Paul Ehrlich

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'Nothing less is at stake than the fate of human civilization'1 is Paul Ehrlich's motto both now and for much of his academic career. Of all the fields of the natural sciences, it might be expected that biology might produce the most thinkers on environmental matters, and the entry on Aldo Leopold is another example of this. But of all the recent (post-1960) contributors to the provision of information and to participation in public debate, Ehrlich is the most prominent. Born in 1932, he took his first degree at the University of Pennsylvania and his Ph.D. at the University of Kansas (1957); an appointment as Professor of Biology at Stanford University in 1966 was the first of a series of posts in that institution. From this secure base he has published a series of books and papers, travelled widely and engaged in numerous debates and acts of public service. His contributions to environmental thought and action have brought him honours such as medals from the World Wildlife Foundation, the MacArthur prize and the Heinz Award as well as Membership of the National Academy of Sciences and Fellowship of the AAAS.

Although Ehrlich has had a high public profile in the USA and in certain world forums, most people are influenced by his published work.

There are perhaps four strands to this: (1) basic research in the natural sciences, and in particular on the population ecology of birds and butterflies; (2) advocacy on the subject of human population growth, with a strong neo-Malthusian outlook which suggests that many, if not most, problems of the human species are the result, immediately or indirectly, of rapid population growth; (3) human ecology: the connection of human activities to the biophysical systems of the planet in areas such as biodiversity and agriculture; and (4) widely read popular works and student texts on population—resource-environment linkages.

Category (1) is perhaps of least obvious interest to us here. It includes work on birds, butterflies and coral reefs in the classic team mode of the natural sciences,2 but it is worth noting that a 1965 paper on the co-evolution of butterflies and plants has become a Citation Classic in the ISI Current Contents series.3 The ways in which the central concern with basic biology (which has acted as a grounding for all the other work throughout) include a concern for the extinction of species, the conservation of both tropical and temperate forests, and even the effect of scientific study upon butterfly populations.4 The key point is that although Ehrlich became mostly known for his advocacy—and indeed polemic—on environmental concerns, his attention to basic science has been constant.

As a result of rapid immigration and industrial anabasis, coupled with an affluent and well-educated population, California in the 1960s became a centre of 'alternative' thinking about population—resource— environment relations. The 'hippy' movement with its attention to communal lifestyles and illegal substances was one strand, but another was a more intellectual and factually well-informed questioning of the gospels of growth and development as they appeared in that state, in the USA, in the industrial nations, and finally in the world as a whole. One pointer was the volume of essays edited by S.von Ciriacy-Wantrup and J.J.Parsons,5 which brought many of the issues into focus, another the radical questioning of 'growth' by the geographer D.B.Luten,6 yet another the expansion of the influence of the Sierra Club (which is based in San Francisco) as an environmental campaigning body rather than a mountaineers' organization. In this Zeitgeist the strongly expressed views of Ehrlich on population, for example, were not seen as extreme, and indeed the outlooks developed in category (2) fitted well into the relatively radical sets of ideas being developed at the time.

Thus it was that the publication by the Sierra Club of The Population Bomb in 1968 which propelled Ehrlich from a base in which notions of population control in the affluent countries was not seen as necessarily controversial to a wider public discussion in which it certainly was. The USA was described as the world's largest consumer and so strong was its effects, example and influence that, '[W]e must have population control at home.. .by compulsion if voluntary methods fail. We must use our political power to push other countries into programs which combine agricultural development and population control.'7 The book created considerable interest world-wide and has been reprinted and translated into several languages. Hardback and paperback reprints were still on offer in on-line bookshops in 1999. The uncompromising neo-Malthusian message, combined with some startling prophecies (the Prologue's second sentence starts, '[I]n the 1970's the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.'8), not only presented a series of challenges to development-minded agencies in the USA and internationally, but was sufficiently well expressed to propel Ehrlich into the status of a media-figure and global guru. In particular it confronted the orthodox position of the Roman Catholic Church on chemical and physical methods of contraception (mathematics was however allowed), although these were not particularly strongly obeyed in most developed countries: growth rates in, for example, Latin America were then very high. The term 'Vatican roulette' inspired the inclusion in the book of the text of letters to the then Pope and the local Archbishop suggesting that the Church modify its position: the letter to Paul VI seems not to have been passed to his successor. Famines did occur in the 1970s, though mostly in zones of civil strife rather than in areas with especially rapid population growth (of course competition for resources of any kind may have a demographic component), and there have been some notable downturns in population growth rates though the highest in Africa, for example, are not associated with an especially Catholic culture, and AIDS has rather transformed the demographics of several African nations.

The bulk of The Population Bomb was however devoted to extending the ideas of Malthus in the sense that it was not the absolute size of the population that mattered, but its relation to its resource base. So the foundations were laid in that book for explorations of the linkages of population growth to the new world of intensive agriculture, of high rates of per capita mineral and energy use, of the production of environmental contaminants and even of the crowding of recreation space. Small wonder therefore that such ideas were contested: by those whose 'boosterist' heritage came under attack, and by those whose stance was fundamentally in favour of population growth as producing a responsive innovation in technological development and who in the end saw each extra human as the producer of a resource rather than a consumer. The refinement of the neo-Malthusian argument has however been a continuing theme of subsequent years, with more and more attention being paid to the social context of population growth and the contexts in which policy decisions are made about, for example, US aid to family planning programmes overseas. These more developed ideas were brought together in The Stork and the Plow: The Equity Answer to the Human Dilemma,9 though the use of the definite article in the subtitle perhaps suggests that there is still held to be a central relationship which determines most if not all of the others. The forcing function of population in all those linkages was underlined by a paper that used energy consumption as a surrogate for human impact on the environment to calculate the optimum population size.10 This came out at 1.5x109 people (1.5 billion) using 4.5 TW of energy. The population in 1999 was 6 billion and the energy consumption in the order of 15 TW, so the difference is large.

The more detailed exploration of the relationships between human populations, resource use and environmental impact has been explored by Ehrlich (usually with co-authors and most frequently with Anne Ehrlich) in a number of papers in relatively specialized journals, as well as in sources with a wider circulation. These comprise category (3) of his output. The topics include, but are not confined to, food security and production11 and the nuclear winter debate.12 Inevitably, during the 1990s the term 'sustainability' enters the discussion and an integrated attempt to bring together several aspects of the relations of population, technology and environment can be found in the 1992 paper where the social dimensions of the perceived problems are linked to those provided by more mainstream ecological science: '[S]ound science...can give minimal guidance at best regarding the issues surrounding the question of the kinds of lives people would choose to live.'13 Their bottom line, not one popular with either democratic governments, large corporations or dictatorships, is that technology cannot make biophysical carrying capacity infinite, though there is presumably a stage somewhere when a vastly increased world population is one half of a food-humans monoculture. The working-out of detail in the topics of food, energy, wildlife, toxicology, water and minerals is at the heart of a number of books which are aimed at college students in the USA and which convey the Ehrlich world-view as well as a great deal of factual material,14 as well as popular books designed to raise awareness among lay people.15

As a result of the study of these connections, Ehrlich was often ready to make predictions. The putative famines of the 1970s were accompanied by suggestions that smog in Los Angeles and New York might kill 200,000 people (predicted in 1969), that England would not exist in the year 2000 (said in 1969) and that accessible minerals would be facing depletion before 1985 (dated 1976). If we read 'United Kingdom' for the common misuse of 'England' by North Americans, then we can see that it is still physically in existence in spite of the excesses of the last days of 1999. The minerals issue was the focus of a public dispute with the optimistic economist and business advocate Julian Simon, whose work consistently argued that all measures of human welfare were tending upwards. The dispute came to a bet in which the change in price of metals between 1980 and 1990 was held by Ehrlich to be upwards and by Simon to be downwards. Copper, chrome, nickel, tin and tungsten were Ehrlich's choice. Adjusted for inflation, copper fell by -18.5%, chrome by -40%, nickel by -3.5%, tin by -72% and tungsten by -57%. Ehrlich paid up. Most of the prices fell because of technological improvements and substitutions, though tin crashed because of the break-up of a price-fixing cartel. In other words, social factors plus the robustness of neo-classical economic thought outran the purely Malthusian calculations of the ecologist. Simon then offered to bet on any trends relating to 'basic human material welfare'. Ehrlich and Schneider offered a list of 15 items for consideration of a mostly biological nature but Simon declined these parameters and died (in 1977) before any new betting conditions could be drawn up. In general, however, Ehrlich made fewer large-scale prophetic statements after about 1970, in common with many environmentalists who had adopted especially pessimistic outlooks in the 1960s. In the long run (whatever that is), they may of course turn out to be right or indeed their anxieties might be averted by the very act of prediction.

