Myth: Environmentalist doomsday scenarios have always been proven wrong.
Fact: Scientists have been right on life-threatening issues like global warming
and the ozone layer.
Some environmentalist doomsday scenarios have already saved our
lives -- for example, the alarm sounded about the ozone layer. Environmental
science is like any other branch of science; it is a human activity that
finds consensus on powerfully-supported theories, and disagreement on weakly-supported
ones. That some conservatives would take only the disagreements that later
proved wrong, compile them into a list and provide this as "proof"
that environmentalists are conducting "junk science" is highly
It's hardly true that environmentalist doomsday scenarios have
always been proven wrong. A major one they got right was the destruction
of the ozone layer -- without which the sun's deadly ultraviolet rays would
have killed most if not all life on the planet. Thanks to quick and top-level
scientific research, the alarm was sounded and all the nations of the world
agreed to ban the chemicals responsible. F. Sherwood Rowland, Paul Crutzen
and Mario Molina deserve far more than their Nobel prizes.
However, science is a human activity, and mistakes are often made.
This is why scientific consensus is so important. When the arguments of
any given theory are so strong and compelling that they sway a majority
of scientists, the chances for human error are greatly diminished. Not
eliminated, mind you -- just greatly diminished.
The following is a list of well-supported theories that enjoy broad
Still, it's possible to find scientists who hold beliefs outside the
consensus, including cranks on the margins who espouse bizarre and crazy
theories. They might be right -- but if so, then the evidence that they
find so compelling should be compelling to other scientists as well, and
eventually this initially odd theory will itself become mainstream
science. More often than not, however, these strange theories languish
on the margins, for want of compelling evidence.
- Man-made chemicals are destroying the ozone layer. (1)
- Man-made chemicals are causing global warming. (2)
- Most agriculture, fish and water resources have either reached their
limit or are declining, despite a growing population. (3)
- Death and cancer rates are higher around toxic waste sites, the chemical
industry and the nuclear industry. (4)
- The extinction rate is climbing. (5)
- The world's rain forests are declining. (6)
- The world's coral reefs are declining. (7)
- More insects and bacteria are becoming immune to the pesticides and
vaccinations used against them. (8)
Environmentalism is no different from any other branch of science --
scientists have competing theories; on the more fundamental questions
they have arrived at a consensus, and on the more cutting edge ones they
are still researching and arguing. Now, if a conservative were bent on
a little mischief, he could visit the history of such arguments, find the
ones that eventually proved wrong, collect them together in a single list,
and present this list as incontrovertible proof that environmentalists
are conducting junk science. Conservatives should realize that if a similar
exercise were conducted against them -- for example, all the conspiracy
theories that later proved wrong, or the millenarian claims that Christ
was coming in a certain year -- well, a very rich list of embarrassments
could be produced indeed.
The following are frequently mentioned examples in the anti-environmentalist's
list of failed doomsday scenarios:
- Thomas Malthus' prediction that the expanding human population would
run into limited resources, causing intense competition and suffering.
Malthus failed to consider that improving technology would increase those
resources dramatically and allow the population to continue growing without
discomfort. Malthus was correct in principle but wrong in his timetable;
today scientists have a better understanding of the state of the world's
resources. They confirm that the world has reached its limit in crop harvests,
and is declining in animal species, rain forests, top soil, fish stocks,
and fresh water. Indeed, technology is not increasing these resources,
but actually finding faster ways to consume them.
- The predictions made by the first Earth Day in 1970. Some environmentalists
predicted that the oceans would be fished out in 10 years time. Again,
this was a hasty and ill-informed prediction. Today scientists have a much
better understanding of the world's fish stocks. Soaring demand between
1950 and 1989 drove the world annual fish catch from 22 to 100 million
tons. But something unusual occurred over the next five years. Despite
growing demand, the fish catch hit its limit, even declining slightly.
