The Scourge of Catastrophism

It was probably when I was studying economics that I first heard about Thomas Robert Malthus. In 1796 Malthus wrote an essay on The Principle of Population wherein he postulated that the availability of food would inevitably limit human population growth and that populations would inexorably expand until the dwindling of food supplies thwarted human fertility. He painted a bleak picture that humanity would be conquered by starvation and the ensuing human suffering.

Well we have in the centuries following seen little evidence of this so-called Malthusian spectre.

In 1968 Malthus’s proposition was reprised by Stanford University Professor, Paul Erlich, in his best-selling book, The Population Bomb. Again the theme was a catastrophic curtailment of the world’s population due to the inevitability of population increase exceeding the world’s capacity to grow the food needed to sustain it. But this was the time of the so-called Green Revolution when advances in plant breeding, the use of fertilisers, farm mechanisation and the harvesting of water vastly increased food growing capacity around the world and so the population catastrophe was averted.

Shortly after (1972) the Club of Rome published its report The Limits to Growth where it predicted that many of the world’s resources would be exhausted by the year 2000 curtailing economic growth around the world. But of course scientific developments in detecting and extracting mineral deposits and the enhanced capacity to exploit other natural resources ensured another catastrophe was averted.

An important subset of the concerns about diminishing natural resources is the so-called “peak oil” dilemma.

In the early twentieth century a theory evolved that tried to equate resource usage with biological phenomena. It was known originally as the Theory of Energy Determinants. In 1934, the American geologist M King Hubbert wrote a 250page paper which he titled The Technocracy Study Course. He postulated that societies were ruled by the kind of immutable natural laws that the biologists Raymond Pearl and Gergii Gause had discovered when experimenting with fruit flies in bottles and protozoa in petri dishes.

Journalist and author Charles C Mann has written:

Pearl had placed a breeding pair of fruit flies in a bottle with a food supply that was replenished at a constant level. He found the fruit fly population increased in a way that could be described by an S-shaped curve – an initial rise followed by a tapering off. The levelling off was because the fruit fly population hit the limit of its food supply.

According to Hubbert, politicians and economists who promoted a strategy of never-ending growth were deluded because natural causes would inevitably curtail growth.

In 1949 Hubbert, with a friend, attended a UN sponsored conference on natural resources. Hubbert was startled to hear a prominent geologist assert that the world still had 1.5 trillion barrels of obtainable oil. Hubbert was far more pessimistic about oil reserves. He analysed historical figures on oil production and plotted it onto a Gause like S-curve. Using this rather dubious technique he predicted that crude oil yield in the United States would peak in the late 1960’s and world oil extraction would peak at the beginning of the twenty first century.

Of course there have been major perturbations in oil supply, but these have largely been due to political disruptions such as the Arab oil shock which came with the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Hubbert’s peak oil assumptions have proven to have been vastly pessimistic. There are perhaps two reasons for this.

Firstly, the biological model of Gause is inappropriate for resource extraction processes.

Secondly, the early geologists believed that oil would only be found in areas where the geology was similar to where oil had already been found. In fact oil has proven to be far more ubiquitous. Modern exploratory and extraction techniques have enabled far more oil to be produced than Hubbert and his contemporaries could ever have imagined.

Notwithstanding this, other catastrophists have dared to predict the advent of Peak Oil with little success.

Now this is not to deny that oil reserves are indeed finite and one day will be exhausted, but as many of the catastrophe theories have shown us, Mankind is more inventive and less vulnerable than the doomsayers would have us believe.

Then in the 1990’s we became obsessed with another impending catastrophe. IT experts predicted that many older computers would crash at the start of the new millennium because their internal clocks were not programmed to recognise time beyond the last second of 1999. But of course that was another furphy and despite much angst and the expenditure of huge amounts of money, we entered the new millennium without any undue problems from this predicted catastrophe.

Meanwhile catastrophists were becoming obsessed with global warming. They were alarming us with their extraordinary predictions about escalating temperatures, rising sea-levels and increasing frequency of natural disasters like cyclones, bushfires and floods. Some claimed that “billions of people were going to die” as a result of our failure to take strong and immediate action to reduce the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, particularly CO2.

But as we know for millions of years the earth has oscillated between hotter and colder extremes on a regular basis and the current levels of CO2 are not particularly high in historic terms. And despite the alarmist predictions of the climate change zealots, there is little indication that climate change will result in cataclysmic outcomes. Unfortunately their alarmist propaganda is not seriously questioned and we now have a generation of young people many of whom are convinced that their lives will be curtailed and sullied by the unfortunate impacts of climate change.

