“To err is human,” ecologist Paul D. Ehrlich once said. “But to really foul things up, you need a computer.”
This may indeed be the one thing the former Stanford academic has been right on. If he’d thrown in television cameras, bam, he’s nailed it. For instance, if the 90-year-old Ehrlich would have just shut up, we likely wouldn’t remember he wrote the most hilariously wrong environmentalist scare screed of all time, 1968’s “The Population Bomb.”
“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now,” Ehrlich predicted in the book. He would later make a bolder prediction about the effects of overpopulation, according to the American Enterprise Institute: Four billion total would die, including 65 million Americans.
This, needless to say, didn’t happen. Yet, Ehrlich never shut up, despite a long battle with the truth. His latest losing battle was fought on Sunday when CBS News decided what they really needed to bring the climate crisis/emergency/cataclysm/imbroglio/whatever-we’re-calling-it this-week home to viewers was the world’s most serially discredited doomsday prophet.
Conservatives pounced — to phrase it as the media likes to whenever conservatives are involved — on Ehrlich’s latest prophecy, the idea that the Earth is currently undergoing a “sixth mass extinction,” which will wipe out 75 percent of the species currently living on the planet. Even Elon Musk, hardly a “climate denier,” got in on the action:
Ehrlich despises humanity. Nothing he says should be given the slightest credibility.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 2, 2023
Up popped Ehrlich on Tuesday with what arguably might be the most farcical defense of himself — on Twitter, of course, because “to really foul things up, you need a computer.” (Or smartphone, or tablet.)
“60 Minutes extinction story has brought the usual right-wing out in force,” Ehrlich tweeted.
“If I’m always wrong so is science, since my work is always peer-reviewed, including the POPULATION BOMB and I’ve gotten virtually every scientific honor. Sure I’ve made some mistakes, but no basic ones.”
60 Minutes extinction story has brought the usual right-wing out in force. If I’m always wrong so is science, since my work is always peer-reviewed, including the POPULATION BOMB and I’ve gotten virtually every scientific honor. Sure I’ve made some mistakes, but no basic ones
— Paul R. Ehrlich (@PaulREhrlich) January 3, 2023
So, just so we’re clear about how ridiculous this is, let’s review what Ehrlich said and why it’s so prima facie absurd.
First, his appearance on “60 Minutes,” which brought out all those “usual right-wing” voices.
“Oh, humanity is not sustainable,” Ehrlich told Scott Pelley. “To maintain our lifestyle, yours and mine, basically, for the entire planet, you’d need five more Earths. Not clear where they’re going to come from.”
“Just in terms of the resources that would be required?” Pelley asked.
“Resources that would be required, the systems that support our lives, which, of course, are the bio-diversity that we’re wiping out,” Ehrlich said. “Humanity is very busily sitting on a limb that we’re sawing off.”
“The next few decades will be the end of the kind of civilization we’re used to.”
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) January 2, 2023
Especially with all those 65 million Americans that didn’t die off in a mass-starvation event back in the 1970s or 1980s.
Looking at the full report, one notices that Pelley did mention that Ehrlich was kinda sorta wrong with his most famous work — but he was really right in the end!
“The alarm Ehrlich sounded in ’68 warned that overpopulation would trigger widespread famine. He was wrong about that,” Pelley said. “The green revolution fed the world. But he also wrote in ’68 that heat from greenhouse gases would melt polar ice and humanity would overwhelm the wild.”
Right, and evangelist Harold Camping once infamously predicted the world would end on May 21, 2011. It didn’t, of course — but the world has to eventually expire, entropy being what it is and all. So really, he was in the ballpark. Let’s give credit where credit is due.
This construction is only slightly more absurd than Pelley’s attempt to defend Ehrlich — or Ehrlich’s eventual defense of himself, for that matter.
When conservatives talk about Ehrlich and how wrong he was, they usually just quote that one paragraph from “The Population Bomb.” In an ordinary world, that would suffice, but academics and media outlets like CBS News continue to take this man seriously. So, let’s review a few more Ehrlich misses, shall we?
Pelley didn’t mention the ecologist’s most public gaffe, as Ari Blaff noted at National Review: “The interview overlooked a famous wager Ehrlich lost to American economist Julian Simon, who predicted the average price of various natural resources would go down with technological advancements, while Ehrlich envisioned skyrocketing prices driven by mass depopulation and scarcity. In 1980, Ehrlich selected five metals that he believed would be considerably more valuable a decade later.
