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.
The most well-reasoned pessimist book I have read is William Stanley Jevons's The Coal Question written in 1865. It predicted that Britain would run short of coal and would lose its pre-eminent manufacturing position in the world. When Jevons wrote, half the coal mined in the world was mined in Britain. By the time the third edition of The Coal Question was published in 1906, both the US and Germany had surpassed Britain in coal production and in manufacturing. Nevertheless, Britain remained prosperous, only to be hit hard by WWI and WWII.
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
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.
The number of hits on this page since 1995 October 17th.