IA's Sue Arnold interviews Paul and Anne Ehrlich, authors of The Population Bomb, discussing the fate of the planet.
Paul Ehrlich is a charming, charismatic, controversial, globally recognised scientist and author. At 86, he has no intention of retiring as a peaceful witness to the world’s environmental crises. In 1968, Paul and his wife, Anne, co-wrote The Population Bomb, a bestseller predicting massive starvation and civilisation collapse as a result of over-population.
The book earned Paul and Anne a global reputation, with many scientists disputing the conclusions. Although the Ehrlichs’ predictions did not transpire in the time frame predicted, Paul Ehrlich takes every opportunity through lectures and authoring books to alert humanity to the looming crises which are happening now as a direct result of over-population.
He has no hesitation in predicting the end of civilisation is close.
In an exclusive interview with IA in San Francisco, Professor Ehrlich was asked how he would describe the state of nature on Planet Earth.
It’s a very frightening picture because first we’re not doing anything significant to divert ourselves from the coming collapse and second not thinking hard about what the consequences of that collapse are going to be for people in rich countries. To say nothing of people in poorer countries who are already suffering. A lot of people are dying in Africa right now because of climate change.
There’s been much literature recently on the disappearance of insects. Butterflies that Anne and I worked on for years are becoming rarer and rarer.The Monarch butterfly is disappearing, lots of the birds are gone. Some people believe we’ve lost almost half of the wildlife on the planet in the last 40 years and the rest of its going to go very fast.
“Nature supports us and we have no idea how fast the collapse will come," Ehrlich told IA.
Climate change is going to make for a worsening migration situation raising ethical issues about how many people should be allowed to migrate from where to where and under what circumstances.
Many scientists think we are well past the tipping point considering our accommodation of the political situation and how much carbon dioxide and methane are in the in atmosphere.
Independent Australia: "What do you think are the greatest threats at this time?"
Paul Ehrlich: [With a grin.] “Besides Trump?"
He became serious:
The greatest threat in the human era is the idea we can go on growing forever which comes from a lot of really stupid economists who are so badly trained. With a few outstanding exceptions, most of them have had no training in natural sciences or how the natural world works. They actually believe growth, including population growth, is the best thing in the world, that it can go on forever. That each nation’s Growth National Product (GNP) can grow forever.
I will not take an optimistic view of the world until I hear major politicians say, we had a half a per cent growth last year when we should have had at least half a per cent shrinkage.
Growth mania is the greatest danger. It’s the hardest thing to exterminate because the so-called educated people who meet in Davos at the World Destroyers' meeting every year are absolutely dedicated to growth and more consumerism.
Their mantra, if you don’t continue growing you’re dead, ignores the fact that we don’t continue growing. There’s childhood and maturity. What we have is an over mature society still trying to grow further.
There isn’t enough on our planet to support us, there are no other planets so in Chinese terms we’re screwed.
It’s very hard to know what’s going to happen in the future. We haven’t seen any miraculous turns in the right direction.
Concluding the thought, he said:
"The future is tied almost entirely into the easiest way to destroy civilization. Small scale nuclear wars with the nuclear weapons are now in the hands of notorious nut cases. So how can optimistic can we be?"
IA: "Is there a spiritual dimension to this destruction?"
Paul Erlich: "I think it's tragic spiritually because we don’t know why there’s anything at all in the universe. All the big questions are not answered. I would love to think that eventually humanity might be able to think those things out, but it's not going to be so if we keep on this path we are now. Why is there anything at all in the universe? Human civilisation is going to disappear. Of course a lot of nature will go as well, but in 20-30 million years, a lot of new things will be here."
IA: “What new things?”
Paul Erlich: “New organisms will evolve. We don’t know what will be left. Much depends on whether we have a large scale nuclear war or whether we just continue in the direction of wrecking the climate that we’re doing now. Or whether we poison most of the higher organisms and ourselves with toxins now spreading from pole to pole.”
Anne Ehrlich, associate director of the Center, agrees with her husband. She says the ongoing devastation of the environment is accelerating and unnerving.
Anne Ehrlich: "We’re losing nature and the whole kit and caboodle. We’re losing how it all fits together and maintains itself and keeps all the elements going because of interactions among various creatures, including us, we’re wholly dependent on nature but most humans don’t recognise that."
Chemical contamination is currently an issue which occupies Paul and Anne. Their concern focuses on the impacts on children and the ability of humanity to make educated decisions.
Paul Erlich: “It turns out that a basic law of toxic chemistry is wrong. The idea that gross makes the poison, for example, if you ate a pound of salt you would die, that too much salt becomes a poison is misleading. It turns out that chemicals in tiny quantities can be far more dangerous large ones because of the way they effect the receptors in your hormones. Any time you look at a study of, say, the IQs of children who were raised downhill of a sledge smelter versus upwind, or downwind and upwind of a place producing pesticides, the downwind ones have fewer IQ points than the upwind ones.”
The sheer extent of human exposure to chemicals impacting our hormones is well illustrated by the everyday example Paul Ehrlich likes to use.
Paul Erlich: “We’re all exposed to Bisphenol every time we get a receipt from that little machine in the stores. It’s in everyone’s blood which may affect their hormone balance, particularly in children."
According to a recent U.S. report, the so-called "gender-bending" chemical Bisphenol (BPA) is added to 93 per cent of receipts given out in stores. Cashiers and waiting staff who frequently handle receipts are particularly vulnerable to the chemicals’ effects according to the research.
BPA, which reacts with estrogen and thyroid hormone receptors, has been linked to infertility, ADHD, obesity, type 2 diabetes, premature births and early onset of puberty.
According to Paul Ehrlich, the impacts of chemical pollution on the human brain are increasingly obvious.
Paul Erlich: “A lot of people think we are dumbing down humanity, that humanity is becoming more stupid. I hadn’t seen any empirical evidence of that until we began to observe the Republicans in the U.S. Senate and now we have empirical evidence that we are dumbing down."
IA: "Are there any solutions to the population question?"
PE: “The best solutions are things like giving women rights. That’s a start. Access to modern contraception and where necessary back up abortion. Maybe if you gave women full equal rights and access to contraception that would start a slow decline. If we’re really lucky and do all the other things we need to do, we might end up with a world population of 1 billion people, some living as hermits, some living in big cities and able to continue for centuries. It’s possible."
IA: "What can people do?"
PE: “Become politically active. This crisis is not a scientific issue any more, it’s a political issue. Science may come up someday with some kind of artificial intelligence which will somehow save civilisation. I'm not holding my breath. Anne and I see a lot of dangers in it.”
And a final philosophical bubble:
“I think of these crises in terms of my love of fermented grape juice. Drink really good wines. You can keep the internal in good shape while the external goes down the drain.”
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