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!