Read three contrasting reviews of Ronald Bailey’s new book, “The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century,” and the author’s response.
The Centrist Position Is Correct But Can’t Win
Outside your window, living standards are rising, crime is declining, pollution is down, and longevity is increasing. But in pop culture, we’re all doomed. “The Hunger Games” films have been box-office titans, joined by “World War Z,” “Interstellar,” “The Book of Eli,” “Divergent,” “The Road,” and other big-budget Hollywood fare depicting various judgment days. Over in primetime, the world is ending on “The Walking Dead,” “The Last Ship,” “The 100,” and “Under the Dome.”
The same outlook obtains in nonfiction literature. Books that foresee doomsday—“Collapse” by Jared Diamond, “The End of Nature” by Bill McKibben, “The Coming Plague” by Laurie Garrett among them—win praise from commentators and sell briskly. Books contending that things basically are fine don’t do as well. One might think that optimism would be marketable to contemporary book buyers, who live very well by historical standards, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. Readers prefer material that depicts them dwelling in the final generation. Perhaps declining religious belief in Armageddon has been replaced by an expectation of some natural-world version of the event.
Into this adverse market steps “The End of Doom” by Ronald Bailey, an impressively researched, voluminously detailed book arguing that the world is in better shape than commonly assumed. Bailey deflates doomsday by showing that human population growth does not mean ecological breakdown; that food supply increases faster than population and probably always will; that, far from depleted, most resources are sufficient to last for centuries; that air pollution in the United States is way down; and that cancer is in decline.
Specialists will argue about some of the studies Bailey cites to support these contentions. So much environmental research exists today, for example, that one can find a study to prove practically anything. But in the main, Bailey’s selection of research is fastidious and convincing.
Bailey spends too much time, though, on discredited trendy bleakness from the 1960s and 1970s—such as Paul Ehrlich’s global-famine predictions and the 1972 Club of Rome report. One can practically hear dead horses saying, “Stop flogging me.” “The End of Doom” redeems itself with a clever chapter on how precautionary principles boil down to this rule: never do anything for the first time. “Anything new is guilty until proven innocent,” Bailey writes, but he goes on to chronicle how many new ideas denounced as dangerous turned out instead to make life less risky.