Consensus Science

The invaluable Carpe Diem blog has a compendium of 18 forecasts of doom that were made on or around the first Earth Day in 1970 -- all of which turned out wrong.   Here is an example:

8. Peter Gunter, a North Texas State University professor, wrote in 1970, “Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions….By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.”

9. In January 1970, Life reported, “Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support…the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution…by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half….”

Participants in the global warming debate today will surely recognize the formulation of these statements as representing a consensus scientific opinion.

For those of you too young to actively follow the news in the 1970s, Mark Perry is not cherry-picking cranks.  These fearful quotations are representative of what was ubiquitous in the media of that time.

My school (Kinkaid in Houston) took speech and debate very seriously and had a robust debate program even in middle school.  In 1975-1976 the national debate topic was this:

Resolved:  That the development and allocation of scarce world resources should be controlled by an international organization

The short answer to this proposition should realistically have been:  "you have got to be f*cking kidding me."  But such were the times that this was considered a serious proposal worth debating for the entire year.  In fact, in doing research, it was dead-easy to build up suitcases of quotations of doom to support the affirmative;  it was far, far harder finding anyone who would argue that a) the world was not going to run out of everything in a few decades and b) that markets were an appropriate vehicle for managing resources.   I could fill up an hour reading different sources predicting that oil would have run out by 1990 or 2000 at the latest.


  1. Mole1:

    Please, this has nothing to do with consensus science. The press has forecasted imminent doom pretty much continuously since there was a press.

  2. PA32R:

    Even granted the absolute accuracy and interpretation of the events of that time, consensus would say that "an infinite number of people using an unlimited amount of resources (food, energy, clean air, clean water, whatever) is not possible." And, mathematically, the limit of an exponential function of time with a positive coefficient is infinity. Is there anything to be learned from that fact (assuming that you don't dispute it)?

    If we (in the US) cut our per capita primary energy use by two thirds through efficiency and/or lifestyle changes based on market pricing of externalities and direct costs (or whatever other mechanism you might think of - I mention markets based on the philosophy of the participants and publisher of this site) and the other 96% of the population used energy at a similar rate, we'd need to provide approximately 75% more primary energy per unit time (i.e., 75% more power) than we're currently using. That's assuming zero increase in population and a willingness on the part of so-called developed countries to live with per capita energy usage rates of about 3.3 kilowatts (the average US resident is currently responsible for 10 kilowatts). All of this extra energy utilization will have waste products of various kinds. No economic argument of substitution, pricing mechanisms, etc. can defeat the mathematical certainty of the outcome of quasi-exponential growth and the physical certainty of the laws of thermodynamics.

    So, regardless of whether earlier writers falsely cried wolf, what is currently happening cannot continue indefinitely. And that which cannot continue will stop. How do you suggest that this be handled?

  3. ano333:

    While I agree that these predictions were a bit hysterical, these was action taken on some of the issues covered that has eased the problems. For instance, the Clean Air Act certain helped us mitigate damage from air pollution, and stricter environmental controls have also been used to manage water pollution by organic compounds (fertilizers).

    Judging from the list of apocalyptic predictions, it seems to me that perhaps we should continue to attempt to abate some of the predicted problems rather than just point and laugh at the last generation.

  4. Geoff:

    When I was at school in the 60's the big fear (apart from nuclear war) was the next Ice Age was looming! with increasingly cold winters!!

  5. mesocyclone:

    Errr... kilowatts is a measure of power, not energy. So is the 3.3KW an average power usage, or did you mean 3.3KW/day or something?

  6. PA32R:

    Err.. I meant kilowatts as in power. 3.3 kilowatts/day makes no sense, that would be an acceleration in the rate of energy usage. I meant precisely what I said: 3.3 kilowatts continuous rate of primary energy consumption 60 seconds per minute, 60 minutes per hour, 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. Breaking it down: 3,300 joules/second continuous average usage. Ballpark: US primary use is about 100 "quads" per year where a quad is a quadrillion (or 10^15) btu. Divide by 300 million and each person uses about 330 million btu/year. Convert that (Google will do it) to joules per second, i.e., watts, for about 11 kilowatts. I rounded down to 10 to to get to 3.3 if we cut per capita rate by 2/3.

