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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Ehrlich is upfront about his values, both in his conversations and in his writing. He is appalled, he says, by scenes of human poverty and misery that he has witnessed around the world. He scorns the overconsumption of most Americans and says he would welcome the invention of a “consumption condom.” He would prefer a world in which everyone would use public transportation to get to work, or even better, their legs.

Ehrlich also insists that the scientific consensus supports his assessment of our environmental plight. He cites the 1992 “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” signed by a majority of science Nobel laureates, that “many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society… and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.” He points to a 1993 statement by 58 of the world’s scientific academies that “continuing population growth poses a great risk to humanity.” “Don’t take my word for it,” he says. “This is the consensus.”

The brownlash has succeeded in distracting the public from scientifically derived conclusions, Ehrlich says. “People in the media often think that if two scientists disagree, the truth has to lie in the middle. But look at the history of science—that’s almost never the case.” Ptolemy and Copernicus were not both a little right. A lifetime of stretching for leaves does not make for a long neck. In retrospect, Ehrlich contends, today’s arguments over the state of the environment will seem equally wrongheaded.

In “The Perils of a Modern Cassandra: Rhetorical Aspects of Public Indifference to the Population Explosion,” Michigan Technical University professor of rhetoric Craig Waddell analyzes what he calls the failure of The Population Bomb. Ehrlich appeals to “fear rather than compassion,” he writes. He makes no effort, Waddell observes, “to convert [an] audience from one dedicated or apathetic to the destruction of beauty and wildlife to one dedicated to the preservation of both.”

Ehrlich hasn’t read Waddell’s essay, but he seems to have absorbed its message. The 1990 book The Population Explosion, coauthored with Anne, revisits the themes of The Population Bomb without calling for coercive population-control measures. “A less crowded, less frantic society in which all children were wanted and cared for could offer a safer, more peaceful life,” they write. In the 2008 The Dominant Animal, the Ehrlichs take the long view, beginning with the evolution of anatomically modern humans and tracing our history to the present. Humans evolved to live in small groups within a stable or slowly changing cultural, technological, and climatic environment, they write. Yet we now find ourselves living in a global society in which all of these things are changing rapidly. Is it any wonder we feel so disoriented?

Ehrlich does not put much faith in technology to rescue us. For example, the internet can disseminate information and give a voice to people who have never been heard from before. “But how do you count into it the disinformation?” Ehrlich asks. “The web is an incredibly important and useful resource, but there’s also gigantic amounts of bullshit online.” Similarly, global trade has the potential to disseminate sustainable technologies throughout the world. But so far, according to Ehrlich, the rich countries have used trade mostly “to screw the poor countries.” A truly sustainable world, he says, won’t be had as long as “billions of people are starving while the rich hold on to their nuclear weapons.”

Ehrlich instead sees the answer in what he calls cultural evolution—our ability to learn new things. We are not forced to live like small group animals in a bewildering, globalized world. We can organize our lives in sustainable societies, providing women, for example, with universal education and health care, which has a much greater effect on long-term fertility levels than coercive government policies. We can rebuild cities so that people do not idle needlessly in their cars while degrading the atmosphere. We can anticipate environmental change so that we are not surprised when it occurs. If this faith in human ingenuity seems to echo that of Julian Simon, Ehrlich maintains a critical distinction: Resources are scarce, and more minds do not turn population growth into an unqualified good. Rather, humans can learn to recognize fundamental limits of natural systems, and with innovative thinking, find ways to thrive within those bounds. When I called Ehrlich in February, he was working on an op-ed encouraging the Obama administration to spend the stimulus funds more along these lines. “We’re facing something on the order of a thousand years of continual change in rainfall patterns, and we should be thinking about how to rebuild our water-handling infrastructure with maximum flexibility,” he said. “We’re going to have to be changing the locations of pipes, dams, canals, and so on constantly over the next centuries.”

To help make the transition to a smarter world, Ehrlich and former Stanford president Donald Kennedy have been advocating what they call a Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior, which would bring together social scientists and natural scientists to chart sustainable pathways into the future. “If people can decide how they want to live, the scientific community can help tell them whether it’s possible and how many people can live that way for how long,” he says. A particular challenge is to learn from the social sciences how best to use information to change destructive human behaviors. “Social psychologists know a lot about how to frame things and how to change people’s minds. So do the marketers. But my colleagues in ecology don’t pay much attention to marketing. As a result, we don’t get our messages out as effectively as people who are on the other side.”

In my last conversation with Ehrlich, I asked him whether he considers himself an optimist or a pessimist. “I get that question a lot,” he says. “I used to say that I’m pessimistic about what will happen but I’m very optimistic about what could happen if we do the right things. Now I would say I’m optimistic about what might happen if we do the right things but I’m very pessimistic that we’ll manage to do it.” The road to perdition, says Ehrlich, may be longer than he thought when Anne and he were writing The Population Bomb, but humans are still on it. Greenhouse gases are accumulating in the atmosphere, toxic chemicals are accumulating in our bodies, and the use of nuclear weapons could at any moment plunge humanity back into the Stone Age. “As more data comes out that even India and Pakistan could largely destroy the world if they have a nuclear war, the more I find it hard to be optimistic.”

And that’s the final paradox of Ehrlich’s career. He is a person who seems to find great joy in life. He has loyal friends, a litany of accomplishments, and a purpose that seems to inspire him each day. Yet he has spent much of his career thinking about how we could destroy ourselves. Hedging against uncertainty, suspended between scientific “fact” and public “ought,” willing to be loved and reviled in equal measure. Maybe that’s what it takes, in the end, if you want to leave a mark not just in the scientific literature, but in the annals of human culture.

Originally published August 4, 2009

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