Fauxtastrophes: The Ecology of Settled-Scientists

July 7, 2021 Updated: July 21, 2021


In the spring of 1990, I was a young professor, sitting in the annual convocation ceremony of a third-rate college in West Virginia. It’s a beautiful place, founded in the 1840s, classical architecture in leafy Appalachia, but it struggled to attract wealthy students, so its pursuit of prestige was never-ending. A typical device was awarding doctoral degrees honoris causa to any celebrity who’d impress the parents. So there I sat in Convocation Hall, watching an honorary doctorate awarded to “population expert” Paul Ehrlich. It was surreal.

Biologist Paul Ehrlich became an intelligentsia celebrity in 1968, thanks to his doomsday prophecy, “The Population Bomb,” screaming that the world faced resource depletion, economic collapse, and mass starvation by the late-1970s. This was inevitable, he argued, because people multiply faster than their capacity to feed themselves. Yet here we sat, 10 years past the Inevitable End of the World, and all of Ehrlich’s predictions had proven diametrically wrong.

Ehrlich was wrong, first, because on a truly human scale, despite all the “small world” propaganda, the world is really, really huge. Try walking to the nearest city, instead of flying. Yes, we’re now almost 8 billion people, but the world has 14–18 trillion CO2-eating trees. The remaining landmass is CO2-eating grassland, and three-quarters of the globe is ocean, its upper six-feet housing CO2-eating, whale-feeding diatoms.

Ehrlich was wrong, second, because humanity’s primary resources are free, inventive human beings, our resourcefulness, cooperation, and spontaneous infrastructure, naturally knitting us together into free productive society. From 1968 until 1990, in Convocation Hall, global hunger was hacked back to the smallest level ever, because of our growing population and infrastructure. In the Paleolithic, everyone was starving. Today, hunger is isolated to regions suffering either crime, war, or socialism—wherever our organic, cooperative human infrastructure is disrupted by corruption, conflict, or the dictatorial ambition to replace it with an artificial command-system (like newly starving Venezuela).

Through the ’70s and ’80s, a league of real economists and demographers (Revell, Sassone, Perlman, Bauer, Eberstadt, et al.) debunked the “population explosion” myth with hard data, showing that both the earth and humanity are “resourceful” (and both especially in repairing environmental damage). When Paleolithic man suffered a flint shortage, he explored the possibilities of copper and zinc. As population grew, slash-and-burn agriculture became simply uneconomical. Populations grow only given the prudent foresight of the future parents. Yet … a decade after Ehrlich was already proven wrong, there he was, brazenly receiving an honorary doctorate for a fake catastrophe, a fauxtastrophe peddled by a settled-scientist.

To state the obvious: Real science doesn’t work that way. When a scientific hypothesis generates predictions that prove false, the hypothesis must be thrown out, because nothing is “settled,” because what we know is miniscule compared to what we don’t know, especially about ourselves. Yet the Population Bomb dominated the cultural narrative for 50 years—get this—legitimizing U.N.-backed, coercive government population control in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It took the New York Times until now, 40 years after its refutation, to discover we’re really facing the challenge of a shrinking, aging global population. Ehrlich’s fauxtastrophe had stamina as settled-science.

Some candidate fauxtastrophes don’t have stamina, like the New Ice Age, once equally “common knowledge.” A 1975 Newsweek mourned of Global Cooling: “The evidence in support of these predictions has now begun to accumulate so massively, that meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” But the New Ice Age had no legs. Hollywood still tries periodically to turn a global blizzard into a heart-stopper, but no. Today, a kids’ science website re-assures them that the New Ice Age is being pre-empted by Global Warming—yeah! Yet another kids’ site simply doubles-down on the panic: We survived past climate change, it keens, but past ice ages were “nothing compared to what we’re experiencing now.” Experiencing? After waiting 30 years?

The Settled-Science Manifesto

The political manifesto of settled-science fauxtastrophes is a little known, but deeply influential article in Science magazine (Dec. 13, 1968), called “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Politics in a science journal? In a dozen pages, cited ever after by academics, University of California biologist Garrett Hardin proves—wait for it—that scientists must rule the world. Typically, his political deduction is a calm, well-reasoned mare’s nest of artificial anthropology, half-truths, and outright lies.

Hardin argues that, left to our natural devices, human beings always overgraze their common village pasture lands—and that means the whole world. In a “pasture open to all,” he asserts, “each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.” Each, seeking to maximize his gain, weighs the benefits and costs of “adding one more animal to [his] herd.” Each gains the full benefit of another animal, but suffers only a small share of the cost of over-grazing, so each sensibly adds another and then another, “locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited.” When each pursues his own interest, all men rush to ruin, and “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

So the problem is human freedom. Human nature, like “the desire for children,” leads inescapably to the overuse, overcrowding, and destruction of a “commons in breeding.” “Biological facts” prove that unregulated humanity races toward disastrous overpopulation, so scientific necessity demands “coercive laws.” Only (his) scientific wisdom can save us from self-destruction. Since we can’t control our herds, we all must be herded … by whom?

Clear, elegant, convincing, and wrong—wrong as only geometric projections of stovepipe data and kabuki narrative can be wrong. Some examples:

  • Hardin claims human populations never stabilize themselves. Lie. Historically, nations stabilize for centuries at the “carrying capacity” of their technology (not the real estate); natural factors and common prudence have always kept families within their resources.
  • He claims there’s no technological “solution” for population growth, short of coercive government control. Lie. Inventive free agents, working outside bureaucratic boxes, generate amazing solutions, such as medieval crop rotation or the recent Green Revolution.
  • He states that no prosperous peoples ever had a zero population growth. Half-true. Historically, once-stable natural populations start growing, given some new technology, which then brings prosperity, which then bankrolls ambitious political elites, which then brings decadence, infertility, depopulation, and eventually conquest or immigration.
  • He calls the (Third) World’s growing populations “most miserable.” Arrogant lie. Suicide is virtually unknown among the cheerfully poor nations, while the luxurious, infertile West drowns in senility, depression, anxiety disorders, and psychotic politics.

Most unfairly, most smugly, Hardin blames the death of the village commons on greedy villagers. In fact, the medieval commons was cheerfully tended for 800 years by responsible villagers, fully aware of their land’s carrying capacity—and their responsibility to their neighbors and their children. The “irresponsible breeders” of natural societies naturally look two generations ahead (unlike, say, the EU’s current childless leaders). But in the 18th century, Enlightenment philosophers encouraged the erudite gentry to enclose the commons for their commercial flocks—in the name of scientific agriculture. The village commons of the natural society was destroyed by the intelligentsia. This early exercise in ideology proving again Plato’s lesson that revolutions are fomented not by oppressed commoners, but by “progressive” elites.

The Five Fauxtastrophic Fundamentals

Thanks to the baldness of its lies, damn lies, and false narratives, Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” can provide us with the five fundamentals of settled-science fauxtastrophes:

First and most important: the disaster is always our fault. Common humanity—us—raising our children in our ordinary daily lives, generating new and innovative ways of solving our problems (like fracking)—we are the problem. Ignorantly, we’ve been abusing the world and provoking the unseen disaster. The angry elements will now inflict retribution: the ocean swelling, the earth shaking, the wind howling, and the sun burning. Because we’ve been free, innovative, and prosperous—in short, because we are evil—Mother Nature will now punish us.

Second: The disaster is expressed in graphic terms, a graph prophesizing a solitary disastrous trend—population growth, global temperatures, oil consumption, rising oceans—intersecting some hypothetical limit, like a bike hitting an imaginary wall. We common folk all know that mathematics is science, but that we can’t expect to understand it. So the graph enables the settled-scientist to “eliminate the extraneous factors” for us. Those censored factors comprise all the natural and naturally human “feedback mechanisms”—like environmental carbon feedback or a free market—that work to return environmental and social systems to sustainable steady-states. If common folk learned about these natural, stability-seeking feedback mechanisms, we might lose sight of the isolated, fauxtastrophic trend.

