Paul Ehrlich: The Population Bomb

The master predicament that remains unaddressed
Sunday, August 2, 2015, 10:35 AM

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich released his ground-breaking book The Population Bomb, which awoke the national consciousness to the collision-course world population growth is on with our planet's finite resources. His work was reinforced several years later by the Limits To Growth report issued by the Club of Rome.

Fast-forward almost 50 years later, and Ehrlich's book reads more like a 'how to' manual. Nearly all the predictions it made are coming to pass, if they haven't already. Ehrlich admits that things are even more dire than he originally forecasted; not just from the size of the predicament, but because of the lack of social willingness and political courage to address or even acknowledge the situation:

The situation is much more grim because, of course, when the population bomb was written, there were 3.5 billion people on the planet. Now there are 7.3 billion people on the planet. And we are projected to have something on the order of 9.6 billion people 35 years from now. That means that we are scheduled to add to the population many more people than were alive when I was born in 1932. When I was born there were 2 billion people. The idea that, in 35 years when we already have billions of people hungry or micronutrient-malnourished, we are somehow going to have to take care of 2.5 billion more people is a daunting idea. 

I think it's going to get a lot worse for a lot more people. You've got to remember that each person we add disproportionately causes ecological damage. For example, human beings are smart. So human beings use the easiest to get to, the purest, the finest resources first.

When thousands of years ago we started to fool around with copper, copper was lying on the surface of the earth. Now we have at least one mine that goes down at least two miles and is mining copper that is about 0.3% ore. And yet we go that deep and we refine that much. Same thing the first commercial oil well in the United States. We went down 69.5 feet in 1859 to hit oil. The one off in the Gulf of Mexico started a mile under water and went down a couple of more miles before it had the blow-out that ruined the Gulf of Mexico.

Each person you add has to be fed from poorer land, drink water that has to be pumped from deeper wells or transported further or purified more, and have their materials sourced from other depleting resources. And so there is a disproportion there. When you figure that we are going to have to try and feed several billion more people and that the agricultural system itself, the food system supplies something like 30% of the greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere. Those greenhouse gases are changing the climate rapidly, yet rapid climate change is the big enemy of agriculture -- you can see that we are heading down a road that leads to a bridge that’s out. And we are not paying any attention to trying to apply the brakes

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Paul Ehrlich (47m:06s)


Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson. Climate change. Ocean acidification. Exponential economies. Shrinking aquifers. Species extinction. What do all of these things have in common? Besides being depressing, I mean. Every one is being driven by the same underlying cause – population. Or, rather, too many people for the local ecology and resources to bear. Some 70 to 80 million new people are added to the world’s population every year. Now imagine nine new New York Cities popping up every year and you've got an idea of the scale of the additions.

Now talking about population though is not a very popular thing to do, at least judging by the number of organizations dedicated to trying to mitigate the effects of population yet never talking about population itself.

Well today we have got a guest who is anything but afraid to tackle the issue – Paul Ehrlich. Author of the 1968 book, The Population Bomb, who is well known for his dire warnings about population growth and limited resources. He is the Bing Professor of Population Studies in the Department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and President of Stanford Center for Conservation Biology. Welcome, Paul. It is a real honor to have you on our show.

Paul Ehrlich : Nice to be here.

Chris Martenson: Well the world seems to be up to its eyeballs in predicaments a few of which I mentioned in the intro. And most I think can be directly traced back to population. Is that fair?

Paul Ehrlich : It is fair to say that if we had a much smaller population we would have many fewer problems. It is not, of course, just how many people you have but how they behave so that contrary to most people’s view of things we probably have much too many rich people in the world and too many poor people. Because the rich people each cause more ecological damage than each poor person. But basically, the drivers of the problems that we face are largely the scale of the human enterprise. And that scale is a function of how many people we have, how much each one consumes and what technologies we choose for their consumption. So population is popularly discussed as the elephant in the room because it is not properly discussed.

Chris Martenson: Well, it really isn’t, and a lot has changed since 1968 when The Population Bomb was written. So what are your views on population today?

Paul Ehrlich : Well, they are much more grim because of course when The Population Bomb was written there were 3.5 billion people on the planet. Now there are 7.3 billion people on the planet, and we are projected—and of course the projections may not be followed—to have something on the order of 9.6 billion people 35 years from now. That means that we are scheduled to add to the population many more people than were alive when I was born in 1932. When I was born, there were 2 billion people. Just by coincidence, I happen to have been the 2 billionth person born. But the idea that in 35 years when we already have billions of people hungry or micro-nutrient malnourished we are somehow going to have to take care of 2.5 billion more people is kind of a daunting idea.

Chris Martenson: And not just 2.5 billion more but I’m noting as well a lot of trends showing that more and more people are joining the middle class, which is a fine and worthy pursuit but a middle class person consumes a lot more than a lower-than-middle-class person. So we are seeing not just more people but more people wanting the good life as it were, wanting the western life. I can’t fault that. I live a western life myself, but at the same time it is obvious that we are already seeing strains at 7.2 billion people; what do you think happens when we go to 9 billion?

Paul Ehrlich : I think it is going to get a lot worse for a lot more people. You've got to remember not only what you just pointed out but of course each person we add disproportionately causes ecological damage. For example, human beings are smart. So human beings use the easiest to get to, the purest, the finest resources first. When thousands of years ago we started to fool around with copper, copper was lying on the surface of the earth essentially pure. Now we have at least one mine that goes down at least two miles and is mining copper that is about 3% ore. In other words 97% rock. And yet we go that deep and we refine that much. Same thing—the first commercial oil well in the United States went down 69.5 feet in 1859 to hit oil. The one off in the Gulf of Mexico started a mile under water and went down a couple of more miles before it had the blow out that tended to ruin the Gulf of Mexico. Each person you add has to be fed from, on average, poorer land; drink water that has to be pumped from deeper wells or transported further or purified more; have their materials from other poorer resources. And so there is a disproportion there. When you figure that we are going to have to try and feed several billion more people and that the agricultural system itself—the food system—supplies something like 30% of the greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere, and those greenhouse gases are changing the climate rapidly, and rapid climate change is the big enemy of agriculture, you can see that we are really heading down a road that leads to a bridge that’s out. And we are not paying any attention to trying to apply the brakes.

