For centuries, eschatologically oriented prophets and evangelists have been launching impassioned jeremiads on a perpetually frightened populace. Every natural or unnatural disaster has been seen as a sure sign of the end of the world. Many have become skeptical. The religious prophets have cried "Wolf!" once too often. But today, a whole new "school of prophets" is raising a collective voice of warning about the possibility of the ultimate in global disasters.
It's becoming increasingly difficult to discern the difference between the utterances of the secular prophets and those of the Bible-thumping religious prophets! Terms like "the four horsemen of the Apocalypse," and "the handwriting on the wall" are frequently used by those who are not overtly religious. The apocalyptic language of Scripture is beginning to creep more and more into the working vocabulary of the secular prophets. If no Holy Bible had ever been written, there would still be reason for alarm. If there had never been a Jeremiah, or an Isaiah, or an Ezekiel, there would still be ample reason to believe that we are living near the end of an age! This article focuses attention on those areas of concern where human problems appear to be reaching "critical mass." The Almost Forgotten Crisis. None has been more obvious than the shock brought on by the Arab oil embargo and the energy crisis. But these chilling events should not have come as a surprise. Numerous "secular prophecies" regarding energy shortages were sounded years ago. In 1972 John F., O'Leary, former director of U.S. Bureau of Mines, warned: "We can anticipate that before the end of this century energy supplies will become so restricted as to halt economic development around the world." Today it appears that the message still hasn't sunk in. Since the Arab oil embargo, total energy demands have galloped along at a five percent annual increase and are projected to double in another 15 years. Most Americans and a large number of their Congressmen act as if the nation is still sitting on top of unlimited supplies of petroleum and natural gas. Rather than attack the problem of America's growing dependence on imported oil, many seem more interested in dismantling major oil companies. Few seem concerned with the fact that proven petroleum and gas reserves in the lower 48 states are nearing exhaustion. "No problem. Eventually technology will come to our rescue," cry the optimists. "We can develop nuclear, solar and fusion power. We also have unlimited coal reserves." It sounds fine in theory, but it doesn't work that way in practice. People have been overoptimistic about new energy sources for years. After World War II, nuclear power was heralded as the wave of the energy. future. Now, almost three decades later, the atomic power program is mired in a sea of uncertainty. Concerned citizens are worried about things like reactor melt-downs, earthquakes and sabotage. Nobody has figured out what to do with the highly toxic nuclear wastes. And as fission power grows, so does man's capability to manufacture atomic weapons. By 1980 there will be enough worldwide nuclear by-products accumulated to produce 35,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. This "too-little, too-late" problem plagues other new sources of energy as well. Fusion power is decades away, if then. Solar power is not as unlimited as the name implies. Solar collection and transmission systems would themselves require tremendous amounts of energy, resources and capital. If the sun were used to supply the entire electrical needs of the city of New York, a solar collector 15 miles long would be necessary." Coal is one energy source that is eminently usable in its present state. But like the others, it too has serious drawbacks, not the least of which is strip mining. While there are vast reserves in the western United States, limited water and energy supplies have already put something of a damper on its current development. And how does a society "hooked" on petroleum and natural gas ultimately adapt itself to other energy sources? When does Detroit start retooling to make steam-, electric-, or methane-powered automobiles? How much capital, energy, time and resources will it take to replace oil-fired power plants? Perhaps that's why Representative Morris K. Udall warned: "America has been on a three-decade-long energy binge, and a massive hangover is in prospect." End of Metallurgical Affluence. The same can be said for the Western world's prodigal use of minerals during the twentieth century. Like energy, the days of cheap, easily recoverable ores is rapidly drawing to a close. Reserves of platinum, uranium, tin, silver and mercury are projected to be extremely tight by the end of this century. Known supplies of other important minerals such as copper, nickel and aluminum could be severely depleted in the next century. In viewing the situation, Lester R. Brown of the Overseas Development Council recently warned: "The U.S. and the world are moving from an age of relative resource abundance to an era of relative scarcity." California Senator John Tunney was also moved to write: "The United States and the world are approaching the threshold of the outer limits of growth in the use of finite resources and the pollution of the planet. Rationality and will are required if humanity is to survive." But others don't see it that way. According to the noted economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen of Vanderbilt University: "The apparent mineralogical bonanza which over the last one hundred years fostered the unparalleled economic progress of a handful of nations may account for the strange conviction of the economists of these lands that material growth can go on forever." Again, unbounded faith is placed in technology to bail us out of our future mineral woes. According to the advocates of the technological fix, we can dig deeper, use cheaper grades of minerals, extract precious metals from the sea, recycle and come up with substitutes. There is no such thing as a mineral shortage, they claim, because the earth's crust, taken as one massive mother lode, is loaded with more than enough of the precious metals.
