What apocalypse?

Fears: End-of-the-world warnings have long been with us, but the dire predictions of demise also have resulted in 'good research' to help address ecological problems.

July 28, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

IT IS SUMMERTIME and the skies are angry, filled with smoke from forest fires, the greenhouse gases building up almost before your eyes, the fragile ozone layer barely protecting humanity from the sun's destructive rays.

Soon, perhaps, a melting ice cap will put your favorite beach resort under water. Then, you will turn on your tap and no water will come out. The reservoirs will be dry.

Since the environmental movement first gained strength 30 years ago, predictions of the demise of the world as we know it have been a staple. Mankind loves an imminent apocalypse. End-of-the-world movements have probably had adherents since the beginning of the world. The top fiction hardcover book on The New York Times best-seller list is The Remnant: Armageddon is Near, the latest installment of the immensely popular Left Behind series, a dramatization of Christian end-of-the-world prophecies.

The problem with such prophets is that the world, darn it, doesn't end on their schedule. Adherents lose patience and faith. And that means such apocalyptic tendencies can hurt the environmental movement. Since various predicted cataclysms have not happened, then it all must be a bunch of hogwash.

One of the most famous examples of this was a wager between Paul Ehrlich and eco-skeptic Julian Simon in 1980. Ehrlich -- whose 1968 book The Population Bomb used that Cold War terminology to warn of the coming crisis of world population -- accepted a challenge from Simon. Ehrlich bet that the price of five natural resources -- copper, chrome, nickel, tin, and tungsten -- would go up in the next decade because of growing scarcity. Instead their prices went down. Ehrlich paid up, and Simon became a hero to those who would debunk the environmental movement.

Many of Ehrlich's dire predictions have not come true, including the size of catastrophic famines that would ravage the world. No one took up another bet Ehrlich offered in 1969 -- even money that England would cease to exist by 2000. And there were myriad prophecies during the gas-line days of the 1970s that the world would run out of oil in a few years that also failed to come to pass.

These issues were used against the environmental movement in a recent book, The Skeptical Environmentalist by the Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg. He attempts to show that despite the warnings, the environment is improving. Yet the dire predictions continue, he says, to help in fund-raising efforts.

Steve Fetter, associate director of the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park, says that most environmental scientists are overly cautious, but that is not always how it comes out in the popular media.

"Folks trying to catalyze political action need to have some visible symptom to get peoples' attention," says Fetter, who has studied global warming. "So if you have a really hot summer, forest fires, hurricanes, the temptation is to use these things to get the political support you need. It's not really scientific, but it's understandable."

Katherine McComas, who teaches at the university's journalism school, studied media coverage of the first wave of global warming warnings a decade ago. She found that early stories responded to apocalyptic visions of rising seas and other disasters, but that then the pendulum shifted to coverage of economic arguments and disputes among scientists.

"Some scientists seemed to be really scaring people, so what they set up is the possibility that in the future, people would then tend to be less willing to pay attention to those issues," she says. "It's the `boy-who-cries-wolf' scenario."

Andrew Miller, an associate professor in the department of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says that environmentalists are often driven to issue dire warnings because more studied statements are dismissed by those making money off the status quo.

"Personally, I don't walk around telling students to expect the apocalypse, but as a skeptic, I am also skeptical of those who say that nothing bad will happen because it hasn't happened yet," Miller says. "There is almost a total consensus among scientists that we are now experiencing a total climatic shift. How large that will be, what the consequences will be, it is hard to say. The fact is we are running a huge uncontrolled experiment in a very complex system. Arguing that we should continue to run that experiment because it has not resulted in catastrophe so far is self-serving for those who make that argument."

The apocalyptic language is understandable in the global- warming debate because, as Robert Park, head of the Washington office of the American Physical Society, says, the two sides of the global warming argument "came at this thing from two religious points of view."

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