Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Paul Ehrlich interviewed

by Julian Darley

Global Public Media
Public Service Broadcasting for a Post Carbon World (July 30 2005)

Paul Ehrlich, co-author of One with Nineveh: Politics, Consumption, and the Human Future (Island Press, 2004), biologist and Stanford Professor of Population Studies speaks with Julian Darley.

Julian Darley: What is the short, compact history of population studies, if you can squeeze that down, and tell us where you think we are with population studies.

Paul Ehrlich: We're in a situation of vast overpopulation, and the population is still growing, but we at least understand the problem, and we're starting to move in the right direction. Much more critical are issues now of per capita consumption in rich countries, and of course, increasing it in some of the poor countries, and of course, the kinds of technologies we are using, and as we discuss extensively in "One with Nineveh", the power relations which keep societies from moving in the direction that the scientific community thinks they ought to be moving.

JD: Okay, and I'd like to come back to those power relations. I am very interested to ask you, what do you think of the demographic transition, which was born in the 1930s, I think, and became popular with policy makers at about the time, I think, that some people started to question it. What do you think of the demographic transition, and can you explain it a bit?

PE: Well, the demographic transition is simply the observation that if death rates come down with development, birth rates tend to drop after the death rates drop. And this, for a while, was viewed in the 1940s and 1950s and even 1960s as a cure for the population problem. The idea was: We develop the entire world, and then birth rates will drop, and the population size will stabilize. There are about fifty things wrong with that. One is there is no mechanism to create the stabilization and no guarantee that the birth rate would drop to a level that would balance death rates. More importantly, if the entire world develops, say, to the level of the United States, we'd need several more earths to support it, because, as you know, the United States is the great super-consuming nation, and other rich nations do the same thing, and although their birth rates are coming down, every child born in the United States or Great Britain is a much greater threat to the life- support systems of the planet than a baby born, say, in Bangladesh or Amazonian Brazil, simply because kids in Bangladesh and Amazonian Brazil are very unlikely to grow up to drive Humvees and have 10,000- square-foot air-conditioned homes.

JD: Can you say something about concepts, which I think are related to what you are talking about there, some people talk, usually very nastily, about Malthus, and even less people have heard of the concept of overshoot. Can you say anything about those things?

PE: Well, Malthus wrote several hundred years ago and was basically correct - his fundamental proposition was that population growth can always outstrip food supplies. The contrary view is that food supplies can be allowed to grow basically to infinity, and there's no evidence of that at all.

When I wrote the Population Bomb (Ballantine Books) in 1968, there were 3.5 billion people and a lot of hunger, and everybody said, "Not to worry, because scientific advances will allow us to feed, clothe, and house in wonderful style even 5 billion people". Well, now we are up to 6 billion people, and we still have something like one billion who are not getting diets that most Americans would get along on, and at least 600 million people who are basically starving today.

So basically Malthus was right in theory, and although there have been enormous and valuable advances in food production, he fundamentally was right that it cannot be perpetually kept up with population growth. Indeed we probably have mortgaged a lot of our future with the kinds of agricultural systems we've developed, which are very productive in the short term, but may turn out to be catastrophically dangerous in the long term. We hope not.

JD: Directly coming from that then, what do you think the current carrying capacity of the earth is now, given that quite a lot of the biosphere has been degraded?

PE: Well, it's very difficult to say, because, of course, carrying capacity depends on what kind of behavior you get in the animals that you're considering, so that a carrying capacity of earth for vegetarian saints is going to be very different than for steak-eating Texans. But the one study we've done in the last few years, which I did with Gretchen Daily and my wife Anne, on what an optimum population might be, that is, a population that would give us a maximum of available options, so that you could have enough wilderness, so that people could live in wilderness, but enough people so you could have big cities and operas and so on. The basic number is about 1.5 to 2 billion people, depending on how conservative you want to be about avoiding unfortunate denouements. And so, we're somewhere around three times to four times above carrying capacity now, and this is very obvious, not in any theoretical way, but simply because we're not able to support today's population by living on the interest of our natural capital - we're using it up. And the three most important parts of our natural capital that we are exhausting are: deep-rich-agricultural soils, which are generated on a time scale of inches per millennium, and in many places are disappearing at a rate of inches per decade; the underground water - the fossil groundwater that accumulated during the ice ages, and is now being pumped out at many, many times the recharge rate, while we do other things to destroy the aquifers; and of course, biodiversity, which are the populations and species of organisms that operate our life support systems.

