Forty Years of Drama Queen Scientists

December 13, 2010 at 7:22 pm

We are routinely urged to heed climate scientists who say the world is in peril and that humanity must mend its environmentally damaging ways. What we’re rarely told is that these scientists are part of a long tradition.

Four decades ago, in January 1972, the Ecologist magazine published a lengthy essay titled A Blueprint for Survival. Shortly afterward, the essay was re-packaged as a 140-page best-selling paperback. As the back cover of my edition explains, the book:

…offers radical proposals for immediate action…The Blueprint is supported by 34 distinguished biologists, ecologists, doctors and economists… [bold added, see list of names here and here]

On the front, in large type, is a quote from the Sunday Times:

Nightmarishly convincing…after reading it nothing seems quite the same any more.

Forty years ago, therefore, environmentalists, experts, and journalists were doing exactly what they do now. Brandishing impressive credentials, they were scolding us about our lifestyles and threatening dire consequences if their pessimistic pronouncements were ignored.

It is the proper role of scientists to collect and interpret data. They can then present their findings regarding what effect they believe we are having on the environment. But the question of how society should respond to their findings is a political matter. It involves debate and a careful weighing of competing approaches and interests. The decision must be made by those elected to govern us. This is because elected officials are accountable. If they introduce policies the public considers intolerable they’ll lose their jobs.

The 34 distinguished biologists, ecologists, doctors, and economists who endorsed the Blueprint are accountable to no one. If such people started making decisions regarding economics, public health, transportation, and other matters we’d be exchanging representative democracy for tyranny on the part of these select experts. We’d be saying that a small number of people know better than we do what is best for us and our children.

I think that’s bunk. I also think it’s important to note that some experts are drama queens. For them, the glass is always half empty and everything is always a crisis (rather than a manageable problem). Unfortunately, drama queens tend to attract media attention. We therefore need to start noticing that, no matter what the specific problem has been, drama queen scientists have been pushing the same unpalatable solutions for 40 years:  fewer humans, less consumption, less travel – and less freedom.

Let’s take a peek inside 1972’s Blueprint. According to the preface:

  • we should be concerned by “the extreme gravity of the global situation
  • if current trends persist “the irreversible disruption of the life-support systems on this planet, possibly by the end of the [20th] century, certainly within the lifetimes of our children, are inevitable.
  • governments are refusing to face facts and therefore are failing to undertake necessary “corrective measures
  • a self-appointed group of “scientists and industrialists…is currently trying to persuade governments, industrial leaders and trade unions throughout the world to face these facts and to take appropriate action while there is yet time.
  • a new political movement is necessary; this movement must embrace “a new philosophy of life, whose goals can be achieved without destroying the environment

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Forty years ago some scientists used their respected position place in society to advocate for a new political movement, a new philosophy of life. While scientists are entitled to their views, their expertise is not in political philosophy. This means their opinions regarding how the world should function deserve no more consideration than the opinions of a random nurse or taxi driver.

What else were they saying back in 1972? The first line of the Blueprint‘s introduction declares that an industrial way of life is “not sustainable.” We’re told humans are consuming too much, polluting too much, and having too many babies. We’re told economic growth is the enemy and that austerity is the answer. We’re warned that unless things change radically “a succession of famines, epidemics, social crises and wars” are inevitable.

Let’s think about that last point for a moment. For decades, people have wanted us to urgently and radically change our ways. Why? Because, in their opinion, bad things will happen if we don’t.

I’m happy to take my chances with the future, thanks. The past 40 years bear little resemblance to the horror story the drama queens were predicting back in 1972. Average people are now richer and healthier. They live longer lives and many enjoy access to more food, culture, and technology than did the princes of old. In much of the world the air and water is cleaner than it was in the 1970s, and the forests are larger. As books such as Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist patiently explain, the planet is not headed to hell in a handcart. Things are far from perfect, but the current situation looks nothing like the collapse predicted by the Blueprint 40 years ago.

My personal view is that the future is going to be even better. I see human history as a narrative in which ever more people rise out of poverty, in which we become increasingly smarter about resource management, and in which game-changing ideas are merely a discovery away.

My version of the future is surely as likely to come true as is the drama queens’ version. It’s difficult to overstate this point. These gloomy people think we should all change our behaviour because they are incapable of seeing anything but catastrophe on the horizon. They think their guesswork about the future gives them the right to tell the rest of us how to live.

The Blueprint calls for the establishment of a “national population service.” One of its mandates would be to research “the subtle cultural controls” that would ensure people have fewer children. It calls for taxes on energy as well as on raw materials. It demands the “end of road building” and “restrictions on private transport.” The following passage provides a sample of the moralistic, utopian tone of this book:

…people use their cars for four main reasons; to go to work, to go to the countryside, to visit friends and relations, and to show off. In the stable [eco friendly] society, however, each community will provide its own jobs, there will be countryside around it, most friends and relations will be within it, and there will be much more reliable and satisfying ways of showing off.

Not only does the Blueprint envision redesigning society from top to bottom, it imagines that it’s possible to alter human nature – to orchestrate via bureaucratic fiat how, precisely, people will choose to show off. As any parent of a young man with a fetish for fast automobiles can tell you, such things are easier said than done.

When I read the Blueprint I’m reminded of Soviet Communist Party literature prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Communists also thought they were building a better world. They thought they could alter human nature and that, if they only planned carefully enough, a prosperous and harmonious society would transpire. Communist party publications, I might add, were characterized by the same pompous, judgmental tone.

The Communist reality, however, was a disaster. Which means that before I’m willing to place my trust in anyone else’s utopian fantasies they’ll need to spend an awful lot of time explaining what they’ve learned not to do based on their careful study of the Soviet and Chinese debacles. Quick tip: let’s start with how many independent safeguards will ensure that millions of souls cannot be starved or murdered by their own government.

Drama queens inhabit a fear-filled world – one that’s dangerously unpredictable and in which some small matter can trigger the apocalypse. They have little faith in their own ability to cope, in humanity, or in the future. No matter how many good things have happened, they insist on identifying the flaw in every apple. They are a personality type – and they are a part of our collective humanity.

But a world that permits that part of us to determine the future is a world in which the future may, indeed, turn out to be bleak.

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See the list of experts who endorsed A Blueprint for Survival here and here.

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UPDATE Dec. 14

This fabulous 5-minute presentation by Swedish professor Hans Rosling makes it clear that global health and wealth trends have moved in an encouraging direction over the past 50 years. Big hat tip to Hilary Ostrov.

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Entry filed under: activist scientists, historical perspective, predictions that failed. Tags: , , , , .

If the Science is So Persuasive, Why the Theatrics? Missing Documents, Unfulfilled Promises


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