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When Paul's Said and Done

Paul Ehrlich, famed ecologist, answers readers' questions


13 Aug 2004
Paul Ehrlich
Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University.
question With the population expected to double and triple in the not-too-distant future, do you see anything short of a miracle that can avert humankind's head-on collision with the destiny that is self extinction?     -- Peter Anastasia, Santa Fe, Ind.

answer Population growth rates have fortunately declined, so even a doubling is relatively unlikely now (especially, sadly, with rising death rates from AIDS and possibly other emergent diseases). Nonetheless, we're still in deep trouble, and without miraculous changes in our behavior we face ecological catastrophes that could make life for almost everyone much less pleasant -- even without the extinction of our species (which is very unlikely).

question As you know, many of the predictions you made in The Population Bomb didn't come true. Have you suffered any criticism or embarrassment because of this?     -- Charles Sommers, Madison, Wis.

answer Some things I predicted have not come to pass. For instance, starvation has been less extensive than I (or rather the agriculturalists I consulted) expected. But it's still horrific, with some 600 million people very hungry and billions under- or malnourished. What I predicted about disease and climate change was essentially right on. And of course the movement the "bomb" helped to fuel softened some of the impacts. Many people said not to worry -- that marvelous technological fixes would make it possible to take wonderful care of even 5 billion people. We now have 6.3 -- you judge how well technology is doing. Bottom line: substantial criticism, little embarrassment.

question Were your predictions in The Population Bomb right? If not, what was wrong with the claims? Was it a matter of degree and emphasis, or serious basic flaws?     -- Richard Groshong, South Miami, Fla.

answer Anne and I have always followed U.N. population projections as modified by the Population Reference Bureau -- so we never made "predictions," even though idiots think we have. When I wrote The Population Bomb in 1968, there were 3.5 billion people. Since then we've added another 2.8 billion -- many more than the total population (2 billion) when I was born in 1932. If that's not a population explosion, what is? My basic claims (and those of the many scientific colleagues who reviewed my work) were that population growth was a major problem. Fifty-eight academies of science said that same thing in 1994, as did the world scientists' warning to humanity in the same year. My view has become depressingly mainline!

question What do you see as the key limiting factor to human population growth? Where does water fit into the discussion?     -- Kristen Hite, Kingsport, Tenn.

answer Availability of freshwater is one of the main constraints in many areas -- perhaps globally it will be the single most important one, because it is so essential to agriculture. My colleagues in earth sciences have often said that if I really understood the water situation, I wouldn't be so optimistic.

question Do you still believe -- as you've said in the past -- that population growth is the No. 1 environmental problem, and that coercion "for a good cause" to slow population growth should still be our first priority?     -- Peter Walker, Eugene, Ore.

answer I think trends in population are in the right direction, but still too slow. China, of course, has done miracles with a relatively coercive program, but I think now we could get birthrates where they belong without much coercion. The worst population problems are in rich nations, especially the U.S., because of their very high rates of consumption. Consumption is, in Anne's and my view, the single most difficult problem to deal with now -- as we discuss extensively in One With Nineveh. Times have changed -- population control, especially among the rich, is critical, but consumption control today is probably more critical and certainly tougher to achieve.

question Is the notion of the earth's "carrying capacity" (CC) well-defined enough to be meaningful? And, if so, what's your definition and approximate value?     -- Bill Fellinger, Williston, Vt.

answer There is no single value, but it still is meaningful. CC depends on the behavior of the organisms (people, in our case) involved -- the CC of earth for vegetarian saints is much higher than for the present mix of people. For that present mix it is easy to show we're in overshoot -- way above the CC. If you want to look at the technical side of the issue, see: Daily, G.C., and P.R. Ehrlich. 1992. Population, sustainability, and earth's carrying capacity. Bioscience 42: 761-771.

question What's the chance, at our current/projected rate of environmental debauchment, of a habitable planet 50 years from now?     -- Thomas Hubbard, Everett, Wash.

answer Habitable for at least a scattered group of homo sapiens? Perhaps 97 percent. Habitable for large numbers of people living a U.S. lifestyle? Maybe 10 percent.

question You mention you were not hired for a position because you are Jewish. Do you consider yourself a member or believer of a Jewish religious community? Is your work inspired by a particular spiritual belief or philosophy, or by a particular humanistic one, or neither?     -- Kathleen Meigs, Ojai, Calif.

answer I have no interest in organized religion of any kind, nor any belief that science can supply all the answers to the philosophical/ethical questions that plague all thinking people.

question How do we get more engagement from scientists and medical professionals in shaping good public policy without jeopardizing their status as unbiased experts? Has your work as an environmentalist diminished the effectiveness of your role as a scientist?     -- Gwen Griffith, Alliance of Veterinarians for the Environment, Nashville, Tenn.

answer I'm working hard with organizations like the Ecological Society of America to improve communication (the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program -- training scientists to communicate with the public and politicians -- is a great step forward). We still need much more. I try to keep my unorthodox scientific judgments (I have some) to myself and only communicate consensus science to the public -- making it clear when I'm doing that and when I'm speaking on policy only as a (possibly) well-informed citizen. Sometimes I fail. My judgment that George W. Bush is the worst president in U.S. history is not a scientific judgment, just a personal one based on massive data. I think my activism has helped my science, making my choice of research topics better.

question You have a 15 second soundbite in which to convince Bush supporters that John Kerry will do more for our country to protect the environment. What do you say?     -- Barbara Baldock, Monterey, Calif.

answer Bush has consistently distorted environmental science for political gain and has not cooperated in the most elementary efforts to deal with climate change, one of the top two or three environmental problems. He shows no knowledge of the other critical issues such as loss of biodiversity, land-use change, decay of the epidemiological environment, and toxification of the planet. Teresa [Heinz Kerry] is an outstanding environmentalist.

question For young scientists like myself, how should we direct our voices and energies to effect sound environmental policies?     -- Thalia Schlossberg, Bloomington, Ind.

answer Get involved immediately by tithing to your society -- putting 10 percent of your time into doing things (working with environmental NGOs, trying to influence your congressperson and senators to vote right) to make the world a better place. Work hard to inform the public, but don't risk your job -- you want to become a senior scientist and have even more influence. Above all this year, work against George W. Bush.

question Can capitalist economic development be inoculated with environmental sensitivity on a large scale? And are extractive and heavy industries making progress in terms of mitigating their negative effects on the natural environment?     -- Sean Dempsey, Raleigh, N.C.

answer There is some good news on the environmental activities of corporations (such as oil companies becoming energy companies and ending membership in right-wing propaganda mills), but there's still a long way to go. Anne and I don't think we can win the game without converting more of industry into a positive environmental force. We need markets, but as Adam Smith noted, they must function under constraints that level playing fields and maintain certain ethical standards. We discuss corporate reform in some depth in One With Nineveh, and give references.

question It now seems King Hubbert was indeed correct in predicting the world peak of oil production to be around this current time. It also seems that natural gas production is at or beyond peak on the continent. How do you think we in this country and those in the broader world will fare as these two sources of energy deplete? Are we doomed to cooking ourselves in a coal-fired economy?     -- Bob Hazard, Santa Barbara, Calif.

answer I hope not -- but until we get government leadership to end fossil-fuel subsidies and start promoting conservation and alternative-energy sources (and halt population growth and find ways to constrain runaway consumption) I'm not overly hopeful. There are a lot of things we could do to deal sensibly with "Hubbert's pimple" -- but I'm pessimistic about whether we'll do them!

question Whatever happened to the Club of Rome report?     -- Joe Coffman, Portland, Ore.

answer There's a new book revisiting it, but I haven't seen it yet. [Editor's note: It's Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update.] [The authors'] basic conclusions were right on -- but they were (as I was as a worried youth) too specific about time frames. But remember, while many of us try to project what's likely to happen in the future, we'll never be exactly correct (if I could accurately predict the future I'd buy stocks low, sell them high, and live in Bora Bora).

question At your core, do you believe human nature can be altered enough (in magnitude and time) to walk away from "anything for a quick buck now" in favor of "a livable world for generations to come"?     -- Tom Wood, Columbia, Mo.

answer I sure hope we can turn the corner -- for the good of Anne's and my grandchildren and those of their generation. But especially under current political conditions, I'm not too hopeful.

question Do you believe GMO crops have any long-term benefit if used wisely in the developing world, or are they simply a path to further environmental disaster for people who are struggling to produce on marginal lands?     -- Joe Kuhn, Chicago, Ill.

answer Like many other technologies, they have great potential, but all of us must be alert to hidden dangers, malign uses, and so on. Remember CFCs looked like a win-win technological miracle, and they almost destroyed the ozone layer and us along with it. Eternal vigilance ...

question What work most urgently needs to be done? In other words, if you were to advise a dedicated activist to pursue a specific career -- one that tackles the most urgent challenges in the environment -- which would it be?     -- Brian Beffort, Reno, Nev.

answer Go into politics and do what you can to keep power from being concentrated in the hands of relatively small segments of society. The scientific community knows what we should be doing, but politics and maldistributed wealth and power prevent it. The front line in the battle to solve the human predicament has shifted to the social sciences. We need to establish an open forum -- a millennium assessment of human behavior -- that challenges humanity to solve the serious problems of how we treat both each other and our environment. I believe the only practical solutions to human problems now are the ones "realists" sneer at.

question Do you pronounce your name 'air-lick' or 'er-lick' or 'air-lish' (as I've been told they do in modern-day Germany)?     -- Matthew Ehrlich, Salem, Mass.

answer It was totally Anglicized by my ancestors to "air-lick." "Air-lish" is the proper German -- it means honest or honorable (false advertising?).

question How does someone who loves and cares deeply about the natural environment (such as me) keep from getting depressed about the current state of things? How can we find hope for the future?     -- Richard Arnold, Errington, B.C., Canada

answer There is lots to worry about, but you've got to do your thing and enjoy the only life you have. During WWII I remember people saying they shouldn't bring children into such a world. But they did, and many have had great lives. Hope is important -- nowhere is it written that people like Bush must control our lives and futures. A few hours in my favorite spots like the West Elk Mountains of Colorado or tropical forests in Coto Brus, Costa Rica, does wonders for my depression -- and wine and friends help too. Don't let the bastards wear you down!

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