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?

A section of Ehrlich’s bookcase crammed full of evolutionary biology books—several of them self-authored. Skulls are a frequent prop in his lectures. Photograph by Mark Mahaney

Last fall Ehrlich gave a talk at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, as part of a book tour for The Dominant Animal. For more than an hour, he paced restlessly back and forth on the stage speaking, without notes, in crisp, fully articulated sentences, as if reading from an internal teleprompter. He argued that the planet in 2009 is “vastly overpopulated,” but that it could support a lot more people “living very simply” than people living “like Beverly Hills millionaires or oil barons.” He complained of economists who dream that everyone will be 20 times richer by the end of this century and observed that a student could get through Stanford “without knowing a thing about how the world works.” He mused that extraterrestrial archeologists sifting through our ruins after humans go extinct would likely conclude that two different species of human occupied Earth because of how much we’ve advanced technologically in very recent history. He said that humans have “changed every cubic centimeter of the biosphere in the habitable portion of the planet” and suggested that we “find new ways to govern the globe,” since our nation-states have failed to safeguard its environment. He marveled at neocons who turn into socialists when their stock values tank and at Linnaeus who christened our species Homo sapiens despite the fact that we make such dumb decisions. He talked about shooting wolves from airplanes and likened Earth’s life support system to a flushing toilet. “There,” he concluded, unclipping the microphone from his lapel, “that’ll give you something to think about.”

Ehrlich’s willingness to say exactly what he thinks hasn’t softened over the years, and it’s a large part of the stamp he’s left both in and out of the classroom. He appeared on the Johnny Carson show more than 20 times after the publication of The Population Bomb, terrifying listeners with tales of burgeoning populations and imminent disaster. My uncle was a student at Stanford in the 1960s, and when he and his future wife took Ehrlich’s class, they were so shaken that they decided not to have children. (They later decided that having one child, like the Ehrlichs, would be a legitimate compromise.) Ehrlich still speculates that the alarms he sounded in the late 1960s might have helped lower birthrates and encourage the development of more robust food supplies.

The backlash to The Population Bomb began not long after its 1968 release. In 1970, John Holdren, who had begun working closely with Ehrlich, attended a meeting in New York City on US population policy. Before a room full of population experts, Barry Commoner, a plant physiologist and author of the bestseller The Closing Circle, savaged Ehrlich’s views. He accused Ehrlich of harboring totalitarian ideals, especially in The Population Bomb’s calls for population control “by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.” Soon their differences had spilled into the academic and popular press, and Ehrlich’s credibility was called into question. As demographer Philip Hauser put it at the time, “The thing I would trust Ehrlich with is butterflies.”

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the opposition to the environmental movement—which Ehrlich has dubbed “the brownlash”—intensified. Problems of overpopulation, global warming, acid rain, and species extinction were not just ignored; critics began to ask whether they were problems at all. It was becoming clear by the mid-’80s that the disasters Ehrlich had foreseen in The Population Bomb were not going to happen anytime soon. Skeptics used the lack of bad news to cast doubt on all environmental warnings. “The biggest mistake I made in The Population Bomb was a literary one, which was putting in scenarios,” says Ehrlich. “The book says these are not predictions. They are little stories to help you think about the future. They will never come true. Of course, the right wing turned them all into predictions that wouldn’t come true. So I never use scenarios any more.”

Ehrlich’s greatest antagonist during this period was an economist and professor of marketing at the University of Maryland named Julian Simon, who died in 1998. A former environmentalist who had radically shifted his stance after examining the long-term history of resource availability and prices, Simon argued that Earth’s resources are not limited. Whenever a substance becomes scarce, human ingenuity either finds more of that substance or develops a substitute. Thus, when whale oil became scarce in the latter half of the 19th century, people began lighting their lamps with petroleum. More recently, the replacement of copper wires with optical fiber has replaced a scarce resource with a virtually unlimited one.

Simon went further. Each person added to the human population should not be seen as a drain on resources, he said. Rather, that person represents an additional human mind who could help figure out how to replace scarce resources. As he wrote in a 1980 Science article entitled “Resources, Population, Environment: An Oversupply of Bad News,” “The ultimate constraint upon our capacity to enjoy unlimited raw materials at acceptable prices is knowledge. And the source of knowledge is the human mind. Ultimately, then, the key constraint is human imagination and the exercise of educated skills. Hence an increase of human beings constitutes an addition to the crucial stock of resources.”

This was too much for Ehrlich. Simon was challenging his very worldview. At the time, Simon was offering to bet, on the basis of his analysis, that any natural resource would become cheaper over time—the opposite of what would be expected if resource scarcity were to drive up prices. Ehrlich decided to “accept Simon’s astonishing offer before other greedy people jump in.” After consulting with Holdren and physicist John Harte, Ehrlich bet $200 each on five metals—chrome, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten. If the prices went up, Simon would pay Ehrlich the difference. If they went down, Ehrlich would pay.

It was a bad bet. Though prices of all five metals had risen between 1950 and 1975, the recession of the early 1980s drove down their prices, just as today’s recession is doing with the price of oil. By 1990, the combined real prices of all five metals had fallen by more than 50 percent. Without comment, Ehrlich mailed Simon a check for $576.07.

Ehrlich shrugs off the incident. The problem, he says, was not being wrong about resource scarcity, but a failure, at the time, to understand that commodity prices are an emergent property of a complex social ecological system—by definition, highly unpredictable. Whatever the true significance of the Simon-Ehrlich bet, it nevertheless quickly became a touchstone for right-wing pundits, one with surprising longevity. Last December, when Holdren was nominated as science adviser, conservative commentators were quick to revisit his role in the bet. In Forbes magazine, Ronald Bailey labeled Holdren a “fierce ideological environmentalist” and wrote that the outcome of the bet with Simon confirmed “cornucopian claims that the supply of resources over time becomes more abundant, not scarcer.” In the New York Times, John Tierney devoted a column to a reprise of the bet, largely as a means of casting doubt on Holdren’s fitness for the advisory position. Quoting from a blog post by University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke, Jr., he wrote, “The notion that science tells us what to do leads Holdren to appeal to authority to suggest that not only are his scientific views correct, but because his scientific views are correct, then so too are his political views.”

Ehrlich and his associates—including Holdren—contend that they have always been clear about where they draw the line between science and politics. The first rule, they say, is to present the scientific consensus. “You damn well better know the orthodoxy thoroughly before you become heterodox,” Ehrlich says. The second rule is to clearly identify when you are straying from the consensus. And the third rule is to reveal your values if you are promoting particular ways of addressing a problem. Ehrlich “puts an incredibly high value on speaking the truth,” says his colleague Daily. “But it’s challenging to do that because the issues are so contentious.”

Tags bias consensus politics research

Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2015 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM