Our History of “Existential Threats” and Climate Change (EP.189)

Existential Threat


We have had multiple “existential threats” over the centuries, yet here we still are, alive and well, and listening to the dire warnings about yet another end-of-the-world threat. 

Are we listening to a resurrected Chicken Little screeching about how The Sky is Falling, or is the threat for real this time?

That is the subject of today’s 10-minute episode. 


To the best of everyone’s knowledge, only one existential threat has ever visited our planet, and that was when the dinosaurs were wiped out. I’m with the group that blames asteroids. If for no other reason than asteroids are not a protected group, and have not hired lawyers.

More recently, various wars and their new technologies have been seen as life-on-earth-ending threats. In WWI, poison gas and machine guns were seen that way. In WWII, the airplane, perhaps especially long-range, high-capacity bombers, were seen as a dire threat. In both world wars, the major concern of those issuing the threats was the new technology’s ability to wipe out civilian populations on a widespread basis. And the atomic bomb, used almost 75 years ago, caused even more catastrophic predictions.

In 1963, post Korean War, and prior to Vietnam, Bob Dylan wrote and performed his haunting song, “Masters of War”. Let’s look at some of the lyrics:

“You’ve thrown the worst fear

That can ever be hurled

Fear to bring children

Into the world

For threatening my baby

Unborn and unnamed

You ain’t worth the blood

That runs in your veins”

From this then popular song, we can see that climate change worriers are far from the first to claim that a threat is so dire that not having children is the preferred path. “Fear to bring children into the world.” Do you suppose that any would-have-been parents went childless because of the anti-war viewpoint in Dylan’s song? “Masters of War” remained very popular throughout and past the Vietnam War. Anti-war sentiment and distrust of “the man” was at least as strong as today’s climate change furor and the distrust of anyone who disagrees.

Well before Dylan, Thomas Malthus, an English cleric and scholar, influential in the fields of political economy and demography in the late 1700s, wrote: 

  • “That the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence,
  • That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and,
  • That the superior power of population is repressed by moral restraint, vice and misery.”

In other words, Malthus was convinced that we were going to run out of food for the expanding population and starve. In 1800, there were 1 billion people; today we are close to 8 billion. And we have more food per person than ever. 

In the same vein, in 1968, Paul R. Erlich, an American biologist, and the Bing Professor of Population Studies in the Department of Biology at Stanford University, and president of Stanford’s Center for Conservation Biology, wrote “The Population Bomb.” Here’s a quote, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” 

Does Erlich’s prediction of imminent death on a global scale have a familiar ring?

Ah, and let’s not forget the peak oil existential threat. More recent than the unfounded Erlich scare, the peak oil crowd was claiming that we were going to run out of oil; lights would go out, gas would go to $25 a gallon–disaster! The idea was that we knew about all the oil there was to know about, and with increasing use, we would run out–in about 10-12 years from then. And, by the way, America was going to become a nation subject to the whims of the oil-rich countries, because we would need to import a greater and greater percentage of our oil consumption. We were addicted to oil, and OPEC was our pusher. Even the Simpsons mentioned peak oil in an episode.

Today, we are awash in oil to the point that one oil company, Chevron, had to write off $10 billion in assets because there is too much of the stuff. And America, now the world’s largest energy producer, is more than self-sufficient with its dramatically increasing oil supplies and production. 

What happened? Why were the peak oil worriers so completely wrong? Answer. Technology and less regulation. Not more regulation, less. Fracking is one of the leading new technologies, unlocking vast stores of oil in shale deposits. 

Can something similar happen with climate change? Yes. But only if we allow it. The problem is that we are lining up to introduce dramatically more government regulation, not less. 

Yes, of course, we need to move from carbon-based fuels to renewable fuels. But let’s not drown the baby in the bath water by panicking and destroying our economy and much more with an unnecessary push to avoid near-term extinction. Allow technology, free markets and intelligent regulation to make the needed, massive changes. As with the change from horses to cars, trains and commercial jets. As with the change from adding machines and typewriters to computers, smartphones and the Internet. And the change from plows and family farms when 50% of the population needed to be in agriculture, to high tech, heavily mechanized farming where 2% of the population feeds the world. And I am sure that you can add examples of your own.


As we get ready to wrap up, please do respond in the episodes with comments or questions about this episode or anything that comes to mind, or connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. And you can subscribe on your favorite device through Apple, Google, or Stitcher.

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Will Luden, coming to you from 7,200’ in Colorado Springs.

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10 Responses

  1. Les Larsen Reply

    Well stated! You just get better and better.

  2. KarenCabral Reply

    Excellent! I soon hope to send more readers to your site.
    I like it too when you include
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    • Will Luden Reply

      Hi Karen, good point about brotherly love; it is fundamental to the Revolution 2.0™ philosophy. Instead of repeating it every week, I am going to add it to the “About” section on the website. Thoughts?

  3. Alexander H Slocum Reply

    Peak oil was a lie, fabrication… to create panic… pump up prices… The universe is hydrocarbon based (Carbon, Hydrogen, Methane…)… “All” we needed was price kick to get technology zooming to find it…

    We have a limited time left before climate changes wreaks huge havoc with wrecking of coastal cities, crop production… so just leaving things to the free market will be too late.

    I do agree we can plan a careful rational path forward. Like the Apollo program, a well-thought out science-engineering-economics-social stability “Green New Deal” would be prudent, but not a GND based on hype on politics.

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