The Parade of Impending Catastrophes

There are organizations whose purpose is to save us from impending catastrophes.  I'm not talking about the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Red Cross.  I'm thinking of the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the World Wildlife Fund, the National Geographic Society, The National Audubon Society, The Environmental Defense Fund, The Population Connection, and many more.  These organizations depend on impending catastrophes for their lifeblood, to say nothing of their revenue.  So a shortage of real impending catastrophes is a problem.  The solution has been to manufacture impending catastrophes.

A catastrophe is not manufactured out of thin air.  Rather, one starts with a more or less scientific finding and inflates it into an impending catastrophe.  The best made up catastrophes are speculative and resistant to clear analysis.  Global warming is a catastrophe that happens 50 or 100 years in the future.  You can't argue decisively against it without waiting for 50 years.

It doesn't seem to matter if a catastrophe defies common sense.  When I lived in Chicago, young people would approach me on the street and ask me to contribute to fight the problem of a water shortage.  This was three blocks from Lake Michigan, an inland sea 300 miles long; 70 miles wide; and, on average, 280 feet deep.  The impending water shortage, like global warming, was presumably based on computer projections supported by dubious theories.

Genetic modification of plants, often considered an impending catastrophe for various exaggerated reasons, has produced wonderful products – for example, herbicide-resistant corn that enables no-till planting.  Rather than plowing under last year's corn crop to prevent weeds, the new crop is simply planted through the refuse from last year's crop, and any weeds that emerge with the corn are killed with an herbicide, to which the corn plant is resistant.  This saves a vast amount energy and prevents topsoil erosion from plowing.  The resulting corn is perfectly good.  Almost every Midwest farmer is now doing no-till corn.  But genetically modified corn is subjected to hysterical attacks.  The Sierra Club calls for a ban on the planting of all genetically engineered crops until such time as regulatory procedures are improved.  One suspects that the Sierra Club will be satisfied when fear of genetic modification reaches its expiration date and loses its utility as a fundraising tool.

Sometimes impending catastrophes fight each other.  The 1947 book The Road to Survival recounts the 1939 testimony before congress of Dr. Hugh H. Bennett.  He said 282 million acres of cropland had been destroyed by topsoil erosion and that an additional 775 million acres were in the process of being destroyed.  Genetically modified corn and no-till agriculture provides a solution to soil erosion.  So the new impending catastrophe fights the old impending catastrophe.

Fracking is a technique of fracturing rock to release natural gas and oil.  The environmentalists hate it, mostly because burning natural gas and oil adds CO2, the supposed cause of global warming, to the atmosphere.  But fracking helps with the former impending catastrophe of running out of oil.  So that is another example of a new impending catastrophe fighting an old impending catastrophe.  It also works in reverse.  Running out of oil would fight global warming.

DDT, a safe insecticide, uniquely effective against mosquitos, was banned on dubious impending catastrophe grounds.  That created a new catastrophe that was real: the death of millions of children in Africa from malaria.  Fortunately, after many years, the World Health Organization rehabilitated DDT.

Here is a short list of impending catastrophes: soil erosion, running out of minerals, running out of oil, the ozone hole, biological diversity, radon, death of coral, acid rain, global warming, global cooling, sea level rise,  extreme weather, species extermination, air pollution, polar bear death, clear cutting forests, plutonium, dioxin, nuclear power, coal power, mountaintop mining, the many supposed causes of cancer, food additives, genetically modified organisms, water pollution, overpopulation, chickens in cages, cows fed grain, plastic bags, mid-ocean floating garbage, super-hurricanes, droughts, floods, environmental refugees, pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers.

Science has been thoroughly corrupted by the parade of impending catastrophes.  An impending catastrophe allows scientists to elevate their importance and funding.  So the scientists, like the environmental organizations, jump on the bandwagon of the latest impending catastrophe.  Climate scientists, formerly toiling in nerdy obscurity, have become important heroes in the fight against global warming.  Their funding has gone through the roof.  They even get lucrative research contracts to perform computer crystal-ball hocus-pocus for cities anxious to prepare for the warmer future.

I don't claim that the climate scientists are faking belief in the global warming catastrophe.  Who wouldn't believe in something that is the equivalent of winning the lottery?

The situation gets out of control when the promoters of an impending catastrophe go beyond blaming the catastrophe on capitalism and take the next step of recommending national policies to ameliorate an impending catastrophe.  It is important to realize that the managers of the impending catastrophe organizations are promoters rather than practical engineers or economists.  Their ignorance concerning practical matters is boundless.  The former president of the Sierra Club wrote a book in which his explanation of the mechanism behind the supposed global warming showed not only that he didn't understand elementary science, but that he didn't know that he didn't understand elementary science.

The Sierra Club wants the nation to run on renewable energy – basically, wind power and solar power.  That idea is not only extremely expensive, but entirely impractical due to the erratic nature of wind and solar.  If the object is to reduce CO2 emissions, there are better ways than windmills and solar panels – for example, nuclear energy.  But of course, nuclear energy is one of those impending catastrophes that was lucrative in the 1970s and 1980s.  Ironically, the U.S. leads the world in CO2 reduction due to fracking and the resulting increased usage of carbon-lite natural gas to generate electricity.  That is another example of one impending catastrophe fighting another impending catastrophe.

In the P.R. fight between the promoters of an impending catastrophe and the debunkers of the supposed catastrophe, the promoters have a huge advantage.  A catastrophe is sexy and a story too good to check.  Patiently explaining that there is no catastrophe is boring and involves a lot of hard to understand science and statistics.  Scaring people is a much better way of getting attention than giving them a short course on science.  The media people, like the catastrophe-promoters, don't understand science and thus are unable to spot phony science.  On the other hand, they do understand that sensational stories drive readership and revenue.

The courts do not provide an A team, B team setup, with each presenting its own arguments to an impartial observer, for resolving scientific arguments.  For one thing, most judges are not scientists, and, by and large, the courts have ruled that judging scientific disputes is outside their jurisdiction.  Further, court cases take years.

It is not necessary to have a jury to definitively resolve a scientific issue.  If each side were to write up its arguments and get an opportunity to question the other side, that would go a long way toward shedding light on the substance of an impending catastrophe.  Because the reports of the teams would be important, both sides could not avoid participating.  Currently, the promoters of global warming have a policy of never debating or giving credibility to the skeptics.  This is an effective tactic for suppressing the skeptics' arguments.

A practical system would be to establish a government-sponsored organization in charge of recruiting the teams, moderating the questions and answers, and publishing the results as print and videos.  Blue ribbon committees are not a substitute for an A team, B team debate, because blue ribbon committees are almost always stacked to ensure a predetermined outcome.  Further, the members of the committee usually consent to a result determined by the staff.  With an impartial fact-finding process, on the other hand, the organization in charge would retain credibility by a policy of not judging the result or otherwise taking sides.

At any rate, something needs to be done – or else we can add the death of science to the long, long list of impending catastrophes.  Unlike the others, we can actually see this one coming.

Norman Rogers writes often on environmental and political matters.  He has a website:

Image: Scott Cutler via Flickr.

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