Beware of doomsday prophets

By R.S. Karunaratne | Published: 2:00 AM Feb 22 2021
Columns Beware of doomsday prophets

By R.S. Karunaratne

Doomsday, according to Christianity, is the last day of the world’s existence – the Judgment Day. Gone are the days when men with boards were proclaiming “The end of the world is at hand.” They have disappeared probably because their task has been taken over by scientists, environmentalists, philosophers and politicians. They say we are living in a dangerous world which is facing subtle calamities just around the corner. According to them, the world is getting overpopulated; natural resources are dwindling; there won’t be potable water in times to come and everything is getting polluted. The world is facing too much of prosperity on one hand and too much of poverty on the other. 

Are these people doing a service or great disservice to mankind by making such proclamations? The average man has no doubt about their sincerity because he sees such disasters coming up in every nook and corner. Those who live in urban areas know that they are breathing polluted air, drinking polluted water and living among heaps of garbage. Developing countries experience shortages of food, lack of healthcare facilities or the absence of higher education facilities. We find it extremely difficult to get a child admitted to a prestigious school. Even after graduation, there is a severe shortage of jobs. 

All these problems are capable of solution in the foreseeable future provided enough time and money are spent on them. With a proper programme we can stop the felling of trees or polluting water resources. Instead of harping on the doomsday syndrome, we can accomplish the opposite of its intention. Instead of alerting us to the problems, it will divert our attention from good work that is being carried out.

Credible facts 

Doomsday soothsayers should produce credible facts for their negative claims. They should be aware of ground realities before causing panic in society. It has been claimed that the use of fuel on a large scale in modern industries will damage the earth’s climate, but this has not been substantiated by meteorologists. Other doomsayers claim that the use of pesticides will decimate the human race. However, this seems to be an overdramatic statement. If we can regulate the use of pesticides, there will be less damage.

In a controversial study titled “The limits to growth” carried out under the leadership of Prof. Dennis L. Meadows, it was stated that population, food, and non-renewable natural resources would change in the course of time. Therefore the study concluded that if there is no major change in the physical, economic or social relationships, there will come a point in the next century when the diminishing stock of natural resources would bring about a decrease in industrial growth and a consequent decrease in per capita food availability. In other words, the death rate will go up and birth rate will go down. There will be droughts and famine due to the shortage of food and water.

John Maddox, a theoretical physicist, in an article published in Nature criticised the conclusion as “nonsense.” He pointed out that pollution on the earth due to industrial activities has been adequately handled by modern technology. He also upheld a cardinal law of economics which says increasing scarcity and consequently higher prices would stimulate exploration of new materials.

Population bomb 

Paul Ehrlich in The Population Bomb shocked readers when he said, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines and hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programme.” However, such a famine never took place and there were no large scale deaths due to starvation. In fact, the world’s total production of food is now increasing faster than the population. Experiments have been done to find new strains of wheat and rice. And there is no evidence to show that the green revolution has slowed down.

According to John Maddox, the population growth is a misleading method of prediction. Doomsayers claimed that the world population would double every 35 years. This would never happen because there are already signs that fertility is declining in developing countries as it happened in Europe about 100 years ago. COVID-19 on the other hand has claimed the lives of a large number of people. Scientists will, however, control the spread of the virus and bring relief to the people.

Doomsayers repeatedly warn us that many catastrophes would flow from population growth. According to them, population density would produce individual disorientation and tension. Doomsayers base their arguments on experiments done with rats. However, psychologists claim that the human race is quite different from rodents. The Netherlands is one of the most crowded European countries, but it has less violence than the United States.

Inculcating fear 

There is a tradition of inculcating fear into people. Grifford Pinchot, Head of the US Forest Service warned that timber in the country would last only for 30 years and coal would last only for 50 years. About 70 years later doomsayers are making the same complaint.

Environmentalists warned some time ago that petroleum would be much less plentiful in another 50 years. They wanted scientists to find an alternative. They also said all the vehicles would have to be sent to junkyard. However, none of these prophecies came true. Petroleum is still available and the world is producing more and more vehicles. If petroleum is in short supply nuclear energy will come to our rescue.

Another fear caused by doomsayers is ecological catastrophe. According to them, at the rate oceans are being polluted the life of fish and plants is threatened. On the other hand, others warn that carbon dioxide produced by burning fuels would increase the temperature leading to the melting of Antarctic ice. Nobody can say that these events will take place for certain. Anyway, the effect of such pollution is negligible in relation to the size of the ecosphere which covers the earth. The size of the earth is enormous. Its atmosphere alone weighs more than 5000 million tons of air for each human being and each person’s share of the earth’s water would just about fill a cube half a mile square.

Unexpected results 

Doomsayers also say science would eliminate mankind. It is true that technical innovations have unexpected results. However, benefits outweigh disadvantages. For instance, motor vehicles pollute the air, but they help us to travel to distant places in comfort. Our challenge is not to keep science and technology out of reach but to control them.

It is wrong to say that science and technology are undermining the survival of the human race. Even in the matter of pollution, science and technology can come to our rescue. However, are we prepared to pay higher taxes or prices for such amenities? In simple terms, the air we breathe can be purified and drinking water can be filtered. Even the terrible jet noise can be reduced. But all of them will require funds.

Environmentalists complain that we have too many vehicles on the roads. It shows a country’s prosperity. In order to have an unpolluted city, are we ready to go back to the bullock-cart age? Despite pollution which can be controlled, today we have better health services, educational facilities and a host of other social benefits.

Environmentalists are like the proverbial shepherd boy who cried ‘wolf’ too often. What they can say would anaesthetise the people. Therefore we should be on the alert. Beware of doomsday prophets.

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By R.S. Karunaratne | Published: 2:00 AM Feb 22 2021

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