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Global 2000 and the Specter of Neo-Malthusian Alarm, 1977-1981

Global 2000 and the Specter of Neo-Malthusian Alarm, 1977-1981
Francis Scott Key, 2120
Thursday, October 11, 2018 - 12:00 PM to 1:30 PM

Join the Miller Center for a lunch talk with Dr. Gabriel Henderson.

Since the 1990s, sociologists, risk theorists, political scientists, and, more recently, historians have questioned whether the use of alarming rhetoric to describe future environmental threats undermines the long-term capacity of scientists, activists, and policy makers to alter human behavior in support of the environment.  According to existing research, the drawbacks are evident: alarmist rhetoric unduly privileges some threats over other important social issues; orients environmental discourses around government-led, often hyper-technological solutions; fosters public disengagement and apathy; provides room for skeptics to dismiss or downplay legitimate environmental dangers; easily loses long-term political momentum; artificially reduces complex political matters into a competition between heroes and villains.    

But this proposes a dilemma: How does one responsibly warn of existential threats without engaging in rhetoric that could be construed as excessively alarming?  To help unravel the historical dimensions of this issue, this talk explores the history of a significant contribution to twentieth-century environmental thinking: The Global 2000 Report to the President.  Published in 1980, this three-volume, eight hundred-page report constituted the first comprehensive assessment of global environmental risk authored by the American government, one designed to inform international efforts to address contemporary environmental challenges.  This was not merely an environmental report, however; it constituted a public relations document, one that reflected the political risks of being perceived as promoting an excessively pessimistic rendition the future – of, in the words of one of its early reviewers, “being branded neo-Malthusian."  By exploring the public-relations strategies devised by its authors to regulate public perception of the report's contents, and investigating the degree to which their strategies worked after its eventual publication, this talk highlights one of most enduring cultural and political challenges faced by generations of Americans concerned about the future welfare of humanity.

Gabriel Henderson is a postdoctoral researcher at the American Institute of Physics, whose research focuses on the evolution of environmental rhetoric and how the regulation of rhetoric informs risk assessment and science-based policy during the late 20th century.  He spent two years investigating the history of climate modeling while residing at the Center for Science Studies at Aarhus University in Denmark, and is currently finalizing a book manuscript on the evolution of environmental politics during the 1960s and 1970s.  During Fall 2018, he will be teaching a course at Georgetown University entitled "National Security, Risk Assessment, and Future Politics."  In his spare time, he enjoys hiking and backpacking, reading climate fiction, and cooking (especially during the fall and winter).