  7. Douglas:

    The clean air act in the USA helped mitigate damage from air pollution in North America, and although that helped to mitigate damage in North America, it did nothing outside of NA aside from perhaps setting a good example. Europe didn't have protections equivalent to the Nixon Clean Air Act until 1996 EC Directive 96/62/EC, well into the time of doom in the predictions above.

  8. memelo2:

    "No economic argument of substitution, pricing mechanisms, etc. can
    defeat the mathematical certainty of the outcome of quasi-exponential
    growth and the physical certainty of the laws of thermodynamics."
    But pricing mechanism is exactly what you are looking for: Higher energy consumption -> higher energy prices -> lower energy consumption + incentive to innovate and find new ("alternative") energy sources. Easy as that.

    "So, regardless of whether earlier writers falsely cried wolf, what is currently happening cannot continue indefinitely. And that which cannot continue will stop."
    Exactly. Just as it was the case when "earlier writers falsely cried wolf" it will be handled. Why should we handle it now with the limited knowledge of today when it only must be handled in the future when there are possibilities unimaginable for us today?

  9. Mike Skinner:

    In the spring of 1977, I took a college class called Environmental Issues. We had a guest speaker each week that talked about some pressing issue facing society. At the end of the semester the class summarized what we had learned and it amounted to three things. By the year 2000 the world would, 1) be in the grips of the next ice age, 2) have run out of oil and 3) be reverting back to the stone age.

  10. Hal_10000:

    Considering that the global cooling fad didn't really start until the mid-70's, that must have been some school. Global warming was well-developed theory by that point.

  11. Hal_10000:

    1) Paul Ehrlich is on that list six times. That's kind of cheating because Ehrlich was (and is) a massive uniformed idiot. 2) While some ot the doomsday scenarios were wrong, many of the *concerns* were accurate. Lake Erie was dying, the Cayahoga was catching fire, LA was buried in smog. Those problems have improved for a variety of reasons (technology, regulation, market forces, etc.) But they weren't imaginary. 3) Just become the doomsayers were wrong then doesn't mean they're still wrong now. If you knew a guy who drank like a fish and drove like a maniac, you might say he'd be dead in a car accident by 30. That he didn't die in a car accident until he was 40 doesn't mean you were wrong. While I'm skeptical of the doomsayers these days, I do think we have a LOT more information about the climate, including all the satellite data, than we did in 1970. I thin doomsday scenarios look unlikely, but the probability is not zero.

  12. PA32R:

    There are, probably but not certainly, possibilities that are unimaginable for us today but there are also hard limits. The fact that reaching those limits was erroneously predicted in the past does not mean that the limits do not exist. But a problem that's handled one way if there are, say, seven billion people and 80 odd million barrels of oil per day able to be extracted will likely be handled in an entirely different way if there are say, 12 billion people trying to make due on 90 million barrels of oil per day. And it would be preferable not to handle that problem with cruise missiles and drones.

  13. MJ:

    All of this extra energy utilization will have waste products of various
    kinds. No economic argument of substitution, pricing mechanisms, etc.
    can defeat the mathematical certainty of the outcome of
    quasi-exponential growth and the physical certainty of the laws of

    This misses the point completely. Energy consumption is not a question that can be resolved simply with appeals to thermodynamics. It isn't a mechanistic or deterministic type of system. It is fundamentally an economic phenomenon, which is why factors such as prices, preference, substitutes and technologies play important roles, and incidentally why characterizations of the growth in consumption as either exponential or even quasi-exponential will doubtlessly be wrong.