Chris Martenson: Yea, I share that view. I have to ask this – some say that your dire warnings were so far off the mark in '68, surely you must be equally off base today, or something like that. How do you respond to your critics?

Paul Ehrlich : Well, first of all, many of the things that are reported as which were predictions in 1968 were actually scenarios. In other words, if you look at The Population Bomb it will say "what follows are not predictions, they are little stories about the future that won’t come true, but will help you think about it."

Another, recently some colleagues wrote an article that pointed out that if you are not exact in your timing when you are predicting things that are going to be unhappy in the future, you still ought to examine the predictions carefully and consider how valid they are. After all in 1934 Churchill said we have a very short time, only a year or so, to prevent the disaster of the Nazis taking over Europe. Well, he was off by two or three times but he was fundamentally right. And I don’t worry about whether or not I am right or not, whether Rush Limbaugh thinks I’m wrong or I can’t remember the name of the idiot Walker who is running for the Republican presidency and fighting family planning. But as long as my colleagues in science think I’m right—and I have all of my stuff peer reviewed by the best people in the world—nobody can be absolutely 100% right in all predictions. But both my and Ann’s predictions, and those of the Club of Rome in The Limits to Growth – when people look at them closely they find they are right on the mark. Half of the problems – in The Population Bomb we talked about whether or not there was going to be climate change and whether that was going to be serious. That was 1968. I will stand by on record some things – if I were 100% right in predictions about the future then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I would have bought low, sold high and probably bought the island of Bora Bora and be living there now with a few close friends and some beautiful young women.

Chris Martenson: And I would petition hardily to join you there. So Ann being your wife –

Paul Ehrlich : A lot of applications you know.

Chris Martenson: I know. I know. A lot of people say they want to join me at my house if things ever go bad. I let them know it is a very small club. I am not sure. We’ll see. You mention Ann, that is your wife, Ann. I want to talk about a paper that you recently co-authored. It is entitled, "Can A Collapse of Global Civilization Be Avoided?" It is a relatively new paper. Well, what is the answer?

Paul Ehrlich : Well the answer is: yes, it could. I’m very optimistic, as is Ann, about the things we could do. Science has very clearly diagnosed our problem. We know what needs to be done, but the big problem is: Will we do it? And we are not doing it now. So I intend to be very optimistic about being able to work hard and probably prevent another disaster, but I am very pessimistic when you look at the people running for office in our country, for example, that will actually do it. And it is a good example, by the way, that paper was published by arguably the most distinguished scientific society in the world, The Royal Society of London, which is the British equivalent of our National Academy of Sciences and was of course heavily reviewed by the best scientists in the world. So one of the really silly things is, in countries like the United States and Great Britain and some of my other favorite countries like New Zealand, Australia, which is our second home, Canada, the scientific community knows exactly what is going on and the governments are ignoring it. Just consider from the days of Lester Pearson that now we have Canada and New Zealand and Australia run by total idiots and 15 total idiots lined up to try to run the Untied States. It is really scary.

The point is: This is now no longer a scientific problem; it is a political problem. Sure we could do a lot of research and learn a lot more, but the basics of what we have to do are crystal clear. We've got to, for example, give equal rights and opportunities to women everywhere because we know from empirical data that when we do that the total fertility rate comes down. We know we have to stop burning fossil fuels as our main way of mobilizing energy. We know that every sexually active human being should have access to modern contraception and safe backup abortion. That alone would save millions of lives. But it is not being done. So we know what needs to be done and they are all things that are politically extremely difficult. So this whole thing has really transformed from a natural science problem to a social science problem and a cultural problem and a communications problem. And you at least are trying to solve part of the communications problem end of it.

Chris Martenson: It struck me that it is not about the data anymore. We have all of the data we need. It becomes more of a psychological problem really. It is about how people process beliefs, or rather fail to. And beliefs are stubborn things. They go out and gather data that supports them and they vigorously refute and defend data that doesn’t support them. It becomes completely illogical. We can just look at, for instance, the so called drug war. There is lots of empirical data now including Portugal, which said "hey this isn’t a criminal problem. If we treat this as a social problem—in fact, what these addicts are mostly missing in life is a sense of connection and when we can start to help them rebuild that sense of connection to self, to nature, to other humans, they no longer have the need for drugs." Their drug use went way, way down and the total cost of the thing went really in the positive direction for them as a country. We have lots of data on something like that which seemingly is just about the human condition. Not even as tricky as saying "can I empathize with a plate of phytoplankton?" That is a step too far maybe.

Paul Ehrlich : Correct. The drug war—first of all, everybody with any sense knows we've lost it. So something real ___[00:12:54] ought to be done. Just like with climate change and the drug war, you have people who make their livings or make fortunes out of the other side of it. If you are a narco traffic contra, you don’t want us to solve the drug problem. If you are Shell oil or BP or something like that, you don’t want to stop burning fossil fuels. I think it was – I can’t remember, one of the big oil companies knew perfectly well that what they were doing was changing the climate, that it was extremely dangerous, and nonetheless they have been funding deniers, idiots and prostitutes who will get up there and say there is no problem with climate, it is uncertain whether the climate is changing, it is uncertain whether human beings are causing it. Turns out if you read Naomi Oreski’s wonderful book, The Merchants of Doubt, it is the same idiots who were paid by the cigarette companies to say "it is uncertain whether or not cigarettes are harmful to you" and on and on.

The degree to which people will adopt denial if it makes them comfortable is quite stunning. I am sometimes amazed by the people who sue the cigarette companies claiming they didn’t know it was harmful. I started smoking when I was six or seven years old. What we did then – this was in the 1930s, I picked up butts on the street with my friends and we smoked them. We called them coffin bails. At seven years old I and anybody else with any sense knew smoking was bad for you. But if you enjoy something you go ahead and do it anyway.

Chris Martenson: I’d like to build on that and talk about then what I consider to be one of the strongest forms of denial that we have got and it goes like this: My business partner Adam and I we joke about this. I call it the iPhone moment. We will be reviewing a bunch of data and I’ll say "look, oil discoveries peaked in the 1960s. That is 50 some years in the rear view mirror and that is just the data." And people will whip out their smartphones and go, "but you are forgetting about these, Chris," meaning technology. Technology is somehow going to save us. It will do something. It will somehow create energy instead of just help us find it. But we call it the iPhone moment. What it is really saying is we have a really powerful faith in our ability to be clever monkeys and that we are going to clever our way out of that. How do you respond to that and do you run into this?

Paul Ehrlich : I’d like to think it was true, but I know that it isn’t. In fact, if you send me an email I’ll send you some of the papers we discussed. The one that the Royal Society published, if I recall correctly, actually goes over the technological fixes that we were told in 1968 that we were dead wrong because we were going to build nuclear, agro, industrial complexes that were going to feed everybody in abundance. We were going to heard whales in atolls so we could feed everybody in abundance. We were going to grow algae on sewage and eat the algae so everybody could be fed in abundance (although, I always thought the growers and the eaters would probably be different people). There was going to be leaf protein just gathered from leaves all over the world that was going to feed everybody in abundance. We were told repeatedly in those days there was no problem. We had 3.5 billion people but we could easily feed 4 billion or 5 billion or 6 billion or 7 billion, on and on and on. Here we are at 7.3 billion and we have roughly 800 million starving each year and 1 to 2 billion micronutrient malnourished to the point they don’t function very well. And so I get really tired of hearing how we are going to fix it for huge numbers of people in the future. Our answer to these people every time has been: "Maybe so, but why don’t you show that you can feed the people we've got today good diets." They will say "well, it is just a distribution problem." I said "okay solve the distribution problem." But the point is, people are starving and you are still telling us how many more people we ought to have and how easy it will be to take care of them. We are not taking care of the people of the world today; who could possibly believe that adding 2.5 billion people in the next 35 years is going to be easy to take care of all of them and feed them? What about feeding the couple of billion that are starving today, that are not properly fed today?

So yeah, technology can help in some circumstances, but it certainly has never shown any sign of being able to solve the problem. Basic problem is human behavior and that behavior includes over reproduction, over consumption, not caring for your neighbors, inequity. Again, why don’t we solve the problem of giving women equal rights—should that be so extremely difficult? We can’t even get the women sometimes to help with that. If we had more women on our side we would have had an equal rights amendment in the United States. We are working with the wrong animal.

Do you know what a bonobo is?

Chris Martenson: Sure do.

Paul Ehrlich : We should emulate the bonobos. For example, they solve their problems, their battles, their disputes, with genital rubbing. I think that is something we should take up.

Chris Martenson: For anybody that doesn’t know, it is our closest relative, as it turns out, genetically, and it looks like a small chimp. They have very interesting group dynamics that if we studied them, I do believe that we might discover something in our DNA blueprint. There are other ways to resolve conflicts. So maybe we can go that way.

You know, I didn’t do it in advance of this interview, but it would take me three seconds to Google up and find articles where people are talking about how we don’t have a population problem of too many people, but they are worried about population growth rates leveling off. They are worried about not having enough humans. One of their arguments being more humans means more cleverness; that will save something. I am not sure if the rest was written by real estate agents or developers. I don’t know. Have you encountered those articles and tried to refute them?

Paul Ehrlich : Oh yeah. You don’t even have to try to refute them. Among others there is a bunch of political leaders in Europe who are worried about the aging of the population. It is a mathematical fact that if you have a rapidly growing population and you then start exercising restraint and have fewer births that the average age in the population will increase. This is often talked about by dumb politicians and idiot economists by saying, “We are going to face a terrible problem because of the dependency ratio.” The dependency ratio is defined as the number of people who are under 15, plus those that are over 65, dividing by the ones that are between 15 and 65. And it is perfectly true that the number of people over 65 will increase. This is viewed as a problem because of course then there is more people on social security and therefore you have a problem because there are fewer earners compared to those that are on Social Security.

Well, it’s true. You cannot avoid the problem of the change in age structure if you stop population growth. So in one sense the only way to solve that problem is to keep the population growing forever. If you slow down population growth, it doesn’t grow forever, then you are going to have more older people. Point one is: If you think that you can solve a problem by having the human population on a finite planet grow forever, then basically what you need is medical help and there is nothing I can do for you.

The second point is of course that the zero to 15 age class shrinks. You get more old people but you get fewer young people you have to support. Actually, it turns out it is much easier to make a person over 65 economically productive than it is to say make somebody under six economically productive. So the big result of too many people who cannot perform economically compared to those that have to support them is nowhere near as bad as is usually presented. In fact, it is one of those problems that with some foresight any nation can solve very easily. It means as part of the general economic problem and you have to figure it in. But it is absolutely inevitable unless you are insane and it is nowhere near as bad as it is ordinarily presented. In fact, for instance, if you look at the statistics in countries like the United States, people who don’t retire at 65 who remain economically productive tend to live longer in many circumstances than those that retire at 65. The whole structure can be changed to solve that problem. But it is a problem that is built in to mathematics. There is nothing at all you can do to change the fact that if the population stops growing its age composition is going to change and there is going to be proportionately more old people. No question about it.

