We are living in a time when some of our leaders are sounding an alarm meant to portend the rapid approach of the end of days. Evidently the situation has become quite dire, and the end is going to be decidedly cataclysmic. There is even a doomsday clock in New York City’s Union Square–set up by some activist entity–counting down the 6 years or so that we have left to prevent the end of the world as we know it.
The only existential threat humanity faces–even more frightening that a nuclear war–is global warmingPOTUS – 2023
But that’s not all–these leaders are also taking action in the form of massive spending bills and the creation of new laws intended to prevent the coming catastrophe. These efforts are driving consequential and expensive public policies, and they are being used as justification for initiatives intended to restructure whole economies, entire industries, and society at large. Consequently, we appear to be in the process of doing some fairly peculiar things, such as replacing reliance on foreign oil with reliance on foreign batteries, teaching our children that they have no future, and striving to put governmental bureaucracies in charge of managing the entire global climate, etcetera, etcetera.
The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate changeCelebrity Congresswoman – 2019
If these dark doomsday predictions are correct, then the efforts to address them may be justifiable and prudent. But if they are wrong–or even just overblown–then there is a real possibility that these measures will be wasteful, counterproductive, or even destructive–as is almost universally the case with large scale governmental centralized planning. Even in the best of cases, it is likely that efforts to address doom-and-gloom scenarios are distracting from other–possibly even more pressing–matters. Things like education, healthcare, debt reduction, economic health, military strength, law enforcement, and world peace are rarely discussed in a serious manner these days.
What’s more, destructive and unintended outcomes resulting from government interventions are always possible (maybe probable), even if the threats they are meant to address are 100 percent real. The 2008 housing market crash (and the resulting Great Recession) is a relevant and timely example of this type of predicament. In this case, the noble goal was to expand homeownership for disadvantaged people, and the unintended consequences were the broad destruction of the banking and mortgage industry, upheaval in the automobile industry, and extreme disruption of the economy in general.
The threat of unintended consequences is also touched upon in the 2013 science fiction movie–Snowpiercer–whose apocalyptic plot is set up when the governments of the world attempt to address and control global warming, but instead initiate a global ice age through their actions. It’s hyperbole, for certain, but it is also a powerful reminder of the dangers of unintended consequences.
With these thoughts in mind, I recently stumbled across the YouTube video shared below. The video describes 30-odd predictions of looming environmental catastrophe–made over the past 65 years–along with their eventual outcome (when it is not already strongly implied by the current date). The bulk of these prognostications were made by scientists or other authorities, whose pronouncements were then reported in stories produced by reputable news media outlets. The video is relatively long at 17 minutes. Nonetheless, I hope you will watch it in its entirety.
For your convenience I have summarized all 30-plus environmental catastrophe predictions in the list below, including the date the claim was made and with the media outlet covering the story.
- Oct 1958 – Imminent Loss of the North Polar Ice Sheet – New York Times
- Nov 1967 – Unavoidable Global Famine – Salt Lake City Tribune
- Apr 1970 – Scientist Predict Looming Ice Age – Boston Globe
- Jul 1971 – Disastrous Ice Age to Begin in 50 or 60 Years – Washington Post, citing NASA Scientist
- Dec 1972 – The Coming Global Cooling Catastrophe – Brown University Letter to President Nixon
- Jan 1974 – Satellites Show New Ice Age Coming Fast – The Guardian
- Jun 1974 – Warnings Signs of an Imminent Ice Age – Time Magazine
- Jan 1978 – No End in Sight for the Cooling Trend of the Last 30 Years- New York Times
- Feb 1979 – The North Polar Cap will Melt within the Lifetime of Children Born Around 1979 – New York Times
- May 1982 – Environmental Catastrophe by the Year 2000 – New York Times
- Sep 1988 – Maldives Islands Inundated by the Sea Water within 30 Years- Agence France-Presse (AFP)
