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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Is Chicken Little Right?

Air Date: Week of August 22, 2008

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Paul Ehrlich (Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford New Service)

If you ask Paul Ehrlich, a professor of population studies at Stanford University, he’ll tell you the recent UN report on the state of the global environment is old news. Dr. Ehrlich talks with host Bruce Gellerman about overpopulation, famine, and climate change, and the urgent need for the human species to save itself from disasters of its own making.


GELLERMAN: Well, Java’s forests are just a part of the planet that’s in peril. According to the UN report "Global Environment Outlook 4" The world is hurtling headlong to disaster. Achim Steiner is executive director of the panel that produced the study.

STEINER: The sobering and not surprising findings are that on virtually all major variables of development, we still have to conclude that the signs are pointing downwards. We have not turned the corner on major issues such as energy, climate change, loss of biodiversity, decline in fisheries, deforestation.

GELLERMAN: The UN panel even warns that "mass extinction" is possible. Of course, there have been bleak warnings about the fate of the Earth before. Among the most famous of pessimistic predictions were from biologist Paul Ehrlich.

In 1968 Ehrlich wrote "The Population Bomb," a landmark book in which he predicted that as a result of an exploding population, by 1985, quote: 'The battle to feed all of humanity will be over,' and that, 'In the 1970’s and 80’s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.'

Paul Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University now. We called him up to see if he’s changed his perspective.

Hi, Professor Ehrlich.

EHRLICH: Nice to be here.

GELLERMAN: You know, this UN report is pretty pessimistic. Uh, and you’ve got a history of being something of a professional pessimist. Is it time for me to start walking down the street with a sign saying ‘The End is Near’?

EHRLICH: Uh, I think it’s time for people to take very seriously the things we’re doing to our life support systems. In other words—it’s not just me that’s pessimistic. In 1993, 58 academies of science said—that is basically all the academies of science in the world—said if we don’t change our ways, we’re doomed. And 1500 of the world’s leading scientists sent out a statement called “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” said exactly the same thing. It wasn’t covered in the press at all. The scientific community has been trying to warn society about the various things we’re facing and it just hasn’t penetrated the media or certainly governments.

Paul Ehrlich (Photo: Linda A. Cicero/ Stanford News Service)

GELLERMAN: But back in 1968 when you wrote “The Population Bomb,” you wrote that the battle to feed all of humanity is over. That was what—40 years ago?

EHRLICH: Forty years ago and perfectly correct. We still have about a billion people who don’t get enough food to function properly. In 1968 in the same book I warned about the possibilities of global warming, and that’s something the scientific community has known about since about 1898. None of this stuff is new. It’s just a massive report happened to come out of the UN saying ‘all the trends are in the wrong direction.’ And they’re perfectly correct but it’s something again, the scientific community has been saying as loud as it could for a long time.

GELLERMAN: So we’re facing an existential crisis?

EHRLICH: We’re facing a crisis in which the way in which many of us live will not be possible for the vast majority of people—sometime in the relatively near future. Hopefully after I’m dead, but maybe not.

GELLERMAN: Well according to the UN report, by 2050 there will be about 9.7 billion people on the planet. Is that in excess of the carrying capacity of the planet?

EHRLICH: Certainly in anything like today’s lifestyle. You know if you try to move to a battery—what my colleague calls a battery-chicken type of world, in which everyone has the absolute minimum to keep them alive—it might be possible.

GELLERMAN: Did you say 'battery chicken?'

EHRLICH: Battery chickens are these situations where you raise billions of chickens in one building, you know where every chicken as a square foot and just is in there and gets fed and uh, grows. That’s the battery-chicken world, where everybody is living the absolutely minimum standard of living so you can maximize the number of people. If we want, for example, the United States to go on for thousands and thousands of years, the way to do it isn’t to see how many people we can cram in in the next 20. You’ve got to remember we’re at about 6.6 billion now, talking about adding about 2.5 billion more.

First of all, 2.5 billion is 500 million people more than were on the planet when I was born in 1932. So we’re adding more than existed when I was born. Second, the next two and a half billion are going to be a lot more expensive to take care of environmentally than the previous 2.5 billion because people are smart, they farm the best lands first. You know you can’t get oil by sticking a pointed stick in the ground in Pennsylvania anymore. You got to drill down a couple of miles. And water has to be transported long distances. And I think anybody who reads the newspapers and can count, can see that we’re in deep trouble just from the numbers of people versus the resources that are available. Ask them in Atlanta, where they’re running out of water. Ask them in Southern California, where climate change is helping huge fires to devastate areas. I was just in Brazil, and the Pantanal swamp area was burning and the Cerrado, the savannah areas south of the Amazon, were burning in record bouts. So, you know, you just have to look around to see what’s happening.

GELLERMAN: Well Professor, I can’t resist the word play temptation. You know, you say battery chicken, some people say Chicken Little.

EHRLICH: Well they say Chicken Little but again, I warned 40 years ago about climate change, what do we have going on now? I warned 40 years ago about emergent diseases, what do we have now? I warned 40 years ago that if we didn’t do something about the population situation, people would still be hungry. Well, we’ve got many, many millions of people hungry. So, Chicken Little says the sky is falling. Well, maybe Chicken Little is right.

GELERMAN: According to the UN report, each person on the planet needs about 22 hectares. But I’m thinking, you know, there’s Hong Kong, there’s New York, you know, uh—

EHRLICH: Well, that’s right but the thing you got to remember is that the people in New York don’t live on New York. They import stuff from acres all over the rest of the world. Where, it’s a common fall—it’s actually been named by the scientific community ‘the Netherlands fallacy,’ the idea that the whole planet can be as crowded as the Netherlands. And of course it’s not people versus area, it’s people versus the resources that support them. And those resources include things called ‘sinks,’ like the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb carbon dioxide. That’s a very important resource for the planet. It’s one we’re overusing at the moment.

GELLERMAN: Are we as a species capable of comprehending and dealing with problems of this magnitude?

EHRLICH: Sure we are. We’re perfectly capable of it. We’re the dominant animal on the planet. We’re in many ways brilliant but we haven’t gotten the political and ethical will together to do the things we ought to be doing. And the educational system is deteriorating. The media don’t generally cover this stuff. I mean if you look at the top stories in the media, how often do they deal with the fact that we’re within decades of losing our civilization. It’s almost never mentioned. There are some things now that’s coming out but for instance you would think, watching the media today, that the only big threat is climate change. But of course many people feel for instance that the number of toxic substances we’re adding to the environment are an even bigger threat. In many villages in the Arctic and sub Arctic, there are only half as many male babies being born as female babies and it’s likely a sign of the hormone-mimicking chemicals that we manufacture, release into the environment, and that are carried by the climate systems to the poles. The threat of emerging diseases—the first one of course, has been AIDS, the first really big one in recent decades—but the more people we have, the greater the threat—particularly to the ones that malnourished—of new plagues taking over, a new flu, and so on. So that’s considered a huge threat. And the loss of biodiversity, the other organisms that are a working part of our life support systems, is also a huge threat. I mean, even economists are looking at issues like: are we consuming too much now? In other words, the scholarly community is enormously concerned and the general public and particularly our so-called leadership is utterly ignorant so it’s not a great situation.

GELLERMAN: So it has not reached the tipping point?

EHRLICH: We don’t know. But what other choice do we have but to try and change so that if we haven’t reached the tipping point, we don’t reach it, because the tipping point is going to be miserable and an awful lot of people will die and lifestyles will change very, very dramatically, and so we don’t want to do that so you know, I can’t be incredibly optimistic about what we’re going to do. What we can say is that societies can change very rapidly when the time is ripe. Look for instance how rapidly the Soviet Union disappeared when none of us expected it to. When I was a kid, lynchings were common in the south of the United States. They aren’t any more. In other words, things can change very rapidly. We don’t fully understand why but when the time is ripe, they change and I think that your chore and mine is to try to ripen the time.

GELLERMAN: Well Professor, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.

EHRLICH: It’s a pleasure to me too, thank you very much.

GELLERMAN: Paul Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University.



To see UNEP's fourth Global Environment Outlook report, click here


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