Earth day

Happy Earth Day: A Reprise of Failed Doom

A trip down memory lane of failed Earth Day predictions past.

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Dreamstime: Sidliks

My article, Earth Day, Then and Now, looked back 30 years at numerous predictions made on or around the first Earth Day in 1970 prophesying imminent and widespread environmental apocalyse. I am pleased that several places around the web—Mark Perry over at AEIdeas and Andrew Follett at the Daily Caller, are citing it for the lists of massively failed predictions that they are publishing today. To both, my humble thanks.

Perry mined my article for 18 spectacularly wrong predictions of doom: 

1. Harvard biologist George Wald estimated that "civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind."

2. "We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation," wrote Washington University biologist Barry Commoner in the Earth Day issue of the scholarly journal Environment.

3. The day after the first Earth Day, the New York Times editorial page warned, "Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction."

4. "Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make," Paul Ehrlich confidently declared in the April 1970 Mademoiselle. "The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years."

5. "Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born," wrote Paul Ehrlich in a 1969 essay titled "Eco-Catastrophe! "By…[1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s."

6. Ehrlich sketched out his most alarmist scenario for the 1970 Earth Day issue of The Progressive, assuring readers that between 1980 and 1989, some 4 billion people, including 65 million Americans, would perish in the "Great Die-Off."

7. "It is already too late to avoid mass starvation," declared Denis Hayes, the chief organizer for Earth Day, in the Spring 1970 issue of The Living Wilderness.

8. Peter Gunter, a North Texas State University professor, wrote in 1970, "Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions….By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine."

9. In January 1970, Life reported, "Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support…the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution…by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half…."

10. Ecologist Kenneth Watt told Time that, "At the present rate of nitrogen buildup, it's only a matter of time before light will be filtered out of the atmosphere and none of our land will be usable."

11. Barry Commoner predicted that decaying organic pollutants would use up all of the oxygen in America's rivers, causing freshwater fish to suffocate.

12. Paul Ehrlich chimed in, predicting in his 1970 that "air pollution…is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone." Ehrlich sketched a scenario in which 200,000 Americans would die in 1973 during "smog disasters" in New York and Los Angeles.

13. Paul Ehrlich warned in the May 1970 issue of Audubon that DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons "may have substantially reduced the life expectancy of people born since 1945." Ehrlich warned that Americans born since 1946…now had a life expectancy of only 49 years, and he predicted that if current patterns continued this expectancy would reach 42 years by 1980, when it might level out.

14. Ecologist Kenneth Watt declared, "By the year 2000, if present trends continue, we will be using up crude oil at such a rate…that there won't be any more crude oil. You'll drive up to the pump and say, `Fill 'er up, buddy,' and he'll say, `I am very sorry, there isn't any.'"

15. Harrison Brown, a scientist at the National Academy of Sciences, published a chart in Scientific American that looked at metal reserves and estimated the humanity would totally run out of copper shortly after 2000. Lead, zinc, tin, gold, and silver would be gone before 1990.

16. Sen. Gaylord Nelson wrote in Look that, "Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, believes that in 25 years, somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct."

17. In 1975, Paul Ehrlich predicted that "since more than nine-tenths of the original tropical rainforests will be removed in most areas within the next 30 years or so, it is expected that half of the organisms in these areas will vanish with it."*

18. Kenneth Watt warned about a pending Ice Age in a speech. "The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years," he declared. "If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age."

And Follett used my article to focus of 7 just dead wrong predictions and provided some fascinating extra data on just how badly wrong the doomsters got it:

From predicting the end of civilization to classic worries about peak oil, here are seven environmentalist predictions that were just flat out wrong.

1: "Civilization Will End Within 15 Or 30 Years"

Harvard biologist Dr. George Wald warned shortly before the first Earth Day in 1970 that civilization would soon end "unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind." Three years before his projection, Wald was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

Wald was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race. He even flew to Moscow at one point to advise the leader of the Soviet Union on environmental policy.

Despite his assistance to a communist government, civilization still exists. The percentage of Americans who are concerned about environmental threats has fallen as civilization failed to end by environmental catastrophe.

2: "100-200 Million People Per Year Will Be Starving To Death During The Next Ten Years"

Stanford professor Dr. Paul Ehrlich declared in April 1970 that mass starvation was imminent. His dire predictions failed to materialize as the number of people living in poverty has significantly declined and the amount of food per person has steadily increased, despite population growth. The world's Gross Domestic Product per person has immeasurably grown despite increases in population.