- Jun 1989 – Entire Nations Destroyed by Rising Sea Level by the Year 2000 – San Jose Mercury News
- Mar 2000 – Snowfall Soon to become a thing of the Past in the United Kingdom – The Independent
- Dec 2001 – New England’s Sugar Maple Industry Destroyed by Climate Change by 2021 – Albuquerque Journal
- Feb 2004 – Climate Change will lead to Nuclear War by 2020 – The Guardian
- Jan 2006 – Disaster if Climate Change not Addressed by 2016 – Associate Press (AP), citing Al Gore
- Nov 2007 – It will be Too Late to Address Climate Change after 2012 – New York Times
- Nov 2007 – Artic Ocean Free of Ice by 2010 or 2015 – CanWest News Service
- Dec 2007 – Artic Ocean Free of Ice During the Summer by 2012 – Associated Press (AP)
- Dec 2007 – Artic Ocean Free of Ice During the Summer by 2013 – BBC
- Mar 2008 – Northern Polar Ice Cap will Melt Away Next Year – New China News Agency (Xinhua)
- Apr 2008 – North Pole to become Ice Free in 2008 – New Scientist Magazine
- Jun 2008 – North Pole Ice Free for the First Time this Summer – National Geographic News
- Jun 2008 – In 5 to 10 Years the Artic will be Free of Ice in the Summer – Associated Press (AP)
- Dec 2009 – Artic Ice Free in the Summer by 2014- USA Today, citing Al Gore
- Sep 2012 – No More Snow by 2020 – The Australian
- Jul 2013 – Ice Free Artic in Two Years will result in Methane Catastrophe – The Guardian
- Aug 2017 – Australian Skiing Industry to be Destroyed by Climate Change – The Sydney Morning Herald
- Jan 2018 – No Chance for Permanent Artic Ice after 2022 – Forbes, citing Harvard University Professor
- Jun 2018 – Humans Will Go Extinct if Climate Change Not Fixed by 2023 – Greta Thunberg, Climate Activist
- Jan 2020 – Glacier National Park Removed Signage Predicting Its Glaciers Would be Gone by 2020 – CNN
- Dec 2021 – No Snow in California Imminent – Los Angeles Times
- Aug 2022 – The End of Snow Will Upend the Lives of 76 Million Americans – Bloomberg
It may come as no surprise that not a single one of these prediction of disaster has come to pass. This list, of course, is not comprehensive. There have been thousands of similar predictions made about looming environmental catastrophes over the last 100 years or so. If you add in all forms of doomsday predictions–environmental and otherwise–the number of failed predictions grows astronomically.
What we have here is the perfect setup for a nice little case study–example after example of Doomsayer vs Naysayer. For the purposes of this article we will define Doomsayers as those who are inclined to put forward predictions of global or large scale environmental catastrophes, and we will define Naysayers as those who are skeptical of those claims.
Doomsayers – those who are inclined to put forward predictions of global or large scale environmental catastrophes
Naysayers – those who are skeptical of such claims.
Over and above the examples provided in this list, the simple fact that we are still here, demonstrates unequivocally that ALL previously expired doomsday predictions–of any flavor, and regardless of their basis in science, politics, or religion–have been false. The Doomsayers have always been wrong, and the Naysayers have always been right. In every single case. Zero wins for the Doomsayers is a terrible track record, while the perfect record for the Naysayers is very impressive. There are few endeavors pursued by people that result in flawless records–of either success or failure. But predictions concerning global ecological catastrophe is one such example.
Meanwhile, the conventional wisdom somehow misses this important point, and instead promotes and props up the Doomsayers while deriding the Naysayers. It’s an odd happenstance. Somehow with a perfect record of failure the Doomsayers are still portrayed as being generally correct by the conventional wisdom. And with a perfect record of predicting accurately, the Naysayers are derided as science deniers or worse. The conventional wisdom holds that Naysayers are wrong and even willfully blind. Like I said, it’s strange.
Is this video credible?
I believe it is. I have lived through most of these claims, and I recall reading about the majority of them in real time. I believe this video presents them in a reasonably fair way and with proper context. They are described in much the same way I remember hearing about them at the time they were put forward. In fact, this list represents only a small subset of the environmental doom-and-gloom predictions that have been made over the years. I would submit that the video is indeed credible in its presentation.
Is it possible this video is unfair?
