Whose Apocalypse?

The other day, I was supposed to meet a graduate student from UC Davis’ Graduate Group in Ecology at Borders in downtown Davis. Unfortunately, the student didn’t show up, but I did get a chance to browse through a book that I found on the shelves. This book is called The Skeptical Environmentalist, by Danish statistician and Greenpeace member Bjørn Lomborg. The thrust of this book is that most of the environmental doomsday scenarios that we encounter are based more on bad statistics and bad reporting than on good science. In fact, most of the statistics that he reviews show that, on the whole, the environmental state of the world is actually getting better, and not worse. Many of the studies he cites are the same studies cited by organizations (such as Greenpeace and the World Wild Fund for Nature), but he reviews the entire study and not just selected elements, and puts them in a broader context.

The Pacific island Easter Island — home of those giant stone heads — is often called upon to serve as an example of how human exuberance can lead to environmental destruction. And it is quite true that the human inhabitants of Easter Island did not manage their resources properly, and the island went from being a lush forested place to a nearly desert island, around about the 1400’s. Lomborg points out that while this is true, only fourteen of the over 10,000 inhabited Pacific islands encountered the same fate; and that the islands that did suffer that fate had local economies based on a very slow-growing type of palm tree which could not produce enough resources to supply even a much smaller human population for more than a couple of generations.

The point of this is not to belittle the tragedy of Easter Island and the inhabitants of the island; the point is that Easter Island serves as a poor model of how human beings are devastating the planet. On the whole, according to Lomborg, the planet’s air is getting cleaner, food is being produced at faster rates, fewer people are starving, water is cleaner, and so on. He even presents statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), demonstrating that the Earth’s human population is not growing as fast as many environmentalist doomsayers would have us believe. We are not in danger of running out of food, water, or clean air any time soon.

Lomborg is careful to point out that this does not mean that the Earth’s environment is good, nor that human beings have not damaged it badly in our tenure on this planet. What he points out is that the Earth’s environment is getting better, but is still not good enough. Work still needs to be done.

On the whole, Lomborg makes sense to me; his book echoes some of the things I’ve been thinking over the past few years. There is a part of me which would think that the more responsible thing to do would be to promote the doomsday scenariors, in order to get people to act, but a more mature part of me knows that more harm is ultimately done by promulgating bad data and mistruths rather than true numbers and statistics. Mind you, I’m only in Chapter One of his book, and it is a thick book.

I’ve noticed that people seem to like bad news, and the media never gets tired of printing it. I’ve believed for a very long time that there is more good than evil in the world, and that people are, on the whole, good; but, for some reason, evil, or badness, gets better press. When we open the newspaper, we see headlines screaming about murder and chaos and destruction, but, unless we’re in the local news section, we don’t see headlines reading, Chicago Boy Scouts Make Nursing Home Patients Feel Loved. But these things happen all the time; according to the FBI, the number of violent crimes, especially in the schools, is going down; but events like the Columbine shooting two years ago and other similar tales so predominate the news that we think that the number of such incidents is skyrocketing. I’ve lost track of the anthrax scare, but I’m willing to bet that there are still more people dying of leprosy in our country than of anthrax contracted while handling mail.

We all like our mythologies. Mythologies help us cope with the world around us. And it seems to me that mythologies, whether religious or cultural, have some sort of prophecy about the end of the world. In Christianity, the Revelation of St. John portrays in rather hallucinitory detail the end of the world and the coming of Jesus Christ (though the metaphors work best if you interpret them in terms of ancient Rome instead of the modern world); ancient Nordic mythology talked of Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods, and the end of the world; and so on. Our modern society is much more secular than older societies were, but we still have apocalyptic prophecies; they range from the prophecies of Nostradamus to the doomsday scenarios envisioned by die-hard environmentalist groups such as the Earth Liberation Front.

But despite it all, the world has failed to end, and humanity has failed to destroy itself. I remember hearing three predictions of imminent doom in one week when I was in junior high back in the 80’s — one involving nuclear holocaust, the other two involving cataclysmic earthquakes — and none of them came to pass. There was the Jupiter Effect, and, of course, 5/5/2000; both predicted massive tectonic and climatic catastrophes caused by planetary alignments. And, of course, there was Y2K, which many predicted would end civilization on earth, but which ultimately failed to blacken a single light bulb (though one friend of mine told me that Y2K was responsible for his fourteen-cent PG&E bill in February 2000).

I’ve never believed in humanity’s power to destroy the earth. It would take a massive, massive nuclear exchange, which is unlikely to happen at this point (and which I never believed would happen, even at the height of the Cold War) (Carl Sagan’s "Nuclear Winter" hypothesis was interesting, but ultimately proved to be flawed). And I’ve never had much faith in our ability to destroy our own civilization. Apocalyptic scenarios are interesting to speculate on, and some of my favorite science fiction and horror stories are based on apocalyptic themes, but I don’t think they’re realistic. I do believe in catastrophic change; I think human civilization encountered at least two catastrophic changes in the twentieth century alone. And each time, civilization has lived through it, and even advanced because of it.

Which is partly why I’m an optimist when it comes to humanity. I believe that we have advanced morally and societally in the past thousand years or so; we’re more aware than ever of our interconnectedness to each other and to the world around us. While there are still countries which practice horrifying human rights abuses, there is not a single nation left in the world which officially condones the practice of slavery. Despite the work that needs to be done, this is still, in my mind, evidence of progress. There will be world peace, and humanity will reach a point where we will be ruled primarily by wisdom and humble scholarship; it certainly won’t happen in my lifetime, unfortunately, and it probably won’t happen for a thousand years at best, but I believe very firmly that we’re headed in the right direction (Star Trek has the right vision, but is far too optimistic in its timeline).

We’ll get through the current international terrorist crisis, I believe. A bit scarred, a bit worn, but intact. And, I believe, just a bit wiser. It will probably take some time for that new wisdom to manifest, but it will be there.

Who knows? Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps God will let sound the four trumpets and the seven seals will break and the Worm will have his thousand year reign on Earth. But, to paraphrase David Brin (in his essay "Whose Millenium"), why would God bring things to an end now, just when we’re starting to get our act together?

As for me, I’m continuing to continue. I’ve picked up a book or two on ecology and ecosystem modeling, and given myself a project to build a fully functioning ecosystem modeling tool in Java, complete with a web interface and drag-and-drop functionality. This will kill several birds with one stone by allowing me to learn Java and the skills and methods of ecological modeling (including mathematics and statistics and so on), all of which will certainly help me in both my job hunt and in my journey to graduate school in Ecological Systems Engineering.

I’m pretty optmistic about the future of the earth and humanity, but I think that there is a lot of work yet to be done. I’d like to think that I’m doing my part.