When I watch the misguided young people participating in the Extinction Rebellion protests, it is obvious that they have been scared witless by the alarmist propaganda of the climate change extremists but have little appreciation of the science and the actual data that in general provides little support for their apocalyptic predictions.

But climate change apocalypse seems to be mainstream these days. Very few in the media challenge these aberrant propositions. Left wing politicians, university academics, teachers and the legions of green supporters serve to promote the notion that failure to act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is tantamount to condemning humanity to premature extinction.

Whilst the coronavirus pandemic has blunted the climate change furore, it is still lingering in the background underpinning clumsy attempts to link the two supposed catastrophes.

As Bjorn Lomborg (who is not a climate change denier) has repeatedly pointed out the world would be a better place if more of our resources went into raising the living standards of the world’s poor and fighting disease in third world countries than obsessing on climate change.

When we raise the standard of living of third world countries the availability of electricity avoids the burning of wood and dung which both produces health benefits as well as reducing carbon emission. It also protects those forests that are the sources of fuel for these impoverished people. (In previous centuries much of the woodlands of Europe were depleted for the same reason.) When we help third world countries improve their agricultural practices with more productive crop strains, mechanisation and judicious fertiliser use, we increase the productivity of agricultural and pastoral industries which in turn reduces the need for further land clearing and forest depletion.

Michael Shellenberger who has been fighting for a greener planet for decades, writes:

Statistics tell us that carbon emissions have been declining in developed countries for more than a decade. Most energy experts believe emissions in developing nations will peak and decline just as they did in developed countries, once they reach a similar level of prosperity.

Unfortunately, even if we wanted to, Australia can have but little effect on reducing atmospheric CO2 because our emissions are a miniscule portion of the total world’s emissions. What’s more, despite pious pledges given at the Paris Accord, few of signatory countries are making real inroads into their emissions. And of course the non-signatories are pursuing their plans to commission coal-fired power station with huge capacity. According to the Asia Society, for example, China has in excess of 200GW planned for construction in the next decade.

So it is time to take the sensationalism out of the climate debate and to temper the shrill voices of the catastrophists. We need to heed the views of people like Lomborg and Shellenberger. Counterintuitive as it might seem, the most important thing we can do to promote the well-being of the world is to help third world countries develop their economies and address their health needs. Those that do so would have more justification for their virtue signalling than those opposing fossil fuels or wailing in front of TV cameras about species extinction.

But what about our latest catastrophe, COVID-19?

It wasn’t that long ago that most of the global hand-wringers had concluded that climate change was the world’s top priority. But then came the pandemic accompanied by a significant death toll and an enormous global recession.

Before the coronavirus the World Health Organisation (which has certainly blotted its copybook with the onset of the pandemic) called climate change “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century”. We don’t seem to have heard much of that lately!

It wasn’t that long ago, January in fact, when the glitterati gathered in Davos to lecture us all on how callous we were in not bowing to the demands of the climate catastrophists to curtail our economies and abandon all economic reality in favour of shutting down fossil fuel contributions to our domestic energy requirements.

So let’s just step back a little and examine this coronavirus pandemic that seems to have usurped the newsworthiness of every other phenomenon and every other current issue. (I was rather tickled by a letter to the editor in one of our major newspapers the other day that opined that things must be getting back to normal since the front page was dominated by a story about footballers, drugs, sex and violence, rather than the corona virus!) Firstly, we must concede that this is a significant calamity, killing many and wrecking much of the world’s economy. But in historical terms it is a relatively moderate pandemic. And it would be fair to say that some government interventions have been disproportionate to the risk it has created.

The mortality rate of those who have unfortunately acquired the virus has disproportionately been biased towards the elderly and even among them, more specifically, those who have significant comorbidities. But even though our politicians have emphasised that all lives are sacred, and so they are, it is hard to argue that an old life has the same value as a young life (and I say that whilst being in the more vulnerable range myself).

The question I would like to put to you is what is it in the nature of the human psyche that seems to draw us to catastrophize so readily?

When we read the news it seems that every natural occurrence, be it storm, flood, fire or whatever is termed “unprecedented”. Invariably such events may be disastrous but seldom are they unprecedented. It is though we have an inbuilt desire to exaggerate our disasters.

 In his book The End of History, American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, postulated that humans derived a sense of meaning by a need to struggle. In modern developed societies the need to struggle is no longer so evident as it was in past generations. We live in more congenial conditions than any previous generations on this earth. Perhaps we have a tendency to exaggerate our difficulties to feel we have significant causes to deal with in order to restore meaning to our lives.

