The End of the World Is Still Not Nigh Says "Rational Optimist" Matt Ridley


Over at Wired, Matt Ridley, author most recently of the superb The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, takes look back at 50 years of predictions of imminent doom. For decades credulous news media have been peddling apocalyptic prophecies that humanity would soon be done in by pollution, population, pandemics, and/or depleted petroleum. And yet we are still here.

In his article, "Apocalypse Not: Here's Why You Shouldn't Worry About the End Times," reminds readers of the plethora of failed prophecies including…

…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." …

Over the five decades since the success of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 and the four decades since the success of the Club of Rome's The Limits to Growth in 1972, prophecies of doom on a colossal scale have become routine. Indeed, we seem to crave ever-more-frightening predictions—we are now, in writer Gary Alexander's word, apocaholic. The past half century has brought us warnings of population explosions, global famines, plagues, water wars, oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, Y2K bugs, mad cow epidemics, killer bees, sex-change fish, cell-phone-induced brain-cancer epidemics, and climate catastrophes.

So far all of these specters have turned out to be exaggerated. True, we have encountered obstacles, public-health emergencies, and even mass tragedies. But the promised Armageddons—the thresholds that cannot be uncrossed, the tipping points that cannot be untipped, the existential threats to Life as We Know It—have consistently failed to materialize.

Why has the end of the world failed to happen? In a word, innovation. People convert problems into opportunities.

The recent prophets of doom all fail to understand the power of strong property rights and free markets to mitigate looming scarcities and ameliorate environmental harms. As I noted in my recent column, "The Limits to The Limits to Growth:"

One of the odder features of the Limits computer model [and other such apocalyptic narratives] is that it basically ignores one of the most robust feedback mechanisms in the world—markets and price systems. The modelers warn against placing our faith in the technological solutions, pointing to the collapse of the whaling industry as an example. They argue that improvements in whaling technology ended up destroying that industry. They completely overlook the fact that whaling occurred in an open access commons in which everyone has incentive to kill as many whales as possible to make sure that their competitors didn't benefit from them. Similarly, today wherever one identifies an environmental problem, one can be sure that it is occurring in the moral equivalent of an open access commons. In fact, the depletion of whales and rising price of whale oil encouraged entrepreneurs to seek new form of lighting; in this case, turning gooey crude oil into kerosene.

For example, rising oil and natural gas prices have similarly encouraged the development of new technologies like fracking. Ridley's Wired article is well worth your time.

See my interview reason.tv interview with Ridley about The Rational Optimist below: