On the positive side, Stanford University professor emeritus Paul Ehrlich looks good for 90. That is one of the advantages, I suppose, of living in a well-subsidized, stress-free bubble where catastrophic errors are quickly forgiven and forgotten.
Ehrlich was one of the doomsday celebrities Scott Pelley of “60 Minutes” interviewed to remind us that we are in the midst of an alleged extinction crisis as a result of which, “Humanity is not sustainable.”
No, what is not sustainable is the media-environmental complex. If fake media and fake science continue their perverse collaboration, we could all be living in caves by – what’s a good date for doomsday? – yea, May 29, 2032, Ehrlich’s 100th birthday.
For all his follies, Ehrlich has enjoyed a remarkably successful career as America’s best-known neo-Malthusian. That said, he makes 19th-century blowhard Thomas Malthus look positively prudent.
Ehrlich begins his breakthrough 1968 book, “The Population Bomb,” with the startling claim, “The battle to feed all of humanity is already lost.” Even at the time of its release, “The Population Bomb” had to read a wee bit hyperbolic.
Today, it just seems flat-out silly. Ehrlich lays out three possible scenarios that could define the earth “in the next decade or so.” In the most “cheerful” of these scenarios, Americans assume an unexpected “maturity of outlook,” a new pope “gives his blessing to abortion,” and only half a billion people die of famine.
In the least cheerful scenario, worldwide famine leads to nuclear war, and the most intelligent creatures that survive are cockroaches. In 1969, Ehrlich added this gem, “By 1985 enough millions will have died to reduce the earth’s population to some acceptable level, like 1.5 billion people.”
That same year, he predicted in an article entitled “Eco-Catastrophe!” that by 1980 the United States would see its life expectancy drop to 42 because of pesticides, and by 1999 its population would drop to 22.6 million.
In the mid-70s, with the release of his “The End of Affluence,” Ehrlich envisioned the president dissolving Congress “during the food riots of the 1980s,” followed by the United States suffering a nuclear attack for its mass use of insecticides.
His frequent TV appearances – 20 on Johnny Carson alone – and the success of “The Population Bomb” – 3 million copies sold – helped radicalize young America. Not surprisingly, Ehrlich was a founding father of Earth Day.
Despite his absurd predictions, Ehrlich capped a lifetime of prestigious environmental awards with a $345,000 MacArthur Foundation grant and the Crafoord Prize from the Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Nobel equivalent for environmentalists. One wonders who came in second that year?
What has pushed Ehrlich’s contribution up the fraud continuum is his failure to take stock, to reassess his science, to atone for past mistakes. This task was left to economist Julian Simon.
Simon had an economist’s flair for hard data and a direct marketer’s faith in results. Freed of academic cant, his analysis led him to believe that life on earth was getting better, not worse. The signs were everywhere and undeniable.
“Length of life and health are increasing,” Simon wrote, “supplies of food and other natural resources are becoming more abundant, and pollutants in our environment are decreasing.” If mankind were running out of resources, as Ehrlich contended, Simon asked why weren’t the prices on these resources climbing?
“The ultimate resource,” Simon wrote, “is people – skilled, spirited, and hopeful people who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and inevitably they will benefit not only themselves but the rest of us as well.”
Ehrlich thought otherwise. He described the advances in medical science that have allowed the population to grow and flourish “as the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“Our population consists of two groups,” he wrote, “a comparatively small one dedicated to the preservation of beauty and wildlife.” That would be he and his buddies. Then there was “a vastly larger one,” the proto-deplorables, “dedicated to the destruction of both (or at least apathetic toward it).”
Ehrlich presented a three-step approach to solving America’s population that could have come out of the Khmer Rouge playbook. We simply “halt human population growth as simply and humanely as possible,” lower per-capita consumption and convert to more benign technologies.
This kind of thinking made a father of three like Simon cringe. He felt that Ehrlich was blowing smoke and had been getting away with it much too long.
In 1980, Simon challenged Ehrlich to pick any five commodities and hold them for 10 years. If the prices rose – proving increased scarcity – Simon would buy the commodities back from Ehrlich at the higher price. If the prices fell, Ehrlich would pay Simon the difference.
Simon knew a mark when he saw one. Ehrlich had, to say the least, no great gift for prediction. “If I were a gambler, I would bet even money that England will not exist in the year 2000,” he once told Johnny Carson.
For Ehrlich, this was not an unusually imprudent wager. Yet like all chronic gamblers, Ehrlich only remembered the winners. So he took Simon up on his offer and picked $200 worth each of chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten.
“Perhaps it was a mistake,” says Ehrlich’s website of the bet with unintended irony. It certainly was. All five commodities dropped in price almost as much as Ehrlich’s reputation should have.
In October of 1990, Ehrlich mailed Simon a check for $570.07. He would have been hard-pressed to choose better. During the decade, 33 of 35 standard metals dropped in price.
The one commodity Ehrlich does understand is snake oil. He has been peddling it for the last 60 years, and buffoons like Scott Pelley are still buying it.
To learn more, see www.cashill.com.
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