And so right now we are way, way beyond carrying capacity, and the longer we stay in overshoot - that's what overshoot is - you have more people than the environment can support in the long run, and the issue is: When will we have depleted our natural capital to the point where we can't even live on our capital anymore?

We're like the profligate child, who inherited a vast fortune from daddy, in our case, I should say mommy, mother earth, in the form of all this natural capital, and every year we write a bigger check on the account, and the politicians brag about that: "Boy, the GNP grew, and we built ten million more hummers, and blah, blah, blah, blah", and they never look at the balance, and of course, the critical thing is what's happening to the balance, and there, every study that's looked at it says the balance is dropping. In 1993 the world scientific community in two very different documents that both said basically the same thing that we are on a collision course with natural systems, and if we don't change our ways, we're going to be very thoroughly Cheneyed (ph).

JD: Thinking of overshoot, which was written about by, amongst others, William Catton, and then also thinking about "The Limits to Growth". In the thirty-year update to "The Limits to Growth", which was published last year, Randers and Meadows pronounced themselves disappointed that they hadn't managed to get the word "overshoot" into the vocabulary with their 1992 book. If you could inject a word or a concept into the vocabulary with your latest work, along with Niveneh, and building on all the other work you've done, what would that concept or word be?

PE: Well, it would probably be ecosystems services, although "overshoot"is a good - it depends on how much time you have to explain it, but I think that the vast majority of our politicians, our pundits and so on, do not have a clue of how the world actually works, of the critical importance, for example, of the natural systems that control the quality of our atmosphere, that generate our soils, that naturally keep our crops from being destroyed by pests. For example, if we did not have natural pest controls, we wouldn't have any food very rapidly - no way we can control them entirely with chemicals and so on and so forth. So, I think ecosystem services would be the key thing. But my general view, and it's expressed pretty well (Anne's and mine and my colleague's) in "One with Nineveh", is I think that the basic action has shifted to the social sciences, where [inaudible] operates, and that is because the scientific community has been perfectly clear now for decades on what the problems are, what directions we are going in, and what the likely consequences are going to be. We've had the intergovernmental panel of climate change for a decade now, alerting people; the newspapers are full of melting Greenland ice caps and disappearance of glaciers; and weird weather everywhere, and people still aren't connecting that, for example, to the size of the population, to the over consumption. You see American tanks, as a matter of fact, I was pleased to see The Independent just publish an article on this in Britain - the reason we're in Iraq is perfectly clear to every analyst in the world who has done their homework or knows any history - we're there because they have the second largest pool of oil in the world, and of course, we shouldn't be burning that oil - it's particularly ridiculous to be killing American kids and lots of Iraqis to get a resource that we should be transitioning away from as rapidly as possible, because of its consequences, among other things, for climate change, and so I don't know how I got on that rant, but basically the issue is: Why aren't people paying attention to what the scientific community says and taking the right moves, and of course, I think the reasons are probably quite obvious to you - we have the worst administration, without question, in the history of the United States.

By the way, I've asked this of a number of our conservative historians, and everybody agrees on general principles that this is the worst administration ever; it may have been that there were more crooks in the Grant Administration, but Ulysses S Grant couldn't have blown up the world or destroyed the world's environment if he wanted to, so we are in desperate shape, and it's because the power is in the hands of people who having floated to the top, want to empower their friends, increase their profits, and don't really care about the future of the planet or don't know - don't care what happens to their grandchildren - they think that the system that floated them to the top proves the system is perfect, and I try and keep pointing out to them that other things besides cream float.

