In this century the material
well-being of human beings around the world increased more than in the
previous 40,000+ years. So how did the perennial doomsayers at WorldWatch
choose to greet the new century — by again predicting a coming apocalypse.
The latest installment in the
ongoing WorldWatch soap opera has an interesting twist — with its past
major predictions of worldwide famine and other disasters consistently
failing to come to pass, WorldWatch smartly chose to make its message
of gloom as vague as possible this time around. WorldWatch’s Chris Bright
told the BBC that,
As pressures on the Earth’s natural systems build, there may
be some disconcerting surprises as trends interact, reinforcing each other
and triggering abrupt changes…
Translation: they don’t have
a good disaster story of the week on hand, but certainly after decades
of such prophecising something, anything, must go wrong at some
point in the next century. This is, after all, a strategy that has worked
rather well for numerous failed religious prophets and psychics (in my
crystal ball, I see the assassination of an important world leader and
a deadly natural disaster sometime in the next century as well).
According to WorldWatch’s Lester
Brown, the two major threats to the environment are global climate change
and population growth (which, of course, makes climate change worse).
The interesting thing about these threats is the level of uncertainty
in them. On the climate change fonrt, the amount of temperature increase
is constantly being revised downward (remember when environmentalists
were saying world temperatures were going to rise 5 to 7 degrees? Now
we’re talking about at most a 2 to 3 degree rise and there is an incredible
amount of uncertainty in that figure). More importantly, nobody has any
idea of exactly what a rise in temperature will mean for human beings.
Speculation about different scenarios that might happen abounds, but hard
facts about the implications of a temperature rise are rare — scientists
can’t even agree whether rising temperatures will cause a rise in sea
levels around the world.
The same holds true for population
growth. The world is well on it sway to achieving a stable population
of somewhere between 8 and 10 billion people. Brown claims universal access
to family planning services sna decuation for women are key requirements
for achieving population stability. This is quite a heady retreat from
Brown’s days of predicting imminent famine and from when population advocates
shrilly called for everything from military intervention to boycotts of
food aid to certain parts of the world.
The world certainly faces challenges
in the coming century, but we are not on the verge of an environmental
apocalypse. Policies designed to avert such an apocalypse will likely
be counterproductive as they divert resources away from pressing and easily
solved problems that don’t fit in the environmentalist paradigm, while
focusing resources on exotic problems where it’s still difficult to know
exactly what impact human intervention will have.
The true environmental apocalypse
is not some vague “surprise” that may happen 50 years from now, but the
millison of Africans infected with malaria today and the millions
of children suffering from malnutrition, and the hundreds of thousands
of women dying from pregnancy-related complications.
World ‘faces environmental upsets.’ The BBC, January 15, 2000.