Third: The disaster must be invisible. We might think invisibility would count against a fauxtastrophe, but it’s absolutely necessary. If a disaster is visible (like the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill), then it’s merely a local problem, fixable by a local solution (as Exxon cleaned up Prince William Sound, which yielded record fish harvests within the decade). Every visible disaster (even Mount St. Helens) is local. Any local disaster is repairable by a spontaneous feedback loop, either slowly by the environment (wind-blown seeds) or quickly by human technology (planting). As a bonus, local disasters inspire the global evolution of repair technology—another natural feedback loop. So instead, global fauxtastrophes must be invisible (like evil CO2). The settled-scientist can pretend to be a scientist, by admitting some minor level of uncertainty, and then drone gravely, “But what if it happens? If it’s possible, we must take precautions.”

The precautionary principle states: “Any possible calamity justifies the real expense of any public prevention programs,” and only invisible calamities can activate it. The calamity must remain invisible and unlocalized, otherwise it might simply be repaired. This principle, beloved of activist judges, bureaucrats, and government contractors, makes fauxtastrophes resourceful beyond the circle of celebrity settled-scientists and tabloid media. Now things get serious: the “viral jump” from cultural fad to coercive bureaucracy—and a new, artificial feedback loop.

Fourth and most necessary: The fauxtastrophe must justify expanding bureaucratic control over the common people (especially car owners), blamed for the invisible calamity. However: This is not a conspiracy. It’s the spillover of the bureaucratic culture into our once-natural, spontaneous society. Tax-fed bureaucrats face no real objective performance measures (real balance sheets), so their careers depend only on avoiding any personal responsibility for any possible misadventure, and their promotions depend on discovering unseen injustices or possible future calamities. Thus, every task, from child protection to military procurement, is reduced to procedural “tick boxes”—so that “ticking off all the boxes” grants them preemptive absolution from any future blame, regardless of any inevitable calamities. Real outcomes then become irrelevant, as when child protection traumatizes the children they protect, or military procurement delivers only endless studies instead of military equipment.

Artificial Versus Natural Feedback Loops

This self-protection culture then “jumps” sectors. As the natural economy grows, so the once-civil service swells. Its reach and revenue begin to metastasize by anticipating and “preventing” possible future calamities across the country: “keeping us safe” with regulatory tick-boxes often much costlier than repairing calamities as they occur. As the imperative for regulatory security nurtures public anxiety, enter the settled-scientists. Their fauxtastrophes become “grazing commons” for public revenue.

A reinforcing artificial feedback loop develops between fauxtastrophic settled-scientists, government agencies funding predetermined-research, tabloid media, and the swelling public programs, charged with preventing the fauxtastrophes (and successfully, when they don’t happen). To repeat: This is not a conspiracy. As an opportunistic regulatory culture spills over productive society, any fauxtastrophe can acquire the revenue and coercive power of government prevention programs, providing official settled-scientific validation and public employment.

Fifth and inevitably: The fauxtastrophe must inflict pain upon the guilty common people, again perhaps contrary to common sense. Given the artificial feedback loop between government research agencies, settled-scientists, tabloid media, and public prevention programs, mature fauxtastrophes always cost something. Yet it’s absolutely necessary that calamity prevention programs inflict more visible human sacrifices, because only that can confirm the existence of the invisible fauxtastrophe. A trivial example: The “landfills crisis” mandates plastic recycling programs, despite their increased energy consumption (as indicated by their necessary tax subsidies). The prevention program itself gains moral authority from the cost inflicted, to the point that bureaucrats can instruct docile homeowners to wash their recycling plastic, not despite, but because of the increased, unnecessary cost in time and water heating. Other examples are far more serious. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance: “If it costs so much, it must be necessary.” In adolescents, this presents as, “If X is mean to me, X is more loveable.” Population-wide, this develops into a serious Stockholm Syndrome.

