For the hundreds of millions of citizens that have newly emerged from poverty in recent decades and are beginning to enjoy the fruits of economic growth and technological progress across Asia, Africa and Latin America – among the greatest achievements in human history – the angst of Western elites over modern life seems indulgent, if not altogether egregious.
Often, the loudest voices with the most sensational declarations of humanity’s doom get the most media attention, proving the old editor’s adage of “if it bleeds, it leads.”
For half a century now, gloomy prognostications have defined Earth Day. The event espouses a missionary style message, offering sermons of an imminent ecological catastrophe with a series of threats and warnings (increasing frequency of extreme weather events, biodiversity decline and mass extinction, climate disruption, planetary toxification, etc.). It then presents the good news of salvation to be achieved by series of actions, with the usual exhortations against use of fossil fuels, changing everyday behaviour that reduces use of energy-intensive goods and services, promote “organic” farming to reduce oil-based fertilizers and so on.
Climate predictions play a central role in the liturgy of Earth Days. Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich has played an exemplary role as a serial predictor of global cataclysm. He has made predictions of “environmental collapse going back to 1970 that he has described as having ‘near certainty.’” Another favourite prognosticator is Prince Charles who said in July 2009 that humanity had only 96 months to save the world from “irretrievable climate and ecosystem collapse, and all that goes with it” caused by unchecked consumerism. There are of course many others, from the teenage icon Greta Thunberg to US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
When such predictions inevitably fail, new predictions are made with new end-dates, and the process repeats. This was the subject of a fascinating study of predictions of global environmental apocalypse in the International Journal of Global Warming that assessed 79 predictions of climate Armageddon going back to the first Earth Day in 1970. Just over 60% of the predictions had already expired by 2020. A significant proportion of these predictions (43%) never allowed for uncertainty about dates of the end of the world, like those proffered by Paul Ehrlich and Prince Charles. The average time horizon for climate apocalypse was about 20 years, and little has changed over the past half century.
Benjamin Zycher of the American Enterprise Institute suggests that the unbroken prediction record of environmental doom, stretching over 50 years, will continue indefinitely. Those who “truly believe” and those whose livelihood depends on the persistence of such beliefs makes it imperative that such predictions will continue to be made, and to be believed.
A recent well-researched empirical survey of trends in a wide variety of climate- and weather-related phenomena and commonly accepted indicators of human and environmental of wellbeing provides a useful reference. Contrary to the received narrative, cyclones, tornadoes, floods and droughts are not getting any worse; wildfires are less extensive than they used to be; cereal yields and food supplies have increased; and coastal margins and beaches have not been shrinking. With respect to human welfare, virtually every metric or indicator shows significant if not dramatic improvement: life expectancy and income levels have improved; poverty levels have declined; people are living longer and healthier lives and the World Bank’s human development index has advanced virtually everywhere.
Since the 1920s, the global death rate from extreme weather events, for instance, has fallen by 98.9% despite the tripling of the world’s population. Average global life expectancy at birth in 1850 was just over 29 years; a century later is was over 45 years, and in 2019, it was almost 73 years. In 1820, 84% of the global population lived in absolute poverty. By 2015, this had dropped to 10% despite a sevenfold increase in world population.