Paul Ehrlich might be the most pessimistic, doom-obsessed person studying the future of our planet. "The agricultural system is getting ever more shaky," he says, "the seas are slowly but surely refusing to give up the fishes; and on top of it, we're facing catastrophic and rapid climate change. But nobody pays any attention."
The Stanford University population scientist does pay attention… and some say he's a prophet who might save us all. His work gained fame four decades ago, with the publication of his book, The Population Bomb. He recalls, "it was a time around 1968, of great interest in the environment, a lot of it had been generated by Rachel Carson's book A Silent Spring. People were ready to look at what was causing the environmental problems, and the one issue that had more or less been neglected was population growth."
Ehrlich declared war on such neglect with his dramatic predictions that the world's growing population would eventually outstrip its food supply, leading to catastrophic famines. "The agricultural scientists were telling me in 1968 that we were bound for famines and that hundreds of millions of people were going to die." In The Population Bomb he wrote, "a minimum of ten million people, most of them children, will starve to death during each year of the 1970s… a mere handful compared to the numbers that will be starving before the end of the century."
Although there were isolated food crises through the developing world during the last decades of the 20th century, the widespread famines Ehrlich predicted never happened. His critics point out that since his book came out, birth rates have gone down, and food production is way up. But he says his prophecy wasn't flawed; it was a catalyst for changes that helped prevent the famines.
"Things that were put in place when the issues were raised by me and others back then have reduced the number of large-scale, one-at-a-time in-place famines," he explains. "The Population Bomb was sort of the trigger of bringing this part of the issue, and it's only one part of the human predicament, to the forefront."
But decreasing birth rates and increasing food production haven't reassured this population scientist. He points out that although worldwide famines didn't happen, food insecurity is still widespread in the world. "What's happened is it's become a dispersed famine. That is, somewhere around ten to fifteen million people die each year who wouldn't die if they had adequate diets. And that adds up, of course, since The Population Bomb was written, to hundreds of million people."
The problem, says Ehrlich, is no longer too little food for too many people. Now, the obstacle is distribution, and he worries that tomorrow there may not even be enough to distribute. "The things that we've done to keep food production growing rapidly have almost all been damaging to the prospects of food production in the future. We have got a narrower crop base, we have substituted lots of things for soil, like artificial fertilizers, we have overused pesticides. All of that in a situation where we are now facing the big problem of climate change. Agriculture is utterly dependent on climate."
So, climate change - that is, global warming - is now Paul Ehrlich's focus.
He says his earlier theories of population growth and newer theories of global warming are closely linked. "The larger the population, the more rapid the climate change is going to be," he says, "because all of us are involved in producing greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. So, the second direction is, of course, that with a very large population, the effects of climate change are going to be much more dramatic and much more serious."
Ehrlich, now 74, began his career in 1953 studying Lepidoptera - that is, butterflies and moths, which still hold his interest. But as Professor of Population Studies at Stanford, his most significant concern today is with global warming.
A couple of years ago, Ronald Bailey of The Wall Street Journal headlined an article about Ehrlich's most recent predictions with, "We're doomed again. Paul Ehrlich has never been right. Why does anyone still listen to him?"
Ehrlich says that whether anyone still listens or not, there will be a solution to the population problem - one way or another. "The population explosion will end," he asserts. "The only question is, is it going to end because we limit births more strictly or is it going to end because a lot more of us die young and in misery? We're all trying to avoid what we call a 'death rate solution' to the population problem."
Pessimist or prophet, Paul Ehrlich's scientific explorations from checkerspot butterflies to unchecked population growth, have challenged fundamental assumptions about our continued existence on the planet. It's for the next generation of scientists to heed or ignore his warnings.