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Why is Paul Ehrlich so extraordinarily sure about everything?

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 19 March 2013


I have never been to a Paul Ehrlich event, and shan't encounter him while he is in Australia. But I read his The Population Bomb back in the late 1960s, and was impressed. It did sound like Malthus reborn - too many people, too few resources, disaster ahead. Rachel Carson had already worried people with Silent Spring. It was an anxious time - a predicted ice age coming, a nuclear holocaust always in prospect, and a war in Vietnam that was not yet over, and had cost us dearly in many ways.

The Club of Rome weighed in in 1972 with its Limits to Growth, and that had the same message: there were too many of us, and the Earth was paying. Human population was growing no matter what anyone did, and soon there would be standing room only. Actually, none of these prophets of coming doom has been proven right over the last near half-century, though their reaction has been to say that doom is still coming, just the same.

As I listened to Ehrlich being interviewed by Classic FM's Margaret Throsby, a repeat interview from 18 months ago, I could tell one reason why he has such status in the world. His voice is rich, deep and warm - you like listening to him. And he is so sure of everything. If you're not sure, then he sounds convincing. He by-passes difficult issues and moves on, ignoring questions he doesn't want to answer. Things are just as he says they are, you feel.

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The trouble is, he is just too sure of himself, and he makes such extraordinary statements. Here are three: in 1970, he warned that "[i]n ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish." In a 1971 speech, he predicted that "By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000." In The Population Bomb, he wrote that "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980." (These quotations come from the Wikipedia article about him, but all are referenced there.)

Your ordinary prophet would go quiet for a long while after making boners like these, but Ehrlich brushes aside criticism. He shrugs if you point out that his remedies for over-population are draconian. He seemed to be accepting of coercive methods to control population size, if positive inducements failed, to the point of putting sterilising agents in water supplies. His proposed optimum level of human population seemed to be around 1.5 billion - less than a quarter of today's global population. He felt that some countries would just have to be abandoned, and left to starve. What would be the point of food aid? What a misanthrope!

At 80 he is still a draw, but I go on wondering why. There has been an astonishing increase in food production over the last fifty years, some of it due to technological improvements in machinery and grain types, some of it due to greater understanding of agriculture by peasant farmers, some of it due to the increased carbon dioxide that is about (the usually ignored positive consequence of global warming).

During his interview Ehrlich pooh-poohed suggestions that he was wrong by saying that the fact that technology had enabled more people to be fed today was irrelevant: let's make sure that everyone on earth today has a decent life before we start talking about what technology can do.

As any good student ought to be able to point out, this is dodging the issue. The fact is that since he wrote his book, human population has doubled, and without anything like the starvation he foreshadowed. How they all get fed is a political issue rather than a technological one. It is a matter for national governments, and they do it with varying degrees of efficiency. The food is there, but getting it to everyone is not easy, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

And that will presumably be true for a long time. A dispassionate account of what has happened might be that there has indeed been an astonishing increase in human population since the beginning of the 19th century, and that it has been allowed because food production has kept pace. On current indicators, the rate of population growth has fallen, and human population will level out in forty years. Human beings have learned how to produce food more economically, to produce sea-food on shore, to conserve land and to increase the planting of trees. In our own country, the environment is in better shape than it was half a century ago.

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While it is true that large urban concentrations present supply problems, they have managed to do this since Rome reached a million people two thousand years ago. You get none of this from Ehrlich. He is a prophet of doom and despair. He is confident and sure of himself, in part at least, because he is much honoured.

Why do we honour prophets of doom and despair? That's the real question. Why is there such a gloomy outlook about our future, one that almost requires people like Ehrlich? I have puzzled about this for years. My current explanation is that since the use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima in 1945, science has become both a blessing and a terror: we humans now know that we are capable of our own destruction, and that possibility is never far away. And each day, or at least year, there is another 'advance' that changes the world, and our lives, and our sense of a stable and positive future.

What do you think?

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A blog entry from Don Aitkin entitled "Why is Paul Ehrlich so extraordinarily sure about everything?" (Don Aitkin, 2013)



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia was published by Allen & Unwin.

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