There’s always something new to lapse into hysteria about. The Middle East, which gives the world so much joy and happiness, has dispatched a new disease from Saudi Arabia called MERS, to join SARS, bird flu and other threats to kill us, one and all.
Disease is always a big seller in the media marketplace. One hot new disease, just coming into view, is something called Caribbean Chikungunya, which sounds like something from the kitchens at Chick-fil-A. But it’s merely something scary bad sailing down the alimentary canal.
Calamity and catastrophe are among our leading economic indicators. They’re what keep cable-TV and talk radio aloft. The game demands constantly refreshed predictions that the end is nigh, woe is us, and soon we’ll all be dead.
The creepiest warning comes from an old if not very honored prophet, Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, a biologist who is fond of making predictions that never come true but never tarnish his reputation. He’s still an honored professor at an honored university, he still gets his books published and he still gets respectful treatment by the grunions in the media.
The professor’s hobby horse — more a pony than a horse — is the notion that we’re breeding ourselves to an early end on the great spaceship Earth. Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine calls him the “irrepressible doomster” who has never been right. On the first Earth Day in 1970, he warned that “in 10 years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct and large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish.” He said in 1971 that by the year 2000 Britain would be but a small group of impoverished islands inhabited by hungry people. “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”
England still stands, and the professor is neither daunted nor humiliated. “When you predict the future,” he says, “you get things wrong.” Yogi Berra said it better, as he always did, explaining why the Yankees had lost a crucial game: “We made too many wrong mistakes.”
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Now the professor is trying to improve Jonathan Swift’s “modest proposal,” in which Swift proposed that impoverished Ireland ship its surplus babies to England to feed the rich English landowners: it would help the economy and relieve the overly fertile Irish Catholics of the burden of their own population bomb.
Swift even offered dismal science to make his proposal sound like serious stuff, calculating the number of children available, their weight and how much they would bring per pound, and even suggested recipes. Many people took Swift’s satire as a serious proposition.
Professor Ehrlich is seriously flogging a new book about overpopulation and global warming and has none of Swift’s wit or mordant humor. He seemed serious enough when he told an interviewer for HuffPost Live the other day that the future is so grim that humans must soon think about “eating the bodies of your dead.”
The first to starve, naturally, will be diet doctors and authors of how to lose 50 pounds in 50 days that hunger puts out of business. Everyone will have sampled the proposition that you can never be too rich or too thin, and will soon be asking, “Is it perfectly OK to eat the bodies of your dead because we’re all so hungry?” Humanity, the professor says, “is moving in that direction with a ridiculous speed.”
It’s all the fault of Republicans, of George W. and even Ronald Reagan and the sleepy media. Every state legislature is waging a war on women and a war on the environment. The pro-life movement is “trying to kill women by making abortion illegal.” He wants “backup abortions” available when birth-control devices fail, which seems counterintuitive. More births, after all, would mean more flank steaks and hams when it was time to put granny on the grill.
But just as Yogi is a better philosopher than the professor, so Swift is the more imaginative writer. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” Professor Ehrlich wrote as the first paragraph of “The Population Bomb” in 1968. “In the 1970s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”
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If this sounds like the contemporary hysteria over global warming, with every professor clamoring to describe the horrors to come, it’s no coincidence. Ugly is as ugly does.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.