Q&A: Paul Ehrlich

The Stanford biologist behind The Population Bomb and The Dominant Animal discusses the frog problem, environmental evangelicals, and Chinese population control.

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Mother Jones: Your critics like to point out that your past predictions of imminent famine didn’t occur. If you were to rewrite The Population Bomb for today, what time frame would you use?

Paul Ehrlich: Overall, The Population Bomb was probably too optimistic. I was writing about climate change—Anne and I actually wrote the book. We discussed whether or not you’d have to take a gondola to the Empire State Building, and that sort of thing, but we didn’t know at the time whether the climate change would be in the direction of heating or cooling. We just didn’t know enough about it. At the time, I thought if the climate was heating that CO2 was the only forcing, and it would be late in the century before we had trouble. Now that we know about the other half of the forcing, it’s obvious that the trouble is coming much sooner. Sherry Rowland hadn’t gotten curious about the fluorocarbons, we didn’t know the threat to the ozone layer, we didn’t talk a lot about the destruction of the tropical forest because Norman Myers hadn’t pointed all that out, and we did discuss novel plagues, but of course AIDS hadn’t hit yet. Looking back, I would have been more detailed on the issue of famines. After The Bomb we developed a fairly good system for moving food around and have avoided the kind of massive famines that attract the media. Although of course we’ve had a fair number of them, particularly in Africa, since The Bomb was written. But we have had a steady level of attrition of malnutrition and malnutrition-related disease. Probably something on the order of 5 to 10 million people starve to death each year, but they’re spread out; they’re not dramatic news events. So, regarding the time frame, I’m only too willing to admit that my crystal ball, like everybody else’s, is cracked. If I could predict precisely, I would have started predicting the stock market and would now be living with a bunch of young women on Bora Bora, having bought it.

MJ: Your predictions can’t be too poor: 40 years after your book, environmentalists and scientists still consider overpopulation to be an essential issue.

PE: The book did the fundamental thing that we hoped it would do, and that David Brower and Ian Valentine who stimulated it wanted it to do, and that is bring the population issue into the environmental discussion. There’s no question at all that the population explosion will come to an end. The two basic choices are it’ll come to an end because we control our reproduction, and in many areas we have started to do so, or we’ll end up with a high death rate. You have to take a personal moral stand on this. I think we ought to take good care of everybody we have on the planet, but we ought to regulate the rate at which people join us. The old saying is, “It’s the top of the ninth inning, and humanity has been hitting nature hard, but you’ve always got to remember that nature bats last.”

MJ: If it’s the ninth inning, have we already passed the point of no return?

PE: I don’t know. I’m sort of optimistic about what we could do, but I’m very pessimistic about what we will do. I can’t tell you that Al Gore’s 10-year plan is impossible. I’m old enough to remember the Second World War—if we had a World War II-type mobilization, we might accomplish Gore’s plan. In 1940 we were making tens of thousands of automobiles, and in 1941 we were making tens of thousands of airplanes. We mobilized as a nation. If we get that kind of mobilization as a nation or globally, then we could solve a lot of these problems.

MJ: Such mobilization is the result of top-down nationwide policy, but what about personal conservation? What can the average person or community do to contribute? Recycle?

PE: Recycling helps make people feel involved, and in some cases can be useful. Although you’ve got to do careful life history studies of what you’re recycling. If all you’re doing is recycling—if you’ve got three automobiles, and 10 children, and a 7,000-square-foot dot-com palace and second home up in the mountains that has to be heated—the recycling isn’t making much difference.

MJ: What about green consumerism?

PE: It’s a small move in the right direction, but I hate to see these things thought of as fundamental changes. If we were redesigning around people instead of around automobiles, which I think the market is more or less going to do, although too slowly, than I’d be a lot cheerier. We’re having a presidential election in which, as far as I’m concerned, none of the critical issues are being discussed. I was asked by a reporter, “Should we be drilling in ANWR where it’s so pristine?” I said I didn’t give a damn whether it was a total wasteland; we shouldn’t be drilling for oil. If we burn all the oil we’ve already found, we’re going to screw up the atmosphere to the point where civilization’s likely to collapse. The drilling idea is spherically senseless—it’s senseless from whatever point of view you look at it. It’d take 10 years to bring any oil online, and it would probably go to Japan. It sure wouldn’t help gasoline prices here. All the economists say gasoline is still too cheap in the United States anyway. So here we’re having this huge debate over offshore drilling that is just straightforward nonsense, which won’t surprise you.

MJ: Just like burning oil, is buying new stuff, even if it’s “green,” inherently unsustainable?

