Christians and the 'Green' prophets of doom: the need for scepticism

Christians and the 'Green' prophets of doom: the need for scepticism

Bill Muehlenberg

'Green' or environmental issues are today occupying more attention than any others in media, political and even religious circles. The challenge facing today's Christians is to articulate an authentically religious perspective on environmental concerns, as distinct from merely echoing the nostrums of the secular makers and shapers of opinion. Bill Muehlenberg tackles this challenge in the light of last month's "Christian Conference on the Environment."

Bill Muehlenberg, who is a Baptist, is a graduate from Wheaton College and the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the Unites States and has had extensive experience in research and library work in the Netherlands and US. He was until recently head of the environmental policy uni at the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne. He is the author of Modern Conservative Thought: An Annotated Bibliography, published by the Institute of Public Affairs.

The "Christian Conference on the Environment", held in Sydney on 13-15 July 1990, had the potential for being a constructive, positive contribution to the ongoing debate about the environment and mankind's relation to it. If the conference had focused on our God-given role as caretaker and steward of the earth, utilising creativity and ingenuity to help correct and/or avert ecological problems, it would indeed have been a useful gathering.

In addition to this, however, two other themes were emphasised: the environment is getting worse, not better, and economic growth must be stopped. The first theme, of environmental doom, is to be the crux of this article; the second theme, that economic growth must be curtailed or stopped in the interest of the environment, would warrant another paper.

Over the years, Christians have concerned themselves with various important social issues, and various secular trends such as socialism, feminism and other 'isms' which have been pursued by the Churches. Environmentalism is but one in a long line of causes latched onto. And it is of course proper for Christians to be involved with such social concerns. Unfortunately, when Churches dealt with important social issues in the past, they usually did so from a reactive instead of a proactive position, and usually entered the debate several years behind the times. This again seems to be the case with their involvement in the environmental debate.

Now concern for the environment is a very important matter indeed - for the Christian as well as the non-Christian. My concern is that the Churches, instead of bringing fresh, creative insights into the debate, will simply subscribe to the latest trendy theories about it. And one such theory especially in vogue is that things are getting worse and worse, and that if we do not take some radical steps to solve our environmental problems very soon, this earth is finished. An eloquent spokesman for this position, Dr Suzuki, recently travelled Australia preaching just such an alarmist gospel.

However, a casual review of recent history suggests that various apocalyptic predictions have been uttered in the past. If Christians want to make an important contribution to the environmental debate, they should be aware of - among other things - such past predictions, and of their accuracy. In so doing they will be in a better position to analyse the pronouncements of such people as Dr Suzuki. Here, then, is a brief survey of past environmental predictions.

Of all the environmental gloom and doom scenarios, one of the most influential has been The Population Bomb, written by Paul Ehrlich in 1968. In this striking volume Ehrlich lamented, "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines - hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." The world "is rapidly running out of food" bewailed Ehrlich, and the only solution to the population explosion is "population control by compulsion if voluntary methods fail."

Ehrlich proposed a triage-type of system whereby certain "doomed" countries like India are denied any more food aid and simply allowed to perish. He also toyed with the idea of adding sterilising agents to water supplies or staple food to achieve compulsory birth regulation. He even called for "luxury taxes" on cribs, nappies, toys, etc., as a means of controlling birth habits.

Now unless I've missed something, hundreds of millions of people did not die in mass famines in the 70s. (Where there have been famines, they have usually been the result of deliberate government policy, including wars, as in Ethiopia.) World food output per person has not declined but has grown some 30-40 per cent since 1950. India, with the help of the Green Revolution, turned from a "no hope" country, as Ehrlich saw it, to a wheat exporter by 1973 (only five years after Ehrlich wrote his predictions.)

Same message

Fortunately for humanity, Ehrlich's proposals, from letting India starve to spiking our water supplies, have gone unheeded. Yet Ehrlich, whom I recently saw at a public lecture given in Melbourne, is still preaching the same message, with large devoted crowds devouring his every word. For many, he is still regarded as a divine messenger - albeit as a bearer of bad news and not glad tidings.

Another recent example of doomsayers proven wrong is the famous "Limits to Growth" Report issued by the Club of Rome in 1972. This gloomy report predicted imminent disaster because of overpopulation, pollution and resource depletion. It predicted that "our social and economic system will collapse" in the near future, and even assigned likely dates to the exhaustion of resources, e.g., silver in 1985, tin in 1987, and petroleum in 1992.

