Underestimating People . . . Again

American Thinker had a piece about all the “experts” in the 1960s and 1970s who predicted that we’d all be dead by now, killed by cold, pollution, that fossil fuels would be all used up, and so on. Yes, Paul Ehrlich and company, those folks. It’s interesting from a historian’s view to look at the data they had, and their assumptions about human capabilities and culture. Now, we were in a small climatic dip in the 1970s, the last major one before warming resumed through 1998, so I’ll grant them that. You work with the data you have. However, the overall idea that humans can’t innovate and explore was what caught my attention.

Part of the sense goes back to the “things were better in Arcadia/Eden/Rome” nostalgia so many Western elites seem to have. I suspect in some cultures (leaving out Salafist Islam*), their elites feel the same way. “Back in the day when everyone followed the caste system and no one challenged us . . .” Things were better back then, and today is just one long rolling disaster leading to woe and misery, or so the elites and their prophets claim. “We’re doooooomed unless we go back to . . . Unless you listen to us and return to your places . . . ” And so on, with visions of the happy shepherds of Arcadia, and clean sheep, and happy milkmaids, and the like. You know, a Fragonard or Watteau painting, when shepherds wore satin and silk. Or Rousseau’s noble savages, untainted by civilization and property.

There’s no room for invention and mechanical creativity in that world. The elites miss more efficient resource use, new ways to recycle things that turn, oh, plastic bottles into fleece into other stuff, or new techniques for drilling for oil, or water desalizisation, or city-sized nuclear plants, or . . . Or ways to change buildings to make better allowances for the local environment, or that people would find ways to make money by cleaning up streams and turning industrial waste into a resource, or . . . You get the idea.

“Oh, woe, woe, we are dooomed,” cry the prophets. Meanwhile, the ordinary people and tinkerers are out tinkering, looking at coal tar (which was free, and a bit problem, and polluting the h-ll out of the place) and said, “I wonder what we can make out of this gunk, especially since people pay us to get rid of it?” And along came fancy dyes that didn’t poison you, and new medicines, and artificial ivory that didn’t explode**, and other things.

Humans poke, and pry, and mix things, and ask “What if we did this?” and “What can I make out of that?” We change our habits, our environment, and so on. I remember when fleece was invented. And how it got lighter, and softer, and there were more kinds and weights of it, and so on. Granted, I’m a wool snob who wears more wool than fleece, but that has to do in part with the appearance of wool vs. fleece and my work and travel.

The doom sayers in the 1960s and 70s had incomplete climate data. Now that we have better, we also have people bending the data in order to demand an end to [whatever climate thing] and a stop to technological development. “We’re at peak oil! All people must stop traveling! The Green New Deal will save the world!”

No, tinkerers, and thinkers, and people who play with reactors and engines and motors and chemicals and computers will save the world, if it needs saving. Because that’s what we do. We make things – homo faber. Gortex™ and fleece, and the latest in feminine supplies, and better medicines, and medical technology, and the internet, and safety plastic and amazing metal alloys and triple-pane glass and who-knows-what-next come from playing round with stuff, tinkering, combining, and trying crazy ideas that start with “What if we used this thing for that?”

People are not locked into an industrial or environmental destiny. If we were, we’d still be in the Paleolithic. Or a steampunk, Jules Verne world. We’re not.

*Salafists firmly believe that the world peaked during the life of Muhammad, and it has been down-hill ever since. Ideally, we would return to that tech level and faith. Osama Bin Laden and co – no using a baby bottle because it’s not in the Koran, and so on.

**Nitrocellulose was used as a form of artificial ivory for billiard balls. It sometimes made games a lot more sporting than desired, at least by the owners of the table!



31 thoughts on “Underestimating People . . . Again

  1. NC was also used for movie film, collars, and syiffeners, until the much safer cellulose acetate became as m ed common.

    • Today’s random trivia: Radio stations used to cut recordings into nitrocellulose transcription disks until magnetic tape became a thing. They look like records, but yellow and waxy. They weren’t a very good storage medium. In top of the obvious fire hazard, every play reduced the audio quality, and the material develops cracks over time.

