History and Panic
…or a Brief History of Our Panics
By Neil Earle
This subject is better handled as a personal informal reminiscence which may be one of the privileges of getting older.
We’re in a Coronavirus panic right now as some responsible voices are trying to tell us and most find it hard to do anything but get over-exercised about it. Yes COVID-19 is a deadly cruel disease and has already caused enough tragedy. But it is not the end of the world. The Spanish flu of 1918-1919 took 1½ years to get over and took 650,000 American lives and at least 50 million worldwide so we already have a better handle on it than we might think.
Apathy and Panic
A wit has said that in North America we operate at two speeds – apathy and panic. If you don’t subscribe to every chapter and verse of the Climate Change hymn book you are considered a Neanderthal in many circles, a calloused uncaring moral pygmy who doesn’t care about the future of the planet and generations yet to come.
Not much room for maneuver there. Living in California for 23 years we were close enough to the Sierra to see fires smoldering on the hills back of our house but we also learned there are at least four or five causes to the fires. Warmer weather is part of it, a nod to climate change there. But there are 2149 million dead trees and remains that need clearing in the state and are prime kindling in dry seasons. Infestation also weakens healthy trees and removes protective bark plus there is the fact that modern tactics won’t let natural fires caused by lightning operate on a controlled level. Then none wants to mention runaway development – people wanting to live in crazy hill zones for the view and almost sure to be cut off in a disaster such as friend of mine barely escaped several years back when chips were falling as big as the palm of my hand.
I realized I’ve been tracking the subject of the Environment across more than a half-century now from my earliest days as a college editor in England with a “Rivers of Death” lead article that got me in trouble in 1970. (England survived.) Caring for the environment is a truly worthwhile project, one dear to the heart of Canadians such as myself but has become sadly distorted by the almighty tussle in public debate about the subject.
Now there are people who would eliminate a host of modern conveniences (except their Twitter accounts, presumably), and would lead us into a world heated and fueled by wood and stoves which would finally devastate the forests and the planet’s “lungs” for good.
What’s surprising is the number of “responsible” public officials willing to subscribe to such a grand and totalizing scheme.
A focused approach to the Environment, however, led me to lead a protest to spare our small city from a Fortune 500 company removing a mountain behind where you live.
I’ve haven’t been exactly David Suzuki but I’ve been in the battle.
“Discover the Forest.Org”
Something in all of us small-town folk revolts at the sight of an empty box of beer bottles littering up a rural road. There are a host of rejuvenating experiences conjured up when I hear ads for web sites such as “discover the forest.org.” Ah, the forest! The domain of friendly forest rangers I knew after five summers in the gorgeous Minnesota wilderness.
So, environmentalism OK, global warming – well…let’s be careful.
To be fair, critics of The Coming Ecological Apocalypse such as myself cannot easily forget how in the 1960s and 1970s the worry of many public intellectuals was the exact opposite of global warming. The fear back then was of a coming ice age. Respected scientists I read and admired such as Dr. Barry Commoner in The Closing Circle warned that global cooling would shorten growing seasons and lead to global famines and epidemics (as did happen in the 1300s).
“Little Ice Ages” have indeed occurred in recorded memory such as in the 1100’s when the North Atlantic filled with ice and the Viking colonies in the New World were (just possibly) cut off and abandoned. This summer while helping a McGill professor write a book on China I learned of the “Nine Sloughs” which devastated the Mongol dynasty in China of the 1300s and affected the rise and fall of other ruling houses as well. Weather can topple kingdoms and other nasty things. But somehow people adapt, pick themselves up and carry on like the people we know along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
How well I remember another book Famine 1975 catching lots of attention particularly worried about places like India. In the 1960s America engineered the greatest peacetime armada in history to help feed India and now they export grain! A tricky thing, the climate.
I vividly remember Paul Ehrlich’s 1970 book The Population Bomb warning of starvation of which Ehrlich was so certain that he had himself sterilized! And urged governments to inflict the remedy on their citizens.
There’s sincerity for you but so far none of these secular apocalypses has worked out. The experts can get it wrong. And how! Remember Y2K? Another parable in the long sad history of Doomsday Around the Corner – NOT! The experts get it wrong – badly.
I was up on many of these trends and wrote and spoke about them often. The church I supported put out a booklet simply titled “Pollution” in 1968 that went out by the truckload. Such things as the Club of Rome calling for Reshaping the Global Order were texts I carried around and preached from in the 1970s.
Science Without God?
Climate Change has definitely impacted history. Even the Black Death which I have to teach in church history classes was abetted by weakened human constitutions after several years of bad harvests across Europe. The pandemic of 1918 came at the end of a disastrous war when supply chains were severely disrupted and Germany, for example, was already experiencing starvation.
“The curse causeless shall not come,” taught one of my mentors.
Now Carbon Dioxide overkill is the culprit. George Carlin had a funny (if profane) routine about our puny human efforts to save the planet. Like Canadian philosopher Jordan Peterson he urged today’s would-be revolutionaries to begin by cleaning up their room! Which has more merit than we might suspect.
I find wisdom in the thoughts of Dr. Michael Peterson of the University of Delaware’s community health sciences division that there is much in this “saving the planet” credo that has a disturbingly radical overtone to it. Where is God in all this? Hasn’t Jesus already saved the planet in the understanding of many Christians? No, we can’t “leave it all to God” as we face our very real challenges but the slogan “our problems are man-made and therefore can be solved by man” was touted in the secular 1960s. But how did that all work out?
The basic Judeo-Christian text that was once used to guide much of our social thinking on matter from prison reform to anti-slavery related the profound claim that we as a human race are in a world where exists in equal measure “the knowledge of good and evil.” That insight seems up to date. “It goes against our human nature to accept that we are not in total control of our lives and climate,” claims Dr. Peterson. “The global warming message espoused in the popular culture is one that promotes a view that man, and man alone, is in control of this planet.”
Is this where the Science has led us? The models for Corona Virus tracking proved woefully and perhaps disastrously inaccurate. Remember? 2.2 million might die in the North Atlantic area! Whhhaaaaatttt!!! This gives me reason to tone down “Global Warming” and champion environmentalism in a more localized way where we can do some practical good. Reshaping the planet seems, at least at this stage, above my pay grade. But I’ll march with you to save a forest anytime.