Every so often, a group of self-proclaimed experts will predict some new dire threat to civilization as we know it. Via Meadia has documented many instances of modern-day doomsayers who insist that the end is near, whether due to overpopulation, peak oil or rapidly melting glaciers, only to be proven wrong by unforeseen events and by human ingenuity.So we couldn’t help but chuckle at this gem of a press release from UC Berkeley, via James Fallows, unironically entitled “Scientists uncover evidence of impending tipping point for Earth.” The breathless report begins:
A prestigious group of scientists from around the world is warning that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth toward an irreversible change in the biosphere, a planet-wide tipping point that would have destructive consequences absent adequate preparation and mitigation.
If that doesn’t grab your attention, these anecdotes may persuade you to get your affairs in order:
Co-author Elizabeth Hadly from Stanford University said “we may already be past these tipping points in particular regions of the world. I just returned from a trip to the high Himalayas in Nepal, where I witnessed families fighting each other with machetes for wood – wood that they would burn to cook their food in one evening. In places where governments are lacking basic infrastructure, people fend for themselves, and biodiversity suffers. We desperately need global leadership for planet Earth.”
Unfortunately, no amount of data modeling can prove what these experts are attempting to predict. It can also never determine how humans will respond to changes in our environment, what new discoveries will reshape our world, and what variables will come into play in the decades to come. While some engaged scientists (and even more policy activists) want to be “clearer than truth” because they genuinely believe that the dangers are real and they genuinely want to spark dramatic action, these efforts almost always backfire in the end. They end up becoming like the shepherd boy who cried “Tyrannosaurus! Tyrannosaurus!” because he didn’t think the townspeople would react fast enough if all they were worried about was a wolf.Better to be modest and conscientious stewards of the data; in the long run you have more influence as a trusted guide and impartial interpreter of facts than as a wild-eyed fanatic.In the meantime, Via Meadia can confidently put the odds of “global leadership for planet Earth” at zero. If the clear and present danger of nuclear war hasn’t galvanized an effective global movement against the Bomb in 70 years, the more nebulous (and harder to counter) threats of climate and environmental doom won’t change human nature or international politics, either.Let’s hope we don’t end up fighting one another with machetes over wood, but the fond vision of the Grand Global Union to prevent environmental catastrophe is a pipe dream whether or not that is where we are headed.