The Coming Apocalypse

As far back as the '70s, experts have been warning that without human change, environmental apocalypse is inevitable.
By Mike Kiernan
May/June 1972
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The future of the Earth rests in human hands.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/TIJANA


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WASHINGTON—The World could be as little as 50 or 60 years from a disastrous new ice age, a leading atmospheric scientist predicts. Washington Post, July9, 1971.  

WASHINGTON—Fifty U.S. scientists called yesterday for a high priority study of everything man dumps into the oceans, "beforewe are surprised by a disaster". Washington Post , January 15, 1972  

ROME—The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization just issued a report for the coming Stockholm conference saying that the human race is going to run short of water within a century. Washington Post, February 28, 1972.  

A as in Apocalypse

In earlier, more placid times, one would come across the above clippings only by chance . . . say at the dentist's office while leafing through the austere (and boring) pages of SATURDAY REVIEW. Now such stories are splashed continually across the fronts of newspapers in every part of the world and cannot be ignored.

Predictions of environmental doom are reported more frequently these days for a variety of reasons. First, there are many more predictions to announce. Second, today's forecasts usually represent a consensus of opinion among a large group of scientists rather than (as formerly) the views of an individual. Third, the predictions are now generally backed with a thick volume of research and the media is impressed. Which is to say that, in the past, reporters usually had to hoodwink reluctant scientists into making sensational remarks. Now those remarks are both well-documented and freely made.

Although stories like those quoted above all pack a wallop, the layman still finds himself wishing for something more . . . one longs for the complete picture, the consummate report that puts the Apocalypse into proper perspective. And that complete picture is now here . . . not once, but twice.

In the past few months two reports have been published that set their sights deadringer on the Big-A. Both papers lay it right on the line and in effect claim that unless man radically reduces the rate of industrialization and worldwide population growth, our children's children will witness the Second Coming: "Mere anarchy," as Yeats put it, "loosed upon the world."

The first report, entitled "Blueprint for Survival," appeared in mid-January in the British journal, THE ECOLOGIST. In 22 pages of text and graphs, the magazine's editors and consultants pointed out in considerable detail that the demand for resources and food is growing exponentially (that is, multiplying at a rapidly increasing rate) and that the pressures arising from such growth can only lead to war, mass starvation and general chaos.

"If we allow the present growth rate to persist on a worldwide basis," say the authors, "the total ecological demand will increase by a factor of 32 over the next 66 years . . . if current trends are allowed to persist, the breakdown of society and the irreversible disruption of the life-support systems on this planet, possibly by the end of the century, certainly within the lifetimes of our children, are inevitable."

To avoid catastrophe, the authors recommend that the British people stop building roads and having so many babies... and start taxing the use of power and raw materials Britain should seek to stabilize its population at around 30 million within the next two centuries . . . in other words cut its present population of 55 million in half.

Above all, Blueprint for Survival states that Britain and the rest of the developed world must curb its ravenous appetite for continuous growth. The Gross National Product, it is implied, should become subject to Gross International Welfare

The report, of course, has received a good bit of criticism. The editor of the rival scientific magazine, NATURE, called the Blueprint "half-baked" and "simplistic". Others said was it "naive . . . overstated". But 33 leading British scientists, including biologist Sir Julian Huxley, endorsed the paper-basic principles of reducing population growth and challenging indiscriminate technology.

Six weeks after the sensational Blueprint for Survival was published, the Club of Rome—a prestigious group of 75 scientists from 25 countries—issued its first in a series of documents on the predicament of mankind. The paper is entitled LIMITS TO GROWTH (Potomac Associates/Universe Books) and the highly readable study is not being ballyhooed as a radically new theoretical study of the biosphere.

The authors of LIMITS TO GROWTH (the majority are from MIT) have reduced trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion to simple mathematical models and stuck them into a computer. After examining the results of several different computer runs, the scientists concluded that, if the five trends continue unchecked, "the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years".