"For years we laughed at Malthus' gloomy theory, but now he is coming into his own as we have come to the realization that " the world's resources are not unlimited."
But this approach is fraught with ecological, economic and energy-oriented shortcomings. Ultimately we would be forced to tear into valuable timber, farm and grazing lands. Already plans for strip mining in the western United States are being hampered by this conflict of terrestrial interest. And the environmental penalties incurred by uprooting and processing huge chunks of real estate could be devastating. The idea that man can go on perpetually mining ever poorer grades of minerals until he is virtually extracting them from common rock is also fallacious. The advocates of this approach forget that in nature, as in every human enterprise, there is no "free lunch." Progressive mining of poorer grades of minerals in itself requires massive inputs of resources and energy. Eventually a point is reached where the amount of resources committed is greater than that which is extracted. Such ventures will not only be unprofitable, but unproductive as well. This "dig-further-and-deeper" solution is also predicated on the availability of cheap and abundant energy. As we've already seen, energy supplies will be far from cheap and abundant in the future. The same limitation applies to recycling. Up to a certain point recycling can be both profitable and productive. But recycling produces its own wastes and is impractical for minerals such as silver and mercury that are dispersed widely in small quantities. Mining the seas does hold some promise in the short term for increasing future supplies of copper, cobalt, manganese and nickel. These minerals have been discovered scattered across the ocean floor in the form of small round objects called nodules. But nodules are by no means a metallurgical panacea. They can only supply four basic minerals, and, if present growth rates continue for any length of time, deep-sea nodules would be hard put to meet future demands. Getting them to the surface may turn out to be a thorny technological problem. And in the process, no one is sure what kind' of impact this type of oceanic mining will have on the marine environment. Substitution is another alternative with limitations. Copper was the number one metal of the bronze age, but was not made obsolete by the discovery of iron. Neither has the use of aluminum conductors diminished overall demand for copper substantially. Given sufficient and continuous demand, eventually supplies of both the original mineral and its substitute will begin to diminish. And many scarce materials such as helium and mercury have, at present, no known substitutes. A Not-So-Vast Planet. While man continues to voraciously deplete the land, he indiscriminately pollutes the oceans with refuse, poisons and industrial wastes. Unfortunately, the sea, as it turns out, may be the weakest link in the earth's fragile chain of life. Recently Captain Jacques Cousteau warned: "Each month we now pour so many millions of tons of poisonous wastes into the living sea that in perhaps twenty years, perhaps sooner, the oceans will have received their mortal wound and will start to die." And according to Thor Heyerdahl, "a dead ocean" will ultimately result in "a dead planet." Strong words from the secular prophets! Yet few take them seriously. Many feel that such warnings are exaggerated overdramatic jeremiads that have no basis in scientific fact. Several years ago, a leading British scientist took issue with the ecological doomsayers in regard to the continued pollution of the oceans with mercury. "The oceans are so vast and contain so much mercury already," he wrote, "that if the annual production of the world's mercury mines were dumped straight into the sea, it would take between 2,500 and 10,000 years before the natural concentration was doubled." In his haste to reprimand the ecological prophets, this eminent scientist overlooked some rather obvious scientific facts himself. First of all, life is not evenly distributed throughout the oceans. Over 90 percent of all sea creatures occupy less than one percent of the marine environment. Those areas most heavily populated are also most easily polluted by man. Toxic materials themselves do not uniformly spread throughout the sea. And what phytoplankton may absorb in diluted amounts, ends up in the tissues of higher-order predators such as birds, seals and man in highly concentrated doses. It's no wonder that Barry Commoner, in assessing man's unecological mentality, recently had this to say: "Unless we begin to match our technological power with a deeper understanding of the balance of nature, we run the risk of destroying this planet as a suitable place for human habitation." The Growing Hunger Gap. Commoner is also joined by a growing chorus of secular prophets who see little hope in the current world food situation. Even those who would tend to be somewhat optimistic have little to cheer about in this regard. Senator Hubert Humphrey recently stated: "For years we laughed at Malthus' gloomy theory, but now he is coming into his own as we have come to the realization that the world's resources are not unlimited." Don Paarlberg, chief economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, lamented: "Those who are pessimistic about the ability of the world to feed its people have more persuasive evidence to lay before us than in many years." Norman E. Borlaug, Nobel laureate and "father" of the Green Revolution, predicted: " Unless we can do something about this problem, it will destroy us." And Dr. Binay Sen, former director of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, was even more emphatic: "If the rate of food production cannot be significantly increased, we must be prepared for the four horsemen of the Apocalypse."
But the Israelites weren't about to listen to any messages that weren't sweetness and light. According to the prophet Isaiah, they wanted to hear "smooth things" (Isa. 30:10).