It would seem to me that many of those who engage in identity politics and virtue signalling are smitten with this motivation to exaggerate their case in the face of much evidence to the contrary. Many of the protagonists who seek to find racial and gender injustices, for example, invariably claim there are “crises” whereas in fact our modern society is freer of such injustices than it has ever been. As the British conservative author Douglas Murray points out:

The fact that the world erupted in horror at the actions of one Minnesota policeman was not proof that we live in racist societies but rather a demonstration we do not.

But there is another, more insidious side to this catastrophism. It is the use of fear to manipulate political and ideological positions.

The climate change catastrophists have succeeded in convincing a whole generation of young people that their lives are likely to be curtailed by a failure to respond appropriately to an exaggerated portrayal of the impacts of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere. This irrational fear is driving disproportionate and often mistaken efforts to curtail economic development to assuage the concerns of an emotive, noisy and often misinformed minority.

As Australian journalist Chris Kenny recently wrote:

We need to overcome fear, keep our challenges in perspective, confront our dilemmas with rational approaches and avoid, rather than embrace panic. We all need leaders that can be calm in a crisis, but increasingly we have leaders advancing political arguments with hysteria and hyperbole.

And if this is true about climate change, it is even more so when dealing with the coronavirus.

At the onset of the pandemic the government response reputedly was to “flatten the wave” so that our medical facilities were not overwhelmed. But the incidence of coronavirus and even more so the fatality rate from the virus turned out to be far less than the catastrophists had predicted. As mentioned before it became apparent that the most vulnerable were the elderly and particularly those that had diabetes, were obese, had heart issues or other comorbidities. To date less than 2% of covid-related deaths have been under 60 years of age.

But even though government’s worst fears weren’t realised, governmental responses (particularly from state governments) continued to get more draconian. In some states instead of containment, the ultra-ambitious goal of eradication seems somehow to have been unconsciously adopted.

There have perhaps been three health care failures that have caused the majority of the 900 or so deaths in Australia.

The failure to deal appropriately with:

  1. The infected passengers disembarking from the cruise ship The Ruby Princess in Sydney.
  2. Hotel quarantines in Melbourne.
  3. Residents in aged care homes.

This suggests that isolation of the infected and protection of the vulnerable should have been government’s highest priority. And for the general population social distancing and basic hygiene practices seem most useful in preventing infection.

But some of our politicians, whether deliberately or not, have acted in such a way as to increase the fear of the population at large. They seem to be acting in line with Fukuyama’s prediction, exaggerating crises in order to secure our gratitude for rescuing us! And along with this has come a concerted effort to curtail our basic freedoms. Many of our population have had imposed on them curfews, travel restrictions, lockdowns, closures of state borders and many other restrictions that have been unprecedented in Australian history. As a result we have seen our children deprived of proper education, many businesses forced to close, thousands put out of work, access to normal medical treatment prevented, and a population unduly exposed to domestic violence, mental illness and social isolation. We have seen instances of people denied the opportunity to join loved ones during their final hours, attend funerals of parents and prevented from obtaining proper treatment for life-threatening illnesses.

These impositions have been largely accepted by the population at large with few daring to demur. What has happened to the trademark Australian anti-authoritarian ethos? It has been drowned by the politically generated fear of the coronavirus. Consequently most of us have meekly yielded to the draconian dictates of paternalistic, power-seeking politicians. I recall having read somewhere that our political leaders have found it easier to subdue the populace than the virus!

And in the face of all this, I wonder what is our exit strategy for restoring normality from the wake of the pandemic? No matter what we do this virus won’t be eliminated, just like influenza can’t be entirely eliminated. It seems obvious that our politicians are pinning all their hopes on the development of a successful vaccine. But that won’t ever provide us with total immunity, just like the flu vaccine never has. Can we sustain a vision of Australia that must forever isolate itself from COVID 19? This will necessarily curtail international travel and commerce.

My biggest concern is that in the face of this exaggerated catastrophe, our prime response to use Scott Morrison’s words is “to hide under the doona”. This is not the way our parents and grandparents dealt with the Great Depression, World War I and World War II. It seems to me that modern Australia under the influence of the catastrophists, and the evangelists of “wokeness” as well, is becoming contradictorily un-Australian – or at least far removed from that Australia many of us once loved!

4 Replies to “The Scourge of Catastrophism”

  1. I think that catastrophism plays into the primal fear of “security”. Governments seem to use fear as the great motivator and so all levels of Australian Government use it as a driver to gain kudos for “just doing their job”. I doubt that any of them collectively or separately have any exit strategy. I can’t even identify their objectives let alone stratagem or plans other than win the next election. Oh dear so bleak.

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