JD: Well, speaking of one of those things that does float is oil - not everybody realizes that, although if they thought of oil slicks for five seconds, they would know it. I wanted to ask you what you thought of how the oncoming oil peak and decline (the global oil peak and decline) discourse and the implications that might be for this population that we have, 6.5 billion people, and for the kind of economy that we have, which takes about 40% of its entire energy content from oil. Some people now think that oil peak is actually with us and that we'll be in decline, possibly even within months now. What do you make of that?

PE: Well, let's put it this way. People who I trust think the data are pretty persuasive that we have passed the peak in the United States, and that, as you indicate, right around now, maybe already, maybe in the near future, we will pass the peak globally. This presents an interesting dilemma for an ecologist, because from one point of view, that's wonderful, because the dangers of continuing to depend on fossil fuels are enormous, and if the prices start going up dramatically, as they probably would, if we're actually past the peak and production starts dropping, then there will finally be a chance to shift subsidies away from fossil fuels and put them on the kinds of energy technologies we should be using, so that if the world were in the hands of smart, sane people, instead of George W Bush, we could be moving in the right direction, and the oil peak, which is a frightening thing, from the point of view, as you indicate, of our economy - in other words, if our economy remains dependent on oil and the geologists are correct, we are in deep, deep trouble on those grounds alone, but if the economy can be shifted (as it could be, if we started soon enough and worked hard enough at it) to solar, hydrogen, other renewables, maybe even some nuclear in certain circumstances (although that's a technically difficult issue to deal with), tides, there's lots and lots of ways of dealing with the energy crisis, including of course, the most rapid source, the quickest source of new energy that you can possibly find is conservation, in other words if you start jacking up the cafe standards and gasoline prices, and you'll see all kinds of dramatic changes, the problem is that our politicians are stupid and venal enough not to be willing to touch that with a ten-foot pole even if their grandchildren's lives depend upon it.

JD: But isn't it also that there might just be too many human beings on the planet?

PE: Sure. But the point is that we're not going to have fewer human beings fast, except in a catastrophic manner. In other words one of the things that I and my colleagues have written about for decades now is the worsening of the epidemiological environment and the increasing probability of more AIDS like diseases. We predicted AIDS way ahead of the fact, and we are predicting a lot more of the same.

Joshua Lederberg, Nobel Laureate in Biology and student of bacteria, among other things, once said, "You know, the survival of humanity is not pre-ordained". We are getting in a more and more dangerous epidemiological situation, in no small part because of the size of our population, and we could see a rapid crash, but we would be infinitely better off on the energy front if we had a smaller population. For example, if the US had 145 million people in it (instead of almost 300 million) as we did in 1945, we would not be dependent on Arab oil - that would change our entire oil situation, even if nothing else had changed, and of course no one has ever come up with even a semi-sane suggestion for why you ought to have more than 145-million Americans alive at the same time. So population, just like per capita consumption, and just like the technologies we use, are all part of that multiplicative equation which tells us how hard were are hitting our life support systems.

JD: Many people who work in the area of environmentalism, and perhaps less people who are actual ecologists, but many of the better- known people there don't like the notion of population constraint, and indeed, they say it's not necessary, and that using even non-petroleum and non-natural-gas-fueled methods of food production, we could actually service all the humans on the planet, and therefore it's not necessary to talk about population constraints - what is your feeling about that?

PE: Well, my feeling about that is that it's utter nonsense. First of all, again, it's an issue of: If we are so able to feed people and don't have to worry about population growth, why don't we stop growth right now, and take adequate care of the 6.3 billion people we've already got? When we are caring for the 6.3 billion people that the world's population has grown to - properly - and everybody is satisfied with their lot, then talk to me about whether there's any reason to have more people, but the idea that you can just keep on growing, because we can take care of everybody - I've been listening to that now for forty years, and there's not a polite term for it, so I won't tell you, but it's just absolute nonsense.