At the heart of this potential time bomb is the population explosion. The statistics are daunting to say the least. Current estimates show world population projected to pass the 6.5 billion mark by the turn of the century. According to Lester Brown, an internationally recognized food authority: "World population growth alone — with no increase in per capita food intake — would require an increase of nearly one billion tons of grain per year, or roughly four times the current production of North America" (By Bread Alone, p. 44). The main problem with the population juggernaut is that it can't be turned around overnight. Even if all the women in the world were bearing children at replacement level (roughly two children per couple) by the end of this century (which is highly unlikely), world population would continue growing until it hit the eight-billion mark! Efforts to control this spreading wave of humanity have not exactly been a smashing success. In many of the poorer countries, a high birth rate is essential to assuring the survival of at least one male offspring. Children are looked on as economic assets rather than liabilities. Traditionally, it is only after people rise above a poverty-level existence that they think about having fewer offspring. Religious and ideological considerations also act as major barriers against effective population control. The position of the Catholic Church is a well-known case in point. Moslems condemn birth-control measures as being perpetrated by their "enemies." Many underdeveloped nations feel that population control is another capitalist ploy to ensure' that the world's wealth and resources will remain in Western hands. Nor can much long-range hope be placed in man's efforts to expand world food production. The so-called miracles of the much heralded Green Revolution were achieved with no small input of fertilizer, water and petroleum-based machinery. In many parts of the world these commodities are becoming increasingly scarce. Most of the best land has already been used up. Man's increasing numbers have already resulted in extensive deforestation: erosion and destruction of valuable croplands in the Indian subcontinent and African Sahel. Overfishing and pollution have brought dramatic declines in the world's fish catch. And hoped for food miracles such as fish protein concentrates, plankton, fish farms, incaparina, synthetic proteins and the like are for the most part impractical or uneconomical. Potential for Nuclear Nightmare. Undoubtedly the worst scenario of all is that of nuclear war. Today's thermonuclear statistics are truly awesome. The explosive power of the combined nuclear arsenals of the United States and Soviet Union is equivalent to 50,000 Hiroshimas. One Poseidon-type submarine with its 16 nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles can destroy a nation the size of the United States. The total destructive force of the tactical (not strategic) weapons stationed in Europe is 30 times that of all the TNT exploded in World War II. Currently six nations — the United States, Soviet Union, England, France, China and India — are members of the nuclear club. But in the years ahead the membership roster is certain to grow dramatically. Austria, Brazil, Finland, South Korea and Yugoslavia had nuclear reactors under construction in late 1974. Egypt, Argentina, Spain, Japan, Pakistan and South Africa can't be far behind. Argentina, for example, will probably be producing enough plutonium in the late 1970s to manufacture ten atomic bombs a year. The potential implications of such wholesale proliferation are chilling to say the least. As Dr. George Rathjens, professor of political science at MIT, put it: "I shudder to think of Uganda's General Amin having nuclear weapons in his control, and yet we will face such situations in the next 25 years." Dr. Thomas Schelling, professor of political economy at Harvard, and an expert on arms strategy, also voiced his concern at the world's future nuclear prospects: "It is very frightening to realize that by 1999 a device with the power to blow up a community the size of Cambridge, for example, could probably be carried on the back of any strong person." In view of the fact that world civilization finds itself facing unprecedented peril from war, famine, overpopulation, resource depletion and pollution, it's understandable that a great deal of pessimism exists among the ranks of the secular prophets. Some, in fact, have resorted to biblical terminology reminiscent of the prophets of old. Physicist Bernard T. Feld, for instance, recently was quoted as saying: "The world is entering upon perilous times, perhaps the most dangerous period in its entire history." McGeorge Bundy, aide to late Presidents Kennedy and Johnson: "We will look on a time [1974J that will have been on the edge of travail." And former Senator William J, Fulbright: "Unless peace and stability is brought to the Middle East, mankind will witness 'a new war.' a new oil boycott, and possibly consequences there from ranging from another great depression to Armageddon itself." Will History Repeat Itself? Unfortunately, the words of the secular prophets tend to fall on deaf ears. Many people immediately dismiss them as a group of eccentric doomsayers. Centuries ago, the nation of ancient Israel was faced with a similar situation. They !:lad been repeatedly warned about the imminent destruction of their nation. Numerous "secular prophets" (generally they weren't quoting the Bible) tried in vain to rouse the people and their leaders from their self-centered state of spiritual lethargy. But the Israelites weren't about to listen to any messages that weren't brimming over with sweetness and light. According to the prophet Isaiah, they wanted to hear "smooth things" (Isa. 30:10). They didn't even want to entertain the possibility in their minds that Isaiah might have been right. So they went right on with a "business-as-usual" attitude, figuring their own institutions and defenses would see them through (verse 16). The ancient Israelites, like numerous other peoples throughout history (see box at left), were afflicted with their own form of "Magi not mentality." According to the prophet Jeremiah, they were fond of mouthing phrases such as " no evil will come upon us, nor shall we see sword or famine" (Jer. 5:12). And like the British and French peoples just prior to Hitler's blitzkrieg invasions, they were shouting "Peace, peace, where there [was] no peace" (Jer. 6:14). Can we, today, take the secular prophets of the 1970s seriously? Or will we, like ancient Israel, allow ourselves to be lulled to sleep in the face of mounting world and national crises?
