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.
When Paul’s Said and Done
With the population expected to double and triple in the not-too-distant future, do you see anything short of a miracle that can avert humankind’s head-on collision with the destiny that is self extinction? — Peter Anastasia, Santa Fe, Ind.
Population growth rates have fortunately declined, so even a doubling is relatively unlikely now (especially, sadly, with rising death rates from AIDS and possibly other emergent diseases). Nonetheless, we’re still in deep trouble, and without miraculous changes in our behavior we face ecological catastrophes that could make life for almost everyone much less pleasant — even without the extinction of our species (which is very unlikely).
As you know, many of the predictions you made in The Population Bomb didn’t come true. Have you suffered any criticism or embarrassment because of this? — Charles Sommers, Madison, Wis.
Some things I predicted have not come to pass. For instance, starvation has been less extensive than I (or rather the agriculturalists I consulted) expected. But it’s still horrific, with some 600 million people very hungry and billions under- or malnourished. What I predicted about disease and climate change was essentially right on. And of course the movement the “bomb” helped to fuel softened some of the impacts. Many people said not to worry — that marvelous technological fixes would make it possible to take wonderful care of even 5 billion people. We now have 6.3 — you judge how well technology is doing. Bottom line: substantial criticism, little embarrassment.
Were your predictions in The Population Bomb right? If not, what was wrong with the claims? Was it a matter of degree and emphasis, or serious basic flaws? — Richard Groshong, South Miami, Fla.
Anne and I have always followed U.N. population projections as modified by the Population Reference Bureau — so we never made “predictions,” even though idiots think we have. When I wrote The Population Bomb in 1968, there were 3.5 billion people. Since then we’ve added another 2.8 billion — many more than the total population (2 billion) when I was born in 1932. If that’s not a population explosion, what is? My basic claims (and those of the many scientific colleagues who reviewed my work) were that population growth was a major problem. Fifty-eight academies of science said that same thing in 1994, as did the world scientists’ warning to humanity in the same year. My view has become depressingly mainline!
What do you see as the key limiting factor to human population growth? Where does water fit into the discussion? — Kristen Hite, Kingsport, Tenn.
Availability of freshwater is one of the main constraints in many areas — perhaps globally it will be the single most important one, because it is so essential to agriculture. My colleagues in earth sciences have often said that if I really understood the water situation, I wouldn’t be so optimistic.
Do you still believe — as you’ve said in the past — that population growth is the No. 1 environmental problem, and that coercion “for a good cause” to slow population growth should still be our first priority? — Peter Walker, Eugene, Ore.
I think trends in population are in the right direction, but still too slow. China, of course, has done miracles with a relatively coercive program, but I think now we could get birthrates where they belong without much coercion. The worst population problems are in rich nations, especially the U.S., because of their very high rates of consumption. Consumption is, in Anne’s and my view, the single most difficult problem to deal with now — as we discuss extensively in One With Nineveh. Times have changed — population control, especially among the rich, is critical, but consumption control today is probably more critical and certainly tougher to achieve.
Is the notion of the earth’s “carrying capacity” (CC) well-defined enough to be meaningful? And, if so, what’s your definition and approximate value? — Bill Fellinger, Williston, Vt.
There is no single value, but it still is meaningful. CC depends on the behavior of the organisms (people, in our case) involved — the CC of earth for vegetarian saints is much higher than for the present mix of people. For that present mix it is easy to show we’re in overshoot — way above the CC. If you want to look at the technical side of the issue, see: Daily, G.C., and P.R. Ehrlich. 1992. Population, sustainability, and earth’s carrying capacity. Bioscience 42: 761-771.
What’s the chance, at our current/projected rate of environmental debauchment, of a habitable planet 50 years from now? — Thomas Hubbard, Everett, Wash.
Habitable for at least a scattered group of homo sapiens? Perhaps 97 percent. Habitable for large numbers of people living a U.S. lifestyle? Maybe 10 percent.
You mention you were not hired for a position because you are Jewish. Do you consider yourself a member or believer of a Jewish religious community? Is your work inspired by a particular spiritual belief or philosophy, or by a particular humanistic one, or neither? — Kathleen Meigs, Ojai, Calif.
I have no interest in organized religion of any kind, nor any belief that science can supply all the answers to the philosophical/ethical questions that plague all thinking people.
How do we get more engagement from scientists and medical professionals in shaping good public policy without jeopardizing their status as unbiased experts? Has your work as an environmentalist diminished the effectiveness of your role as a scientist? — Gwen Griffith, Alliance of Veterinarians for the Environment, Nashville, Tenn.
I’m working hard with organizations like the Ecological Society of America to improve communication (the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program — training scientists to communicate with the public and politicians — is a great step forward). We still need much more. I try to keep my unorthodox scientific judgments (I have some) to myself and only communicate consensus science to the public — making it clear when I’m doing that and when I’m speaking on policy only as a (possibly) well-informed citizen. Sometimes I fail. My judgment that George W. Bush is the worst president in U.S. history is not a scientific judgment, just a personal one based on massive data. I think my activism has helped my science, making my choice of research topics better.