    Remember that growth in demand is a key factor in increasing prices (on a global level, as well as any other smaller scale) and that, conversely, higher prices will play a role in limiting the growth in demand. Higher prices for oil during the last decade let to a host of responses on both the demand and supply sides. Per capita petroleum consumption in the U.S., for example, has been declining for the past 25 years. Couple this with some other factors such as 1) worldwide population growth is slowing and 2) Many populous countries (e.g. China, Brazil) still have quite low average levels of income, which limits their energy consumption (especially in the face of high prices).

    An additional factor that few doomsday forecasts regarding energy consumption seem to recognize is that, even in lower-income countries where energy sources tend to be of the 'dirtier' variety, there are practical limits on how much energy consumption will be tolerated. As countries' income levels rise, they tend to be more willing to trade off some of that income for a cleaner environment. Stated differently, urban consumer/voters in a middle-income country may be less willing to tolerate severe levels of air pollution, and may be amenable to policies like higher fuel taxes for fuel economy standards which might improve air quality. Google the "Environmental Kuznets Curve" for more examples.

    For all of these reasons it makes no sense to forecast exponential growth over long periods of time. As I mentioned, these systems have built-in constraints, economic and otherwise that assure that no such path could be followed. A more likely path would be something like a logistic curve, which has a recognized upper bound. For types of fuels for which potential substitutes exist, their growth path may even eventually include a period of decline as they become uneconomic or otherwise fall out of favor with consumers.

  14. SethRoentgen:

    Errr. The UK introduced its first Clean Air Act in 1956.

  15. J_W_W:

    A question I have when this topic comes up is: Since the green revolution fundamentally destroyed most of these claims, would the Left have tried to stop the green revolution had they actually seen it coming in order to make their predictions come true?

    Nowadays we can look at the Left's position on GMO's and golden rice, and I'm afraid the answer to that question might be yes, which is bone-chilling.

  16. CapitalistRoader:


    I was 12 years old at the time. Having that bullshit pounded into a kid's head was child abuse, IMHO. I've always wondered how many kids said Fuck it, the world's not going to be around for much longer so I may as well... drop this acid or drive drunk or screw this girl without a rubber, etc., etc., etc. The global warming hysterics are continuing this tradition of child abuse:

    How many kids today are making poor choices because of the global warming Armageddon scenario pounded into their young brains?

  17. Lemet:

    300 years ago oil wasn't a resource, today it is. 150 years ago whale oil was a resource, today its not.
    We have no idea what will be resources in the future (except the human mind).

  18. Gil G:

    Who's to say some of these things weren't going to be true had not things changed? Norman Borlaug saved 1 billion lives? That means 1 billion would not be here had it not been for him hence there's truth to the fact many would have did if things stayed the same. Even Borlaug warned against further population increase and assume someone else would magically arrive in the nick of time and save even more people.

  19. TruthisaPeskyThing:

    UK passed its Clean Air Act in 1956 due to the terrible smog caused by coal being used in households for heat. Replacing household coal with natural gas did wonders for London.

  20. TruthisaPeskyThing:

    I am in favor of abating actual problems, but there is a BIG problem when we take foolish actions to combat predicted problems. Actions to combat global warming seem to be foolishness followed by foolishness. The U.S. government essentially mandated increase use of corn ethanol which increased world food prices. Food riots resulted and people died. (If we double the price of agricultural products in the U.S., food prices increase 5% due to the value-added processes for foods bought in grocery stores; but in third world countries, doubling the price of agricultural products brings starvation problems.) The ethanol mandate also led to widespread destruction of forests in Brazil. Turning to wind, windmills have killed millions of birds. And let us not forget bats. As windmills kill bats, mosquito populations increase, leading to more West Nile infections. Moreover, modern windmills rely on rare earths from China, the pollution from that rare earths production is the worst that I have ever seen. Also, global warming initiatives have shift manufacturing activities from U.S. and Europe to third world countries. As a result, world-wide pollution has increased.

  21. jhertzli:

    One example of the propaganda of the period: A high-school biology teacher claimed that if the word's food were evenly divided, it would amount to 266 calories per person per day.