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EDITORIAL: Earth Day and catastrophic environmental predictions

Wednesday was Earth Day, created 50 years ago to promote environmental causes. Since that time, the world has thankfully made vast strides in addressing polluted waterways, smoggy skies and other dirty consequences of the industrial revolution. Rather than celebrate these developments, however, many greens remain wedded to a narrative of gloom and doom that ignores reality.

The Earth, in fact, has proven far more resilient than most environmental doomsayers have been willing to acknowledge. Reason magazine’s Ronald Bailey noted this week that the establishment of Earth Day in 1970 was accompanied by all manner of catastrophic predictions.

“Harrison Brown of the National Academy of Sciences published a chart in the September 1970 issue of Scientific American projecting that humanity would run out of copper shortly after 2000; lead, zinc, tin, gold and silver would be gone before 1990,” Mr. Bailey reports. “Brown claimed that his estimates took into account the possibilities that ‘new reserves will be discovered by exploration or created by innovation.’ ”

Mr. Brown was hardly alone in his pessimism. Mr. Bailey also cites a Time magazine piece from that same year in which an ecologist envisioned, “By the year 2000, if present trends continue, we will be using up crude oil at such a rate … that there won’t be any more crude oil.” Warnings of “peak oil” — when production declines are inevitable causing supply to lag behind demand — have popped up regularly over the past half century, and they’ve regularly been wrong. Earlier this week, crude futures dropped into negative territory.

“The Earth’s atoms may be fixed, but the possible combinations of those atoms are infinite,” write economist Gabe Pooley and Martin L. Tupy of Human Progress in calculating the Earth’s “abundance index,” a measure of 50 key commodities and what it takes to buy them. “What matters, then, is not the physical limitations of the planet, but human freedom to experiment and to reimagine the use of the resources we have.”

The overheated projections 50 years ago were designed to jolt Americans out of complacency and raise public awareness about the nascent green movement. But the pattern continues. Many of today’s greens are insistent that if the coronavirus doesn’t kill us all, global warming waits in the wings ready to wield its scythe. Exaggerated alarmism is a poor substitute for clear thought when it comes to making public policy.

“We can rightly look back on Earth Day with pride for the attention it brought to the environment,” Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus, wrote this week in the New York Post. “But we need to curb the exaggerations to make sure we leave the environment in the best possible state.”

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