Clearly, fully matured fauxtastrophes require an extraordinarily productive national industrial plant, to carry their dead-weight. But this raises the question of “limits to growth.” A fauxtastrophe must extract a cost from us, in repentance and absolution for whatever sinful behavior provoked the wrath of nature. This necessarily entails replacing more efficient tools and methods by resources and methods wasteful in time, energy, and real information (like replacing natural gas with boondoggle solar energy). Is there a natural feedback limit to this retribution? Or does the bureaucratic parasite risk killing its productive-society host? That may depend on whether the bureaucracy can be purified by its tick-box protocols of any human malice, ambition, or megalomania in its administrators. Ahem.

After 40 years of their “one-child policy,” forced abortions, and infanticide, by 2030, China’s largest demographic cohort will be the 55–74-year-olds. In once-wealthy Venezuela, the socialist regime has outlawed “malnutrition” as a cause of death on the death certificates of their many dead children. And a family member just spent three days in an NHS hospital in south London, trying to get treatment for her 11-month-old toddler, but then trying to escape. After one look, the (English) doctor had ruled that the child was sexually abused, so he kicked in the legal protocols and awaited its many torturous medical tests. The toddler remained untreated for his spreading penis infection, with the pus and fever seen by another doctor and the nurses, but unrecorded on his chart (“He’s not supposed to have a fever”). The mother escaped with her son after 72 sleepless hours, only because a savvy, sympathetic (immigrant) social worker “discovered” a problem with his car seat, causing the non-existent injury. The first doctor never conceded any error. Bureaucrats, especially medical bureaucrats, cannot concede error: no tick-box for error.

Natural or spontaneous feedback systems—like forests, farms, free markets, and real science—succeed only by responding to information, especially error messages: “up a little, down a little.” But in the end, despite all the tick-boxes, the bureaucracy’s information nodes remain free individuals, in all our arrogance, selfishness, resentment, and settled-science. The bureaucracy’s “clients,” anxious in our liberty, or sanctimonious in our fears, all too easily surrender our freedom to the “devil we know.” The enduring mystery remains our common expectation of retribution, and even our sense of relief or moral superiority in suffering it.

Everyone being ground up in the gears of bureaucratic protocols cries out, “There’s no one to turn to …” Once upon a time, our democratic representatives were “who we turned to,” the local feedback systems, kicking in to correct tick-box idiocies. But now the bureaucracy is its own unelected party, and it’s become very good at embarrassing any elected government invading its turf. What’s needed is a parallel hierarchy of ombudsmen or watchdogs (like the sergeant-majors in an army), providing an alternative career path to sane civil servants. The problem with that: Given the proportion of the electorate now civil servants, such a reform must be publically proselytized and enacted by elected representatives with courage. Ahem.

Meanwhile, the hope-filled young Class of 1990, who watched settled-scientist Paul Ehrlich receive his doctorate honoris causa for his fauxtastrophe, has become the most anxiety-ridden generation in recorded history. A 2012 American Psychological Association report indicated that 12 percent of Millennials have officially diagnosed anxiety disorder, and that’s just the officially diagnosed. Is their anxiety caused by all the fauxtastrophes? Partly. Not to forget: Pride of place for all our social dysfunctions and public dependency must go to post-Woodstock family breakup. Are Millennials made more vulnerable to fauxtastrophes by their anxiety? Partly. Another artificial feedback loop.

Joseph K. Woodard, Ph.D., has been an academic, a journalist (Calgary Herald), and a federal tribunal judge. He lives in Calgary and now teaches the Great Books Program online at the Angelicum Academy.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Joseph Woodard
Joseph Woodard
Joseph K. Woodard, Ph.D., has been an academic, a journalist (Calgary Herald), and a federal tribunal judge. He lives in Calgary and now teaches the Great Books Program online at the Angelicum Academy.