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PROPHETS - ESPECIALLY PROPHETS OF DOOMby prof. John McCarthy
Professor in Computer Science at Stanford University
Many books are published each year prophesying the future and advocating ways of making it better or at least less bad. Prophecies of doom are the best sellers. This genre of literature dates back to biblical times, and many religions are founded on it up to the latest Supreme Truth in Japan and Russia.
There are also optimistic prophets but fewer of them. Technology has advanced human life, and there are plenty who say it will continue to do so. Nevertheless, technological gloom still dominates the shelves in bookstores and libraries.
The best way to evaluate prophets is to wait and see if their prophecies are fulfilled. If you can't wait you can look at the prophecies made by similar ideologies in the past. We compare two books published in 1981, one by the late optimistic economist Julian Simon and one by the moderate pessimist foundation executive and futurist Lester Brown.
Paul Ehrlich is a more enthusiastic pessimist than Brown.
There will be discussions of the views of Paul Ehrlich, The Club of Rome and the Meadows's who continue their work for it, and World Watch. We shouldn't forget Global 2000, the gloomy predictions of the Carter Administration now that the year 2000 is close.
2000 note: The Club of Rome had become more optimistic by 1996 - including optimism about nuclear energy.World Watch, formed in 1974 by Lester Brown and headed by him until now (1995) emits gloomy predictions, especially about food, every year. It would be a great service if someone would collect them year by year. Brown writes books from time to time.
There was plenty of gloomy prophecy in the past. Consider
We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all before us, and with just as much apparent reason ... On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us. - Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1830 in Edinburgh Review.Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay, first published in 1841 and still in print tells about many prophecies of doom that achieved wide credence. In most cases, but not all, the doom had a religious character.
The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970's and 1980's hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now."- Paul Ehrlich wrote that in the beginning of his 1968 The Population Bomb. Ehrlich is also known for his 1980 bet with the economist Julian Simon. As befits a doomster, he bet that prices of metals would go up in ten years. They went down.
Nevertheless, Ehrlich still counts as an expert and recently received a $250,000 prize from the Heinz Foundation for his writings about population and nuclear war. The prize would better have gone to Julian Simon. Here's a link to the story about the prize in the San Francisco Chronicle.
The unfortunate fact is that doomsaying is popular and wins prizes regardless of how wrong its prophecies turn out to be. Here is Julian Simon grumbling about that fact.
Ehrlich and Stephen Schneider offered a take-it-or-leave-it bet to Simon. Unfortunately, the SF Chronicle Op-Ed they wrote seems to have disappeared. I'll try to get it back. The propositions are not central to whether life is getting better or worse. Simon wanted to bet on life expectancy in both developed and undeveloped countries. In my opinion, the Ehrlich-Schneider offer to bet wasn't sincere.
Here is an article the Chronicle science writer Charles Petit wrote about the latest exchange.
Comparing the article by Simon and the one by Ehrlich and Schneider somewhat confirms the following comment by Joseph Epstein.
Disagree with someone on the right and he is likely to think you obtuse, wrong, foolish, a dope. Disagree with someone on the left and he is more likely to think you selfish, a sell-out, insensitive, possibly evil.The Ehrlichs and Gretchen Daily have a new book The Stork and the Plow, more moderate than Ehrlich's 1960s and 1970s views, but I still find plenty to disagree with. Here's a review.
Jay Hanson has a whole library of doom saying. Much of it is based on the Limits to Growth methodology. If I read more, I'll have more comments.
Lots more quotations are in the quotes file. I would be grateful for more material for this page.
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