting, storing and collecting used paper, which, when combined with government subsidies, yields slightly lower-quality paper in order to secure a resource” — forests — “that was never threatened in the first place.”

In 1980, economist Julian Simon made a wager in the form of a complex futures contract. He bet Paul Ehrlich (whose 1968 book “The Population Bomb” predicted “hundreds of millions of people” would starve to death in the 1970s as population growth swamped agricultural production) that by 1990 the price of any five commodities Ehrlich and his advisers picked would be lower than in 1980. Ehrlich’s group picked five metals. All were cheaper in 1990.

The bet cost Ehrlich $576.07. But that year he was awarded a $345,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and half of the $240,000 Crafoord Prize for ecological virtue. One of Ehrlich’s advisers, John Holdren, is Barack Obama’s science adviser.  

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.    


jafs 5 years, 6 months ago

Technological innovation can help with some of these issues, but there are non-renewable resources that won't be replaced once they're gone.

And, our tendency to ignore the obvious negative effects of our actions is disturbing as well.

I'd like to believe in a "Star Trek" kind of solution - I particularly liked their technology that created good food from nothing - but I can't quite get there. It seems to me that we'd better learn how to live more in harmony with nature, and be less destructive of it.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 6 months ago

"The modelers missed something — human ingenuity in discovering, extracting and innovating. Which did not just appear after 1972.". === This is a good point in one of his traditional rants. We have work to do and the debate will rage on with both sides cherry-picking their data.

Richard Heckler 5 years, 6 months ago

No matter how anyone looks at it there are 11-20 million still needing full time employment through this nation. Two areas of new substantial growth can assist in reducing the number of unemployed.

Moving forward to cleaner sources of energy would produce new economic growth throughout this nation. Union of Concerned Scientists provide great encouragement in this direction. http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/renewable_energy_basics/renewing-americas-economy.html

The need for health care will never go away. New economic growth and tons of new jobs is available in this industry IF the nation would get on with it. Turning wasted spending into employment by way of insuring more certainly produces long tern economic growth.

http://www.healthcare-now.org/docs/spreport.pdf ( very interesting findings)


Private insurers necessarily waste health dollars on things that have nothing to do with care: overhead, underwriting, billing, sales and marketing departments as well as huge profits and exorbitant executive pay. Doctors and hospitals must maintain costly administrative staffs to deal with the bureaucracy. Combined, this needless administration consumes one-third (31 percent) of Americans’ health dollars.

Single-payer financing is the only way to recapture this wasted money. The potential savings on paperwork, more than $400 billion per year, are enough to provide comprehensive coverage to everyone without paying any more than we already do.

Physicians for a National Health Program

Richard Heckler 5 years, 6 months ago

George Will like it or not the nation should know what contributed substantially to our nations economic woes. Allow me to put it more simply. Unfortunately there seems to to an established pattern set forth.

Mergers Hostile Takeovers Leveraged Buyouts Mismanaged Financial Institutions (sometimes fraud)

All of above Reagan, Bush and Bush economics ultimately translated into millions upon millions upon millions of USA job losses.

Big time layoffs are the end result. These jobs go abroad with tax codes that prevent taxation on profits made abroad from USA big name corporations. These jobs have never returned to America. Romney/Ryan have adopted the same economic strategy. Can we say Wreckanomics?

Remember the Reagan/Bush Savings and Loan home loan scandal which killed the economy and cost the USA millions of jobs?

Remember the Bush/Cheney Home Loan scandal killed the economy and cost the USA millions of jobs?

There was a time when becoming employed by corporate America came with long term employment, fine wages and dependable retirement benefits. Those days are gone.

Richard Heckler 5 years, 6 months ago

Mergers / Hostile Takeovers/ Leveraged Buyouts / Mismanaged Financial Institutions (sometimes fraud) / Dot Com / ENRON / Etc etc

Free Trade Agreements didn't help BUT the large numbers were created by the above.

What was left out of the discussion was that the New World Order/ Global Economy exports would be millions upon millions upon millions of blue collar and white collar USA jobs. This appears to still be in effect. New Economic growth struggles to this day.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 6 months ago

The main reason Ehrlich's predictions didn't pan out (yet) was the so-called green revolution. And what made the green revolution possible?-- the massive use of fossil fuels and chemicals, which is entirely unsustainable for a number of reasons, global warming at the very top of the list, and an impending shortage of fresh water nearly everywhere.

But acknowledging such inconvenient truths has no place in George's precious ideology.

Flap Doodle 5 years, 6 months ago

That's our bozo, finding the gloomy lining inside every cloud. (from a source)

JackMcKee 5 years, 6 months ago

George Will is really a despicable person. Toss him and Krauty on a raft and send them into the ocean. They're both worthless human beings.

Kirk Larson 5 years, 6 months ago

George Will is probably one of these people who, thanks to air conditioned garages and skyboxes (I know he's a baseball fan), never spent a moment outside during the inferno that was this Summer. Heatwave? What heatwave?

tomatogrower 5 years, 6 months ago

So - the predicted doom of an Obama presidency hasn't materialized yet either.

Bozo is right. Governments started requiring emission controls in cars, for example. Have you ever watched a parade with a lot of antique cars? They are cool looking, but the exhaust will make you ill. Now multiply those emissions by several million. We probably would have been extinct. And oh, by the way. Car companies had to be forced by government to make these changes. It cost them money, and it cost the consumer money. These companies and ignorant consumers would have been happy to have left things the way they were. Thank you, government.

beatrice 5 years, 6 months ago

Hottest July on record, rising temps decade after decade, shrinking ice caps, massive storm, increasing droughts ... Sure George, it must all be a coincidence.

Will is "bored" with the warnings of global warming and upset it isn't all happening more quickly.

I'll bet he believes that gasoline is endless since it hasn't run out yet.

Chris Golledge 5 years, 6 months ago

Apparently George lives on an infinite world, because, on a finite world, there is only so much of anything. I think it should be pretty obvious that there are a lot of resources that we are consuming faster than they are being replaced.

I don't think George restricts his near-sightedness to the topic of global warning.

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