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Paul R. Ehrlich: Saving Earth

Patt Morrison Asks

The scholar looks the planet, and humanity, in the face.

February 12, 2011|Patt Morrison

For a scholar who traffics in some of the more dispiriting elements of modern biology, ecology and demographics, Paul R. Ehrlich is a remarkably funny guy. His caption for this picture? "A living Neanderthal" contemplating the skull (a replica) of an extinct one. Maybe his humor is a coping mechanism for the parlous state of the planet; maybe it's the result of more than 50 years as a Stanford University researcher, professor and author.

However you draw the map of this melting, freezing world, Ehrlich is on it. He got there in 1968, with the sizzlingly, and to Ehrlich's mind now, regrettably titled book "The Population Bomb." It is replete with "ifs" and "whens" about the catastrophic collision of population versus resources, some of which have come to pass and some of which haven't -- yet. On that score, Ehrlich is as gleeful at attacking his critics as they are at going after him.

In his latest book, "Humanity on a Tightrope," coauthored with Robert E. Ornstein, the tightrope could still turn into a lifeline if humans choose the right balance. Before he's off to Costa Rica to pursue his first academic love, butterflies, he's looking the planet, and humanity, in the face.

One thing I draw from your new book is that you're now calling on individuals to do what institutions have failed to when it comes to saving the planet and ourselves.

That's part of it. We now know more than enough about what the hell is wrong with the world. The climate, the toxification of the planet, the epidemiological environment, the chances of plague, losing biodiversity, the rate of extinction of species -- and we're doing nothing about it. We've had 10 failures now on international attempts to do something about climate change. If we don't figure out how to change human behavior toward sustainability, we're basically ? screwed, I think is the technical term.

There's a mechanical model of what's happening to the world: Go into the smallest room of your house, and attached to the floor is a porcelain thing, and if you raise the lid on it and then you look into the bowl and press one of the levers, it will show you what's happening to the environment.

"The Population Bomb," which you and your wife, Anne, wrote more than 40 years ago, includes scenarios that haven't happened. Critics throw these back at you to prove you were wrong then and to suggest you are wrong now.

Scientists live by their reputations with their colleagues, not with Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. I'm attacked almost daily on the blogs.

When we wrote it, there were about 3.5 billion people on the planet; about half a billion of them were hungry. Today there are 7 billion people on the planet and about a billion of them are hungry. We've lost something on the order of 200 million to 400 million to starvation and diseases related to starvation since the book was written. How "wrong" [were] we?

Of course all our predictions were not correct, but a lot of the stuff they say were predictions were scenarios where we said: These are not predictions; these are stories to make you think about the future.

We'd write an entirely different book [today]. We didn't know anything [then] about ozone depletion, what the threat was. The climatologists weren't sure whether it was going to be a problem of more cold or more heat. What we said is, if you're putting crap into the atmosphere, you're going to change the climate.

We mentioned the possibility of having to kayak to the Washington Monument; we also talked about the possibility of [global] cooling. We didn't know what was happening to the tropical forests. There's very little in the book on biodiversity [risks] because the work hadn't been done yet.

What was crystal clear then and is crystal clear today is that one of the major factors is the size of the human population. The I = P x A x T equation -- [human] impact is the product of the number of people, how much each one consumes and the technologies we use for consumption.

People are uncomfortable talking about population -- it brings up such intimate choices and the specter of government control over who procreates -- but they will talk about consumption. Does that address the problem more palatably?

Everybody who can count up to 20 without taking off their shoes is aware there's a population problem. But most politicians and many economists still think that more consumption is the cure for everything rather than part of the disease.

We know we can change our consumption habits very nearly overnight: In 1941, the U.S. produced almost 4 million passenger cars. Then came Dec. 7, and for the next several years we produced millions of military vehicles, tanks, trucks, thousands of military aircraft and ships, developed nuclear weapons and detonated them, rationed rubber, sugar, coffee, gasoline -- showing that if the incentives are right, [we] can change our consumption patterns, including the way industry works, basically overnight.

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