Webcast Recap

"We're fighting a huge resource war right now and we're losing it…and it's not in the papers, it's not on the news," lamented world-renowned scientist Paul Ehrlich, launching his latest book at a May 18 meeting sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Project. In One with Nineveh: Politics, Consumption, and the Human Future, Ehrlich and his coauthor, wife Anne, update their major themes in light of the Iraq war and other recent events. They argue that overconsumption, population growth, and political and economic inequity are blocking our progress toward a healthy, sustainable future. In his speech at the Wilson Center, Ehrlich warned that we must confront the serious problems of climate change, land degradation, groundwater overuse, and biodiversity loss, and proposed ways to increase media attention and ethical discourse on these issues.

Highly influential—and often controversial—the Ehrlichs have garnered international praise and attention for their work, which includes 1968's landmark book The Population Bomb, along with Betrayal of Science and Reason and Human Natures: Genes, Cultures and the Human Prospect. Introducing him as "one of the great scientists of his time," Thomas E. Lovejoy, president of The H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment, praised Ehrlich's efforts to bridge the worlds of scholarship and policy.

Empires Built on Sand

Ehrlich opened by explaining the unusual title of his new book: he believes that like the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh in Kipling's poem "Recessional," our government's "extreme hubris in a situation of extreme ignorance" causes it to disregard the warning signs of serious environmental degradation. Nineveh, a gigantic, wealthy city of 150,000 people, was "built—in a very real sense—on sand and it was running downhill (as all the Mesopotamian empires) environmentally," due to deforestation and salinization; however, the leadership didn't realize what was happening because of the slow pace. He drew a connection between this empire built on sand, and the United States' current forays into empire-building in the Middle East—"a very Assyrian type of operation….All you have to do is look at the performance of our leaders to know that hubris is in superabundance in Washington these days."

He bemoaned the profound ignorance of science in Washington and the media: "Almost all the major issues of our day have scientific and technological components to them…Not ever have I heard a coherent technical sentence on one of those [Sunday morning talk] shows," despite the fact that "the scientific community has warned them repeatedly, continuously, and in no uncertain terms." For example, the 1992 World Scientists' Warning to Humanity ("human beings and the natural world are on a collision course….Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about") "never made it into the media…Nobody paid the slightest attention. And to this day, they are still not paying attention."

A Check We Can't Cash

As the dominant species on the planet, we have reached the "cutting edge of the human triumph," but Ehrlich warns that "our triumph is not uniformly shared across the planet: roughly three billion live on $2 per day or less…between 600-800 million people don't get enough to eat….That's one of the roots of the terrorism that scares us so much." Our dominance is demonstrated by our impact on the environment, such as climate change, which Ehrlich considers to be a serious problem, despite the uncertainty:

What do you do about a 10 percent chance that civilization will be ended by rapid climate change? Well, all you can do is argue about it and decide how much insurance you want to take out…The probability of the Soviets striking to the West in Europe during the Cold War was 5 percent; we spent 69 squadrillion dollars to take out insurance against that, so one might argue that taking out insurance against rapid climate change would be smart.

He views land degradation just as seriously: "Our deep rich agricultural soils are being destroyed at many times the rate that they are being regenerated…they are basically being turned in many parts of the world into a nonrenewable resource." Groundwater overuse and loss of biodiversity are also troubling issues:

We're sawing off the limb on which we're sitting….So when the politicians stand up and brag about how much the economy has grown, how much the population has grown, they are like a profligate kid who's inherited a vast fortune and every year writes a bigger check on the fortune but never bothers to check the bank balance….Our not-so-great triumph is based on spending capital rather than living on a flow of interest coming from that capital.

Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology

Ehrlich outlined the three great drivers of environmental degradation: population, consumption, and technology. He highlighted the "good news" that birth rates were going down, mostly in the richest countries: "The superconsumer is what you want to get rid of." However, this is countered by negative trends, such as reduced household size: although fewer people live in each house, the average house is now almost twice as large as 1948. The developed world's declining birth rate has a sad counterpart in Africa, where AIDS has irrevocably changed the demography: "The groups most affected by AIDS are the ones most critical to the development of a nation….Nobody wants a death rate solution to the population problem," said Ehrlich. He encouraged women's education as a way to reduce population growth, citing the example of Kerala, India, which—with a long tradition of educating women and a total fertility rate lower than the United States—"shows that you don't have to be superrich and super-consuming in order to get control of your population problem."

The problem of consumption is much more complex, asserted Ehrlich. "It's looked at by many people, most politicians, and still some economists as an unmitigated good," which makes it difficult to convince people to change their lifestyles. Ehrlich saw both salvation and danger in technology: while high-tech solutions can help support population growth, "we have to be extraordinarily careful." For example, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are "a technology with potential for helping us and potential for harming us, and what we've got to do is see that they are deployed so they help the people who need help." He warned the audience not to rely solely on technology to take care of our problems of consumption and environmental degradation, casting doubt on the popular argument that technology will cure pollution and replace non-renewable resources.

End of Global Civilization?

Ehrlich offered some solutions for these mounting problems: first, he recommended that these issues should be better communicated to the media and the public:

We need more efforts like [the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and more public efforts. There's one going on right now, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which is basically trying to look at the state of our life support systems. It has got government support but has not attracted attention from the press.

Second, he pushed for more ethical discourse of human behavior, citing clean water and immigration as examples of environmental issues that should be approached from an ethical perspective:

We're using up nonrenewable resources. How much of those should we leave for future generations? What do we owe to two generations down the line? …Ethics evolve very slowly compared with technology….But our ethics have changed and they can change further, so I don't think it's hopeless to say that if we can speed up the discourse we can get to someplace better.

Ehrlich closed with a warning: "For the first time in the history of our planet, we have a global civilization about to go under….What used to be considered absolutely impractical solutions are the only practical ones….All of us has to spend as much effort as we possibly can working on these problems, trying to figure out why these things happen."

Ethical Discipline

Asked about reconciling the diverse ethical values of different cultures, Ehrlich said that we must learn how to "actually talk about these things, figure out where we're going to disagree and figure out what to do about the disagreements." Using the example of abortion, he suggested that instead of focusing on this "very destructive issue," we should adopt a different goal: "Why don't we work to make very safe, very effective contraception available to everyone who is sexually active. That's a goal I think many people could adopt, but it's not really discussed in those terms. In other words, where is the compromise?"

An audience member commented that Ehrlich was often controversial because he spoke out on political issues but was also a noted biologist, and wondered if he saw any signs that barriers between disciplines were breaking down. Ehrlich quipped, "Universities are not quite as easily changed as the church….All the perks flow down disciplinary lines." He pointed out that like many universities, Stanford (where he is a professor of population studies and biological sciences) has no tenure-line interdisciplinary professors. He criticized the current system as outmoded and Aristotelian: "A lot of people are determined to change it, and the people that are most determined and the most active are the old farts like me and the very young (the graduate students and assistant professors)."

Gross National Happiness

A couple of questions focused on the relationship between consumption and economics. Referring to a recent survey, Ehrlich noted:

While our GNP has multiplied many times, satisfaction has either stayed level or gone down. One of the problems we haven't addressed is "What is human life really for?"….We've bought this whole line that "he who dies with the most things wins."

He praised Bhutan's program of Gross National Happiness, which seeks to preserve culture and land, as an alternative model of the relationship between consumption and the economy. "I like the idea of Gross National Happiness….GNP is a lousy measure of anything, either economic or certainly happiness."

Referring to Norman Myers' work on "the new consumers" in developing countries, Ehrlich noted: "In places like China and India, you have gigantic poor countries with quite large rich countries embedded in them." But the developed world hasn't set an example for the new consumers: "We have not said that you shouldn't go through the old Victorian industrial revolution …skip the mistakes that we made, [because] we have not yet admitted that they were mistakes."

Doomsaying Sells

Other audience members asked for Ehrlich's recommendations for educating the public. "The big barriers are the media…I think we also have to work very hard to make the media much more diverse than they are now." He observed that he and other scientists used to be invited to appear on national talk shows. But now, "when was the last time you saw a scientist on one of the evening shows or the Today Show? When is the last time you saw a serious book discussed on the Today Show? The trend is all wrong."

In his own work, Ehrlich has found that "the doomsaying books have sold quite well and the solutions books have disappeared without a trace. People claim they want to hear solutions but they actually want to have their pants scared off." Part of the problem is schools don't teach how to think about the long-term impacts, but rather focus on the short-term problems:

We haven't put it into our teaching and our general discourse….People have not been taught to look at the big picture, to look at the long term, or to analyze, and they don't get that in their schools.

Ehrlich closed by cautioning against overplaying our successes:

The number of success stories is relatively local and small scale compared to George Bush's destruction of the environment, which is an incredibly successful campaign…Nixon started decent environmental policies and in one term we're almost turning the whole thing back. The recent salmon decision would shame a gorilla.


  • Paul Ehrlich

    Bing Professor of Population Studies, Stanford University