Earth Day and the quest for the End of Days

By Harold Brown

Earth Day approaches again, and with it the self-flagellation that comes with what passes for “environmental consciousness” across this nation.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has ramped up, churning out release after release on sustainability and “green” initiatives.

And, setting the somber mood for an imminent call to action, the EPA has released the national greenhouse gas inventory, which finds that overall emissions during 2007 increased by 1.4 percent from the year before.

Predicted disasters are unreliable; unexpected ones are certain. The last half century saw predictions for a nuclear holocaust, mass starvation from over-population, dwindling oil supplies, Y2K collapse, even global cooling. None happened.

Hurricanes Andrew, Katrina and a few others blew in with only two or three days notice, the World Trade Center attacks came without warning and the 2008-09 financial crisis surprised even the experts.

Why should Americans, who can’t anticipate such short-term problems, believe an impending global-warming calamity a half-century from now?

There seems to be some element of the human psyche that feeds both the dread and the allure of apocalyptic visions. History is fraught with anticipation of the sequel to Noah’s flood. Human misbehavior is certain, in the minds of some, to bring on Armageddon. And science and technology, instead of eroding the superstition surrounding the end times, seems to feed it.

Not that long ago, the impending nuclear war of the mid-20th century was the premier apocalypse. A recent book (“One Nation Underground,” 2001) on preparation for nuclear war in those years has a chapter entitled, “The Theory and Practice of Armageddon.” There were nearly 200 short stories and novels on the subject between 1957 and 1964, and that didn’t include the multitude of newspaper and magazine articles.

Not surprisingly, science turned to the topic of the times, and some practitioners made cataclysmic statements (with much better evidence) much like today’s on global warming. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists proclaimed in 1954 that “... an untoward event tomorrow may trigger a tense world to erupt in flames of atomic or thermonuclear warfare, [and] that there will be ‘no place to hide’ for the great masses of civilized mankind.”

The publication created a “Bulletin Clock” to show how close the world was to destruction. In 1954: “The hands of the clock on the Bulletin’s cover now stand at two minutes to midnight. ... The Bulletin may be wrong. It may actually be one minute — perhaps seconds — to midnight. The specter of atomic peril hovers constantly near.”

Global warming is a wimp and a snail, compared to that.

Fears of the nuclear holocaust were real and widespread in the 1950s and 1960s. Fallout shelters were discussed in every community and built in many. By 1973 there were 130,000 “licensed” shelters in this country.

The shelters are gone now, along with their midwife, the “Civil Defense Preparedness Agency.” FEMA says nothing today about protecting citizens from nuclear attack. This alarm is gone; nuclear weapons are not.

Other predicted calamities also faded. Shortage of oil was a recurring crisis in the last half-century. President Jimmy Carter was determined to settle the crisis, but he was wrong about the solution and the problem.

In a 1979 speech, he said, “I am tonight setting a clear goal for the energy policy of the United States. Beginning this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 — never.” In 2006, the United States imported nearly 50 percent more.

Carter was wrong in the assessment of supplies; “World oil production can probably keep going up for another six or eight years. But sometime in the 1980s, it can’t go up anymore.” It has gone up over 17 percent since then.

Mass starvation since the 1960s didn’t happen because scientists developed technology and people adopted it. Attitudes changed, living conditions improved. Birth control was accepted and population growth rates have dropped; by over one-half in developed countries since 1970 and one-third in developing countries.

Eager farmers adopted new techniques that brought a revolution in food production. Food consumption per person has risen by 25 percent in developing countries since 1970.

Nevertheless, every generation has its version(s) of doomsday. Educated people of the first millennium worried about its end (the expected end of time); in the late 20th century, it was about Y2K. With no more reason, many cite concerns about global warming, but it is a fleeting, non-responsive worry.

The solution is “being green” with a catalog of gratifying responses, most of which have nothing to do with climate. Businesses with no climate connection are “green” — for the profit motive. The nuclear apocalypse was imminent. The ginned-up concern was real, but short-lived.

Activists cite a scientific “consensus” on man-made global warming while dismissing skeptics as Neanderthals. References to the calamity of global warming are near the bottom of the perennial list of national issues.

Does anyone really believe the current concern for global warming can last three more decades? It doesn’t matter, unfortunately: As another Earth Day approaches, it’s clear that with the current administration’s trending toward “climate action,” the public may not be buying global warming as a crisis, but the public will be paying for it anyway.

And that’s the real calamity.

[University of Georgia Professor Emeritus R. Harold Brown is an Adjunct Scholar with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.]

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