Paul Ehrlich, famed ecologist, answers questions
What work do you do?
Very little — most of my time is involved in scientific research, which for me is fun.
What’s your job title?
I am Bing Professor of Population Studies, president of the Center for Conservation Biology, and professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University.
How does your work relate to the environment? What environmental problem draws your focus?
It all does — our research group has specialized in studying environmental problems in the broadest sense — everything from nuclear war, epidemics, and household size to the loss of biodiversity and the subsequent decay of ecosystem services.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I work closely with graduate students and assistants on projects ranging from using radiotelemetry and GIS technology to understand how birds utilize disturbed habitats in the tropics to studying how various parts of human culture evolve. I read a lot, because I must be familiar with a wide variety of fields. I also grovel and plead for money to support our research.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I was always interested in nature and evolution, and decided I’d rather starve as a college professor and have fun doing research all the time than make money and only do research on short vacations. When I first arrived at Stanford, I taught an evolution course where in the first nine weeks I told students where we’d come from and in the last week told them where we were heading. The last week’s lectures attracted the attention of alumni and I began to get invitations to talk to them. That led to a speech in 1967 to the Commonwealth Club, whose talks are always broadcast on the radio. That led to more media appearances, eventually to approximately 20 times on the Johnny Carson show, and I was on the downhill slope as a public scientist.
My scientific career benefited greatly from several outstanding mentors, of whom my major professor, Charles Michener, is still active at 86 as the world’s outstanding expert on bee evolution and systematics. From him and Bob Sokal, I learned never to “believe” anything too deeply — something reinforced by my postdoc years with Joe Camin and my long association with Dick Holm at Stanford — both sadly gone.
I’m an unusual academy specimen, having had only one tenure-track job (Stanford), which I’ve held for 44 of my 72 years. That let me do long-term research on checkerspot butterflies on campus, which just resulted in the publication of a book, On the Wings of Checkerspots: A Model System for Population Biology. The science and my scientific colleagues (especially my wife Anne) have been the greatest sources of pleasure in my life.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
I get about 300 a day, and delete most of them immediately. I haven’t time to respond, and the sizes of my breasts and penis are just fine, I don’t buy Viagra, and I don’t send thousands of dollars to Nigeria to get my share of millions.
With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job?
Hundreds of colleagues and friends. Sierra Club, Island Press.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Philadelphia Penn.; Stanford, Calif.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
Finding out that there was so much DDT sprayed around New Jersey in the late 1940s that I couldn’t raise caterpillars to get butterfly and moth specimens. And reading William Vogt’s book Road to Survival in 1949.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Being turned down for a job at Northwestern because I was Jewish.
What’s been the best?
Receiving the Crafoord Prize from the Swedish Academy of Sciences, which created it as an explicit substitute for the Nobel (which they also award), but made it harder to get (it’s only offered in my field every three years).
What’s on your desk right now?
A computer and a pile of books, papers, and crap.
What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?
Various pundits who know nothing about the environment pontificating about it — the epidemic “Julian Simon disease.”
Who is your environmental hero?
Who is your environmental nightmare?
George W. Bush.
What’s your environmental vice?
I was a multi-engine, instrument-rated pilot, and loved it.
How do you get around?
Walk more than anything else.
What are you reading these days?
Books on oil and the history of the Middle East, military history, cultural anthropology, Connelly police mysteries, and Furst historical novels.
What’s your favorite meal?
Raw oysters followed by Peking duck and finished by a hot-fudge, dusty-road sundae on vanilla (lots of hot fudge).
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
Love the out-of-doors.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Coto Brus, Costa Rica; Elk Mountains of Colorado; Bora Bora reefs. I can’t choose.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Forbid any development of new land — require developers to tear down an old mall and put a new one in the same place.
Who do think (not hope) is going to be elected president in November?
John Kerry, but I would choose Mickey Mouse over W. I hope Nader drops out, because I shudder about our fate if W. is allowed to further disrupt a shaky international system, continue to neglect our military and epidemiological security at home, and further press his war on the environment, civil rights, and women.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
Yes, I am both an ecologist (scientific discipline) and an environmentalist (a citizen deeply concerned about the state of the environment). Sadly, too many “environmentalists” (e.g., Bush) are to the environment as Saddam was to democracy.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Alerting people to pollution and other symptoms of environmental deterioration.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
Alerting people to the causes of environmental deterioration — overpopulation, consumption, and the use of environmentally malign technologies. They could do better if they pointed these out in all their literature.
What important environmental issue is frequently overlooked?
Overconsumption and deterioration of the epidemiological environment (for both, see my new book One With Nineveh).
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Glenn Miller; also Glenn Miller (I’m a conservative).
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
West Wing. Master and Commander (Deep Throat XII is second favorite).
Mac or PC?
I’m always PC.
What are you happy about right now?
I’m almost finished with this questionnaire.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Send a copy of One With Nineveh to your congressperson.