Knowing How to Pick a Fight

Feature / by Steve Olson /

Paul Ehrlich believes in provocation and speculation, forcing us to consider: If not for the provocateurs, would we pay attention?

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Since 1959 Ehrlich has conducted research and, until recently, lived on the grounds of Stanford University. He calls himself “an unusual academy specimen,” having had only one tenure-track job for 49 of his 77 years. Photograph by Mark Mahaney

For decades, right-wing commentators have heaped abuse on Paul Ehrlich. He has been derided as a “stupendously bad prophet” by the Wall Street Journal, “always wrong” by Investor’s Business Daily, a “doom-monger” by the Hoover Institution.

When I repeat some of these characterizations to Ehrlich over lunch at a Palo Alto cafe, he laughs. “I don’t give a shit what people like Ann Coulter think of me,” he says. The opinions that he cares about are those of his fellow scientists, and they are, fortunately, far less caustic. “They might say, ‘Ehrlich is more pessimistic than I would be,’ or ‘Ehrlich has not valued the green revolution as much as I would have,’” he says. “But I don’t think I’ve seen a single scientific review of something I’ve written that says, ‘This is wrong.’”

Since publishing his first scientific article in Lepidopterists’ News in 1948, Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, has written nearly a thousand articles, reviews, opinion pieces, prefaces, white papers, and some 30 books. He published his latest book, The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment (see review), just last year and is currently working on three new books, a couple dozen papers, and, he adds, “thousands of backed-up emails.” (Every day he receives well over 300 messages, many of them requests for lectures, interviews, and opinions.) He has been awarded the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy (the biological equivalent of the Nobel), a MacArthur Fellowship, a Heinz Award for “thoughtful study of difficult environmental issues,” the United Nations’ Sasakawa Environmental Prize, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, and at least a half dozen other major awards.

Yet in one of the cruel absurdities of legacy, Ehrlich’s name is invariably linked with a book that he and Anne Ehrlich, his wife and long-time collaborator (and the corecipient of many of his prizes), wrote in a few weeks in the late 1960s, at a time when the world seemed to be coming undone. They wanted to call the book Population, Resources, and Environment. Their publisher wanted something slightly pithier: It went to press as The Population Bomb.

Many writers can look back on things they wrote early in their lives and cringe, and The Population Bomb certainly has its share of cringe-worthy passages. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” it begins. “In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” Ehrlich and his wife, who have just a single child, were especially proscriptive about reproduction. “We can no longer afford merely to treat the symptoms of the cancer of population growth,” they wrote. “The cancer itself must be cut out.” They suggested that Earth might be able to support 2 billion people comfortably—less than one-third of the 6 billion-plus now living on the planet.

The Population Bomb has been a lightning rod for complaints that environmentalists are more concerned about reengineering society to match an imagined ideal than they are about personal freedoms. Yet the Ehrlichs stand by the book. In a soon-to-be-published essay, they write that “despite its flaws, it provides a useful lens to view the environmental, energy, and food crisis of the present time.” They point out that hundreds of millions of people have starved to death since the 1960s, just as the book predicted. But they died quietly and in out-of-the-way places, not as a ravenous horde descending on barricaded food warehouses while the cameras rolled. And while most of the disasters foreseen in the book have not occurred, environmental problems overlooked at the time have become more threatening, such as the acidification of the oceans and the release of hormone-mimicking chemicals into the environment.

“People will always say to me, ‘but you said such-and-such in The Population Bomb,’” says Ehrlich. “Well, that was 40 years ago. Science marches on. I don’t believe every single word I wrote 40 years ago.” The book was clearly a product of its time—parts of it still read with the overheated earnestness of late-’60s millenarianism. But The Population Bomb asked questions that continue to haunt us today. Will human beings muddle through this modern period of fearsome technological, environmental, demographic, and cultural change? Or will we choke on our own excess—overheating the planet, filling the water and soil with toxic chemicals, or obliterating ourselves with our own weapons?

These questions were at the fore earlier this year at a hearing on Capitol Hill where John Holdren, Ehrlich’s former student and frequent coauthor, appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee. Beneath the ornate chandeliers of the hearing room, committee members were deferential to President Obama’s choice as science adviser until chairman John Rockefeller called on Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana. Leaning into his microphone, Vitter read from a 1971 article in which Holdren and Ehrlich predicted that “some form of ecocatastrophe, if not thermonuclear war, is almost certain to overtake us before the close of the century.” Turning to Holdren, Vitter asked, “Do you think that was a responsible prediction?”

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