Category (4), widely read student texts and semi-popular works, does not need extended discussion here except to note that throughout this period Ehrlich has been concerned to disseminate his work to as many people as possible. In part, this seems like the action of any advocate who is convinced of his or her case, but it also seems to stem from the fundamental and laudable trait of scientists to expose their work to sceptical audiences. There is no lack of audience for the latter in Ehrlich's case, of course, and the anti-Ehrlich viewpoints have had no shortage of outlets, both in academia and especially in business publications. Books with titles like The End of Affluence16 (published in the US bi-centenary year of 1976) strike at the vitals of the American way of enthusiasm. So there has been, and continues to be, a 'brownlash' of anti-environmentalist rhetoric designed to show that everything is getting better and better: one commentator's summary in 1997 was 'technology has thwarted Ehrlich's projections, and you needn't be Nostradamus to know it always will'.17 The response to much of this polemic is in the book of that year which takes up the theme of some previous publications, namely the reception of the findings of the human ecology-environmentalist strand in US thought during the post-1960 period.18

A few considerations might strike the non-American and guardedly sympathetic commentator. One is the persistently North American tone of the debate, both pro and contra. In early works, a global set of scenarios was often discussed, but the emerging tone from a period of intensive reading is one of a rootedness in the discourses of the world's richest nation. The particular diversities of the many poorer countries seem to be elided. In part at the beginning, this appears to be the consequence of a biologist's view of humans as behaviourally homogenous diversivores, and although there are some strenuous efforts to encompass the social context of change, the cultural context is often given a rather minimal position as if the whole debate over the social construction of 'environment' in the post-structuralist sense had not happened (some movement in the direction of the management of cultural change, largely in North America, is given in a book which stresses that the human mind and its features are mismatched with the world as it now is19). It is perhaps then surprising that there seems to be a consistent underestimation of the role of technology in the humanenvironment relationship. While the consumption of commercial energy may be a good broad-scale indicator of the penetration of technology, it undervalues agents of change such as the microelectronics that make possible vast and immediate transfers of capital. If it is accepted that technology and its associated cultural metaphysics of acceptability have been at the heart of the great changes in ecology and economy such as the spread of agriculture from its hearths, and the dissemination of industrialism based on fossil fuels, then to deny it a central and high-profile role in current and near-future metamorphoses tends to the eccentric. True, it may not in the very long run allow humanity to escape certain biophysical constraints, but it may buy time (as did the Green Revolution), and in a world that is often held to be best described by versions of chaos theory rather than linear equations, there is no telling what synergisms may emerge. Not many commentators, after all, forecast the 'soft' revolutions of the late 1980s in Eastern Europe and the place of 'green' thinking that was one of the factors in those mass convulsions.

The greatest contribution of Ehrlich to environmental thought since the later 1960s has been his energetic lack of fear. To engage for over thirty years in continued controversy with a powerful opposition, while still producing basic science, is an example of stamina which deserves every plaudit. Even those not convinced by all the arguments and for whom a high-profile role is not part of their personality have to engage with the central question of what numbers of the human species the Earth could support at what quality of life for them and for other species as well. Ehrlich's role can perhaps be measured by the fact that this question is now always part of the schedule in any serious environmental debate or research programme.


1 P.R.Ehrlich, 'Recent Developments in Environmental Sciences', address at presentation of the H.P.Heineken Prize for Sciences, 25 September 1998, accessed at on 29 July 1999.

2 For example, P.R.Ehrlich, A.E.Launer and D.D.Murphy, 'Can Sex Ratio Be Defined or Determined? The Case of a Population of Checkerspot Butterflies', American Naturalist, 124, pp. 527-39, 1984; P.R.Ehrlich, 'Population Biology of Checkerspot Butterflies and the Preservation of Global Biodiversity', Oikos, 63, pp. 6-12, 1992.

3 P.R.Ehrlich and P.H.Raven, 'Butterflies and Plants: A Study in Coevolution'; see ISI, 'Citation Classics', Current Contents, 37, p. 16, 1984.

4 S.Harrison, J.F.Quinn, J.F.Bauman, D.D.Murphy and P.R.Ehrlich, 'Estimating the Effects of Scientific Study on Two Butterfly Populations', American Naturalist, 137, pp. 227-34, 1991.

5 S.von Ciriacy-Wantrup and J.J.Parsons (eds), Natural Resources: Quantity and Quality, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1967.

6 T.R.Vale, Progress Against Growth: Daniel B.Luten on the American Landscape, New York and London: Guilford Press, 1986.

