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« McIntyre in London | Main | The Bishop, the Sky and the Leveson Inquiry »
Friday
Aug172012

Things can only get better

Matt Ridley has a long, long article in Wired on the subject of apocalyptic visions of the future:

Over the five decades since the success of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the four decades since the success of the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth in 1972, prophecies of doom on a colossal scale have become routine. Indeed, we seem to crave ever-more-frightening predictions—we are now, in writer Gary Alexander’s word, apocaholic. The past half century has brought us warnings of population explosions, global famines, plagues, water wars, oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, Y2K bugs, mad cow epidemics, killer bees, sex-change fish, cell-phone-induced brain-cancer epidemics, and climate catastrophes.

So far all of these specters have turned out to be exaggerated. True, we have encountered obstacles, public-health emergencies, and even mass tragedies. But the promised Armageddons—the thresholds that cannot be uncrossed, the tipping points that cannot be untipped, the existential threats to Life as We Know It—have consistently failed to materialize. To see the full depth of our apocaholism, and to understand why we keep getting it so wrong, we need to consult the past 50 years of history.

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Reader Comments (31)

Matt Ridley is the perfect antidote to Stephen Emmott and his vision of the future as apocalyptic hell-hole, as expounded in "Ten Billion".

Meanwhile, family size continues to shrink on every continent. The world population will probably never double again, whereas it quadrupled in the 20th century. With improvements in seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, transport, and irrigation still spreading across Africa, the world may well feed 9 billion inhabitants in 2050 - and from fewer acres than it now uses to feed 7 billion.

There have been calls for "rational pessimist" Stephen Emmott to broadcast his vision of despair to a TV audience. Instead of that, I think we should be petitioning Matt Ridley to launch his own media venture. "The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves" - the TV series?

Aug 18, 2012 at 12:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlex Cull

Whatever happened to the claim we'd run out of just about every natural resource by the year 2,000?

The Club of Rome never did figure out the difference between proven reserves and ultimate resources. But did it just slink away into the night or did it simply push its deadline 10 years into the future every ten years?

Aug 18, 2012 at 12:42 AM | Unregistered CommenterFred 2

When did techno-optimism ever lose to Malthusian doom-mongering? The contest's not even sporting.
======================

Aug 18, 2012 at 12:46 AM | Unregistered Commenterkim

How many people, has Rachel Carson 'killed' in Malaria infested African/Asian 'paradises'?

Club Calamity Claque of Rome.

Aug 18, 2012 at 1:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

What about the heat death of the universe?...eh?....eh?.......

We must offset this by all available means.....

Aug 18, 2012 at 1:32 AM | Unregistered Commenterjones

Inventing mass communication without fixing the most common kind of human psychology first was most unfortunate.

As someone said to me when I was proposing telling the truth the power "They can't take it"

He got out, I didn't but should have done.

Aug 18, 2012 at 2:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterTim Channon

I think much of it may just be market-share that has been lost by religion [excepting those parts of the world where the major religions have slightly revamped their product-lines]. Environmentalism appears to offer essentially the same hell-and-redemption themes, and I doubt that our fears have changed that much.

Aug 18, 2012 at 2:31 AM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

The Catastrophe is an 'Extraordinary Popular Delusion and Madness of the Crowd'. The Anthropogenic Global Warming will be a boon overall, if we get it.
=============================

Aug 18, 2012 at 3:32 AM | Unregistered Commenterkim

Aug 18, 2012 at 4:26 AM | Tomcat>>>>

Not wishing to seem rude but it might seem a little bit daft to respond to a known troll.

Especially when both his and your response post will end up being deleted by the moderator.

Aug 18, 2012 at 4:47 AM | Unregistered CommenterRKS

Zed and follow- ups removed.

Aug 18, 2012 at 7:35 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Anybody want to start a new religion environmental movement based on the sun going out in the future? It’s definitely anthropogenic – we’ve been using the suns energy unsustainably for over 2 million years to grow food, warm ourselves, light our world etc.

I already have peer reviewed scientific papers (none of this grey literature rubbish) to show the sun has finite energy reserves, man eats food, the sun warms the earth.

Come on guys, there’s got to be money in this

Aug 18, 2012 at 7:37 AM | Registered Commentermangochutney

I already have peer reviewed scientific papers (none of this grey literature rubbish) to show the sun has finite energy reserves, man eats food, the sun warms the earth.

Come on guys, there’s got to be money in this

Aug 18, 2012 at 7:37 AM | mangochutney>>>>

Perhaps they could make a start by re-introducing the window tax we last had during the Napoleonic wars.

And sunshine credits so that all those sunny countries have to redistribute their wealth to us sun staved Europeans.

Aug 18, 2012 at 7:45 AM | Unregistered CommenterRKS

@RKS That's the spirit :)

A window tax would also have the benefit of bringing the Merry Cans to their knees, which will bring the watermelons on board - just think about all those glass skyscrapers in all those wealthy countries. We could make a killing if we open a window sunlight exchange in, say, London, Paris, Peckham!

