Paul Ehrlich answers readers' questions
Famed ecologist, Paul Ehrlich answers questions
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Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University.
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"I am both an ecologist (scientific
discipline) and an environmentalist (a citizen
deeply concerned about the state of the environment).
Sadly, too many "environmentalists" (e.g., Bush)
are to the environment as Saddam was to democracy."
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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!
What do you see as the key limiting factor to human
population growth? Where does water fit into the discussion?
-- Kristen Hite, Kingsport, Tenn.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
What's the chance, at our current/projected rate
of environmental debauchment, of a habitable planet
50 years from now? -- Thomas Hubbard, Everett, Wash.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
For young scientists like myself, how should we
direct our voices and energies to effect sound environmental
policies? -- Thalia Schlossberg, Bloomington, Ind.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Whatever happened to the Club of Rome report? --
Joe Coffman, Portland, Ore.
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).
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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"
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.
It was totally Anglicized by my ancestors to "air-lick."
"Air-lish" is the proper German -- it means honest or
honorable (false advertising?).
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,
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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