In what it calls "the standard world model run" in which the present social, economic and physical relationships remain unchanged, the Club of Rome report predicts a fantastic collapse of society. Like the British study, the computer envisions hundreds of millions starving to death as countries suddenly discover that their supplies of food and medical services have been overwhelmed.

Even in an "optimistic" run, in which technological advance enable man to expand his base of food and energy sources, the computer still envisions calamity as pollution finally does us all in.

In cool, calculated solemnity the Club of Rome report calls for fundamental change in the values of society. Spelled out politically, this means a deliberate, long-term policy of anti-growth. The familiar phrase in the '60s, "Let's Get America Moving Again," should become in the '70s, "Let's Slow the World Down".

Nearly two hundred years ago economist Thomas Malthus shocked his British readers much as the Club of Rome and the editors of THE ECOLOGIST are shocking their readers today. The first to apply the concept of growth on a global scale, Malthus predicted mass starvation within decades as the population increased geometrically while food supplies expanded only arithmetically.

Malthus, of course, failed to take a few things into account: the development of cheap transport among nations, invention of the steam engine, the ability of industrialized cities to absorb millions within their confines, new agricultural techniques to increase a farmer's yield. But Malthus' initial pessimism about man's growth still looms over us. As his successors seem to imply, he may have only missed the "overshoot" mark by a few centuries.

In WORLD DYNAMICS, still another book that delves into the future, Professor Jay Forrester echoes another of Malthus' beliefs when he suggests that birth control might only postpone the inevitable. As food supplies and living standards stabilize along with the birth-death cycle, Forrester reasons that masses of people would renew a basic desire for more children . . . and the rate of population increase would once again soar out of hand. This time for keeps.

So far at least, this last suggestion does not conform with recent events around the world. Birth rates in America, Europe and Japan have not risen in the last decade despite increases in the general availability of food and capital. If anything, the Zero Population Growth idea seems to be gaining in these countries.

But what of the other conclusions and their effect on the important U.N. Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm next month?

"Garbage in, garbage out," replied one American working with the U.N. advisory committee when asked what he thought of the quality of the Club of Rome's computerized analysis.

Others were less cryptic. Delegates among developing countries were outraged. They protested that the two studies amounted to a manifesto for the superpowers to keep the less advanced nations "down on the farm" while the industrialized countries continue to enjoy the fruits of technological progress.

But at least one official—Tom Wilson, a consultant to Conference Secretary-General Maurice Strong—said he thought the net effect of the Club of Rome study would be beneficial. "Those who dismiss out of hand the grim predictions of many conservationists will have to take a second look at the Club of Rome report. It's written in the language of the computer. It's got numbers. It's something the skeptics can understand.

"if nothing else," said Wilson, "the study is bound to stimulate an interdisciplinary systems analysis of the biosphere . . . a major goal of the U.N. conference."

Amchitka Update

Many readers have pointed out that—in MOTHER NO. 13—I ignored a new Alaskan study which indicates that as many as 1,100 sea otters may have died following the nuclear test on Amchitka Island last November.

Our story, written before the Alaskan study became public in early December, quoted the Atomic Energy Commission . . . which at the time put the death count at 18 otters (the official AEC total has since risen to 23).

Allan Frank, the reporter for the Anchorage Daily News who broke the story about a possible large otter kill, told MOTHER that Alaskan officials plan to conduct a census of otters next month to verify the results of a survey taken immediately after the blast.

According to Frank, three biologists spent a week last November inspecting the otter population near the blast site and found no more than 155 of the animals in an area that had contained 1,200 sea otters last summer.

"The animals may have left naturally, but there's no biological reason why things shouldn't be the same as before the test," Jim Estes, an otter expert, told Frank.

Where could all the bodies have gone? Estes suggests that the dead otters may have been blown out to sea by a severe storm that followed the test or they may have sunk permanently to the ocean floor due to pressure from the blast.


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