I’m fascinated by failed predictions of the coming apocalypse. In Christian circles, Edgar C. Whisenant is legendary for his 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988, and – serving as its own punchline – the sequel arguing for 1989.
I recently read Larry Burkett’s The Coming Economic Earthquake, an early 90′s warning against the huge increase in debt that was sure to cause another Great Depression by 2000. Burkett didn’t foresee the budget surplus under Clinton or the sharp drop in interest rates that would allow the debt to quadruple past the amount he considered alarming.
I also recently saw 25-year-old predictions from science fiction writers in 1987 about what life would be like in 2012; they expected technological advances, but also war, hunger, crime, disease, and too many people and not enough resources. Most of the pessimism turned out to be too pessimistic.
It’s easy to write off apocalyptic predictions by religious conservatives or science fiction authors. But the elites of society have been just as wrong. Matt Ridley has an article in Wired detailing decades of failed predictions of doom and destruction by scientists, international organizations, politicians, and more.
Most of us have forgotten (or never knew) the specters of air pollution (“by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half”), acid rain (“The forests and lakes are dying. Already the damage may be irreversible”), and AIDS (“Research studies now project…one in five heterosexuals could be dead from AIDS at the end of the next three years”), but the Internet allows us to remember and even mock these former fears.
Ridley doesn’t just poke at the last century, either; I remember the terrors of SARS, mad cow disease, bird flu, and swine flu in the last decade alone. A typical quote from the article: “The World Health Organization’s official forecast was 2 million to 7.4 million dead. In fact, by late 2007, when the disease petered out, the death toll was roughly 200.” Even as droughts and ethanol mandates curb corn yields, and I’m tempted to wonder how the world can continue to feed millions of new mouths every month, it’s comforting to remember that experts thought we could never feed a much smaller population decades ago, and yet we’re feeding billions more and even using less land to do it!
It seems like humans are always too pessimistic about the future, even as the present continues to get better and past predictions of doom continue to fail. I suspect “apocalyptic bubbles” form for the same reason as economic bubbles – this time it’s different. Diseases are becoming resistant to vaccines! Developing countries are emitting way more pollution! The debt is so much larger now! We can see the innovations and unexpected changes that changed the trends of the past, but we can’t yet see the factors that will change today’s. Just this week we are seeing scientists surprised by the double whammy boost to energy and climate as the new natural gas boom has simultaneously lowered energy costs and dropped US carbon dioxide emissions to a 20-year low.
Sometimes the doom and gloom inspires us to find solutions; the power of markets to overcome obstacles of economic scarcity and even government friction never ceases to amaze me – though I am not too dogmatic to concede that regulations (on pollution, for instance) may have helped along the way. Sometimes we don’t discover anything except how wrong we were about the imminent disaster. Of course, there’s no guarantee these disasters won’t come. Eventually we really might run out of room, or oil, or creditors, or honey bees. Catastrophes aren’t impossible - just a whole lot less likely than most people think.
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