You have a 15 second soundbite in which to convince Bush supporters that John Kerry will do more for our country to protect the environment. What do you say? — Barbara Baldock, Monterey, Calif.
Bush has consistently distorted environmental science for political gain and has not cooperated in the most elementary efforts to deal with climate change, one of the top two or three environmental problems. He shows no knowledge of the other critical issues such as loss of biodiversity, land-use change, decay of the epidemiological environment, and toxification of the planet. Teresa [Heinz Kerry] is an outstanding environmentalist.
For young scientists like myself, how should we direct our voices and energies to effect sound environmental policies? — Thalia Schlossberg, Bloomington, Ind.
Get involved immediately by tithing to your society — putting 10 percent of your time into doing things (working with environmental NGOs, trying to influence your congressperson and senators to vote right) to make the world a better place. Work hard to inform the public, but don’t risk your job — you want to become a senior scientist and have even more influence. Above all this year, work against George W. Bush.
Can capitalist economic development be inoculated with environmental sensitivity on a large scale? And are extractive and heavy industries making progress in terms of mitigating their negative effects on the natural environment? — Sean Dempsey, Raleigh, N.C.
There is some good news on the environmental activities of corporations (such as oil companies becoming energy companies and ending membership in right-wing propaganda mills), but there’s still a long way to go. Anne and I don’t think we can win the game without converting more of industry into a positive environmental force. We need markets, but as Adam Smith noted, they must function under constraints that level playing fields and maintain certain ethical standards. We discuss corporate reform in some depth in One With Nineveh, and give references.
It now seems King Hubbert was indeed correct in predicting the world peak of oil production to be around this current time. It also seems that natural gas production is at or beyond peak on the continent. How do you think we in this country and those in the broader world will fare as these two sources of energy deplete? Are we doomed to cooking ourselves in a coal-fired economy? — Bob Hazard, Santa Barbara, Calif.
I hope not — but until we get government leadership to end fossil-fuel subsidies and start promoting conservation and alternative-energy sources (and halt population growth and find ways to constrain runaway consumption) I’m not overly hopeful. There are a lot of things we could do to deal sensibly with “Hubbert’s pimple” — but I’m pessimistic about whether we’ll do them!
Whatever happened to the Club of Rome report? — Joe Coffman, Portland, Ore.
There’s a new book revisiting it, but I haven’t seen it yet. [Editor’s note: It’s Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update.] [The authors’] basic conclusions were right on — but they were (as I was as a worried youth) too specific about time frames. But remember, while many of us try to project what’s likely to happen in the future, we’ll never be exactly correct (if I could accurately predict the future I’d buy stocks low, sell them high, and live in Bora Bora).
At your core, do you believe human nature can be altered enough (in magnitude and time) to walk away from “anything for a quick buck now” in favor of “a livable world for generations to come”? — Tom Wood, Columbia, Mo.
I sure hope we can turn the corner — for the good of Anne’s and my grandchildren and those of their generation. But especially under current political conditions, I’m not too hopeful.
Do you believe GMO crops have any long-term benefit if used wisely in the developing world, or are they simply a path to further environmental disaster for people who are struggling to produce on marginal lands? — Joe Kuhn, Chicago, Ill.
Like many other technologies, they have great potential, but all of us must be alert to hidden dangers, malign uses, and so on. Remember CFCs looked like a win-win technological miracle, and they almost destroyed the ozone layer and us along with it. Eternal vigilance …
What work most urgently needs to be done? In other words, if you were to advise a dedicated activist to pursue a specific career — one that tackles the most urgent challenges in the environment — which would it be? — Brian Beffort, Reno, Nev.
Go into politics and do what you can to keep power from being concentrated in the hands of relatively small segments of society. The scientific community knows what we should be doing, but politics and maldistributed wealth and power prevent it. The front line in the battle to solve the human predicament has shifted to the social sciences. We need to establish an open forum — a millennium assessment of human behavior — that challenges humanity to solve the serious problems of how we treat both each other and our environment. I believe the only practical solutions to human problems now are the ones “realists” sneer at.
Do you pronounce your name ‘air-lick’ or ‘er-lick’ or ‘air-lish’ (as I’ve been told they do in modern-day Germany)? — Matthew Ehrlich, Salem, Mass.
It was totally Anglicized by my ancestors to “air-lick.” “Air-lish” is the proper German — it means honest or honorable (false advertising?).
How does someone who loves and cares deeply about the natural environment (such as me) keep from getting depressed about the current state of things? How can we find hope for the future? — Richard Arnold, Errington, B.C., Canada
There is lots to worry about, but you’ve got to do your thing and enjoy the only life you have. During WWII I remember people saying they shouldn’t bring children into such a world. But they did, and many have had great lives. Hope is important — nowhere is it written that people like Bush must control our lives and futures. A few hours in my favorite spots like the West Elk Mountains of Colorado or tropical forests in Coto Brus, Costa Rica, does wonders for my depression — and wine and friends help too. Don’t let the bastards wear you down!