Wired, August 17, 2012
Edited by Andy Ross
Prophecies of global doom are routinely exaggerated. Apocalypse now has four
The link between modern chemicals and cancer is sketchy at best. Cancer
incidence and death rates have been falling now for twenty years. Ambient
air quality has improved dramatically in the developed world in recent
decades. Levels of carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, lead,
ozone, and volatile organic compounds continue to fall. Acid rain was blamed
for killing trees, but in fact there was no net loss of forest to reverse.
The rising acidity of lakes was likely caused more by reforestation than by
acid rain. The threat to the ozone layer came next. A growing ozone hole
over Antarctica led to a ban on CFCs but not to recovery of the ozone layer.
The hole stopped growing before the ban took effect, then failed to shrink
afterward. The ozone hole is still there.
Again and again, the imminent advent of a
new pandemic is foretold. The 1976 swine flu panic led to the vaccination of
millions of Americans, but more people may have died from the vaccine than
from swine flu. A few years later, AIDS raised alarm. But a broad epidemic
in the Americas, Europe, and Asia never materialized. Today AIDS is in slow
retreat throughout the world. In the 1980s British cattle began dying from
mad cow disease. When people began to catch this disease, predictions were
terrifying. Yet the total number of deaths so far in the UK has been 176. In
2003 it was SARS, which subsided after killing 774 people. In 2005 it was
bird flu, which killed about 200. A new global pandemic is growing less
likely, not more. Even if a lethal virus does go global, the ability of
medical science to fight it is improving every day.
Of all the
cataclysmic scenarios in the past fifty years, none was more hyped than the
impending population explosion. What actually happened was that the death
rate fell. Famine became rarer. The population growth rate was cut in half.
Over the past fifty years, worldwide food production per capita has risen.
Family size continues to shrink on every continent. The world population
will probably never double again.
The end of oil and gas had been predicted
repeatedly throughout the last century. All these predictions failed to come
true. Oil and gas production have continued to rise during the past fifty
years. Gas reserves increased as engineers learned how to exploit abundant
shale gas. Gigantic quantities of shale oil and oil sands remain. Several
metals too were supposed to run out. In fact the metals have grown cheaper.
AR This is a fun theme.