7 The Population Bomb, prologue; rev. and updated as P.R.Ehrlich and A.H.Ehrlich, The Population Explosion.

8 The Population Bomb, prologue.

9 P.R.Ehrlich, A.Ehrlich and G.C.Daily, The Stork and the Plow: The Equity Answer to the Human Dilemma, New York: Putnam, 1995.

10 G.C.Daily, P.R.Ehrlich and A.Ehrlich, 'Optimum Human Population Size', Population and Environment, 15, pp. 469-75, 1994.

11 G.C.Daily and P.R.Ehrlich, 'Population, Sustainability, and Earth's Carrying Capacity'; P.R.Ehrlich, A.H.Ehrlich and G.C.Daily, 'Food Security, Population and Environment'; G.C.Daily and P.R.Ehrlich, 'Socioeconomic Equity, Sustainability, and Earth's Carrying Capacity'.

12 For example, P.R.Ehrlich, A.H.Ehrlich and H.C.Mooney (eds), The Cold and the Dark: The World After Nuclear War, New York: Norton, 1984.

13 G.C.Daily and P.R.Ehrlich, 'Population, Sustainability and Earth's Carrying Capacity', p. 770.

14 P.R.Ehrlich and A.H.Ehrlich, Population Resources Environment: Issues In Human Ecology, San Francisco, CA: Freeman, 1970, and subsequent editions; P.R.Ehrlich, A.H.Ehrlich and J.P.Holdren, Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment, San Francisco, CA: Freeman, 1977.

15 P.R.Ehrlich and R.L.Harriman, How To Be a Survivor, New York: Ballantine Books, 1971; D.C.Pirages and P.R.Ehrlich, Ark II. Social Response to Environmental Imperatives, San Francisco, CA: Freeman, 1974; P.R.Ehrlich and A.H.Ehrlich, Healing the Planet.

16 P.R.Ehrlich and A.H.Ehrlich, The End of Affluence: A Blueprint For Your Future, Rivercity, MA: Rivercity Press, 1976.

17 S.Milloy, 'Doomsayer Paul Ehrlich Strikes Out Again', accessed at on 23 July 1999.

18 P.R.Ehrlich and A.H.Ehrlich, Betrayal of Science and Reason.

19 R.Ornstein and P.R.Ehrlich, New World, New Mind. Changing the Way We Think to Save Our Future, London: Methuen, 1989.

See also in this book Darwin, Goethe, Leopold, Malthus, Wilson

Ehrlich's major writings

Professor Ehrlich maintains a web page at fac/ehrlich.html

Ehrlich, P.R. and Raven, P.H., 'Butterflies and Plants: A Study in Coevolution', Evolution, 18, pp. 586-608, 1965.

The Population Bomb, New York: Sierra Club/Ballantine Books, 1968.

Ehrlich, P.R. and Roughgarden, J., The Science of Ecology, New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Ehrlich, P.R. and Ehrlich, A.H., The Population Explosion, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.

-Healing the Planet, New York: Addison-Wesley, 1991.

Daily, G.C. and Ehrlich, P.R., 'Population, Sustainability, and Earth's Carrying Capacity', BioScience, 42, pp. 761-71, 1992.

Ehrlich, P.R., Ehrlich, A.H. and Daily, G.C., 'Food Security, Population and Environment', Population and Development Review, 19, pp. 1-32, 1993.

Daily, G.C. and Ehrlich, P.R., 'Socioeconomic Equity, Sustainability, and Earth's Carrying Capacity', Ecological Applications, 6, pp. 991-1001, 1996.

Ehrlich, P.R. and Ehrlich, A.H., Betrayal of Science and Reason: How Antienvironmental Rhetoric Threatens Our Future, New York: Putnam, 1996.

Hughes, J., Daily, G.C. and Ehrlich, P.R., 'Population Diversity: Its Extent and Extinction', Science, 278, pp. 689-92, 1997.

Further reading

Johnson, S., The Politics of Population: The International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo 1994, London: Earthscan, 1995.

Lutz, W. (ed.), The Future Population of the World: What Can We Assume Today?, London: Earthscan for IIASA, 1995.

Myers, N. and Simon, J.L., Scarcity or Abundance? A Debate on the Environment, New York and London: Norton, 1995.

Simon, J.L. (ed.), The State of Humanity, Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995.

-The Ultimate Resource 2, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

United Nations Environmental Program, Global Outlook 2000, London: Earthscan, 1999.

Vitousek, P. etal., 'Human Domination of Earth's Ecosystems', Science, 277, pp. 494-9, 1997.


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