A superb article by Roger Kerr in the ODT today. Not online but here are some extracts:
Thomas Malthus, in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, predicted the certain depletion of the earth’s resources by man, leading to famine and ultimately starvation. Despite plenty of criticism, the theory was profoundly influential at the time, as political interests used it to advance their social agendas.
Self-proclaimed propagandist Paul Erhlich picked up the baton 170 years later with his alarmist manifesto The Population Bomb, in which he argued that the world had reached its carrying capacity. “The battle to feed all humanity is over”, he announced, adding that any action to prevent certain, self-inflicted, global environmental and societal disaster would merely provide a “stay of execution”.
Hysteria’s History goes on to explore the phenomenon of Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring, the book credited with launching modern environmentalism. Carson was the most successful in a long line of environmental activists convinced that human beings were on the verge of entirely eliminating various animal species. Her book sparked an outcry over the environmental impact of synthetic pesticides and other chemicals, specifically warning of the effect of DDT and the impending “silent spring” where “no birds sing”.
The report acknowledges there were elements of truth in Carson’s warnings, and the book put an end to the idea that all synthetic chemicals were harmless and benign. But its unbridled alarmism gave rise to hysterical claims about robins and bald eagles teetering on the brink of extinction and birds dropping dead out of trees and falling from the sky by the thousands.
The ensuing public pressure to ban DDT brought to a halt life-saving efforts to combat malaria in many parts of the world. With the use of DDT in Venezuela, for example, cases of malaria dropped from more than eight million in 1943 to 800 in 1958. Today malaria kills approximately one million annually, mostly children in sub-Saharan Africa.
The tide of opinion on DDT has since turned with, among others, the World Health Organisation and the Endangered Wildlife Trust now promoting indoor spraying of DDT in developing countries, and, surprise, surprise, the birds are still with us. Robins (which were never in jeopardy) continue to flourish, and the bald eagle was this year taken off the US threatened and endangered species list.
But the wild claims and alarmist projections continued. In 1975, in an article titled ‘The Cooling World’, Newsweek described ominous signs of an impending ice age and warned of catastrophic famines, “drought and desolation”, “floods, extended dry spells, long freezes [and] delayed monsoons”. Sound familiar?
Today, of course, global warming is the major cause du jour, having well outstripped acid rain, peak oil, Y2K and bird flu. It’s being blamed for just about everything, even increased teenage drinking, stray cats, poison ivy and sharks, as well as some very serious events such as widespread malnutrition, outbreaks of disease and the crisis in Darfur.
Among the long litany of predicted apocalyptic disasters, many have a basis in a legitimate issue. But alarmism often obscures that. It plays on people’s natural inclination to expect the worst to happen and polarises the debaters into groups of ‘believers’ and ‘sceptics’.
The challenge for policy makers, in developing appropriate evidence-based responses to such issues, is to avoid knee-jerk reactions intended to appease their alarmist constituents and the media. Where a real problem exists, responses should be based on rigorous scientific investigation and cool-headed analysis.
They key part is the last two paragraphs. There is usually some substance to an issue, but apocalyptic alarmism polarises the debate and that policy in response to an issue should be evidence-based.No tag for this post.