2008 marked the 40th anniversary of the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, one of the most influential and controversial books of the 21st century. The book was so powerful that leading conservative intellectuals mounted a campaign against it, branding it (along with Darwin’s The Origin of Species) as one of the most “harmful” of the past two centuries.
Now, Paul Ehrlich and his wife Anne are back with a new book, The Dominant Animal, which picks up on many of the central issues of The Population Bomb and reveals startling new research and analysis on the fate of our planet and humanity.
This is a brief synopsis of a provocative, dynamic, and controversial interview with Paul Ehrlich.
Q: In The Population Bomb, you describe a rather stark future for the planet – with too many people, dwindling resources, massive starvation, and environmental calamity. You wrote that hundreds of millions might die from starvation by the mid-1970s. Looking back on that prediction and others, how to you think the book holds up after 40 years?
A: Frankly, the book was too optimistic. In many ways, the situation is far worse today than I could have imagined when I wrote The Population Bomb. We did not predict the massive loss of tropical rainforests. We thought climate change would affect us much later in the century. We had not yet dumped massive amounts of hormone disrupting toxins into the environment. The seas have been exhausted much earlier than anyone had thought. Some ten million people die from hunger and hunger-related disease every year.
Q: You have a lot of critics out there. Many point to the dire predictions in The Population Bomb that did not come true. What is your response?
A: At this point, nearly every scientist agrees that Earth’s carrying capacity has been exceeded given our lifestyle. The central point of The Population Bomb has been confirmed by most of the best scientists in the field. The Wall Street Journal might criticize me, but I’ve received just about every major scientific award there is. My peers in the scientific community agree with me and they agree with the book.
Q: Some of the most controversial parts of The Population Bomb have to do with your policy recommendations, which included dramatic population control measures. Do you still think those measures are necessary?
A: No sane scientist is opposed to reducing population growth, the only debate is over how best to do it. It is really quite simple – people are living longer, which is a good thing. I’m all for it. But if people live longer and continue to have the same number of babies, population explodes. That is what we are still seeing in many parts of the world, including the United States.
Q: You have a new book out, The Dominant Animal. In it, you revisit a number of the issues you raised in The Population Bomb. What is the central message of The Dominant Animal?
A: It means that we, as the dominant animal, have so altered the environment and so damaged our life-support systems, that the stresses on the living world are similar to those produced by a meteor strike in many ways. We may be facing the same kind of massive extinctions and changes in climate that the Earth saw when dinosaurs were wiped out by an extra-terrestrial body.
Q: It is an election year. If the next president were to wake up the day after the election and call you for advice, what would you tell him or her?
A: Get to work now. Start the discussion immediately. We have to begin the cultural evolutionary change necessary to avoid catastrophe. You might get assassinated, but someone’s got to do it.
Q: Much of your book is, to put it mildly, gloomy. Do we have any reason to be hopeful that we can change or avert disaster?
A: If there weren’t hope for the future, I wouldn’t be running around trying to ignite a response. We need to stop wasting time and start focusing on these issues. I am trying to move the political discussion to the survival issues humanity faces.