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In my Environmental Economics class, I spend considerable time walking through the history of doomsday beliefs and then tracing out how those predictions turned out. In almost every case, I show folks how environmental conditions have actually improved quite a bit since the views first were championed.

An interesting question then is, what caused the improvements? I spend the rest of the course discussing the role of economics. But you might also profitably ask if the Doomsdayers themselves can take credit for the improving state of the world by “raising awareness” of such dire and important issues.

You may think that, but I offer 4 reasons why such a hypothesis may find itself discarded if we were able to conduct a serious empirical test of the matter.

  1. Environmental conditions largely got better without relying on the specific policies for improvement which the doomsdayers favored. In fact, in almost every case improvement occurred without any explicit policy aimed at alleviating the problem (or in spite of it).
  2. How would one reconcile this view with the fact that there has been continued improvement in almost all environmental indicators – before and after the relevant doomsday predictions? For example “known” oil reserves have risen steadily for 30 years as “Peak Oil” fears have ebbed and flowed; life expectancy and air quality have improved steadily before the major fears were promoted, etc.  A fun exercise would be to take any trend in environmental quality and remove the dates from it, then ask yourself when various policies may have been enacted and when the doomsday views were most prominent. It would be a very hard thing to do.
  3. Until recently perhaps, Doomsday views were nothing more than “screams from the rooftops” trying to convince people to change their behavior or influence policy. They certainly rarely had the force of policy behind them. How effective has “persuasion” been as a motivating factor throughout history?One need look no further than collectivist wishes of crafting and molding a “better man” – and when appeals to brotherhood did not work that well, people like me were carted off to the labor camps, or worse. Just ask the 75% of the Cambodian intellectuals who were purged in their social cleansing experiment how well that “persuasion” works? Oh wait, we cannot, they were brutally murdered in the name of an ideology of “loving your fellow man.” My point of course is that persuasion did not work well there either, even with the force of the firing squad behind it.

    Persuasion does “work” some of the time – after all, lots of us recycle as a matter of a religious rite, without asking ourselves when and whether it makes sense to do so. Yes, surely there were some carrots and sticks involved, but most of it has been due to persuasion. So I do not want to rule out “education” as a possible motivator for some behavior. But to convince yourself that it is unlikely that doomsdayer views caused the subsequent improvement in environmental conditions as a matter of persuading folks to change their behavior, consider a different question. When have “alternative views” changed the way you behave? After all, economists have been “screaming from the rooftops” for centuries not just about the inefficiency of rent controls, wage mandates, regulations, and so on, but also their inherent inequities yet we get the same (more?) awful policy year after year from the wizards in Washington and the state capitols.

    If persuasion were so important (especially if coming from the minds and megaphones of “experts”) then what can possibly explain this? Is it that there can be no economic “experts” and that the other “experts” do have greater standing? That’s a hard position to take, though I expect some will happily tread in those waters.

    How about the impact of real economic incentives as compared to it?  They may be “base” but that does not mean you can wish their superiority away. Resources are costly. Electricity is costly. Firms and individuals are self-seeking. In other words, the pursuit of self-interest often coincides with conservation of resources, quite the opposite as the doomsdayers would have you believe.

  4. Some / many of the “peak” doomsday views happened at times when economic forces were indeed working themselves out. The causality may in fact even be backward. For example, peak oilers come out of the woodwork whenever oil prices get high, and of course this is the exact time when the price system starts to work its magic. So is it the fact that peak oilers raised our awareness that we discovered new oil deposits, found vast natural gas reserves, and use our appliances more efficiently? Or is the role of prices and profits and losses in guiding those discoveries and behaviors?

I happen to believe the force of any one of these arguments is enough to cast substantial doubt on the impact the doomsdayers have had on the improving environment. Taken together I think it makes a very strong case against it. However, it might be true that today’s doomsdayers motivate hundreds of folks to enter the sciences and conservation fields, and that this sets the stage for the market forces to be able to work themselves out later on.

However, even if one were to view this intergenerational motivational as a benefit of the doomsdayer movement, we have yet to explore the real and serious costs imposed on people in the name of doing something about the doomsdayer beliefs. We shall explore that possibility shortly.

One Response to “Can the Doomsdayers Take Credit for Improving Environmental Conditions?”

  1. Greg W says:

    It’s good to know that doomsday evangelists haven’t affected any numerical indicator. Fortunately, I haven’t heard many people argue to the contrary.

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