The Past Future Tense

George Will reviews environmentalism’s track record at predicting the future of the earth by the technique of reviewing the past. Using newspaper archives, Will takes us back to yesteryear where we are confronted by one of environmentalism’s many predictions of doom.  Then he speeds the archival time machine forward to show what actually happened. The depressingly consistent result is that environmentalism has missed the mark by a country mile.


The modern disaster cycle began in 1972, when “when we were warned (by computer models developed at MIT) that we were doomed. We were supposed to be pretty much extinct by now, or at least miserable. We are neither. So, what went wrong?” Will asks.

That year begat “The Limits to Growth,” a book from the Club of Rome, which called itself “a project on the predicament of mankind.” It sold 12 million copies, staggered the New York Times (“one of the most important documents of our age”) and argued that economic growth was doomed by intractable scarcities.

The modelers examined 19 commodities and said that 12 would be gone long before now — aluminum, copper, gold, lead, mercury, molybdenum, natural gas, oil, silver, tin, tungsten and zinc …

Technological innovations have replaced mercury in batteries, dental fillings and thermometers; mercury consumption is down 98 percent, and its price was down 90 percent by 2000. Since 1970, when gold reserves were estimated at 10,980 tons, 81,410 tons have been mined, and estimated reserves are 51,000 tons. Since 1970, when known reserves of copper were 280 million tons, about 400 million tons have been produced globally, and reserves are estimated at almost 700 million tons. Aluminum consumption has increased 16-fold since 1950, the world has consumed four times the 1950 known reserves, and known reserves could sustain current consumption for 177 years. Potential U.S. gas resources have doubled in the past six years. And so on.

The modelers missed something — human ingenuity in discovering, extracting and innovating.


They missed a lot else. What went wrong was the mistaken application ceteris paribus — the idea that initial assumptions would not change over time.  The environmentalists took man out of the equation, discounting both the effects of his genius and the equally limitless possibilities of his stupidity. The result is that the predicted future looked nothing like the actual past as seen in hindsight.

George Will flips through the other doomsday predictions and compares it to the results. A “population bomb” was going to overpopulate Europe, according to Paul Erlich. In actuality the Europeans are having to import people to make up for the lack of a replacement workforce.  And so forth and so on. Time after time the environmentalists called out a result like a wannabee Babe Ruth. Time after time they struck out, their credibility saved only by the media’s inability to keep score and inexplicable tendency to give them one more turn at bat.

Still the Greens got some things right.  They predicted a day when  “the furnaces of Pittsburgh are cold; the assembly lines of Detroit are still. In Los Angeles, a few gaunt survivors of a plague desperately till freeway center strips . . . Fantastic?” No. In actual fact, these came true, at least in part. As Victor Davis Hanson reminds us, parts of California are actually reverting to 3rd world status, but not for the reasons the Greens predicted. It was not a lack of raw materials or famine which blighted them but policies that were at least partly caused by the environmentalists themselves. Hanson describes the gaunt survivors in California’s interior.


in the Never-Never Land of Apple, Facebook, Google, Hollywood, and the wine country, millions live in an idyllic paradise. Coastal Californians can afford to worry about trivia — and so their legislators seek to outlaw foie gras, shut down irrigation projects in order to save the three-inch-long Delta smelt, and allow children to have legally recognized multiple parents.

But in the less feel-good interior, crippling regulations curb timber, gas and oil, and farm production. For the most part, the rules are mandated by coastal utopians who have little idea where the fuel for their imported cars comes from, or how the redwood is cut for their decks, or who grows the ingredients for their Mediterranean lunches of arugula, olive oil, and pasta.

As to the rest of the prediction, the furnaces of Pittsburgh are indeed cold and the assembly lines of Detroit are in fact still — but not for the reasons the environmentalists imagined. Pittsburgh, once known as “Steel City” has no steel mills left within the city limits. In Detroit the automotive assembly lines are kept fitfully moving only under the impetus of government subsidy. As for the remains of what used to be called Motor City, “the city of Detroit has a very strange, wild appearance, in some parts like a city of ruins many years older than it actually is, where nature reasserts itself in vegetation that spreads over the city’s crumbling structures.”


But the catastrophe which leveled these proud capitals was not due to anything the environmentalists predicted. On the contrary they were due to the failed attempts of the political process itself to manage that future. The combination of suicidal economic policies, a relentless pandering to unions and the special interest meddling of politicians — each undertaken for the ostensible purpose of making things better — succeeded in making things worse to a degree that is wondrous to behold. Surveying the ruins of industrial America Hanson notes elsewhere that “Hiroshima looks a lot better today than does Detroit”, raising the interesting possibility that recovering from a nuclear blast may be possible or at least a lot more likely than surviving terminally stupid political projects.

The worst thing about political crusades is that they manufacture “facts”. That is to say they mass-produce lies.  As a now-skeptical environmentalist Fritz Varenholt noted, movements to save the world tend to force the data into the narrative. After a while the public, force fed a diet of press releases, come to believe the narrative is the fact. Writing in the Telegraph Varenholt describes when he first noticed that the books were being cooked:

Scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are quite certain: by using fossil fuels man is currently destroying the climate and our future. We have one last chance, we are told: quickly renounce modern industrial society – painfully but for a good cause.

For many years, I was an active supporter of the IPCC and its CO2 theory. Recent experience with the UN’s climate panel, however, forced me to reassess my position. In February 2010, I was invited as a reviewer for the IPCC report on renewable energy. I realised that the drafting of the report was done in anything but a scientific manner. The report was littered with errors and a member of Greenpeace edited the final version. These developments shocked me. I thought, if such things can happen in this report, then they might happen in other IPCC reports too.


They might happen in other IPCC reports indeed. But his warning is clear: by torturing the facts to serve a political consensus activists created an enormous temptation to lie — and got it.  They poisoned their own feedback loop and launched themselves into headlong destruction. The political trends which have ruined California for example and which on a wider scale threaten the Western world had their roots in good intentions. Yet as each of these falsehoods crashed against the hard reef of fact they were rescued by a successive lies until with numbing inevitability we had nothing left but the Palace of Falsehoods. Today large parts of the world live in that mansion. Great ain’t it.

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