The Sky's Not Falling

VATICAN CITY — Against the steady drumbeat of news about environmental disasters and impending planetary doom, a small voice of optimism was raised recently by a Jesuit journal close to the Vatican.

It just might be that instead of falling apart the world is actually becoming a better place to live, said La Civilta Cattolica in its Feb. 21 issue.

The article was titled, “Is the World in Danger?” and the answer seemed to be: not really. It suggested that ecological threats often are overstated.

“Real environmental problems cannot be ignored, but it's not right to exaggerate them in order to better defend the environment. Nor does it seem that these are the worst problems in this world,” said the article, written by Jesuit Father GianPaolo Salvini.

After citing a number of doomsday predictions that have so far failed to materialize, the article said the media was often to blame for fueling the “catastrophic visions” that seem to mark the modern age.

“One has to ask why, in giving information and assessments, is bad news almost always preferred to good news?” Father Salvini asked. One answer is that it plays into the expectations of “a frightened society” in the West, where many people are afraid of losing what they have, he said.

Father Salvini, director of the Jesuit magazine, is a theologian and economist who has written in the past on environmental issues.

The magazine often reflects Vatican opinion, so its contents are closely watched. Coincidentally, this issue appeared just before news of yet another doom-and-gloom report.

An internal U.S. Defense Department study, leaked to reporters, predicted abrupt climate change caused by global warming could soon “bring the planet to the edge of anarchy” as countries compete for dwindling food, water and energy supplies.

The scenario sketched out for the next 16 years contained a long list of calamities, including violent storms, energy and water shortages, and waves of desperate immigrants pounding at the doors of richer countries.

However, while the leaked study was cited by environmental activists as proof of the validity of the theory of man-made global warming, it was merely a “worst-case” scenario put forward by two futurists commissioned to help the Defense Department plan its responses to catastrophic events.

The authors of the report said it was unlikely the events they hypothesized would actually occur.

Short Memories

The trouble is, Father Salvini wrote, dire predictions tend to be forgotten when they don't come true.

For example, in 1975 Newsweek ran a grim article predicting major climatic changes that would disrupt worldwide food production. An early warning about global warming? No — the article was titled “The Cooling World,” and the concern was that a new ice age was just around the corner.

Today, Father Salvini said, when global warming is the worry, no one seems to point out the potential positive effects — for example, higher temperatures could mean longer growing seasons.

The Civilta article was based largely on data contained in a controversial book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, by Danish author and former Greenpeace member Bjorn Lomborg. The book has challenged the conventional wisdom on a number of environmental issues, including the effects and extent of global warming.

Father Salvini did not endorse all of Lomborg's scientific arguments but said the book had properly underlined a need for balance and perspective when talking about environmental risks. Unfortunately, he said, many people seem to thrive on apocalyptic forecasts.

“The idea that Judgment Day is at the door may be one of the most deeply held convictions of many contemporary men and women,” he said.

But humanity needs to believe in its own future, he added, and an exaggerated pessimism can lead to inaction.

Cardinal Cottier

For Swiss Cardinal Georges Cottier, Pope John Paul II's in-house theologian, the emphasis on bad news about the earth's future could be media-driven. But he said it also highlights an age-old temptation to give in to “catastrophism,” a temptation Christians should avoid.

“For the Christian, hope is not a vague hope; it is based on the promise made by God that God guides the world and does not abandon it,” Cardinal Cottier said.

The environmental challenges might be serious, the cardinal said, but human beings should start with the confidence that they can resolve them.

Father Salvini said an example of this was the “green revolution” — the committed work of researchers, he said, has helped offset the effects of agricultural problems such as erosion and soil depletion.

As the Jesuit journal weighed in with its dose of hopefulness, the planet got some good news from an astronomical study. According to researchers calculating the effects of “dark energy” in outer space, our universe is not being ripped apart or collapsing, as some had feared.

In fact, it looks like the universe might be around for another 25 billion years or so — great news for long-term optimists.

(Register staff contributed to this story.)

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