17 August 2012

Countdown to the End of Days: December 21, 2012

The end date of the Mayan calendar has been confirmed as December 21, 2012. Doomers of all stripes have latched onto this date, convinced -- once again -- that the end is near.

Modern humans have lived in the shadow of doom for as long as we have had printing presses. And before that, for as long as we have had scribes to copy religious texts and assorted prophecies. And before that, for as long as we have had a spoken tradition, and the "wisdom" of the village shaman. The tradition of predicted doom goes back as far as language.

But as always, there are skeptics and doubters among us:
Religious zealots hardly have a monopoly on apocalyptic thinking. Consider some of the environmental cataclysms that so many experts promised were inevitable. Best-selling economist Robert Heilbroner in 1974: “The outlook for man, I believe, is painful, difficult, perhaps desperate, and the hope that can be held out for his future prospects seem to be very slim indeed.” Or best-selling ecologist Paul Ehrlich in 1968: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s ["and 1980s" was added in a later edition] the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked on now … nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Or Jimmy Carter in a televised speech in 1977: “We could use up all of the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade.”

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.”

...In the 1970s scientists discovered a decline in the concentration of ozone over Antarctica during several springs, and the Armageddon megaphone was dusted off yet again. The blame was pinned on chlorofluorocarbons, used in refrigerators and aerosol cans, reacting with sunlight. The disappearance of frogs and an alleged rise of melanoma in people were both attributed to ozone depletion. So too was a supposed rash of blindness in animals: Al Gore wrote in 1992 about blind salmon and rabbits, while The New York Times reported “an increase in Twilight Zone-type reports of sheep and rabbits with cataracts” in Patagonia. But all these accounts proved incorrect. The frogs were dying of a fungal disease spread by people; the sheep had viral pinkeye; the mortality rate from melanoma actually leveled off during the growth of the ozone hole; and as for the blind salmon and rabbits, they were never heard of again.

There was an international agreement to cease using CFCs by 1996. But the predicted recovery of the ozone layer never happened: The hole stopped growing before the ban took effect, then failed to shrink afterward. The ozone hole still grows every Antarctic spring, to roughly the same extent each year. Nobody quite knows why. Some scientists think it is simply taking longer than expected for the chemicals to disintegrate; a few believe that the cause of the hole was misdiagnosed in the first place. Either way, the ozone hole cannot yet be claimed as a looming catastrophe, let alone one averted by political action.

...“It is already too late to avoid mass starvation,” said Denis Hayes, organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970. Sending food to India was a mistake and only postponed the inevitable, William and Paul Paddock wrote in their best seller, Famine—1975!

What actually happened was quite different. The death rate fell. Famine became rarer. The population growth rate was cut in half, thanks chiefly to the fact that as babies stop dying, people stop having so many of them. Over the past 50 years, worldwide food production per capita has risen, even as the global population has doubled. Indeed, so successful have farmers been at increasing production that food prices fell to record lows in the early 2000s and large parts of western Europe and North America have been reclaimed by forest.

...In 1977 President Jimmy Carter went on television and declared: “World oil production can probably keep going up for another six or eight years. But sometime in the 1980s, it can’t go up anymore. Demand will overtake production.” He was not alone in this view. The end of oil and gas had been predicted repeatedly throughout the 20th century. In 1922 President Warren Harding created the US Coal Commission, which undertook an 11-month survey that warned, “Already the output of [natural] gas has begun to wane. Production of oil cannot long maintain its present rate.” In 1956, M. King Hubbert, a Shell geophysicist, forecast that gas production in the US would peak at about 14 trillion cubic feet per year sometime around 1970.

All these predictions failed to come true. Oil and gas production have continued to rise during the past 50 years. Gas reserves took an enormous leap upward after 2007, as engineers learned how to exploit abundant shale gas. In 2011 the International Energy Agency estimated that global gas resources would last 250 years. Although it seems likely that cheap sources of oil may indeed start to peter out in coming decades, gigantic quantities of shale oil and oil sands will remain available, at least at a price. Once again, obstacles have materialized, but the apocalypse has not. Ever since Thomas Robert Malthus, doomsayers have tended to underestimate the power of innovation. In reality, driven by price increases, people simply developed new technologies, such as the horizontal drilling technique that has helped us extract more oil from shale.

...Over the past half century, none of our threatened eco-pocalypses have played out as predicted. Some came partly true; some were averted by action; some were wholly chimerical. This raises a question that many find discomforting: With a track record like this, why should people accept the cataclysmic claims now being made about climate change? After all, 2012 marks the apocalyptic deadline of not just the Mayans but also a prominent figure in our own time: Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who said in 2007 that “if there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late … This is the defining moment.” _Matt Ridley in Wired
And so it goes, from apocalyptic crisis to apocalyptic crisis. "Defining moments" come and go, according to the pleasure and convenience of one vested interest or another. In the case of climate change, the lure of $trillions of funds to be redistributed via the United Nations' climate and environmental agencies would seem to be ample motivation for the climate grifters to twist and falsify the evidence.

But every prophet of false doom has his price, for which he will be willing to do and say almost anything. Fame, wealth, power -- or simply something to do.

Meanwhile, mind the countdown. You will not want to be caught flatfooted when the world ends on December 21, 2012, at precisely 11:11 PM.

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Blogger Matt M said...

A firm belief in doom can vanquish uncertainty better than almost any other belief or attitude.

Friday, 17 August, 2012  
Blogger J said...

You know, Richard Feynman while bored in Guatemala, discovered the Mayan calendar. I think the sitting chief is looking carefully at a missing hieroglyph while holding in the left hand a pandereta, a musical instrument. Does it mean we shall start dancing at new year midnight? Probably.

Friday, 17 August, 2012  

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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