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Is This 1980?

Updated: Oct 6

Many have compared the current situation to Orwell's 1984 - or Huxley's Brave New World.


There's important truth there. But let's take a minute to touch on the more obvious, simpler comparison: in many ways, it's 1980 all over again.


For what seems like the first time since 1980, this morning we woke to a headline about "OPEC" - bemoaning, as in those days, that the oil cartel was planning to cut production to maintain prices. How did we revert to being so dependent on them again?


1980 was the last year for double-digit inflation. We have not been close to that era's numbers until now.


People alive in 1980 had one legitimate existential* fear and one silly one.


Americans were legitimately afraid of Russia (in the form of the USSR) and its aggression against the West - and the potential for them to resort to nuclear weapons, which they had - and still have - plenty of.


On the other hand, people were mistakenly afraid of the impact humans were having on the planet, simply by living. At the time, the population of the Earth was 4.4 billion (we are right at 8 billion now), and we were being told that catastrophe was not only a possibility, but a certainty. All we could do at that late hour was mitigate the coming horror through immediate and draconian measures.


Presaging Al Gore, Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich had written an absurdly influential bestseller in 1968 titled The Population Bomb. The first editions of the book said,


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...


Here's the weird part: when he turned out to be wildly wrong, which was blatantly obvious by 1980 - there was no mea culpa. As recently as 2015, Ehrlich said, "I do not think my language was too apocalyptic in The Population Bomb. My language would be even more apocalyptic today."


You can kind of understand arrogant know-it-alls like Ehrlich and Gore coping with the humiliation of being completely wrong by doubling-down and just pushing the date for the end of the world out a few more years. What you can't understand is why anyone listens to them.


A more local, more real, fear in 1980 was crime. That year, an all-time record for US murders was set (23,040). It wasn't matched for another 10 years, when the population had grown over 10%.


In 2022, we are afraid of criminals again. From an article posted on Yahoo!News this morning (10/5/22):


Violent crime continued to rise across the U.S., according to an annual estimate the FBI released Wednesday.

Murders increased 4.3% last year, rising from 22,000 to 22,900, while rape instances rose as well. The FBI acknowledges that violent crime is at the very least matching the high levels seen in 2020, which surged nearly 30% over 2019.


In 1980, we realized we screwed up the prior presidential election. Because of the turmoil of a previous Republican administration, we had elected a Democrat who seemed to be a low-key, competent grandpa figure who would gently steer us back to peace and quiet. By 1980, it was abundantly clear we had actually elected an incompetent buffoon who was putting us and the rest of the world in danger. Sound familiar?


In November 1980, we had a very important election, just as we do now. Thankfully, for the whole world, we got the election right in 1980. Hopefully, we will do the same in 2022 and 2024.





* though essentially no one outside of Jean-Paul Sartre, who died that year, used the term existential in those days


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