Such predictions of course have proven to be wildly off the mark. Recent studies have shown that "known reserves" of most important minerals have increased in the past decades. For example, between 1950 and 1970 there was actually a 4,430% increase in known reserves of phosphates; a 1,321% increase for iron; a 507% increase for oil, etc.

Moreover, soon after the "Limits to Growth" study was published, so many errors and miscalculations were discovered, that a Second Club of Rome Report was issued in 1974. This report, prepared by a different team of computer scientists, rejected much of the first report and came to some diametrically opposite conclusions. This second report, however, received barely a fraction of the attention and media coverage that the first report received - lesson: sensationalism and gloom and doom-ism are newsworthy; rational and optimistic assessments are not.

In 1980, US President Carter released the Global 2000 Report. It, too, predicted major environmental disaster, and received widespread coverage. Said the Report: "If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now."

The qualifier, "if present trends continue", is exactly where this study, and all the others, fall down. Trends do not continue. Things do not remain static. Conditions and circumstances change. So do people. If a particular resource becomes in short supply, prices go up and demand goes down. Alternatives and substitutes are sought out, new technologies are developed, and/or new reserves are discovered, or at least searched for. One way or another, the crisis is averted. This has been the case with all previous crises. Thus present trend extrapolation is of little value.

Chilling scenario

The Global 2000 Report, nonetheless, has made a big impact on governmental policies. But it was challenged in a scholarly, scientific tome of some 600 pages. Entitled The Resourceful Earth, this book authored by a number of scientists and resources experts, predicted that the world in 2000 "will be less crowded (though more populated), less polluted, more stable ecologically, and less vulnerable to resource-supply disruption than the world we live in now." With a decade to go, this latter scenario seems the more likely of the two.

Another chilling gloom and doom scenario appeared late in 1983, under the ominous title, "Nuclear Winter". The nuclear winter theory was a computer-based model authored by Carl Sagan and four others, whose names formed the acronym TTAPS. The TTAPS study basically took a worst case scenario of possible results from a nuclear war. It predicted severe and widespread effects from such a conflict: the smoke and dust placed in the atmosphere would prevent most sunlight from reaching the earth's surface, resulting in a widespread cooling of land areas. The drop in temperature could result in the death of all mankind, the authors warned.

As the current global warming computer modellers are beginning to realise computer models can be woefully inaccurate, especially so when inaccurate or incomplete data is fed into the computer. This was certainly the case with the TTAPS study; so much so that the editors of Nature magazine once described it as "notorious for its lack of scientific integrity."

The nuclear winter theory was short-lived, however, and by 1986 it was pretty well discredited, when an important article by members of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research appeared in Foreign Affairs. It claimed that "on scientific grounds the global apocalyptic conclusions of the initial nuclear winter hypothesis can now be relegated to a vanishingly low level of probability."

Although a revised version of nuclear winter has recently appeared, its modifications make it at best a nuclear autumn hypothesis.

Among the more recent cases of impending doom are those who claim that global warming due to the greenhouse effect will soon have cataclysmic consequences for planet earth. This may seem strange to those who recall that just a short time ago many scientists were predicting a coming mini ice age, based on past cooling trends. Indeed, as recently as 1975, the prestigious journal Science was reporting that meteorologists were "almost unanimous" that such a trend was taking place. Many of these same scientists are now making headlines for themselves with their "almost unanimous warnings of global warming. As has been noted, the computer models which form the basis of much of this forecasting have proven to be unreliable at best.

Many other examples of false or inaccurate prophecies from the environmental movement could, of course, be produced. But the above should make clear that one must treat such predictions with caution.

Undoubtedly, many of these folk who warn of coming disaster have our best interests at heart, but given some of their proposals (as, for example, Ehrlich's), our best interests might best be served by ignoring, or at least more carefully assessing what these prophets actually have to say.

It is hoped that in the future Christians will display a sense of balance and historical perspective. While they obviously cannot ignore the many serious environmental problems which we all face, neither should they succumb to the pessimism and despair which characterises so many modern environmentalists.

Christians, of all people, are a people of hope. God has created us with intelligence, ingenuity and creativity. Such gifts have been used in the past to help remedy environmental problems, and can be used in the future as well. This creativity distinguishes us from the rest of the created order, and has helped us tame some of the more harmful effects of nature, such as famines, plagues, floods and pestilence. That is part of the good news of the Cross, news which the world desperately needs to hear.

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