Ehrlich is largely responsible for this view, having co-published "The Population Bomb" with The Sierra Club in 1968. The book made a number of claims including that millions of humans would starve to death in the 1970s and 1980s, mass famines would sweep England leading to the country's demise, and that ecological destruction would devastate the planet causing the collapse of civilization.

3: "Population Will Inevitably And Completely Outstrip Whatever Small Increases In Food Supplies We Make"

Paul Ehrlich also made the above claim in 1970, shortly before an agricultural revolution that caused the world's food supply to rapidly increase.

Ehrlich has consistently failed to revise his predictions when confronted with the fact that they did not occur, stating in 2009 that "perhaps the most serious flaw in The Bomb was that it was much too optimistic about the future."

4: "Demographers Agree Almost Unanimously … Thirty Years From Now, The Entire World … Will Be In Famine"

Environmentalists in 1970 truly believed in a scientific consensus predicting global famine due to population growth in the developing world, especially in India.

"Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions," Peter Gunter, a professor at North Texas State University, said in a 1970 issue of The Living Wilderness."By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine."

India, where the famines were supposed to begin, recently became one of the world's largest exporters of agricultural products and food supply per person in the country has drastically increased in recent years. In fact, the number of people in every country listed by Gunter has risen dramatically since 1970.

5: "In A Decade, Urban Dwellers Will Have To Wear Gas Masks To Survive Air Pollution"

Life magazine stated in January 1970 that scientist had "solid experimental and theoretical evidence" to believe that "in a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution…by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching Earth by one half."

Despite the prediction, air quality has been improving worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Air pollution has also sharply declined in industrialized countries. Carbon dioxide (CO2), the gas environmentalists are worried about today, is odorless, invisible and harmless to humans in normal amounts.

6: "Childbearing [Will Be] A Punishable Crime Against Society, Unless The Parents Hold A Government License"

David Brower, the first executive director of The Sierra Club made the above claim and went on to say that "[a]ll potential parents [should be] required to use contraceptive chemicals, the government issuing antidotes to citizens chosen for childbearing." Brower was also essential in founding Friends of the Earth and the League Of Conservation Voters and much of the modern environmental movement.

Brower believed that most environmental problems were ultimately attributable to new technology that allowed humans to pass natural limits on population size. He famously stated before his death in 2000 that "all technology should be assumed guilty until proven innocent" and repeatedly advocated for mandatory birth control.

Today, the only major government to ever get close to his vision has been China, which ended its one-child policy last October.

7: "By The Year 2000 … There Won't Be Any More Crude Oil"

On Earth Day in 1970 ecologist Kenneth Watt famously predicted that the world would run out of oil saying, "You'll drive up to the pump and say, 'Fill 'er up, buddy,' and he'll say, 'I am very sorry, there isn't any.'"

Numerous academics like Watt predicted that American oil production peaked in 1970 and would gradually decline, likely causing a global economic meltdown. However, the successful application of massive hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, caused American oil production to come roaring back and there is currently too much oil on the market.

American oil and natural gas reserves are at their highest levels since 1972 and American oil production in 2014 was 80 percent higher than in 2008 thanks to fracking.

Furthermore, the U.S. now controls the world's largest untapped oil reserve, the Green River Formation in Colorado. This formation alone contains up to 3 trillion barrels of untapped oil shale, half of which may be recoverable. That's five and a half times the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia. This single geologic formation could contain more oil than the rest of the world's proven reserves combined.

Again, thanks guys. And may we all have a Happy and Prosperous Earth Day!

*CORRECTION: In 1975, Paul Ehrlich and his biologist wife, Anne Ehrlich, predicted that "since more than nine-tenths of the original tropical rainforests will be removed in most areas within the next thirty years or so, it is expected that half of the organisms in these areas will vanish with it."

As will be clear in the book, I am highly critical of long-time environmental doomster Paul Ehrlich, but the above prediction was actually made by Ehrlich's sometime collaborator biologist Peter Raven in 1994 in his article "Defining Biodiversity" published in Nature Conservancy. For those who may still be interested in Ehrlich's prognostications, in June, 2015 he confidently asserted that "without any significant doubt that we are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event."

I regret the error.

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