Paul Ehrlich

By: Alexis Madrigal
May 29, 2010

PAUL EHRLICH (born 1932) wrote sophisticated horror narratives cleverly disguised as a serious manifesto about ecology. Known for his immensely successful 1968 book, The Population Bomb, the Stanford biologist became a celebrated commentator on the relationship between humans and the planet. Lost through his transfiguration into an environmental icon is the irreducible weirdness of his work. Bomb was a mélange of serious population dynamics research, wonky policy talk, a zero population growth manifesto, nuclear terror, and very strange fictional vignettes. “Freddy was happy behind the plow. The mule was strong, and the work was going well,” one scenario goes. “Only in some parts of the southeast had survival been possible and he’d been one of the lucky ones.” The writing is clunky but the plotting is plodding, but the plot lines are grisly enough to hold our attention. In Ehrlich’s own estimation, the happiest of his three scenarios “presumes the death by starvation of as many as a billion people” and he “challenged” his readers to “to create one more optimistic.” His prescription for the globe was to impose population growth restrictions by any means necessary. The good news is that humans didn’t need the Ehrlich cure. Few of his policies were enacted and he turned out to be spectacularly wrong on just about every count but one: human beings probably are irreversibly damaging the planet. But it will be slow and long and there will be billions happily living through it all. The apocalypse he imagined was bright and spectacular like a missile strike. The ones that seem likely to arrive will be as invisible as carbon dioxide and as boring as an Excel Spreadsheet of oil field depletion rates.

ALSO BORN ON MAY 29: T. H. White.


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What do you think?

  1. Fascinating that of all the threats to the planet, sheer mass of population is the one that everyone, left, right, and center, has agreed to pretend doesn’t exist, when it’s probably the most insidious one of all.

  2. Even more fascinating is how doomsday prophets are always wrong — Nuclear Holocausr, Y2k, Global Warming, Global Cooling, Mad Cow Disease, Population Explosion, Mass Starvation, Mass Obesity, Peak Oil, Smog, Carbs, Atkins. All wrong. Always Wrong. Everytime. — And yet, we still listen.

  3. @Luc: I think the argument there is that a small percentage of the population consumes the vast majority of resources. In that sense, it’s partly an equity problem, and not just about mass. Of course, talking about the redistribution of wealth (across time, across classes, across borders) is basically a no-no in America, too.

    @Sickmon: That’s quite a menagerie of topics to include in the “doomsday” category. I’d say a lot of what you mentioned falls under the “things that are known to be bad, but we don’t know how bad” heading. No one said smog was going to destroy the world, merely that the particulates and substances that compose smog shave years off people’s lives. Which they do. That’s just a cold fact.

    So, if you’re making an argument for reasonably assessing threats, that’s fine with me. If you’re trying to use the predictive failure of someone who had a dark vision of the world to discredit all modern threats, we don’t agree.

  4. Alex interesting point. I’m from Los Angeles where both Smog and Carbs (or whatever is thought to make one fat at the moment) are equated with Doomsday. I forget sometimes that I live in one of the few places in the world where inventing a doomsday scenario is a cottage industry.

    Forgive me if I’m wrong, but most “cold hard facts” of Doomsdayish nature are based on correlations which can’t by their nature prove causation. Ironically, the inventor of this type of thinking, Charles Spearman, is also the father of the I.Q. Doomsday Prophets of the Bell Curve.

    The point I was making was, all doomsday prophets, except for Jeremiah and Co., have been false prophets who base their vision of the future off of the limited knowledge of an assumed correlation with the present. The “cold hard facts” we cherish are nothing more than assumed statistical correlations based upon our own biased presuppositions. Correlations work both ways. Is it smokers die of cancer therefore smoking causes cancer, or cancer is caused by bad genes which also predispose people to smoke?

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