AMERICANS have always had a taste for prophecies of doom, and recent generations are no exception.
This doomsday mentality is most obvious in the current discussions about global warming. Global warming is real, and is at least partly human-induced, but it’s happening very gradually and no deaths have been definitively linked to climate change. Claims that we’re on the brink of disaster are conjectural, not factual.
The invention of nuclear weapons in 1945 led to fears that human folly might cause the end of the world. The rhetoric of self-induced catastrophe has dominated debates on environmental issues ever since.
Overpopulation was one. Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote in his 1968 book “The Population Bomb” that there were more people in the world than could possibly be fed. He believed that famine was inevitable, and that millions living in the United States and Western Europe would die of hunger in the 1980s.
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Pollution was another. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring” began with the vision of a horrible future in which the return of spring brought an eerie silence because pesticides had killed all the birds. Samuel Epstein, in his 1978 book “The Politics of Cancer,” added that carcinogenic chemicals, rushed onto the market by greedy corporations, were causing a plague of cancer deaths.
Resource exhaustion was a third example. The 1972 book “The Limits to Growth” foresaw a world of increasing scarcity as natural resources were used up once and for all. President Jimmy Carter agreed, set the White House thermostat at a chilly 65 degrees, and commissioned the 1980 “Global 2000 Report,” which concluded that there would be less of everything by the millennium.
They were all wrong. Population did grow, but so did the rate of food production. The Green Revolution that began in the late 1950s improved crop strains and yields rose. Less food was wasted and famine declined steadily after 1960.
Pollution was real, but legislation to mitigate it has worked superbly. We enjoy a far cleaner and safer environment today than our parents and grandparents.
Cancer was becoming more common, but mainly because people lived long enough to contract it. In all earlier ages, huge numbers of people had died prematurely before reaching the age at which cancer usually strikes. Life expectancy increased from about 70 years in 1960 to about 80 today.
Most environmental problems were real, but manageable, and we have done a good job of managing them. The rhetoric of catastrophe was nearly always disproportionate to the actual hazard, and could lead to overreactions.
The town of Times Beach, Mo., for example, was shown in the early 1980s to have been contaminated by dioxin. In response, the government depopulated and destroyed the town.
While later studies did indicate dioxin levels posed a threat to human health, the government forced people to leave Times Beach without waiting for comprehensive medical studies to demonstrate the need for such a drastic step.
Suggestions today that we need to transform our entire way of life in the face of global warming are also overstated. Wealthy and technically advanced societies like the U.S. can adapt while continuing to look for greener energy sources and improved efficiency. Sea levels may be rising, but the history of Dutch dikes and polders shows that populations can live safely at or below sea level.
Opponents to environmentalists have also exaggerated. Detroit automakers hated having to make cars pollute less, and predicted it would bankrupt them. It didn’t.
Industries across the nation complained having to comply with Environmental Protection Agency requirements, but they complied and continued to make profits. It’s common today for Republican lawmakers to deny that global warming even exists.
Barry Goldwater wrote in his 1982 memoir
that environmental regulators were forcing Americans to “freeze to death in the dark” while the Soviet Union gained in strength and power.
But how did the Cold War turn out? The Soviet Union, lacking a free press and democratic institutions, was a far worse polluter than the United States.
The historical record shows that we deal well with environmental problems when we take them seriously, and that as the U.S. becomes wealthier it gains in its ability to confront new challenges. Yes, we’ve got troubles. And yes, we need to deal with them. But both sides need to admit that the sky is not falling.
Patrick Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University in Georgia.