I was told, as I said, when there were 3.5 billion people, how easy it would be to feed 5 billion people; well, we're not feeding more than 3 billion people a diet the average American would trade for, so that's 3.3 billion people (that's almost the same number as those who were alive when I wrote the "Population Bomb" that don't have the kind of diets they'd like to have. So again, it's true that a lot of people don't like to talk about population; unfortunately, whether they like to talk about it or not, doesn't make any difference to how important it is.

JD: Right. You mentioned during this and in your work a lot aspects of food production, and I wondered if you could tell me what you thought the impact of, first, peak oil, and there are growing suggestions now that even natural gas (world-wide, not just in the US. We know there's a problem with natural gas in the US), but world wide, we may not have the security of natural gas supplies - and reserves, in particular - that we might have thought even a year ago. And given that natural gas is a vital component of nitrogen fertilizer, what do you think that peak oil and possibly peak gas, what do you think the effects of that might be on world food production?

PE: It's going to hit it hard, because not only do you need it for fertilizer, you also need it for drying, for transport, because the agricultural system is dispersed, you have to carry the inputs to the fields, you have to carry the products to people, we use tractors, and you know, food, as it has been said many times, is made in no small part out of oil. And it's even worse than that, because, for example, in China there are now big conflicts between farmers and the petroleum industry, because they got to use a lot of water for secondary recovery as their petroleum dries up, and that water is coming from irrigation.

JD: This is a question that is slightly complex, but I want to see where this would go. You talk about the collapse of complex societies. You identify the one from Mesopotamian history, and you talk about some of the things as to why that happened, and I'd like you to mention some of those things, and as you're mentioning some of the reasons why these early complex societies collapsed, I would be very interested if you would talk about the way in which they began substituting crops. I am thinking, particularly, you mention the way barley, as a more salt tolerant crop, gets substituted for say, wheat, as they start to ruin their soils with too much irrigation and not understanding the process. And the thought - the more complex thought, still, that I'd like to examine is are we not, also, just thinking about substituting one kind of energy for another, even as we start to have problems with oil and soon natural gas, then we will substitute maybe nuclear and maybe hydrogen, wind, solar (not that hydrogen is an energy source, really) but are we not playing the same game? Will we not reach the same end as they did, if we just try to substitute our way out of this?

PE: Well, it's a very interesting question. The Mesopotamian civilizations faced the problem that a lot of civilizations, that our civilization, still faces, and that is that irrigated land produces a disproportionate amount of our food. Irrigation is normally a temporary game, that is, it is very expensive and difficult to prevent the build up of salts in soils and the silting up of irrigation channels and so on, so that we are continually losing irrigated land around the world now, as the people in the Mesopotamian civilizations did, and of course, as their land tended to salinize, that is, get salty, they switched to more and more salt tolerant crops. The big advantage we have over, say, the Assyrians, is while they had lots of hubris, they did not have an ecological community saying, "Look you've got to watch out for these things, you've got to keep your population size controlled, and you've got to watch your consumption, so that you can maintain your life support systems decently".

Today we have a scientific community that, in fact, has for decades been telling people these things, and we haven't been paying attention. The idea that somehow technology will always permit you to have more people and consume more is simply incorrect, and it's indicated by lots and lots of civilizations around the world that have collapsed, everywhere from Easter Island to the classic Mayans to the Mesopotamian civilizations and so on. In fact, the empire that has done best has been Egypt. It lasted as an empire basically for over 3,000 years, in large part, because of its peculiar geographic situation in which its main resource that was the deep rich soils of the Nile delta were restored every year by the Nile flood and one of the least clever things that human beings have done in the last century was to build the Aswan dam and end the Nile flood, so that Egypt, which is vastly overpopulated, is going to be in deeper and deeper trouble.