      • Yet they did provide SOME preservation. A few discs record off the air at Glen Miller’s insistence (for quality control judging) were either never played or played only once.. *and preserved* which is why some broadcasts are preserved in imperfect, but higher than expected, quality.

        • Heh. I’m currently trying to salvage some recordings my grandmother did for a Christmas radio fundraiser some seventy+ years ago.
          It’s definitely a learning experience.
          It started out actively painful to listen to.
          I’ve gotten the click and crackle mostly tamed, and her soprano comes through pretty well (although the waveform looks like she was running into a low-pass filter at about 14K), but the transients are still extremely harsh, and the piano is pining for the fjords.

  2. There were interesting times in 19th-century Africa when the new nitrocellulose reached the Dark Continent. A number of big-game hunters almost simultaneously asked themselves, “Why can’t I use a small quantity of nitrocellulose instead of black powder in my muzzle-loading elephant gun? That way I don’t have to buy an expensive new gun!” The result can be imagined . . . and it’s one of the reasons why there are relatively few modern survivors of those old elephant guns.

    (I’ve fired one such survivor, a 4-bore muzzle-loading flintlock converted to percussion, weighing in at 18 pounds. Its powder charge was measured in drachms, not grains, and it had no trouble in knocking me onto my favorite tuchus – in a cactus bed! I was young then . . . )


      • Ever since I read an article about punt guns for market hunting, I (sort of) wanted one. IIRC, they were good for a pound of shot. In reality, the Fish and Game people would get rather testy, not to mention the reaction from the ATF. On the gripping hand, that’s a lot of ducks at one shot.

  3. You know I seem to recall that we were supposed to be plumb out of oil by now. You still hear a lot about Green Energy, but you very seldom hear too much about the world running out of oil shortly any more. I know we’ve created more economical cars and new ways of doing things, recycling a lot of petroleum products and such not; but I doubt we use THAT much less oil each year than we did back in 1970.

    Kind of like the gas shortage back in the late 70s. My dad always brings it up whenever gas prices go up or somebody starts talking about eliminating gas/diesel cars. Back then we had a gas shortage and rationing. We were almost out! There just wasn’t any more oil! But as soon as the price raised enough (from a quarter to over a dollar a gallon at the pumps, I’d have to look up the price of crude) there was all the gas you wanted to buy.

    • Innovations in exploration and drilling have opened up more pockets within existing fields, plus greatly improved fracking, have done wonders to expand the production ability of existing and new fields. Fracking has been around for a very long time, it’s just how to do it better, with less waste and cost that are new and exciting. Sideways holes, holes that bend and curve, those used to be very, very illegal (“slant hole drilling”). In some fields they’re now the accepted technique.

      There’s also some really odd and controversial data about just how crude oils form, and if they can regenerate, like the terra negra soils in the Amazon Basin. It’s really, really, really controversial, enough so that I don’t try to keep up with it because of the craziness you have to wade through to get to decent data.

      • “Really odd and controversial” is putting it very mildly. There have been claims that conventional models of how oil forms are all wrong, and that oil could be found other places if we only looked. Sadly, last I heard those claims had a big problem: when people looked where these ‘alternate models’ said oil should be, they didn’t find anything. And when you look closely, all the data that the alternate models are based on can be explained under the conventional theory of crude-oil formation.

      • Ain’t economics something?

        * supply goes down* –> *price goes up*
        “The price is up. We can make money by extracting…”
        * more gets extracted *
        * supply goes up * –> *price goes down*

        Why, it might just be somewhat.. cyclic.

    • The “energy crisis” of the Carter years wasn’t caused by an actual shortage of oil. It was political: the Arab countries that controlled most of the West’s oil supply at the time imposed a ban on selling oil to the USA in order to get Carter to back off from supporting Israel. When the price went up so much that the Arabs couldn’t resist the call of the $ anymore, they started selling oil to us again.

      • Yeah, having had the “Last car” sign hung on the tail of my car in two episodes of oil embargo (’73-74 after the Yom Kippur war, and in ’79, coincident with the Mullafication of Iran), it was decidedly political both times.

        Crunch 1 yielded a temporary daylight savings time year round (I was not thrilled; had a between-semesters job in the Chicago area. I’d arrive at work as the sun just came up, and left work as the sun was going down. With standard time, I’d have had one leg to drive in full daylight, but nooooo.) and the 55 mph national speed limit.

