What are doomsday predictions?

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The Doomsday debate was centred on the earth's carrying capacity. The earth's "carrying capacity" involves three factors: the resources available the level of technology, and the standard of living at which people are supported.

One estimate, for example, claims that at our present level of technology, the entire world could support only 1 billion people at the American standard of living. Thus, if the entire world is to enjoy the American standard of living, three out of four people would have to go away.

The neo-Malthusians believe that Malthus was not incorrect, just premature. World resources are limited. We have no way to create more land, more water, more coal or oil. We shall not "run out" of oil suddenly, as when the last drop is drained from a tank. Instead as huge oil fields that are easy to find and drill are drained, costs of exploration and development will rise until, at some future date, the energy costs of getting the oil will exceed the energy the oil provides.

This scenario is valid for most resources: increasing costs as prime sources are exhausted and inferior sources' must be used. The acreage of land in agricultural use is higher than ever, but the quality of agricultural lands is steadily declining because of soil erosion.

Deforestation and overgrazing of grasslands have been enlarging the world's deserts by about 14 million acres a year, a rate which would destroy one-third-of our arable land- within the next few years. The "oil shortage" has changed into a temporary "oil glut" because conservation and world recession cut oil exploration and increased supply. But the long-term prospect is one of renewed oil shortages and higher prices.

This is a very brief recital of the factors, which lead the doomsday school to predict a nightmare of shortages, hunger, war, revolution, pestilence, and chaos. They note that the rate of world population growth is slowing but the growth measured in numbers of additional persons is higher than ever. Unless population growth falls very rapidly, the prediction is for a massive die-off within a very few decades.

The "optimist" school claims that such doomsday predictions have been, and always will be, wrong the optimists are confident that science and technology can provide substitutes for scarce materials, fertilise eroded lands, and provide growing abundance for growing population. Population growth according to Simon is no threat, because this increases the supply of brilliant minds to invent new technology.

Two facts, however, are beyond argument. One, present rates of population growth cannot be maintained indefinitely. Population growth will greatly decline at some point in the future, either through planning or through misery.

Two, without sharp declines in population growth, spectacular breakthroughs in science and technology must come quickly to avert disaster. Among the optimists who predict such breakthroughs, the names of prominent natural scientists are conspicuously absent.


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