The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves gives an inspiring list of predicted catastrophes that have failed to occur. I’m going to limit the list to ones that have been predicted during my lifetime (born 1963).
Cancer. Rachel Carson predicted a big increase in cancer due to due to DDT, which would cause “practically 100 per cent of the human population to be wiped out from a cancer epidemic in one generation.” Paul Ehrlich, a MacArthur genius, also predicted doom from DDT: “The U.S. life expectancy will drop to forty-two years by 1980, due to cancer epidemics.”
(another) Nuclear War. It once seem inevitable that we would have a species-ending nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
Famine. Environmentalist Lester Brown predicted imminent famine in 1974, 1981, 1984, 1989, 1994, and 2007, in a 1967 book titled Famine, 1975!, and by MacArthur genius Paul Ehrlich in a 1968 book The Population Bomb (repeated, but without a predicted date, in a 2008 book, The Dominant Animal).
Exhaustion of minerals, oil, etc. We did indeed use up all of the known reserves of zinc, gold, tin, copper, oil and natural gas by 1992, just as predicted in the Club of Rome’s 1970s bestseller Limits to Growth. But then we found some more.
Air Pollution. Flying a small plane into the Lower 48 from Alaska or the Caribbean, I’m often amazed at how brown the air looks hanging over Washington State or Florida. On the other hand, it was supposed to be much worse. “In 1970, Life magazine promised its readers that scientists had ‘solid, experimental and theoretical evidence’ that ‘within a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air polluion… by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half.'”
Plague (AIDS). “The number of deaths from [AIDS] has been falling since 2005.”
Plague (Flu). Ridley claims that the 1918 flu epidemic was unique due to the environment of soldiers in trenches. A successful modern flu needs its victims to be well enough to walk around, go to work, and spread the disease further.
Global cooling. If not for all of the dinosaur blood that we’ve pumped out of the ground and set on fire, we would in fact be going (slowly) into another ice age. This frightened journalists and their readers in the 1970s and a lot of ink was spent on dire warnings about climate change similar to today’s articles, except that the promised temperature trend was opposite.
Ridley suggests that we count our blessings. The last few years have seemed to offer a lot of lessons about human hubris. Here are some of the things that we’ve learned we can’t do safely: (a) drill for oil in mile-deep water (Deepwater Horizon), (b) build nuclear power plants on tsunami-prone coastlines (Fukushima), (c) build the world’s biggest airliner and engines (Qantas Flight 32), (d) protect cities that are below sea level from flooding (Katrina in New Orleans). On the other hand, none of this seems to stop the human population from expanding and, overall, from enjoying a better standard of living than previous generations.
[June 8 update: NYT carries a Thomas Friedman column “The Earth is Full” saying more or less the exact opposite of what Ridley wrote. They both have great credentials (Ridley has a doctorate in science; Friedman was smart enough to marry a billionaire heiress) so it is tough to know whom to believe.]