I was slightly surprised when Greta Thunberg announced at Davos that we had eight years left to save the planet. As long as that? Admittedly, that’s four years less than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who put it at 12, although, come to think of it, that was last January, so presumably she now thinks we’ve got 11 years left. But some doomsayers have been much less optimistic. According to Peter Wadhams, a Cambridge professor interviewed in the Guardian in 2013, Arctic ice would disappear by 2015 if we didn’t mend our ways, while Gordon Brown announced in 2009 that we had just 50 days to save the Earth. Then again, playing the long game can also catch up with you. In 2004, Observer readers were told Britain would have a ‘Siberian’ climate in 16 years’ time. We’re supposed to be in the midst of that now.
On the face of it, we should be grateful that these gloomsters make such oddly precise predictions. It’s like putting a sell-by date on their credibility. After all, when the soothsayer in question is proved wrong, they just shuffle off with their tail between their legs, never to be heard from again, right? In eight years’ time, when the planet hasn’t disappeared in a cloud of toxic gas, presumably Greta will throw up her arms and say: ‘Sorry guys. Looked like I was wrong about you ruining my childhood. I’m now going to become a flight attendant.’
But, weirdly, that never happens. No matter how often these ‘experts’ are shown to be no better at forecasting than Paul the Octopus — worse, actually — they just carry on as if nothing has happened. Take Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. ‘We must realise that unless we are extremely lucky, everybody will disappear in a cloud of blue steam in 20 years,’ he told the New York Times in 1969. Ehrlich also predicted America would be subject to water rationing by 1974 and food rationing by 1980. Ehrlich’s ‘bomb’ failed to explode, but his career didn’t. On the contrary, he’s now the Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford and the president of Stanford’s Center for Conservation Biology. All I can say is, it’s lucky he didn’t become a bookmaker.
The fact that Ehrlich is still an eminent environmentalist — and Prince Charles can pose alongside Greta Thunberg in Davos in spite of claiming we had eight years left to save the planet 11 years ago — helps explain why these Mystic Megs have no hesitation about making these forecasts. It’s a great way of drawing attention to their cause and there’s literally no cost to getting it wrong. The panjandrums of the mainstream media forgive them for spinning these yarns because they know they’re doing it ‘for the right reasons’. They’re not peddling alarmist nonsense — no, they’re just exaggerating the risk. In any case, they might be right and doesn’t the ‘precautionary principle’ dictate that we should change our behaviour just in case? Oddly, these same secular humanists don’t apply the logic of Pascal’s Wager to believing in God. That would be unscientific.
But is there also something else going on? I’m generous enough to think that these activists are not cynics trying to grab headlines, but are sincere in their prophecies of doom. For instance, when George Monbiot predicted a ‘structural global famine’ in as little as ten years’ time if we didn’t start eating less meat — this was in 2002 — he genuinely believed it. And when that famine failed to materialise, he didn’t abandon his apocalyptic environmentalism, but doubled-down, as readers of his Guardian column can testify.
It’s a textbook example of cognitive dissonance — of not abandoning your beliefs when they run aground on the shore of reality. I am reminded of the members of the Heaven’s Gate cult who believed there was a spaceship flying in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet that would beam them up and transport them to a distant planet. When the comet came and they remained on Earth, they didn’t conclude they were wrong about the spaceship. No, it must be concealed by some clever cloaking device, and the way to get on board was to commit suicide so their spirits could float upwards through the atmosphere. Sure enough, on 26 March 1997 the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department found 39 bodies in the cult’s headquarters in Rancho Santa Fe.
I’m not wishing a similar fate on the current crop of doomsday cultists. But I do wish we would take them a smidgen less seriously when they turn out to be wrong — as they always do.