PE: That’s a very wise question. We have been working with economists and thinking hard about this. Actually, it turns out the population issue is an easier thing to deal with than the consumption issue. Some obvious extremes in consumption we can deal with. The standard cure for a stuttering economy is to go out and buy an SUV and three more refrigerators. That’s obviously not the way to go. We know that if you have $20 million, it’s better to buy a van Gough print than it is buy an executive jet, from the point of view of the environment. But when you start getting down, it’s like the recycling question: What are things we can really afford to do, and how much pleasure do we get out of them? We haven’t even started to have that discussion, and it’s getting awfully late.

MJ: Has the green movement got enough momentum to actually produce meaningful change?

PE: I wish I could tell you the answer. A lot will be shown, at least in this country, through the election. Although I don’t think a Democratic win in itself will be a solution, we might move in the right direction. The Republicans have struggled to wreck the environment as hard as they can. Just a quick story: One of my colleagues, a very distinguished scientist, met me at our field site in Colorado. We got off the plane and the first thing he said was, “Do you think this is it?” In other words, most of the scientists I know think civilization is teetering on the brink of a global disaster. They just don’t know when it’s going to hit. I don’t have the answer to that either. I’m scared as hell.

MJ: Going back to your roots as an entomologist, are there any bellwether species that you’re looking at?

PE: There are a lot of signs. One of the things that makes me most nervous is the disappearance of the frogs. They’re going downhill all over the planet. Frogs are susceptible to all kinds of problems, because they require water to breed and their skin is very porous. Their condition is nerve racking. Organisms are starting to move in response to climate change all over the place. Bees are disappearing and we don’t have many of the native pollinators left to replace them. We’re in deep trouble; there’s no question about it. But ecologists tend to think of something that’s going to be bad in ten years as very fast, and of course, politicians only think of things in a two-, four-, six-year cycle.

MJ: Do any politicians understand how serious the situation is?

PE: I think some of them do. My congresswoman, Anna Eshoo, understands. You could count Tim Wirth, a former senator and undersecretary at the State Department, who now runs the UN Foundation as a politician. I think he does. And I’ve been told that Obama is brilliant, and he has certainly had some good advice from good people. I don’t really know whether he understands. You probably won’t find out during a political campaign. I wish I could give you really solid answers on those, but I can’t. I don’t know. I would like to hope. Historically, things were moving in a pretty good direction until the Reagan presidency. And then it all got reversed. The Mexico City policy was instituted—the idea of wrecking the environment for this generation’s profit and forgetting about our gets got firmly embedded. I’m sad to say the Clinton administration didn’t turn it around and the Bush administration, well, I think they’re the worst administration we’ve ever had, and I used to be a Republican.

MJ: If you were in the Oval Office, what would be your first policy move?

PE: My first policy move would be to try to get a conversation going in the US about what people stand for and what we really want. Do we want to keep adding people to the world and to our country until we move to a battery-chicken kind of existence and then collapse? Or do we want to think hard about what really is valuable to us, and figure out how many people we can supply that to sustainably? I don’t think scientists can dictate from above what we should do, because it’s not a matter of scientific decision. If you want to have everybody living like a Beverly Hills millionaire, then 2 billion people might be too many. If we want to have a battery-chicken kind of world, with everybody having an absolute minimum diet, you might be able to support 10 billion. So people have to decide, first of all, how they’d like to live, and how secure they want to be from disaster. After that, scientists can help determine what would be necessary to achieve that.

MJ: But surely science should help inform our decisions?


PE: Sure. For example, all scientists who’ve looked at it know we have to phase away from burning fossil fuels. That means we’ve got to put a lot of effort into alternate energy technologies, but we’re still subsidizing fossil fuels and not subsidizing most of the alternatives. It’s not going to be an easy transition. Sometimes I think the Congress feels that if you only decided tomorrow to switch to wind power that in two years we’d be getting 80 percent of our electricity from wind power. It’s nonsense. Normally it takes 20 to 30 years after a new technology is demonstrated and deployed before it powers even 15 or 20 percent of the grid. There’s this long lag time, and we haven’t even decided which directions to go.

MJ: What about the argument that China, India, Indonesia won’t ever get on board, even after we finally make a decision?

PE: First of all, the Chinese are already more on board than we are. China is the only country that actually discussed in formal government documents how important it is to control the size of your populations if you’re going to limit emissions. People have not made the connection that the more of us there are, the more greenhouse gases go into the atmosphere. The Chinese have. They, unlike us, have a population policy. The right wingers just don’t understand that the country they’re in is probably the most overpopulated in the world, the one doing most of the destruction, and the one with horrendously bad leadership.

MJ: Come January, new leadership may implement programs to reduce carbon emissions. Would you prefer a cap-and-trade or carbon-tax program?