Chris Martenson: Yeah, you know it is the math problem that sort of drives me a little bit nuts. A lot of this seems like not even complex math. It is fairly simple math. I did have the great pleasure of having Albert Bartlett attend one of my talks where I was using liberally from his wonderful talks on exponential growth. As I look at this really a lot of it feels to me, Paul, like the tail wags the dog. Where the economists and all of the people who are invested in the economy have bought into an idea that the economy has to constantly grow, and if it doesn’t it is threatening collapse. That is actually true. That is an observation. But instead of saying "wow, we've saddled ourselves with an economy and a monetary system that is either growing or collapsing; that seems like maybe we should fix that," we are putting everything we possibly can into assuring that we don’t have to confront the inevitable reality of that. It seems—is there a better definition if insane out there?

Paul Ehrlich : Actually, Al was great. He died recently, as you probably know. I think he was the one who said that exponential growth is the creed of the cancer cell. There was a very smart economist quite a ways back who said if you believe in infinite growth on a finite planet you are either a mad man or an economist. And that unhappily remains true. The interesting reason is—there was a study done by Collander and Clammers[ph], economists who looked at the training of economists, and economists get essentially no natural science. They have no idea how human beings are supported on the planet, what makes the planet livable, what the demographic issues are, and so on. They are just given a basically silly model. A model, for instance, that believes that everybody makes their economic choices rationally when biologists have shown and psychologists have shown many years ago that that is exactly wrong, that our decision making is much more controlled by emotion than by rationality. So they have a silly model which is based on a bio physical impossibility that is infinite growth. But trying to wean them from it...

By the way, there are some extremely smart economists who know better. But they are not the ones that are hired by the Wall Street Journal or the Australian or FOX News or so on to talk to people. So the average economist, and even some of the smart ones, are absolutely growth fixated and there seems to be very little you can do about it. I mean when you listen to any commentator on the economic situation, their cure for problems is never redistribution. It is always grow more. Doesn’t matter that the Ronald Reagans hood robin system, which was designed to steal money from the poor and give it to the rich, is still functioning very well. And if you think the rich are going to do something when they control the media and so on in order to change it, you are whistling in the dark. You are asking them to stop being the recipients of the money being stolen from the poor. Well, come on, what are the chances?

Chris Martenson: I tell you – I totally agree with all of that. There is a background reason for why I do what I do. I haven’t shared this very widely, but one of my habits in life is that if I am ever driving along or on a bike or anything and I see a turtle in the road, I will get off or out and move it in the direction it was traveling to help it across the road. And there was a period of time around 2003 or 4 I realized I hadn’t stopped in almost 10 years. It wasn’t because I had just driven past turtles and stopped caring; it was because I hadn’t seen any. And this is in New England so there are wood turtles, box turtles, sometimes snappers, painted sliders, things like that. It suddenly occurred to me that in my lifetime, what was a very common thing, which was finding and seeing turtles, which was a big part of my childhood because I was playing outside all the time, they were suddenly disappearing. I realized oh my goodness, I would love to do something about this. But I realized if you labeled yourself as an environmentalist there is a lot of baggage associated with that. So one of my thinkings was: How do I communicate this concern in a way that I can begin to talk about it? One thing led to another, next thing I know I’m talking about the economy because everybody cares about their pocket book, and that is true.

But, once you start to crack open one set of belief systems, which is "hey, did you know how money is created?" A lot of people don’t know, and you say "look it is just created out of thin air..." Even people who are international bankers have said "I had no idea..." Right? It's astonishing. It is a simple thing. We don’t teach it in schools for obvious reasons. It is kind of a dangerous idea to get out there.

So I’m looking at a piece of work you have done recently. I want to talk about some of this data. I think this really is part of what is – I know a lot of people who are very anxious right now without really knowing why. I am going to suggest something a little goofy, which is that on some level people are aware that we are killing the planet, and we are part of that planet; we are organisms of, by and for and with it, and I think that when we are basically eroding our primary support structure that feels uncomfortable—and it should.

So you had a paper out recently, co-authored, the one on the sixth mass extinction. I have seen a lot of the headlines. What I saw in your paper is that you were looking to put numbers behind the claims and observations. I’m looking at one of the charts produced in that paper. It shows five lines on it. One is for the background rate of extension, and four others show the actual extinction rates for bird, mammal, vertebrate and other vertebrate classifications. That background line is low and steady and linear, and the other four lines are all hockey sticks. They seem to align quite well with the human population curve if I were to super impose it mentally on there.

Is that the prime conclusion of this, A.) that we have got these horrific extinction rates and B.) that we can tie it to humans?

Paul Ehrlich : The claims have been made in the past – biologists have been very much concerned about the extinction rates now for about 40 or 50 years. But it is very hard to get accurate data to make really detailed comparisons of the background rate, which is simply the rate between the mass extinctions. In other words we know – actually when you had your original geology course and you learned about the Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous etc., etc. those boundaries in the geological record are mostly extinction events. That is, people named when you had a layered record of fossils. When the fossils changed suddenly—the makeup of the fossil community—that was a good place to name the end of a geological period. The most famous recent one—and I say "recent" in quotes—is the one about 55 to 66 million years ago when all of the dinosaurs excepts for the birds were wiped out along with a lot of the rest of the organisms on the planet. As probably most of your listeners know there is good evidence that it was caused by the collision of an extraterrestrial body with the planet, which caused basically a nuclear winter over the entire planet. It wiped out, among other things, the dinosaurs.

Figuring what the background rate was involves having a very good fossil record. The background rate being the normal rate of extinctions. In other words, when there is no extraterrestrial body coming or huge volcanic event or the sorts of things that have caused the mass extinctions. Normally organisms are going extinct all the time and new ones are evolving of periods of millions of years.

For instance, to restore the kind of diversity that there was before the mass extinction 65 million years ago took something like 15 million years to get most of it back. So it is a slow process, but the issue has been: What are the relative rates of extinction and speciation—that is production of new organisms—in between the mass events?

A colleague at Berkeley, Tony Barnoski and his group did a very, very thorough study of the background rate that is the rate between big events in the fossil record of the vertebrates, particularly mammals, and got some very, very good estimates, which were very conservative. Conservative meaning that the background rate that they came up with was faster than the usual background rate.

Now in order to see if we are going into a mass extinction today, what you would have to show is that the background rate—the rate today—is far above the background rate historically, prehistorically if you wish.

So what we did was take his conservatively fast background rate and then calculated a conservatively slow present rate. That is, we only considered things that were known to be extinct even though there are many, many, many organisms that are thought to have disappeared, but we don’t have enough biologists checking to see if for example in some corner of the Amazon basin something that is thought to be extinct is actually holding on. So we had a conservatively fast estimate for what went on in the distant past and a conservatively slow estimate for what is going on today.

The answer is somewhere between 10 and 1,000 times more rapid are the extinction rates today. In other words, a vastly more rapid rate than occurred in between the mass extinctions in the past. That indicates that we are having a mass extinction today.

We are starting a mass extinction and it is very easy to see why. First of all, we are observing huge numbers of population extinctions. The rate of extinctions of populations, not different species, but populations within species is now obviously thousands of times faster than the rate of extinction of species. One estimate that came out recently is that in the last I think it is 50, 60 years we have lost half of the wildlife on the planet. The rates are horrendous and we are not doing anything about it even though those other organisms are the working parts of our life support systems. In other words, we are sawing off the limb that we are sitting on and we now have very conservative estimates of how we are doing it.

And you probably have noticed other things. If you are a Northeasterner – have you been around for 40 years yet?

Chris Martenson: Yep.

Paul Ehrlich : Well remember in the old days you used to get these beautiful silk worm moths that would come to lights. When I was a kid in the Northeast I used to go out and find their cocoons, take them home and you would have this absolutely gorgeous moth with maybe a seven or eight inch wing spread emerge from the cocoon. They are basically all gone now. Wiped out by parasites that we moved in to try and control other moths and probably by street lights, which attract them and kill them. So biodiversity is going, but biodiversity is the working parts of our life support systems. The bats are disappearing from a disease. Bats control huge numbers of not only agricultural pests, but also disease-bearing organisms. One of the reasons we are having more and more trouble with various viruses is that the bats that normally control the mosquitoes are disappearing.

We are lacking the pollinators that we need. There has been a lot of publicity about that. If we lose the populations of honey bees we now substitute for the other things we have wiped out in North America, it will cost us something like 15 billion dollars and greatly reduce the nutritional value of our diets. The pollinators are going. The bees are in deep trouble, in part because we are using a new kind of insecticide that hits them very hard.

You don’t have to imagine why we are having this mass extinction. Human beings are destroying habitats and over harvesting organisms and poisoning the planet. Guess what? We are killing off the other living things.

Sorry, my – I had pneumonia and my voice disappeared so I am having a little trouble.

Chris Martenson: Oh, well, thank you for your resilience in keeping on with the interview.

On our site I have written extensively about the neonicotinoids and it is a really shocking case when you just look into that as a case study. You know we had Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, DDT all of that. We are doing it again. The neonicotinoids are not a pesticide; they are a biocide. They wipe out all kinds of things. It is a truly horrendous pesticide.

Paul Ehrlich : They are related to the nicotine that is contributed to wiping out the human beings.

Chris Martenson: Yes.

Paul Ehrlich : I was very active in the battles about DDT back around the 1960s and early 70s. One of the things we were concerned about is that we had levels of DDT in mother’s milk that were so high that the mother’s milk couldn’t legally be sold as cow’s milk. Everybody was very worried about having a biocide in that high of a concentration in that particular place, but people pretended to eat DDT on TV and they said there was no problem with it and so on. And then it turned out there wasn’t any immediate, nasty toxicity if you just ate some DDT or something. But most recently the data have come out and if your mother had high levels of DDT in her milk, your chances as a daughter of getting breast cancer are something like four times higher. So, we are also poisoning ourselves. There is an excellent new book out by Julian Cribb called Poisoned Planet, which if you wear pants, if you read it, it will scare them right off you.

Chris Martenson: Well I probably should read it, but I will probably read it through gapped fingers because I am really steeped in this data. By the way, I am old enough I think I ran behind trucks spraying DDT through my neighborhood. I lived in Stratford, Connecticut growing up. I remember when I was six or seven or eight or something these trucks would roll by with spraying fog out to control mosquitoes and we just thought that was the bomb as kids. We would run behind it. I don’t know what my parents were up to when I was doing that. But at any rate.

I would think though that we have come along since then, and the neonicotinoid pesticides tell me we haven’t. When you put something on a seed that is so toxic that the seed absorbs enough that the entire adult plant is systemically poisonous to anything that munches on it that is an insect, it is an astonishingly powerful thing.

So nicotine—we might get ourselves with nicotine through the back door. Instead of smoking it in our lungs, we will just wipe out the insects. Some day we will wake up and go "wow, insects were actually really important, even the ones we weren’t caring about like honey bees and tracking. But it turned out the Midges and the other things and the ones we forgot to even name were equally important." That we live in a highly complex ecological system. We have got a very highly complex economic system. The keepers of the economic system are pretending like it is the only system that matters; all the rest can be ignored. Your message is maybe not.

Paul Ehrlich : Exactly. There is an organization, which certainly you and many of your listeners might want to join because it costs nothing and it tries to keep all of these issues in focus and focus on the big things, like the scale of the human enterprise. It is called The MAHB. I don’t know if you have ever run into it. But you can find it at MAHB.stanford.edu – MAHB.stanford.edu. And again it is trying to organize civil society to do something about these things that you and I have found so difficult to do anything about.

Chris Martenson: Great. In the minutes we have left I am wondering how we turn this to – well I want to start with the title of a book that came out recently that you are featured in and part of; it is called Hope On Earth. First off, let’s talk about the book real quickly and then I would love to hear your ideas on what we can do.

Paul Ehrlich : Well the book was actually a recorded conversation between me and Michael Tobias right where I am now at almost 10,000 feet in the Rockies. We were just discussing – basically it is like the discussion you and I just had, ordered and edited. We both feel, as we discussed, as you and I have just discussed, that we know what to do. The hope on earth is to try and persuade people to just do it. And that is the big issue. And if we can’t – if we find we just have to live in societies where women are suppressed, where people of the wrong skin color are suppressed, where it is perfectly okay to take money from the poor and give it to the rich, where it is perfectly okay to have a political party that tries to keep children from being fed by attacking things like the food stamp program and so on. If we are going to continue that way, then there is no hope on earth. But there is hope on earth in the sense that there are many, many, many people who are concerned. As you said, people who have the feeling lately that we are killing our life support systems. People that have the feeling that people are not being fairly treated, that food isn’t distributed properly, that a lot of the food industry is designed not to feed people, but to make profits even if it kills the people, and so on and so forth. If there is some way of getting all of those people mobilized then it may be that we can move in the right direction. Right now, I see no sign that we are going to move in the right direction on any issue.

We have, for instance, one of the best presidents in some senses we have ever had, but under huge political pressure. So much so that he has to do some things that are, you know—he worries about climate change but he has to announce that we can drill off the shores of the southeast. We can drill in Alaska. We can fight wars in the Middle East to make sure we got oil. Fighting for oil in the Middle East would be like if we were starving fighting to get cyanide from the Middle East to eat. In other words we shouldn’t be burning oil. We shouldn’t be killing our children in battle or the children of other people in order to maintain access to oil. It is nuts, but we do it. And even a president that knows better is forced to do it. Can’t get anything from Congress and so on. We need to totally – if we want to have hope you got to totally change the way we govern ourselves. As you indicated we have to totally change the economic system. You indicated that most human beings, most Americans particularly, don’t know what fractional reserve banking is. Banking is utterly dependent on continuous money. Utterly dependent on continuous growth and generated basically as debt. It comes out of thin air. It has no other basis. And yet, you know, as you said, people don’t learn that in high school, do they?

Chris Martenson: No. No. And the summary of this for me and what we are trying to do at Peak Prosperity is it is this simple and this hard – we need a new narrative. So our current narrative is we need economic growth and we are consumers. Our narrative would be no, we don’t need growth. I don’t need it personally. And I’m not a consumer; I prefer to think of myself as a temporary inhabitant of this biosphere. I am a steward at best. And so we really do need a revolution in our collective story. That whole story of "be fruitful and multiply" I think that made sense a couple, ten thousand years ago or so whatever, but it doesn’t make sense today. Still those stories drive us. That is the thing I have been most personally frustrated with and invigorated by is trying to get my arms around: How do you change a story that is not true, but which people still believe in anyway? That is the tricky part.

Paul Ehrlich : We've got to get Peak Prosperity tied into The MAHB, because they have exactly the same types of goals. We have too many outfits all trying to do the same thing and not coordinated.

You don’t have to be brilliantly trained to understand what is going on. One of my very favorite stories is my daughter had a very close friend who is a very poor person who had escaped from Honduras I believe – Honduras or El Salvador. My daughter befriended her. They became good friends. And one day the woman said that I have been telling my sister, who has gotten pregnant for the third time, that she is having too many children. That that is not right. And Lisa, our daughter said, “Well, you are Catholic. Doesn’t the Catholics say that you have got to be fruitful, multiply and subdue the earth?” And the woman said, "Yeah conquistada, it is subdued already." I thought there is a brilliant, educated woman who summarized the situation beautifully. Yeah conquistada, we have subdued the earth already. We don’t need to do anymore subduing.

Chris Martenson: That is actually very well put. If we can just get that message out. Not everybody has got that message yet so far. I think you got it nailed, which is when their interests collide with understanding that. Whereas John Updite said, "Never expect a man to understand something if his salary requires him not to." That is kind of what we are up against here is self interest and all of that.

But if humans don’t move beyond self interest, I think we will do a lot of self harm. At a high level, like you say, even if humans do tremendous amounts of damage and wipe ourselves and a bunch of other things out, 10, 15 million years the earth will be back to its old humming self with a different cast of characters. I guess at that level things will be fine. I am not out to save the earth anymore, but I am out to see if I can save humans. And that project is very much an open project at this point with an uncertain ending I don’t know yet.

So yes, I would very much love to align efforts. I have had the same idea that there are a lot of individual groups pulling in different directions. It would be great if we could put some wood behind one arrow at least on a couple of fronts and see if that could go further because –

Here is my hope, Paul, I work with people in their 20s a lot who are very different than I was in my 20s, who get the story, who have peered into the future, who don’t think that they are being left a good earth or being given a fair deal and they are ready to do things differently. So I think the energy is there for a change. Will it come in time? I don’t know.

Paul Ehrlich: Convert them all into MAHBsters. We have all got to become MAHBsters. MAHB.stanford.edu.

Chris Martenson: We’ll put the link right at the bottom of this. We will make sure people go there. I will check it out myself and we will see what we can do.