A search for the reason why reveals that all 17 major fishing areas of
the world have either reached or exceeded their natural limits, and nine
are in serious decline. (9) Industry horror stories began as early as the
1970s, when Iceland's fishing industry was decimated and the Peruvian anchovy
catch fell from 12 million to 2 million tons in just three years. In 1993,
some 50,000 Canadian fishers had lost their jobs due to disappearing cod
in the North Atlantic. (10) If we continue in this direction, the world's
oceans will indeed be fished out. The first Earth Day prediction was off
only on its timetable.
A common theme links all of these examples. In each case, the scientist
was commenting on a field of science that was very young. Malthus was the
pioneer of population studies. Environmentalism was a new branch of science
on the first Earth Day. The nuclear winter theory is also not only a relatively
new one, but an untested one. Those familiar with scientific history know
that when a new branch of science emerges, no one knows much about its
fundamentals because, after all, it's a new branch of science. After much
argument and trial and error, a consensus on the fundamentals begins to
emerge. There is still debate and trial and error, of course, but most
of it occurs at the cutting edge, while the consensus
on fundamentals continues to grow. What some conservatives are doing
is concentrating on the mistakes that occurred on the cutting edge in the
past, and ignoring the fundamental consensus today.
- Carl Sagan's prediction that the 1991 Kuwaiti oil fires would throw
up so much soot and pollution they would darken the sun and catastrophically
cool the earth. Sagan, an astronomer, was speaking outside his field of
expertise, basing his prediction on the nuclear winter theories that atmospheric
scientists had formed in their study of a potential nuclear war. Needless
to say, nuclear wars are far more serious than oil fires, and Sagan's prediction
did not come true -- at least to the degree that he thought it would.
For some to characterize all environmentalism as "junk science"
based on these early mistakes is like calling airplane engineering "junk
science" based on its many early prototype failures.
Return to Overview
1. Robert Jackson, "Ozone Hole: NASA Puts It Squarely on Us;
Satellite Data Cites Synthetic Chlorine," San Jose Mercury News,
December 20, 1994, p. 9A. See also Don Bane, "Lockheed Scientist Sees
'Clear Link' Between CFCs And Ozone Destruction," September 23, 1993,
Press Release, Lockheed Palo Alto Research Laboratories.
2. Charles Petit, "New Hints of Global Warming," San Francisco
Chronicle, Monday, April 17, 1995, pp. A1, A6. See also Gallop poll
of scientists, cited in Steven Rendall, Jim Naureckas and Jeff Cohen, The
Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error (New York: The New
Press, 1995), p. 17.
3. Lester Brown et al. (eds.), Vital Signs 1994 (New York: W.W.
Norton & Company, 1994).
4. Chemical industry: Stuart Auerbach, "N.J.'s Chemical Belt Takes
Its Toll: $4 Billion Industry Tied to Nation's Highest Cancer Death Rate,"
Washington Post, February 3, 1976, pp. A1, A5. Toxic waste sites:
Jack Griffith, R.C. Duncan, W.B. Riggan, A.C. Pellom, "Cancer Mortality
in U.S. Counties with Hazardous Waste Sites and Ground Water Pollution,"
Archives of Environmental Health, Vol. 44, No. 2, 69-74, Mar-Apr
1989. Nuclear mortality rates: Drs. Ernest Sternglass, Jay Gould and Joseph
Mangano, using data from a 1990 National Cancer Institute study of cancer
mortality rates near nuclear facilities.
5. Jon Erickson, The Living Earth, (Blue Ridge Summit: TAB Books,
Inc., 1989), p. 169. See also Vital Signs 1994, p. 16.
6. Vital Signs 1994, pp. 124-5.
7. Ibid., pp. 122-3.
8. Ibid., pp. 11, 92-3.
9. U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, Yearbook of Fishery
Statistics: Catches and Landings (Rome: various years), as cited by
Vital Signs 1994, pp. 32-3.
10. Mark Clayton, "Hunt for Jobs Intensifies as Fishing Industry
Implodes," Christian Science Monitor, August 25, 1993.