On December 21, 2012 at 11:11pm, the Mayan Long Count calendar will end, and so, as many would have it, will the world. Most of us will sit back and watch the countdown in amusement, but Matt Ridley, an Oxford-educated science writer for The Wall Street Journal and The Economist, won’t stand for it. In a recent cover piece for Wired, Ridley considers the case for apocalypse in the near future and firmly rejects it: “When the sun rises on December 22, as it surely will, do not expect apologies or even a rethink. No matter how often apocalyptic predictions fail to come true, another one soon arrives.” Ridley lists off past apocalyptic predictions from both religious nuts and highly informed agencies that in retrospect can only be called laughably pessimistic:
Religious zealots hardly have a monopoly on apocalyptic thinking. Consider some of the environmental cataclysms that so many experts promised were inevitable. Best-selling economist Robert Heilbroner in 1974: “The outlook for man, I believe, is painful, difficult, perhaps desperate, and the hope that can be held out for his future prospects seem to be very slim indeed.” Or best-selling ecologist Paul Ehrlich in 1968: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s ["and 1980s" was added in a later edition] the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked on now … nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Or Jimmy Carter in a televised speech in 1977: “We could use up all of the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade.”
Predictions of global famine and the end of oil in the 1970s proved just as wrong as end-of-the-world forecasts from millennialist priests. Yet there is no sign that experts are becoming more cautious about apocalyptic promises. If anything, the rhetoric has ramped up in recent years. Echoing the Mayan calendar folk, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock one minute closer to midnight at the start of 2012, commenting: “The global community may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe from changes in Earth’s atmosphere.”
Without being entirely dismissive, Ridley explains the tendencies that have led to misinformation, overreaction, and a pervasive pessimism among the general public and scientific community alike.
So far all of these specters have turned out to be exaggerated. True, we have encountered obstacles, public-health emergencies, and even mass tragedies. But the promised Armageddons—the thresholds that cannot be uncrossed, the tipping points that cannot be untipped, the existential threats to Life as We Know It—have consistently failed to materialize. To see the full depth of our apocaholism, and to understand why we keep getting it so wrong, we need to consult the past 50 years of history.
The classic apocalypse has four horsemen, and our modern version follows that pattern, with the four riders being chemicals (DDT, CFCs, acid rain), diseases (bird flu, swine flu, SARS, AIDS, Ebola, mad cow disease), people (population, famine), and resources (oil, metals).
In the piece, Ridley explores each of these categories in depth and explains by basic scientific and economic principles that “the end” is not going to occur, if it does, for generations to come, much less four months from now. Also the author of The Rational Optimist, Ridley is fascinated with the idea that no matter how good the world gets, people still invent impending catastrophes, and do so more often irrationally than prudently. In reality, human life has been getting markedly better for eons with few genuinely insurmountable hurdles. To quote Ridley in an interview for PBS, “The change in human living standards over the period since the time Ellis Island was at its peak [in the late nineteenth century] is quite extraordinary: nine times as much per-capita income all around the world and twice as much lifespan.”
Far from the Malthusian eschatology pervasive today (think of Thomas Friedman’s best-selling Hot, Flat, and Crowded), Ridley’s conclusion is a open throwback to the eighteenth century optimism of his fellow Brit, Adam Smith: “Humanity is a fast-moving target. We will combat our ecological threats in the future by innovating to meet them as they arise, not through the mass fear stoked by worst-case scenarios.”