Lisa Rayner and her husband Dan Frazier comment on the essay "Let's Stop Scaring Ourselves" by novelist Michael Crichton that appeared in Parade Magazine on Dec. 5, 2004.

Lisa Rayner:

Michael Crichton may want to delude himself as he grows older that the ecological dangers first warned about in the 1970s will never happen. However, he (and Parade magazine itself) has done a terrible disservice to humanity as a whole with his article “Let’s Stop Scaring Ourselves” in the Dec. 5 issue of Parade magazine.

His basic argument is that many of these dangers have not yet come true, therefore they never will. On the contrary, the global ecological decline is well documented and we are now 30 years closer to a possible economic collapse due to ecological problems. Furthermore, several times in the article, Crichton makes statements that are demonstrably false.

Crichton first dismisses the fears about global cooling. Is he not aware that even the Pentagon has now issued a report detailing the potential social and political consequences if global warming causes the Atlantic Gulf stream and its cold water, undersea equivalent to shut down? The paleontological record indicates that this oceanic “conveyor belt” has shut down dozens of times, each preceded by a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide and each time leading to another ice age. This is geological fact, not theory. Why does Crichton believe that modern civilization is exempt from physical reality?

Crichton also dismisses the population explosion. However, tens of millions of people did starve to death between 1970 and 2000, mostly in Africa and Asia (sight unseen, those of us in rich countries can pretend they don’t count for much). Because of the work of population activists like Paul Erlich, the UN world population predictions for this century have been lowered. Birth control and education actually work!

Crichton flog’s The Club of Rome for its 1972 book The Limits to Growth. He also lies about what it said. This year, the authors of the original study have published Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Crichton would do well to read it.

Crichton asserts that the original book warns that “by 1993 we would have exhausted our supplies” of numerous minerals. This is false. No “predictions” were made. The Limits to Growth modeled data for the years 1900 to 2100, using actually data from 1900 to 1970 and basing future extrapolations on possible future trends. The computer model was provided with a range of inputs. It produced a range of curves for the peaking and eventual decline of natural resources, population, etc. Peaking is the “half-way” point for a resource, not its end. Peaking of resources was expected to begin in the early to mid-21st century.

Guess what? We are right on schedule. Here are a few bits of data about the global environment:

· Global grain production per capita peaked in 1985 and has declined every year since then. If the U.S. population doubles during this century, as it is expected to do, the U.S. will no longer produce extra grain for export to other countries by 2050.

· Global food production per capita peaked in 1990 (total calories per person). Absolute food production itself may peak as soon as 2020.

· Numerous oceanic fisheries have collapsed or are on the brink of collapse. Stocks of large predator fish have dropped by more than 90 percent since 1950.

· In the last couple of years, natural gas production has peaked in both the U.S. and North America as a whole. Now we have begun to import liquefied natural gas the way we had to begin importing oil after the U.S. peak in oil production in 1970. Natural gas may peak globally in as few as 20 years.

· Oil would have peaked globally in the mid-1990s if it were not for the severe recessions caused by the 1970s oil shocks and the efforts to increase energy efficiency and conservation jumpstarted by the Carter administration. Oil is now predicted to peak sometime before 2030 (even by the U.S. Energy Information Administration).

Basically, without an ever-growing supply of cheap oil and gas, modern civilization as we know could not exist. For example, natural gas is the source of nitrogen fertilizer — the miracle nutrient of the Green Revolution. In 2000, sustainable agriculture researcher Wes Jackson estimated that globally, petrochemically derived nitrogen was “responsible for 40 percent of the current standing crop of humans.”

Lindsey Grant, a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population and environment wrote in a December 1997 article for a farming journal that, “Were it not for synthetic fertilizer, the richest nations could probably get by with a change of diet, substituting cereals for meat, but perhaps one-third of the people in the more crowded and land-poor third world countries would starve.”

Why is this happening? Because we have an economy that must grow exponentially — forever — to stay “healthy.” Does Crichton honestly believe that exponential growth can indeed continue indefinitely? Does Crichton understand what “exponential” means?

The rest of us would do well to realize that we are subject to the same growth limitations as all other species. The fossil fuel bonanza of the past 200 years did indeed raise human carrying capacity for a while, but that does not mean we can expand our economy and population forever.

If we choose not to reform our economy before the declines of oil and gas become severe, our economy will collapse. Dozens of civilizations have collapsed in the past, including the Roman Empire, the Mayan Empire, numerous civilizations in what is now Iraq, and so on. Collapse is not an apocalyptic vision without basis in fact. It is a demonstrated feature of complex civilizations.

Lisa Rayner is a writer in Flagstaff, Ariz. and the author of “Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains.”

Dan R. Frazier:

I was appalled at the essay by Michael Crichton published in Parade magazine on Dec. 5. The essay, titled "Let's Stop Scaring Ourselves," pointed to a long list of predicted catastrophes that never materialized. Crichton concluded that "Human beings never tire of discussing the latest report that tells us the end is near."

Crichton is quite correct about our fascination with doomsday scenarios, but I think he is too dismissive when he advocates "regarding each breathless new claim with skepticism." It is a fallacy to think that just because so many dire predictions have been averted, all dire predictions will be averted. Crichton would do well to remember the stock-broker's refrain: "Past performance is no indication of future results."

Let’s not forget that many predictions of calamity prove accurate, though such predictions often get little attention until it’s too late. One example is the attack on 9/11. An August 2001 report to the president was titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.”

It is also worth considering how many catastrophes have been averted precisely because people took predictions about them seriously. Crichton points to a prediction that hundreds of millions of people would starve in the 70s, and notes that it never happened. But perhaps it did not happen precisely because many concerned people dedicated themselves to finding solutions. Thank god these people did not adopt the complacency Crichton seems to recommend.

Crichton also is dismissive of concerns about power lines and cell phones causing cancer, implying that humans worry too much about silly things. This is surprising coming from Crichton, who, in addition to being a novelist, holds a medical degree. He, of all people, should know that many advances in medicine began with people worrying about seemingly silly things, like nutrition, lead, and clean water.

To read the Crichton essay, visit the Parade Magazine Web site on or after Dec. 13, 2004.

Care to comment on Michael Crichton and his essay? Send your comments to dan (at) CarryaBigSticker (dot) com. Interesting and original comments will be posted here. 


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