Saturday, August 18, 2012

Apocalypse not: climate change, and other overblown moral panics

An outstanding essay by Matt Ridley in Wired:

Predictions of global famine and the end of oil in the 1970s proved just as wrong as end-of-the-world forecasts from millennialist priests. Yet there is no sign that experts are becoming more cautious about apocalyptic promises. If anything, the rhetoric has ramped up in recent years. Echoing the Mayan calendar folk, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock one minute closer to midnight at the start of 2012, commenting: “The global community may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe from changes in Earth’s atmosphere.”

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.

Hey, there's the "H-word"! (History, I mean).  It's amazing how a little understanding of history puts apocalyptic predictions into context, no?  These people have always been with us, from the chiliasts who expected Armageddon to arrive with the turn of the 10th Century to the flagellants of the Middle Ages to the Kool-Aid drinkers of the Jonestown cult to the doomsday millenialists who predicted the apocalypse under the thinly-veiled guise of "Y2K".

Remember Y2K? No you don't.  No one does.  We have collectively forgotten the global panic about the impending end of the world, the tens or hundreds of billions of dollars spent in anticipatory prevention of a non-problem (and the subsequent collapse of the dot-coms, which was exacerbated by the fact that everyone went on an upgrade orgy for 2-3 years prior, vastly expanding the computer industry...and then plunged it into famine because nobody needed new equipment for the next couple of years).  But Y2k was going to be the biggest crisis of the modern information age.  It was going to plunge the world back into the Stone Age - just like an electromagnetic pulse attack today (or, less improbably, a massive, Carrington Event-style solar mass ejection) would allegedly wreck all of our iPads and send us back to the 1950s.

(It never ceases to make me giggle when folks posit that Iran is going to disarm the US by launching an H-bomb that they don't have from a converted Scud that they haven't built to conduct an EMP attack against the US.  The first thing that America hardened against EMP was its nuclear entire strategic command and control chain.  If Iran were ever stupid enough to detonate a nuclear warhead anywhere near CONUS, I guarantee you that the 12th Imam, when he eventually shows up, will not be impressed to find that Qom, Teheran, and the rest of the country have been redecorated in Trinitite Green).

Every new prediction of doomsday should be met with a demand for evidence, and with solid skepticism fuelled by the knowledge that every single prior prediction of impending apocalypse has been wrongEvery last one.  We have an extremely bad track record when it comes to integrating all of the multifarious trends and forces that influence the world we live in and what we have made of it.  Humans are very, very bad at risk assessment. 

Plus, as the whole of the climate change debate demonstrates, folks with rice bowls to protect have a tendency to lie a lot, which simply enables the cowards who are in a position to speak the truth to hold their peace in order to protect their juicy sinecures.  Humans are poor prophets, and the fact that so many of us are also either imbeciles, self-interested scoundrels, cringing poltroons or outright madmen means that every new claim of inevitable doom must be viewed with a jaundiced eye.

If people would apply only the minimal standard of skepticism to the so-called scientists preaching impending armageddon that they apply to telemarketers or used-car salesmen, I would be less worried about our collective future. Why can't we do just that much, hmm? I mean, we found the Higgs Boson, increased natural gas reserves to over 200 years, and hover-craned a one-ton robot onto Mars, all in the same summer.  We're smart...right?

Wrong.  As Ridley points out, our history of being stampeded by doomsayers demonstrates the validity of the Agent K Conjecture:

A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.

Sadly, the shoe fits.  The question you need to ask yourself is, what's the solution?  Is it more ignorance? More deference to authority? More trust in the media that have played a key role in driving these periodic panics? More faith in whatever "scientific consensus" supports the latest predictions of onrushing catastrophe? More unquestioning belief in the prognostications and pronunciations of self-interested experts?

Or more education, more demands for evidence...and more skepticism?