Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
Environmental activists have been declaring that the sky is falling since at least 1948. We aren’t the first generation to care – or to be raised on eco scare stories.
We tend to ignore history in our daily lives. Which is too bad, because historical perspective is one of our best defenses against foolish ideas.
Once we realize that a long line of people have insisted, in recent decades, that we’re on the brink of environmental disaster, today’s climate doomsayers suddenly snap into perspective.
Absolutely nothing new is going on here. Today’s hysteria, exaggeration, and emotionally manipulative language are part of a larger pattern that stretches back decades.
Human society has always had its Chicken Littles, its risk-averse individuals, its glass-half-empty personalities, and its drama queens. Those people have every right to participate in societal discussions. But when we allow their voices to dominate, everyone loses. We end up wasting time and money pursuing illusory fixes to what may, in fact, be non-problems.
Let us, therefore, not be confused: Al Gore didn’t invent the idea of a “planetary emergency” with the publication of his 2006 book, An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It. Rather, he was repeating ideas that had been promulgated far and wide a full 60 years earlier.
In their illuminating paper, The Post War Intellectual Roots of the Population Bomb, Pierre Desrochers and Christine Hoffbauer examine two US bestsellers published in 1948. Remarkably, much of the rhetoric we hear today is contained within the pages of these books.
In Our Plundered Planet, Fairfield Osborn (who was born in 1887) talked about humanity’s “mounting destruction” of the natural world, said it posed a greater danger than the Second World War, and referred to “the day of atonement that is drawing nearer.”
Like today’s environmentalists, Osborn portrayed humanity as greedy and short-sighted. He also seemed more concerned about preserving the world for “future children” than in demonstrating empathy and compassion toward the impoverished souls who were already alive.
William Vogt, who was born in 1902, authored the other 1948 bestseller, Road to Survival. Wikipedia tells us Vogt was an ornithologist – a person who studies birds. But his involvement in conservation organizations led him to shift his focus to the environmental impact of human population growth.
Like today’s activists, Vogt was convinced we’d experience “a catastrophic crash of our civilization” if we failed to adopt drastic measures. Sixty years ago, he was talking about “the carrying capacity of the land” in a manner nearly indistinguishable from the discussions we encounter today (see here, here, and here). He, too, warned of a “day of reckoning” and insisted that “the Day of Judgment is at hand.”
What’s interesting is that these ideas were well-developed decades before either Suzuki or Gore became famous. (Suzuki was born in 1936 and Gore in 1948. This means these books first appeared when Suzuki was 12 and during the same year that Gore was born.)
Fairfield Osborn. William Vogt. David Suzuki. Al Gore. Each of them is merely another bead on a string. From 1948 onward, these men have been united by their uncharitable views of humanity, their pessimism regarding the future, and their propensity to see planetary emergencies everywhere.