        Crunch 2 was more of the same, especially the 55 limit. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Maximum_Speed_Law for the gory/boring details. That made driving through the West either an exercise in boredom or medium thrilling, depending on what measures one had to avoid traffic tickets. CB radio came in handy on a long road trip in 1984. (It was eased in 1987, but not repealed until ’95. The last time–2014–I drove through Utah, 80 was both the Interstate and the speed limit. :). )

  4. I remember the “Coming Ice Age” garbage even if the Global Warming Folks want me to forget it. 😈

    • Ah yes, running alongside Carl Sagan’s Nuclear Winter scenario. What was it, we had to surrender to the Soviets so the Earth wouldn’t freeze? Er, no.

    • You are not alone.
      And unfortunately for those who claim, “That only the popular press, not the Science…”
      Well, I read ‘the Science’ of the time (later, but I had hard-copy dead-tree history that couldn’t be stealth-edited) and guess what… it was not just the popular press.

  5. It’s certainly interesting to look with a historian’s eye at what the Ehrlich-type doom-cryers said. But I think it’s important to keep in mind where they were coming from. Their worldview was shaped by two things: the most hideous war in human history was only twenty years ago; and things really were getting bad, environmentally speaking. The filthy “pea soup fog” that afflicted many industrial cities from Los Angeles to London, the Cuyahoga River catching fire, et cetera.

    One other thought: those predictions, like all predictions, came with an unspoken caveat: if we don’t do something about it. We did. If we hadn’t … well, look at China. They don’t give a damn about the environment, and as a result their environment is filthy. Especially the air. Remember how they had to almost shut down Beijing before the Olympics so that the athletes would have decent air to breathe? Normal Beijing air is so bad that breathing it for just a couple of days can put you flat on your back, if you have sensitive lungs to start with.

    • One other thought: those predictions, like all predictions, came with an unspoken caveat: if we don’t do something about it. We did.

      Part of the doom-sayer’s bad reputation is because they couldn’t accept that it worked.

      So the tiny lizard on the window must be an approaching dragon, and the earlier efforts cannot be admitted to have worked, they must be doubled, tripled, ever-increased.

      • I wish I could recall who this was attributed to (if it even happened at all) but I recall reading a story of an actual early electrical experimenter who had just shown something to a local politician and supposedly this exchange too place.

        $Politician: “This electricity is interesting, but just what is it good for?”

        $Experimenter: “I have no idea, but in ten years you’ll be taxing it!”

  6. Chilling reminder from Powerline of the way ‘experts’ go wrong, as Stephen Hayward reacts to the freakout over SCOTUS’ religious liberty ruling in that case from NY. He quotes similar language from Korematsu.
    Crowds can turn into mobs, but in general I’ll take the wisdom of crowds, thank you.

  7. Re: theories, there is a YouTube video called “Tribal People Try Apple Pie,” which is part of a series where Pakistani Punjab speakers from.back in the hills try various foods. And since the pie was served warm with ice cream, one of the guys opined that (according to the principles of Greek humors medicine) serving the two temperatures together kept the body from harm by either.

    They liked the pie, and were glad it was not spicy hot.

    • Omg. The same humors theory guy is on most of the videos. They had a new video about trying Planters Mixed Nuts, and the guy gave a short discourse on almonds. They actually have medical disclaimers on some of his videos.

      He’s not wrong about what he says, usually. It is the theory reasons that don’t work.

      • The idea of humors lasted so long because it made sense, was logically consistent, and when combined with experience and observation, was better for patients than some other things. IIRC Ayurvedic medicine is similar.

        • There’s a pun about the Good Humor Man somewhere, but I’ll leave it to Peter Grant to find it. 🙂

        • That, and there was a tendency to define humors of various substances according to what worked better in the doctor’s home area or best guess. You see various foods put in totally different groupings by various authors, and the same thing with Chinese or Indian people online. There is probably a lot of hidden sociology or something.

          The guy guesses that Pop Rocks would be good for constipation, but I am pretty sure he was messing with the audience when he said that.

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