The Not-So-Final-Countdown, Revisited

A few weeks ago, I wondered why so many eco-pocalyptic doomsday predictions are variations on “we only have ten years to save the planet”; Brent Bozell reminds us that Paul Ehrlich had a more elongated doomsday countdown in the late 1980s:


Go back to 1989 and 1990. Instead of NBC’s Katie Couric handing the microphone over to Al Gore to lament how Manhattan’s about to go underwater, the same NBC network handed its microphone and camera crew directly to left-wing “Population Bomb” author Paul Ehrlich, awarding him large chunks of air time to imagine America losing the nation’s capital and the entire state of Florida.In May of 1989, Ehrlich claimed, global warming was going to melt the polar ice caps, causing a flood in which “we could expect to lose all of Florida, Washington D.C., and the Los Angeles basin…we’ll be in rising waters with no ark in sight.” Ehrlich didn’t give a time frame, but his panicked report clearly suggested doom around the corner.

The panic was necessary to sell an extremely harsh “solution” of “enormous, rapid change.” Ehrlich commanded that to forestall doom, the world needed to cut its energy use in half over 20 years. Industrialization needed to be dragged to a screeching halt, not only in America, but especially in the Third World. Ehrlich felt the next generation of Americans should be denied the Earth-strangling prosperity of their parents, saying the world’s ecosystems “cannot support the spread of the American lifestyle to the Third World or even to the next generation of Americans.”

Ehrlich was back on NBC in January 1990 to sell his “inconvenient truth” line again. This time, he gave a more concrete timeline. Antarctica’s ice sheets were slipping, and then “we’ll be facing a sea-level rise not of one to three feet in a century, but of 10 or 20 feet in a much shorter time. The Supreme Court would be flooded. You could tie your boat to the Washington Monument. Storm surges would make the Capitol unusable.”

It’s been almost twenty years, we never cut our energy use in half, and Florida is still above water, not to mention D.C. and Los Angeles. We have yet to tie our boats to the Washington Monument. But the media are still handing over their microphones and their accolades to panicky predictions, with no apparent expectation that anyone will ever question their accuracy in a decade or two. How many decades do we wait to question these predictions?


If “we” refers to the mainstream media, the answer is never. The history of faulty predictions is never raised, despite so many cries of Apocalypse-Just-Around-The-Corner (frequently by Ehrlich himself, of course) since 1970.


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