You know, right now, we are using primarily fossil energy to drive our most destructive activities, and the talk is, can't we switch to nuclear energy or something like that and get more and more energy? As I said many times in the past, supplying super-abundant energy to the present human society is in a sense like giving an idiot child a machine gun, because we use energy for doing things like knocking down tropical forests and paving over large areas of the world, and there are limits to how much of that you can do and still survive, and we are beginning to see really frightening signs of, for instance, our impact on the climate system of the planet, and also, of course, on the oceans and oceanic fisheries, and we've used a lot of energy to synthesize very dangerous synthetic-organic compounds that now pollute the planet from pole to pole.

I was reading an article today on cancer afflicting white whales, which are dying quite frequently now, because of the extreme build up of toxic chemical compounds. We're toxifying the planet, we are dramatically altering the planet's surface, and we are getting rid of our deep rich agricultural soils, we are over pumping our aquifers, and we're fooling around, running a huge experiment on the climate to see whether or not we can ruin it to the extent we'll have a vast food disaster or a collapse of agriculture in many critical areas, and problems with rising sea levels. We could drink a lot to keep the environment inside of us in good shape, while we watch the external environment go down the drain.

JD: That is indeed something I am sure people would like to do. It has been seen over the last couple of decades that when someone like Julian Simon or Bjorn Lumberg comes along, much of the economic community and the business community seems to fete them and be very willing to listen to what they say, so that we hear, for instance (though I think it's a slight misquote) that humans will easily last seven billion years with a growth economy from Mr Simon.

PE: Actually, what Julian Simon said was: We have enough information in our minds and in our libraries to keep the human population growing for seven billion years. Now, if you give him a break, and say it [human population] only grows at 1/100,000th of the current rate (a rate so low, you couldn't possibly detect it) - if it grew at 1/100,000th of the current rate for seven billion years, long before you reach seven billion years, there would be more people than elementary particles in the universe.

The problem is that idiots can say anything at all they want in our society, and there are the editors of the editorial pages for the Wall Street Journal that'll print it. People have just got to learn that lies are basically everywhere, and they've got to learn how to check things out for themselves. For example, the Simon statement on seven billion years can be analyzed by anybody who knows what the growth rate is, what the population size is, and how you plug numbers into an exponential-growth equation. It's not mysterious, and it's not rocket science - it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation.

So, it's just too bad, but you shouldn't lay this entirely at the doors of economists, because I have been working with world-class economists now (it's been the cheeriest thing in my life) for the last dozen years. I have in press now, in the premiere North American economic journal, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, an article with about ten colleagues called, "Are we consuming too much?" The lead author is Kenneth Arrow, the smartest economist in the world, with a Nobel Prize, and Partha Dasgupta, the best European economist, is an author on it. I have published with both Partha and Ken before, as well as several other brilliant economists and a bunch of ecologists, so economists and ecologists have been working together very hard, but as Partha (again, the President of the European Economic Association and the British Economic Association) says, the journal Economist is run by people who are English majors, who don't understand anything about economics. And so, when they tell you crap, just like when the Wall Street Journal tells it to you, those aren't real economists talking, those are business economists or random idiots.

JD: But surely one of the reasons why their message is more acceptable is that they are telling us that we can have more growth, and you can have more of the system, and it will go on expanding, and so that when people like you and the Club of Rome and many others say, "Actually, that isn't the case", and you can show it by a very simple mathematical means as well as many others, nobody wants to listen to them.

PE: Well, that's right. As somebody said long ago, denial is not just a river in Egypt.

JD: Do you think honestly that we can feed 6.5 billion people by some means or other as we are approaching now?

PE: Well, I think we could feed 6.5 billion people, but that would require a lot of dietary change and a lot of economic change, because hungry people today are largely hungry because, as economists say, they don't produce enough demand for food, and by demand for food, they mean money to buy it, so if there were enough demand for food, if the people had the money, you could probably feed everybody with an adequate diet at 6.5 billion people at the moment.