Jeremiah. Although Jeremiah is best remembered as a prominent personality in the Bible, he had his most telling impact on society as the leading " secular" prophet of his day. In the waning years of the ancient kingdom of Judah, Jeremiah's message encompassed a great deal more than purely " religious" concepts. He continually warned of the future destruction of his capital city, invading armies, famine, disease epidemics, crop failures, upset social conditions, corruption and fraud in government. Obviously, such a penetrating analysis of the national condition was bound to raise a few hackles in high places. Jeremiah quickly found himself at loggerheads with government officials who were eager to tell the people "what was right with Jerusalem." As Jeremiah himself described this sad state of affairs: " An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely [in this case by proclaiming that there would be no further war or famine], and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so." But Jeremiah, with an eye toward the future, pointedly asked: "What will you do when the end comes?" (Jer.5:30-31.) Before the " end came," the rulers of Jerusalem thought they could remove the problem by silencing Jeremiah. On one occasion he had to contend with an ancient version of a "Watergate cover-up" when the king destroyed one of his "tapes" — in this case a scroll (Jer. 36:20-23). Finally, the exasperated officials allowed Jeremiah to cool his heels in a slime pit shortly before many of his prophecies came to pass (Jer. 38:6). Winston Churchill caused no small stir in the 1930s when he ceaselessly labored to alert the British people to the growing menace of Nazi Germany and the distinct possibility of another major war. For the most part, his warnings were highly unwelcome in a. nation where any open mention of war was considered "unpatriotic." Churchill was considered nothing short of a political outcast and pariah by many. In the mid-1930s he asked for secret debate on the relative merits of British and German armaments. His request was peremptorily refused on the grounds that "it would cause needless alarm." When Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich waving his infamous "peace paper" to the tumultuous acclaim of the British people, Churchill was one of the lonely few who raised a voice of dissent. Describing his speech in the ensuing debate in Parliament, Churchill recalled: "I well remember that when I said, 'We have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat,' the storm which met me made it necessary to pause for a while before resuming" (The Gathering Storm, p. 291). Despite the fact that public and parliamentary opinion was decidedly stacked against him, Churchill resolutely stuck to his guns. He went on to warn his colleagues: "They [the British people] should know that we have passed an awful milestone in our history, when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged, and that the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western Democracies: 'Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.' And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cut which will be proffered to us year by year unless, by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden times" (ibid., p. 293). Charles DeGaulle. As a colonel in the French Army between World Wars, DeGauile was continually clashing with military and. political leaders over the woeful lack of French military preparedness. In the teeth of opposition from the French high command, he continued to press for the establishment of a mobile mechanized tank force. But unfortunately for France and the rest of the world, too few people took him seriously. "To its venerable, veteran generals," wrote William L. Shirer," all this rash talk of a great autonomous armored force breaking through the infantry and artillery was claptrap" (Collapse of the Third Republic, p. 156). Marshall Petain, irritated by the radical ideas of the upstart colonel, spoke out forcefully against the use of armored forces that would in a few years overrun his country: "As for tanks, which are supposed by some to bring us a shortening of wars, their incapacity is striking." By 1936, a short three years from the opening rounds of World War II, the minds of the French high command were still mired in the mud of Verdun and the Somme. For them World War I trench warfare tactics were the order of the day. As late as 1937, French generals were still advocating the use of horse cavalry. Even after the Germans' armored blitz of Poland in 1939, nobody became unduly alarmed despite a note from DeGaulle on the "lessons of Poland." Shortly before the invasion of France, DeGaulle took the unprecedented step of addressing an eleventh- hour warning to no less than 90 leading military and political figures. In his written memorandum, he stated: "The French people must not at any price fall into the illusion that the present military immobility conforms to the character of this war.... Let us not fool ourselves! The conflict which has begun can well be the most widespread, the most complex, the most violent, of all those which have ravaged the earth. The political, economic, social and moral crisis from. which it comes is so profound... that it will end fatally in a complete overthrowing of the situation of peoples and the structures of states..." (ibid., p. 549). In less than six months, DeGaulle's dire prediction came to pass as German Wehrmacht troops marched triumphantly through the streets of Paris.