PE: Economists are all over the place on this. I kind of like carbon taxes because we already know how to apply them. We already have apparatus in place. When we talk about these other solutions—like a billion tons of iron filings in the ocean or putting sunshades between us and the sun—they’re huge. We have no idea if they will work. We have no idea what their nasty consequences might be. And it’s unlikely we can do them anyway. With taxes, if they aren’t working right, we can change them with a stroke of the pen. It’s basically a market-type mechanism. People make their own choices. You run the taxes, and you get the results. Some very good economists like Larry Goulder at Stanford have spent a huge amount of time asking the question, “If we tax gas to the point where every sensible economist thinks it ought to be, several more dollars a gallon at least, how do you keep the poor from being driven out of jobs when they have to commute an hour each way to jobs, say, as grocery sackers?” The answer is tax shifting. You take the huge income that comes with a big gas tax, and you use it to pay off regressive taxes like the FICA [Federal Insurance Contributions Act] tax. You can help the poor in other ways besides giving them cheap gas. You want to send the message that people want to be as efficient as possible using gasoline until we can transition away from that need entirely.

MJ: Along with Goulder, whose ideas should we listen to?

PE: Mine, of course. Everybody should buy The Dominant Animal.

MJ: Well, not that we won’t listen to you, but who else should we be listening to?

PE: There are lots of excellent analysts out there. John Holdren at the Harvard Kennedy School, who was just president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has been talking about this stuff for years. There are lots of people out there who understand what’s going on. The problem is, they aren’t much picked up on Fox News. There is a community of environmental science. I often refer people to the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity in 1993, and the same year the world’s 58 academies of science issued a statement on population growth. Here’s the scientific community saying, fundamentally, “If we don’t change our ways, we’re screwed.” And they got no attention at all. Even though the Union of Concerned Scientists put out this statement which was signed by more than half of all the Nobel laureates in science and another 1,500 distinguished scientists. They had a PR firm, and they couldn’t even get it into the newspapers or onto the media. The scientific community saying “we’re fucked” just turned out to be not that newsworthy.

MJ: What has to be done for the environment to become a more focal issue?

PE: The main thing is, and of course this is a pedant talking, we should start our education on these issues in kindergarten. Instead of saying, “See Spot run,” we ought to say, “See the plant grow in the sun.” We ought to explain what runs the weather in the third or fourth grade to start out with. There’s all of this stuff where we have so much debate over nonsense; it could be cured if we had a better educational system, if we trained people to really try and look into things on their own. That’s a tough thing to do, particularly with the educational system staggering. The other thing is to do what I do, and that is to blab as much as possible. Stanford may be the best university in the world, but you can get all the way through here without knowing where your food came from, without being able to say where we came from, without being able to give a coherent description of why the climate is changing and why we should be concerned about it. So I started teaching a course in human evolution and the environment that’s open to all Stanford students, no prerequisites.

MJ: So it comes back to education?

PE: Education is part of it, but it’s obviously also political action. But you’ve got to understand what to act on. I’m going to spend the rest of my career trying to get a general conversation going about what we should want, and how we should get it.

MJ: How do you feel about bringing environmental evangelicals into that conversation?

PE: I’ll take any ally I can find. One thing is sure—we’re never all going to agree with each other. We have to learn to value the diversity. It’s one of the presumable principles of our government that isn’t followed nearly enough—one of the jobs of the majority is to try and make the minority feel comfortable. For example, I’m a great fan of pornography, but I don’t see any reason not to restrict it so that people walking down the street who hate pornography don’t have full color pictures outside of movie theaters. Let them be in a different district. I’m kidding about pornography, but you get the point.

MJ: I’m going to quote you on that.

PE: [Laughs.] Don’t quote me on that…Just say I was an actor in pornography. No. The point is, for instance, I think a woman should have the choice whether to have an abortion or not, but I like what Bill Clinton said: It ought to be safe and rare. You don’t want to offend people with it. You try and do as much as you can to let people be different, but also to try and protect them from things that they think are bad. And it’s worth all of us giving a little. So the evangelicals, welcome on board. I’ve actually acted on that. I don’t like the idea of teaching religion in schools, and creation is not my thing, but that’s a trivial point compared to saving the creation. I’d much rather have half of the people in the country be creationists and work really hard to save the creation than have everybody be evolutionists and be destroying the planet.

MJ: Right. We all need to be part of the solution, so involve as many people from as many places as possible. You’ve traveled extensively; what’s the greenest city you’ve ever visited?

PE: Damn few of them are green. I don’t think I can come up with a defensible answer to that. Curitiba, Brazil, at one time as I recall, was doing very nicely, but I was only there a very short time. California in general is doing better than most. And Northern California is better than the rest of California—we’re paying more attention to these issues. Schwarzenegger, with whom I sometimes agree and sometimes disagree, at least cares about these issues and is trying to do something about it.

MJ: Trying is good, but what needs to happen so that we can actually do something to improve environmental conditions? What’s the next step?

PE: We’ve all got to get together and demand something better out of our government and out of each other. We’ve got a system that’s making us working harder, and isn’t giving us satisfaction. We’ve got to sit down and decide what the hell we really want to be as human beings.


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