Future and extinction fear

I reread during the last weeks the excellent book “La Peur Exponentielle” of Benoît Rittaud, in which he recalls the many fears tied to a geometric or exponential increase in some environmental factor, be it population growth, pollution, climate change etc. At the end of his book Rittaud recalls the classic book “The Doomsday Syndrome” published by John Maddox in 1972. Maddox was a theoretical physicist and is especially known for being the editor of the Nature journal (from 1966 – 1973 and 1980 – 1995). I never did read the book in the past, so I ordered a used copy as it is out of print.

The ideas and comments by John Maddox written 47 years ago are breathtaking in their modernity and actuality. He writes this book at a time when the environmental movement was thriving in the Western World, and the prophets of doom like the Ehrlich (“The Population Bomb”) and Rachel Carson (“The Silent Spring”) were very influential. The great angst were population growth, pollution, pesticides, climate change (yes!) and a general overcrowding and damaging the “Spaceship Earth”.

All of these prophecies were wrong in their exaggerations of real exisiting problems. The great famines predicted by Ehrlich for the 1970’s did not happen; overuse of DDT certainly was a problem, but the general policies in forbidding its use (after it had saved millions of lives from malaria) are responsible for possibly hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Let me here just cite a couple of sentences from Maddox:

On the doomsday prophecies: “Their most common error is to suppose that the worst will happen”.

On the way the environmentalist see the non-alarmists: “One of the distressing features of the present debate about the environment is the way it is supposed to be an argument between far-sighted people with the interests of humanity at heart and others who care no tuppence for the future.”

On the scientists: “They have too often made more of the facts than the conventions of their craft permit. Too often, they have expressed moderate or unsure conclusions in language designed to scare, sometimes with the open declaration that exaggeration is necessary to 'get things done'.

On ecology: “The word ecology has become a slogan, not the name of a branch of science.”

The doomsday cause: “…would be more telling if it were more securely grounded in facts, better informed by a sense of history and awareness of economics and less cataclysmic in temper.”

On DDT and Rachel Carlson: “The most seriously misleading part of her narrative is the use of horror stories of the misuse of DDT to create an impression that there are no safe uses worth consideration.”

On alarm: “…alarm does not provide the best atmosphere for finding rational solutions”.

On extreme environmentalists: “…the extreme wing of the environmental movement may inhibit communities of all kind from making the fullest use of the technical means which exist for improvement of the human condition.”


How about telling Extinction Rebellion (or the elder of Fridays for Future) to start reading this prescient book written well before they were born?

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