I want to thank you very much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Paul Ehrlich : We’ll stay in touch.

Chris Martenson: Thank you.

Paul Ehrlich: Take care.

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Mark Cochrane's picture
Mark Cochrane
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Pyranablade 2

Hello Pyranablade,

I'm getting in one comment per country as I try to wing my way home.

The Nazi's actions were unconscionable and the fact that they tried to hide their activities indicates that they  knew this very well as they perpetrated the atrocities. That said, I think that in the first quote from Antwerp that you give above, the bit where it says "not be seen as singularities" is saying we shouldn't see the Nazi's as an unrepeatable phenomenon but more as a symptom of the length to which some people will make justifications for any actions when fear of resource scarcity strikes. The point seemed to be that our own well educated cultures could be susceptible to the same rationalizations.

Antwerp will have to speak to his own motivations but his statement in the second quote was qualified with "From that viewpoint" meaning that it isn't necessarily his/her(?) viewpoint. The logic being that if a nation (or maniacs in control) decide to see the dilemma as a winner takes all zero sum game for resources then they want to have as many fighters (hence population) as possible to take what they want and kill who they don't want. The rest of the post looks like equal parts provocation and despair. It is noteworthy to point out that Hitler and his cronies lost while destroying the lives of millions. Any group/country that tries to dominate the world is likely to face the same fate as nothing unites allies as much as certain annihilation.  

What I do know is that both you and Antwerp have made me think more thoroughly about this issue. I think that most people in this discussion and perhaps in general agree that we have too many people for this planet to support. I raise this issue in my classes. However it is one thing to discuss the issue academically and another to actually try to do something about it. As I say in class "Even if we all agree that the human population is too big for the Earth to carry, there are very few of us who are personally offering to get off the planet today (Arthur excluded!).


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I'm sure many have seen this article already.  You almost don't have to read the article; for me, all I saw was the pictures.  Many countries are facing the challenge of large increases in migrants.  Among others, Greece, France and the U.K. have been in the news recently.  Certainly the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, and just the beginning end-game of a growing world population and resource limits, in my opinion.


sand_puppy's picture
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Collapse, Migrations and Depopulation: The predicament

I'm outlining here the main issues I am seeing.  This is just what I imagine.  If others see other aspects of this or simply disagree, I would like to hear about it.  This is bleak!

1.  The foundational assumption:  The Earth's ecosystem cannot carry long term nearly then numbers of people that are currently here.  A very large percentage of the human beings will be dying in the near to moderately-near future.  [Please correct me if I anyone has a different understanding, as this is my foundational assumption.]

2.  I am very very, very, sorry to say, that I fear that all of the rest of this discussion is working out the details of WHO will be the ones who die ("depopulate") first.  Naturally, each of us would like to not be "depopulated."  (I expect chaos to ensue and who depopulates in the second and third cohorts will drift out of anyones control.)

3.  Collapse will happen sequentially "from the outside in" hitting the most marginal areas first.  (Water, food, high friction political systems, etc.) 

4.  People in the collapsing area will do their best to migrate to somewhere that is currently in a lesser state of collapse.

5.  Some areas will instinctively refuse admission to refugees.  They are the gated communities and gated nations.  This may be due to their own ethnocentric developmental stage or because they can foresee the longer term problems the floods of refugees will bring.

6.  Other areas that are world-centric, GREEN Meme (Spiral Dynamics) such as Sweden (in the above video), will empathize with the tragic plight of the fellow human beings who find themselves "refugees" and invite them in as brothers and sisters in need.  Some refugees will assimilate and many will not (as most  refugees are ethno-centric themselves) but will live in pockets/neighborhoods where their own group's developmental level, languages' and religions' predominate.  (Much of Africa is a RED and RED/BLUE level.)  These unassimilated pockets will bring the problems of the RED and BLUE, ethnocentric thinking to the GREEN world-centric nation.  And the resources of the accepting nation will be overwhelmed, moving it closer to collapse also.

7.  The refugee communities demand more political power and resources and begin to demonstrate and riot.  If the accepting nation is not completely destroyed first, it finally will have had enough and must regrettably say "no" and send in the domestic military.  Lots of people are killed.  Belatedly, the GREEN nation creates a wall and enforces it.  [In Spiral Dynamics terms, this is the type of crisis predictably resulting from the GREEN way of thinking that forces GREEN to evolve.]


Sometimes I hear people assert with indignation "The elites are trying to depopulate us!"

Well of course they are!  So in this sense "the elites" are just like all of us hoping to escape the worst of the depopulation process personally, yet knowing that it will happen ferociously in general.

After all, The Limits of Growth report was published by the Club of Rome, a sister organization to the CFR.  This is "the elites."

From this perspective, were I an elite, I might try to keep control by establishing an "Overly Organized Society" also.


Right now, an out-of-the-way, small, subsistence-level farm is looking really good!

pyranablade's picture
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Mark Cochrane 2

 It is noteworthy to point out that Hitler and his cronies lost while destroying the lives of millions.

I was reading the recent book about Adolf Eichman a few weeks ago and it said that the Germans would have fared better in the war and might have even won it if they had been more focused on fighting the war and less hellbent on exterminating the Jews.

If we can avoid future wars and genocides it will be less difficult to focus on fighting overpopulation and resource scarcity. Nevertheless, Antwerp's point is still well taken: the stresses of resource scarcity will continue to make wars and genocides more likely. I think that we all agree on that. 

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WWII decisions

I was reading the recent book about Adolf Eichman a few weeks ago and it said that the Germans would have fared better in the war and might have even won it if they had been more focused on fighting the war and less hellbent on exterminating the Jews.