I may have a company name - "Thermal Insolation Traders"

Who dares wins. This time next year we'll be millionaires.

Aug 18, 2012 at 8:36 AM | Registered Commentermangochutney

The past half century has brought us warnings of population explosions, global famines, plagues, water wars, oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, Y2K bugs, mad cow epidemics, killer bees, sex-change fish, cell-phone-induced brain-cancer epidemics, and climate catastrophes.

Indeed. But, strangely, we're not all dead.
A summary of how this stuff is covered in the media: It's the End of the World As We Know It On Channel 9

Aug 18, 2012 at 9:06 AM | Unregistered Commentermalcolm

I think Ridley is one of the strongest advocates for scientific rationality.

As well as being intelligent and articulate, he's sufficiently financially secure and well-connected to have no problem getting his message out in establishment circles.

His popular science books like "Genome" show real brilliance in making complex science accessible & entertaining.

It's fascinating to read the climate alarmist site "Skeptical Science" 's attempt to put him down - to every incisive scientific point he makes, the best they can come up with is a vague, unsupported piece of sloganising. Unusually - they seem almost lost for words :-

http://www.skepticalscience.com/skeptic_Matt_Ridley.htm

I think he's the best advocate we've got and I wish he would work even more closely with GWPF.

Aug 18, 2012 at 9:27 AM | Registered CommenterFoxgoose

@Jones - Aug 18, 2012 at 1:32 AM

What about the heat death of the universe?...eh?....eh?.......

"Heat is work, and work's a curse
and all the heat in the universe
is gonna coooollll down
'cause it can't increase...
Then there'll be no more work
and there'll be perfect peace...

That's entropy man...

(C) Flanders and Swann - Laws of thermodynamics set to music. :-)

Aug 18, 2012 at 9:40 AM | Unregistered CommenterPogo

Matt Ridley is part of the GWPF, Foxgoose.

Aug 18, 2012 at 9:48 AM | Unregistered Commenterrhoda

Whatever happened to the claim we'd run out of just about every natural resource by the year 2,000?

The Club of Rome never did figure out the difference between proven reserves and ultimate resources.

If anybody claimed this, I don't think it was the Club of Rome. "The Limits to Growth" didn't predict problems until the second half of the 21st century.

How many people, has Rachel Carson 'killed' in Malaria infested African/Asian 'paradises'?

None? DDT has as far as I know never been "banned" for malaria control in developing countries. It was banned in agriculture (Stockholm Convention 1972). The main problem with DDT has been mosquitoes which develop resistance, and the agricultural ban is regarded as if anything a good thing in that respect because it gives the mosquitoes less opportunity to develop resistance.

Aug 18, 2012 at 9:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterYawn

Alex Cull:


There have been calls for "rational pessimist" Stephen Emmott to broadcast his vision of despair to a TV audience. Instead of that, I think we should be petitioning Matt Ridley to launch his own media venture.
It would be lovely to see a confrontation between the two. Emmott’s descripton of himself as a “rational pessimist” was a direct reference to Ridley, so he could hardly refuse a debate. Here’s a typical example of Emmott’s debating style, from the end of the Q&A session after the Royal Court show, in answer to an inaudible question about the coming apocalypse:
I’ve got no, I mean absolutely no, I mean I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that, really, to be honest. I mean, I don’t know that there would be an apocalypse. As I say, I think if we radically change our behaviour we could avoid some of the worst consequences of some of the problems that we’re going to face, but, you know, we do have to, sort of, partly it comes down to this chap’s point behind you .. Now initially in my talk - radically changing our behaviour, to consume less, a lot less, and conserve more, we already, we need to consume more if we’ve got any chance of reducing inequality, and it’s about, you know one of the issues is just about the [inaudible] or have the right to I think, on the one hand, you know, could, should we criticise those people who look towards Europe and the United States and say “I would like to live like that” who don’t have any water, or have to travel twelve miles to get a jug of water or even a box of water or who have to travel sixteen miles just to get enough twigs or wood to do for their cooking or whatever. No, we shouldn’t criticise them, but I think, nonetheless, everyone living like that would be absolutely disastrous. And so we have to on the one hand, try and reduce inequality, but at the same time could we avoid - is there going to be enough [inaudible] apocalypse, any time - I don’t know - is there going to be something where the consequences of such a, of the track that we’re on, on everything, population, consumption, resource depletion, ecosystem loss, trying to change [inaudible] you’ve heard it ... (applause)

Aug 18, 2012 at 11:08 AM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

In my younger days the local loonies/religious nutters used to walk the street with clapboards telling us "Repent- The End is Nigh!"

Nothing has changed, their idiot descendents are still saying the same thing, but for one important fact.

The loonies are now running the asylum.

Aug 18, 2012 at 11:35 AM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

Environmentalism appears to offer essentially the same hell-and-redemption themes, and I doubt that our fears have changed that much.

I agree, we still bow and pray to the witch doctors, until their predictions are wrong, then we burn them and find new witch doctors who are right for a few years, then they fail.