“Ehrlich resoundingly lost the bet,” Blaff noted.
And “resoundingly” is putting it too mildly; economist Thomas Sowell, who chronicled Ehrlich’s predictions in his 1995 book, “The Vision of the Anointed,” said not one of the metals Ehrlich picked went up in price, as they would do under conditions of scarcity.
Paul Ehrlich has been so consistently wrong on so many things. pic.twitter.com/RMgeaRB5GL
— Thomas Sowell Quotes (@ThomasSowell) January 3, 2023
So, what were some of the author’s other predictions? Tom Chivers gathered a few of them for his Telegraph column in 2012.
“The train of events leading to the dissolution of India as a viable nation is already in motion,” Ehrlich wrote. He recommended a “triage” system in which the nation would allocate resources to places that would survive. As it turns out, the whole nation has not just survived but thrived, as anyone who’s grumbled about outsourcing will have noticed.
And it’s not just India, but its former colonial rulers, as well: “By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000,” Ehrlich said.
I know King Charles III, Prince Andrew and the Sussexes are enough to occasionally make one wish otherwise, but Merrie England is very much still around — along with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the other major constituent entities of the United Kingdom.
Thus, how irrational and swell-headed you think Ehrlich remains depends on whether or not you consider these mistakes “basic ones.” I’d say if someone predicts four billion dead people and they’re off by a cool four billion — including 65 million Americans and two still-extant nations, the U.K. and India — then yes, a basic mistake has been made somewhere.
And these are just the most irrational. The AEI’s list also chronicles several whoppers of epic proportions.
In 1970, he warned that some chemicals, including DDT, “may have substantially reduced the life expectancy of people born since 1945″ and that current patterns meant life expectancy would dwindle to 42 years in the United States by 1980, when it would level off. In 1975, he said that “since more than nine-tenths of the original tropical rainforests will be removed in most areas within the next 30 years or so, it is expected that half of the organisms in these areas will vanish with it.” Another 1970 prediction: “air pollution…is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone,” including a potential scenario in which 200,000 people would die in 1973 “smog disasters” in New York City in Los Angeles.
As Dean Wormer might have put it: “Zero. Point. Zero.”
But notice, the appeal to authority! His papers were “peer reviewed” and he’s “gotten virtually every scientific honor,” so clearly there’s no issue here. Trust the science, people.
It turns out that hoary line didn’t draw too much sympathy from “the usual right-wing.”
I’m not wrong. Source: me.
— Noam Blum (@neontaster) January 4, 2023
His tweet sure says a lot about the value of peer reviews.
— David Harsanyi (@davidharsanyi) January 5, 2023
That’s what they all call me…Hank “Usual Right Wing” Green.
You gotta know science isn’t right and wrong. It’s not a bundle of facts, it’s a process, and when the guesses we make turn out wrong, it’s an amazing opportunity to re-think our ideas.
— Hank Green (@hankgreen) January 4, 2023
Paul Ehrlich has been wrong about almost everything
In 1970, he predicted the world would utterly break down before 1985. It would be unable to support humanity
That’s not a mistake, Ehrlich
— Bjorn Lomborg (@BjornLomborg) January 5, 2023
But the thing is, none of this will make a difference. Sowell was indeed right to anoint Ehrlich the king among “Teflon prophets” — the liberal academics who make dire predictions they’re never held accountable for.
In 2023, having authored “The Population Bomb” should be a source of shame and discredit. Instead, to outlets like CBS News, it doesn’t discount Ehrlich as a serious voice on the “sixth human extinction,” it validates his credentials. It’s the same thing in academia; note how Ehrlich brags in his tweet about all of his pieces being peer-reviewed and being feted with all sorts of scientific honors. If all his peers think the same way Paul Ehrlich does about Paul Ehrlich’s methods and predictions, that’s hardly to their credit.
But Ehrlich was indeed right on one count, yes: “to really foul things up, you need a computer.” Without social media allowing him to blast out that tone-deaf response to the criticism of the “60 Minutes” scare segment, we wouldn’t know just how deluded this man remains. Thanks, technology.