Yes, it is possible that the producer of this video cherrypicked the examples, purposely leaving out cases where timely and effective interventions worked to stop the predicted catastrophes. Of course, if the disasters never came to pass we cannot be completely sure it was the interventions that stopped the catastrophes rather than something else. It is even possible–maybe even likely–that the predicted calamities were completely overblown all along–much in the same way those in the list above proved to be.
Environmentalism is an important cause. It is critical that humans be good stewards of the planet–no serious person would ever argue against that point. But for Environmentalism to be effective it must be credible. Credibility is key. It is essential. I can think of few things worse for the environmental movement than discrediting itself to the point where it impedes its ability to effectively influence. Environmentalism should not sell its credibility so cheaply.
Crying wolf is a non-optimal way of building a coalition. It recruits only the weakest advocates—people who are oblivious to obvious manipulation, and it empowers the opposition by giving them irrefutable evidence of a case that is built on falsehoods. Critical thinkers will see through the hype and begin to wonder what else they are being misled about. In every instance, environmentalism should be more prudent and restrained than to resort to crying wolf. The mission of environmentalism is too important to behave otherwise.
There are a number of reasons why people might promote stories of doom-and-gloom. In the case of the stories presented above, it is plausible that some are simply honest mistakes–that well-intentioned people did the best they could with the information available, but they drew faulty conclusions. If this is truly the case, It might be hoped that the well-intentioned people would become more conservative in their pronouncements over time as their failures accrued. But that expected restraint does not seem to be occurring–a point of fact that might suggest that there are less benevolent motivations at work.
Every culture that has ever existed has created an end-of-days mythology. There is something deep within the human psyche that craves stories about looming disaster. It’s a fundamental part of being human. People in positions of power recognize that these kind of stories–when taken seriously–can generate a lot of interest and concern. That’s part of the reason for creating them. They can be powerful tools for manipulating and controlling people.
Modern predictions about doom and gloom are usually set in a 10 to 20 year timeframe. The reason may be that 10 to 20 years is soon enough to impart a sense of urgency, while at the same time being far enough in the future to insulate the claimant from culpability if the forecast does not come to pass. Politicians have the most to benefit from this technique as it can be used as leverage to force passage of legislation that might not otherwise see the light of day. Once the new laws are passed, revelations about how things actually turned out never seem to have impactful consequences.
As a brief aside, I can offer some real guarantees that if a politician tells you the world will end if they do not get their way on a particular issue, then that politician is not being truthful with you. Much more likely is that the politician is trying to shortcut the hard work of persuasion required when forwarding a proposition that is weak or not otherwise cut-and-dry.
The news media is free to be even more reckless than our politicians. An agenda-driven news media knows that it will rarely (read: never) be held accountable for false accounts. Reporters are protected by being at least one step removed from responsibility (don’t kill the messenger). And stories like those in the list above are never followed up on in any meaningful way. Once they outlive their usefulness, false reports tend to simply disappear in to the blackhole of yesterday’s news.
So, what about the Union Square doomsday clock in New York City?
The Union Square Climate Clock is a countdown for time to act–a slightly nuanced variation on the doomsday clock. In this case, the time being counted down is the deadline for taking effective action to prevent the predicted calamity, not the actual due date for the disaster itself. The gist is still largely the same, however–when the clock runs out, the end of the world will be unavoidable.
The Union Square Climate Clock is meant to be scientific, and it likely will be–just not in the way intended. With this clock a hypothesis has been proposed with few stipulations, and it will be fully tested at the time the clock counts down to zero. At that time in 2029 the hypothesis will be shown to be entirely true, or entirely false.
My prediction for this clock is that it will eventually wind down to zero sometime in near the middle of 2029–or it may be quietly shutdown sometime beforehand (or it may be reset with more time, so that it never runs down). Whatever the case, I fully expect that the world in 2029 will continue on little different than it does today. And then a few years later–after there has been time for folks to have largely forgotten about this clock–somebody somewhere will start a brand new clock counting down the next 10 or 20 years we have left to take action to prevent a NEW end of days scenario, and the cycle will repeat.