Ehrlich, False Prophets and the 'Futures' Market
When Elijah stood on Mount Carmel he faced a formidable array of 950 prophets (I Kings 18:19). All were resolute in their populist ‘consensus’ theory about a troubling environmental matter. But Elijah didn’t mind the odds. He wasn’t interested in predictions and theory, just hard facts. The issue on Carmel was one that countless would-be prophets throughout the ages have played on: weather (no rain) and climate change (a three-year drought).
It didn’t end well for the false prophets on Carmel. And it was faith in their theoretic sacrificial solutions that proved to be their downfall. These days, of course, we don’t put false prophets to the sword. Instead we put them on the public payroll, give them status awards and grant them high-profile media prestige, no matter how pathetic their prophetic insight may have been. Take Paul Ehrlich, for example.
Ehrlich came to prominence in 1968 with the publication of his environmental blockbuster The Population Bomb. The book’s central Malthusian thesis is that a growing population is unsustainable in a world of dwindling finite resources. As Malthus’ scenario failed to materialize, so too Ehrlich’s apocalyptic vision of hungry and dead bodies on the streets in the 1970s proved a total fiction. Not that this has deterred Ehrlich. He has continued to make a healthy living from a litany of population predictions – not one of which has come to pass.
The truth is that Ehrlich is the greatest failed prophet of our age. Yet amazingly, not only does he continue to collect his university stipend and pick up lucrative public appearance and book deals, for all his blatant failures, is still feted by the media. Take the journalistic drivel with which John Vidal’s Guardian article began at the end of April. Vidal’s interview announces Ehrlich as “the world’s most renowned population analyst”. So what track record of predictive success to date warrants such approbation? Ehrlich’s prophecies include:
- That the battle to feed humanity was over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people, including Americans, were going to starve to death. (Of course, if eco-warriors butted out, GM foods could easily eradicate global hunger within a decade. But, in any event, food production is running well in excess of global population growth. To top it all, the obesity epidemic currently kills hundreds of thousands every year.)
- England would not exist in the year 2000 (I just looked out of the window. It’s still here.)
- “Smog disasters” would kill 200,000 people in New York and Los Angeles in 1973. (Not only did it not happen, both cities continue to have the best air quality they have had in decades.)
- In 1976, “before 1985 mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity…in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion.” (Heard of the shale gas and oil revolutions that are set to last for hundreds of years and, beyond that, centuries of methane hydrates?)
- In an Atlantic article in the late 1990s Ehrlich maintained that anyone who believed technology would provide the answers to the problem of scarcity was either a liar or a fool. (Heard of the technique of ‘hydraulic fracturing’ that has set in motion the energy game-changing shale revolution – not to mention deepwater reserves – facilitating century’s more of both gas and oil and cutting US gas prices by a quarter?)
- In 1972 Ehrlich suggested adding a forced sterilization agent to “staple food” and to the water supply. (Shades of the SF movie Soylent Green? Would you trust any government who effectively ‘poisoned’ the food and water supply as part of a program of ‘forced sterilization’?)
All of Ehrlich’s solutions to his predictions are, of course, rooted in the need to overthrow democracy with a world government controlling and enforcing a global program of distribution of food and energy consumption. Ah yes, world domination – and a final solution. And if the very thought of this 1984-style one world government turns your liberty-loving stomach, consider what Ehrlich-esque policies have already achieved. In the 1950s the UN imposed a global ban on the use of DDT after environmentalists complained a few birds were accidently killed by DDT (actually through slight over-use of the chemical). DDT was singularly responsible for eradicating the world’s single greatest killer: malaria. As a direct result of the ban by the EPA in 1972, it is estimated that around a million people a year in sub-Saharan Africa alone die from the disease. The “solutions” of environmentalist visionaries should come with a global health warning attached.
No wonder Ehrlich has variously been referred to as “worse than Hitler” and “the Bernie Madoff of science”. To be fair, Ehrlich’s renewed concerns articulated in Vidal’s Guardian interview, about how the earth’s resources can sustain the 9 billion people predicted for 2050, was actually triggered by a new report from the Johnny-come-lately prophets-of-gloom at the Royal Society. Remember when the RS was the doyen of Newtonian empiricist real science? Not anymore. In a desperate bid to become appear “relevant” and justify its increasingly publicly-funded soaring price tag, the RS leadership is increasingly eschewing real science for speculative science.
Published in April 2012, the key recommendations of the Royal Society’s People and the Planet are thoroughly Malthusian. Like Ehrlich, the RS report is concerned about the Earth’s finite resources failing to keep up with population growth. It demands that developed and emerging economies (that’s everyone) “stabilise” and “reduce material consumption”. And, chiefly, that “reproductive health and voluntary family planning programmes urgently require political leadership” to cut “fertility rates”. Pretty much your standard environmental doom and gloom – and based on an erroneous understanding of “finite resources”. As I have written elsewhere, the RS is developing a culture of anti-science by exchanging its empiricist soul for a mess of prophetic theory.
Statistician William Briggs was recently commended by one commentator for having written the “best sentence, ever”. Briggs had observed that “Love of theory is the root of all evil”. Like all mathematicians he lives in a world of facts that add up, so I can see where Briggs is coming from; but he’s quite wrong. The fact is – and continuing the religious theme in this article – Jesus’ line about “the love of money being the root of all evil” beats it hands down. And here’s why. No one would spend time publicly expounding preposterous prophetic theories that keep failing if there wasn’t a public appetite for them – and if there weren’t mega-bucks to be made in the speculative ‘futures’ market. Public speaking engagements, book tours, disaster movies, headline-grabbing articles majoring on apocalyptic and sensationalism and warnings are all money-spinning themes. Then there are the rewards of academia. In 1990 alone, even as the failed prophecies racked up, Ehrlich pocketed a cool $345,000 through winning the MacArthur Foundations’ “genius award” and another $60,000 being one half of an award from the Swedish Royal Academy of Science. “Genius” then, we must concede. Any butterfly specialist – which is what Ehrlich is – that can screw $400,000+ out of two international science academies must have some chutzpah.
But we can’t blame junk journalism and pseudo-science only for the lucrative nature of the apocalyptic ‘futures’ market. Before facing down his antagonists, Elijah asked “the people” a very pertinent question: “How long will you falter between two opinions?” He wanted to know how long “the people” would continue to be – like Vidal and The Guardian – so gullible as to keep giving credence to the false prophets of apocalyptic environmentalism? Good question.