I find that thesis to be a bit implausible given two decisions that determined the fate of the Nazis and Japan.  For Germany the decision to invade Russia was pure folly given historic precedence.  The Russians paid a heavy price (20 million dead) but ultimately marched into Germany victorious.  For the Axis powers generally the entrance of the US into the war was determinative.  We were a manufacturing behemoth that turned out massive amounts of war machinery to fight a two front war successfully.  That manufacturing power was protected by two oceans the Axis powers could not penetrate.

Regardless of the humanitarian implications, the Allies obliterated the German and Japanese abilities to manufacture weapons and cut off their access to fuel.  It was just a matter of time and numbers once that happened.

From the German standpoint the holocaust was psychologically important in that it gave the citizens a focus for xenophobia and the Aryan myth.  However, logistically I doubt it diverted enough men and materiel from the war effort to make a decisive difference.

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Arthur Robey
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The survival of the Jötun.

Burbling on confidently about "Aryian myths", let us look at what the Aryan tales may be telling us.

I include a composition from my correspondence. 

"Good to hear from you. I was worried that the cyclone may have done you mischief.
I am dismayed and angrerd (sic) by the cyber attack upon you. There is no doubt in my mind that somebody recognizes our special attributes and is very keen to exterminate them. How profoundly stupid to destroy the most creative race on this planet.
How special are we?
I found this paragraph in wiki about the contribution by the Jötun. (Remember that the Jötun had bigger brains than the humans, and the Norsemen readily admitted that they were outsmarted by them. Thor had a Jötun lover.)
"demonstrating that the best model was a recent admixture event that was preceded by a bottleneck event among modern humans—thus confirming recent admixture as the most parsimonious and plausible explanation for the observed excess of genetic similarities between modern non-African humans and Neanderthals.[5] A recent admixture event is likewise confirmed by data on the basis of linkage disequilibrium.[6]"
Source https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaic_human_admixture_with_modern_humans
Translation. The humans from Africa were nearly exterminated by the last Ice Ages. (Norse Ice Giants) we bred with the Jötun recently (within 5000 years).
Conclusion Non-hybrids instinctively recognise us as being different and want either to have a piece of that difference or to exterminate us.
Because we ARE different. Race is not just skin colour. It is multi-faceted.  As an example modern medicines often have different consequences for different races.
Somehow we must continue to survive."
So there you have it. Somehow we must continue to survive. Or not. Choose. 
Edit: Thor's Jötun lover either had all sons or was barren for there is no Jötun mitochondrial DNA in modern humans. It would appear that our fathers were Jötun, never our mothers.
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Volkswagon Beetle cram, anybody?

(double post)

Merle3's picture
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Volkswagon Beetle cram, anybody?

Time2help, I see your chart on post 10, and yes, the rapid rise of deaths in the future (black line) is scary. But notice that beside the rising black line is a rapid rise of births (red line). That is even scarier, for at a time when your chart predicts deaths will soar and population will decrease, your chart also predicts that births will skyrocket.

So your chart echoes the concerns expressed in post 3. What will happen to future birth rates? When the going gets tough, will the tough make babies? Will the birth rate go up? It is hard to predict human reactions. Please note that the makers of your chart predict that the birth rate will soar when times get tough.

This is the point that I would like Ehrlich to address. He emphasizes that increased opportunity for women will cause birth rates to come down, but he doesn't address whether the post peak world can indeed be expected to have more opportunity.And if opportunity for women goes way down in the post peak world, will birth rates soar as the chart in post 10 predicts?

Also I would like to know how low Ehrlich expects his plan of giving women more opportunity, education, and control of their lives would bring the birth rate. Assume the best. Assume everybody does exactly what Ehrlich suggests, and women worldwide live highly fulfilling lives with plenty of opportunity. How low does he expect the birth rate to go in this best possible scenario? Is he predicting about 1.8 to 2 children average per couple worldwide? If so his plan does nothing to decrease world population significantly in the next century or two, but at best holds population nearly constant. Is that sufficient?

There is also the issue with population momentum. There are more younger people alive today than elderly, due to high birth rates in the past. If the birth rate goes down to 2 per couple, the population still rises for a while.

I see a number of comments here expecting that future population post peak will need to be significantly lower than the population today. And I see a number of comments saying that government action or organized efforts will have no serious effect on the population. And I see concerns that birth rate may actually go up. Put that all together, and we seem to be saying that we will continue to cram more and more people into this Volkswagon Beetle of a planet we live on, and that there is nothing we can do to stop it. In this metaphor, when the car gets too full and people die from overcrowding, well then the suggestion seems to be that the few remaining living people will throw the corpses out of the Beetle and drive off happily into the sunset.

But it is difficult to look at such a scenario and call it a message of hope. Yes, the survivors of the future population crash go on happily, living off the land in vibrant rural communities, living a happy simple low-energy life while maintaining some limited forms of telecommunications and other modern conveniences. Yes, I can see that end result can be a message of hope, if we ignore the means of getting there. But have we no other message of how we will get there, other than we will continue to cram and overshoot the planet until calamity occurs, and then hope for the best as the survivors go about establishing a new era of the good life in the post peak world?

Serious questions, these. And I would love to see somebody like Ehrlich address them further.








Time2help's picture
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For reference (to post #59)

solarbobky's picture
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Steady State Economics

Economist Herman Daly has been writing books on Steady State and Ecological Economics for decades.


His books can be found at the usual locations, especially used bookstores.

solarbobky's picture
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A Prosperous Way Down

This is a great book by Howard Odum and Elisabeth Odum. His work is on the intersection of ecology, energy, and economy with many pioneering (and difficult) concepts.


solarbobky's picture
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Limits to Growth

Dennis Meadows was always careful to stress that once the curves hit an extreme (high or low point) all bets are off as to what happens next. The graphs assume the assumptions in the model continue to be valid but Dennis says he doesn't expect that to be the case. See:

among other sources.

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