Aug 18, 2012 at 2:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterRedbone

As usual, Matt Ridley makes some wise observations. So it’s unfortunate that (once again) he lumps Y2K in with his apocalyptic predictions, prophesies of doom, promised Armageddons, existential threats, etc. The so-called Y2K “bug” (it wasn’t a bug nor was it concerned with one of Matt's four horsemen: chemicals, disease, people or resources) was a real problem caused by the computer industry’s perpetuation of an initially legitimate programming device that, unfixed, had the potential to cause havoc when 20th century dates were processed in association with 21st century dates: see this paper.

Here, for example, is what the sober, unexcitable officials at the Bank for International Settlements at Basel said about it in their introduction to a paper addressed to the world’s central banks:

“Failure to address this issue in a timely manner would cause banking institutions to experience operational problems or even bankruptcy and could cause the disruption of financial markets.”

No apocalyptic prediction there – just a clear warning. And most banks (not quite all) took comprehensive and timely remedial action. As a result: no bankruptcies or disruption. We should be grateful.

Of course, there were some predictions, e.g. the repeated assertion that “experts tell us that planes will fall from the sky”. But no “expert” said that. It was a media construct – unlike Matt’s other examples where the doomsayers were the so-called experts themselves.

Aug 18, 2012 at 2:12 PM | Registered CommenterRobin Guenier

Athelstan: the sum total of deaths from malaria by the demonising of DDT is about the same as Stalin killed in Russia.

Aug 18, 2012 at 2:37 PM | Unregistered Commenterspartacusisfree

One apocalyptic vision Matt failed to address is the next ice age, but then that wouldn't be a man made problem just nature moving inexorably along.

I do believe he is wrong though, the apocalypse will in fact start on the winter solstice of this year; it will just take 20 billion years or so to run its course.

Aug 18, 2012 at 3:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterJeff Norman

I do believe he is wrong though, the apocalypse will in fact start on the winter solstice of this year; it will just take 20 billion years or so to run its course.

Aug 18, 2012 at 3:53 PM | Jeff Norman>>>>>

Somehow that appeals to the pessoptomist in me!

Aug 18, 2012 at 5:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterRKS

Ironically, one of the key pieces of the apocalyptic Y2K hysteria, of the "it's already too late, head for the hills!" variety, appeared in Wired magazine itself:

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/6.08/y2k.html?pg=1&topic=

It got me worried enough to start looking into it in some detail; but my friends who maintained such software for a living invariably told me that it wasn't that big a deal. "People don't realize how many bugs of this kind we find and fix every day!" was a typical comment I got.

Aug 18, 2012 at 8:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterCurt

Curt: read my paper. Link above.

Aug 18, 2012 at 11:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobin Guenier

Concerning the Y2K bug and the finance industry, the vast majority of companies affected were already involved in activities stretching well past Y2K for some decades beforehand, so it was indeed a grossly over-rated hazard,

Aug 19, 2012 at 12:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterCatweazle

Catweazle: sounds plausible. And it's true some were. But have you any evidence to support your "vast majority" claim? Here's what the then Governor of the Bank of England said:

"The financial system - especially in a centre as large and diverse as London - is highly interdependent and the failure of one quite small part can easily have substantial knock-on effects. And the failure of parts of the infrastructure could be catastrophic."
That's why, in finance, everything had to be checked. And was.

Aug 19, 2012 at 7:33 AM | Registered CommenterRobin Guenier

Robin
We've had this debate before.
During the 90s I was a director of a company whose main area of expertise was computer graphics but did some hardware assembly and programming on the side. When the Y2K question was first raised it took about 30 minutes and three phone calls to establish that there was no problem at the simple consumer level we were involved with.
That didn't stop us being pestered by "experts" keen to sell us their services to solve a problem that we knew did not exist and we were by no means alone.
I am not suggesting that there were no situations where there might not have been a problem but most of those I knew who were involved in programming were running tests of some sort as early as 1996 to ascertain what, if, and how much. How many problems were actually discovered, dealt with, and solved I am absolutely certain you know better than I do but to suggest that the problem was not over-hyped does not accord with the facts as I experienced them.

Aug 19, 2012 at 11:34 AM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Mike:

Yes we have, and it would be tedious to go over it again. Nor would it be relevant to this thread.

Your experience is not surprising: there were few problems at the the simple consumer level as it was essentially a problem for large organisations running long-established "legacy" software. And, yes, there were fringe "experts" trying to cash in; most lost money. And, although some businesses were working on it in 1996 (it was largely they who persuaded our unaware government that there was a problem), it was amazing (to me) how many more knew nothing about it. And, yes, it was over-hyped; but that was almost entirely by a media determined to report warnings as predictions. So I agree with much of what you say.

We may disagree about its seriousness. But my point in posting here is simply to note the absurdity of listing a problem that had to be fixed (and largely was) in the same category as various apocalyptic predictions, prophesies of doom, promised Armageddons, existential threats, etc.

Aug 19, 2012 at 12:17 PM | Registered CommenterRobin Guenier

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