Underpopulation, overpopulation. A cooling planet, a warming planet. Either way, presented as a looming crisis, catastrophising the future for upcoming generations. The pendulum of fear swings back and forth, as self-righteous experts prime research funding streams: there is money as well as virtue in saving humanity.
Back in 1968 Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University made his name with the book Population Bomb. After decades of worry about falling birth rates in the West, Ehrlich revived the 18th-century thesis of Thomas Malthus. Infinite global population growth and finite resources would lead to disaster, unless we acted urgently. Yet the 1960s was the dawn of the contraceptive pill, alongside expanding opportunities for young women. Advances in education and standards of living were reducing maternal burden. Higher progeny in the poorer parts of the world would eventually tail off (although ‘woke' alarmists Harry and Meghan don't mention Africa when imploring parents to stop at their second child).
Ehrlich's warning had limited impact. With declining school rolls in many areas (before the floodgates were opened to mass immigration), the idea of a population emergency was not persuasive to teachers or education authorities. So Ehrlich, to this day professor of population studies at Stanford, turned his attention to a more explosive bomb.
In 1984, as Ronald Reagan escalated the arms race with the Soviet Union, a parallel conference of American and Russian scientists was held. Carl Sagan spoke on the ‘nuclear winter' that would envelop us after an atomic crossfire. Next at the podium was Ehrlich, who pulled no punches: -
‘Blast alone, according to one estimate, would be expected to cause 750 million deaths. As many people as existed on the planet when our nation was founded would be vaporized, disintegrated, mashed, pulped, and smeared over the landscape by the explosive force.'
This carnage, however, would merely be the tip of the iceberg. Far more destruction would arise from the shattering of ecosystems, mainly due to lasting cold and dark. The biological impact, Ehrlich speculated, would threaten the existence of Homo sapiens. ‘Biologists can agree to that as easily as we all could agree that accidentally using cyanide instead of salt in the gravy could spoil a dinner party'.
Of course, nobody doubts that nuclear war would be ruinous, to be avoided at all costs. But the Chernobyl accident suggests that the presumed long-term impact of radiation is exaggerated. A member of the audience challenged Ehrlich on his cataclysmic conjecture: -
‘Shortly after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I remember reading the newspapers quoting scientists as saying that during the next 75 years nothing can grow in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. History proved them wrong because a year later the harvest - melons and other vegetables and other kinds of plants - grew fertile. So how accurate are your findings?'
Ehrlich responded: ‘I think they are extremely robust....we are presenting at least a consensus of a very large group of scientists'.
A very large group of experts foretell an ecological disaster due to manmade global warming. A very large group of economists predicted a deep recession if the British voted to leave the European Union. But science should be based on objectivity, not group-think. And scientists should be particularly aware of the dangers of orthodoxy, or what Thomas Kuhn named ‘normal science'. While dissent or contradictory evidence is quashed, group-thinkers compete for publicity by stridently pushing the favoured narrative. A few writers such as James Delingpole have courageously stood up to the bullying climate change lobby, but sceptical scholars tend to air their opinions in private, for the sake of their careers.
The language of the nuclear Holocaust is very similar to that of today's eco-hysterics. Millions will be displaced by desertification or drowned by rising sea levels. People who don't succumb first to drought and famine will be afflicted with raging skin cancer. This relentless talk of Armageddon is probably a factor in the reported mental health crisis in youth.
But all this scaremongering is counterproductive, with ever-decreasing returns and increasing cynicism among the common people. We saw this with ‘Project Fear', the political establishment's alliance with big business to stop Brexit. Consider the reaction to the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, with week-long roadblocks and bridge closures, and a planned use of drones to close the runway at Heathrow. Public opinion, initially sympathetic to a well-marketed campaign, rapidly turned against the demonstrators. The hypocrisy doesn't help, with Emma Thompson flying from California to preach against use of fossil-fuels. That'll be Harry and Meghan too.
Saving the planet is fashionable. But what happened to the feared nuclear war, and the once-prominent campaign by CND? The weapons have not been decommissioned. Several more countries have a precarious button now than during the Cold War, with leaders less predictable than in the Kremlin or Beijing. Why so little fuss about Iran developing a nuclear arsenal? Should we dismiss its stated desire to wipe Israel off the map as bluster? Should we sit back and wait for the Saudis to get their hands on weapons of mutually-assured destruction? There have been no marches in Sydney, Paris or London against nuclear proliferation in volatile lands. Instead, we are warned that cows are killing the planet with methane.
We descendants of Adam and Eve are not taking good care of the Garden of Eden. But reluctance of ordinary folk to believe that the end is nigh forces ecological zealots into more extreme claims, publicised by brazenly disruptive stunts. Meanwhile, an anti-imperialist narrative in Western society allows the leaders in Tehran and Beijing a free pass for military aggression and totalitarianism. Is eating red meat really more of a threat than an Iranian nuclear strike?
Peddlers of eco-hysteria speak with absolutism, supported by scholars who should know better. Ironically, it is the humble lay person rather than the average scientist who is more likely to convey the true stance of science: doubt.