The issue is, of course, what will be the consequences of running the agricultural system that you would have to run in order to accomplish that? So in a world where everybody was willing to be equitable, share food equally according to basal metabolism and so on, then you could have everybody fed adequate diets today. If you require an American high-meat-eating diet, then you can feed probably 2- or 2.5 billion people, but in all those circumstances, you have to ask about the long term ability of the system to support agriculture, the way we run agriculture, and that is a much more difficult issue. For example, rice is our single most important crop, and there are all kinds of signs that the climate change that is coming on is going to reduce rice productivity. They've had a lot of trouble keeping it up, increasing rice productivity, at the international rice research institute as it is, so there are lots of questions about the sustainability of the agriculture system, but it's fair to say that if we were a planet of equally sharing saints, then everybody could eat enough today.

JD: Hmm. A lot of what I've read of yours and what I've heard you talking recently suggests that you are taking a systemic or structural approach to these kinds of problems, and nothing suggesting that a single person acting on their own could make a big difference, and I wanted to ask you this question, then, because I haven't heard you say it. Do you think that the actual industrial system itself, and indeed dare one say it, capitalism, is actually compatible with sustenance of the biosphere?

PE: Well, it's an interesting question. I think the present system is not compatible with a long-term sustainable society. I don't think the issue is capitalism per se, because I am a firm believer on the basis of the evidence that in most cases in our size of society, you have to have markets to allocate goods - there's no substitute - it cannot be done by government fiat and planning as the Soviets demonstrated brilliantly. The problem is that the collapse of the Soviet Economy led people to believe that totally unfettered markets were the only way to go, and that's a nonsensical jump from the data. The trouble with the Wall Street Journal is that their editors may have read three lines of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, but never bothered to read either the whole book or his Theory of Moral Sentiments, which talked about what kind of society you had to have to encase the markets that were going to function, in other words, there were certain standard things that had to level the playing field, and certain standards of moral conduct and so on within which markets can operate that are necessary if you don't have those constraints there are lots of things that markets cannot come close to doing, and one of the big institutional problems we have now is that we don't do the things that are required to make the playing field level - it's like trying to play football but letting one team always run downhill, and until we work harder at making markets function better, and until we intervene in the places where markets cannot function properly, because of what the economists call "externalities", the issue of things that are not priced in markets but are critical. You don't price in markets the cost of climate change to our great grandchildren when you buy gasoline, for example; the price of gas does not include the cost to your grandchildren of climate change, it does not include (I think the calculation is in "Nineveh" sixty cents a gallon that we pay for the part of the military that's designed to control our power over oil supplies in the Middle East, and it turns out that there are also costs like the future costs that can't be calculated, so you have to have something besides the market to try and cover those costs, so it's a very complex issue. Properly run markets will be absolutely essential to having a sustainable society, but if they are not properly run, there is no way you're going to have a sustainable society is my guess.

[ ... ]

JD: I wanted to ask you about a different kind of structural problem and that is - America and frankly Canada and increasingly most of the rest of the world - their cities and their whole urban and living infra-structural system is being laid out to be supplied and built on the existence of the automobile. Some of us think that the fuel for the automobile may be coming to a very expensive decline. What can places like North America do, when they've spent many trillions of dollars building places which are so dependent on the auto?

PE: Well as we say in "One With Nineveh", I think the very first thing we ought to do on energy efficiency is develop plans in the United States, in Australia, in Canada (Europe does better than we do) and encourage, particularly China that's moving in the same ridiculous direction, to redesign our countries around people instead of around automobiles.

We deliberately destroyed mass transit and so on in Los Angeles and places like that (I should say the oil, automobile and tire industries deliberately destroyed mass transit in Los Angeles and other places so they could sell more cars). We've got to take the next fifty years and reverse the last fifty years, and we should start now, and I think if we announced in the United States, you know, if we had a President who had the guts to get up there and say: okay, the car has been running this country for too long - we're driving, you know, an hour each way to work, getting shot on the freeways, and breathing this hideous air that's absolutely ridiculous - we're going to now subsidize redesigning the country; we're getting rid of the following seven subsidies for automobiles; we're going to put that money into mass transit and so on and so forth, then you might get something going. As we say in Nineveh that's probably the single most important thing to do on the energy environment front is to start redesigning the United States away from automobiles and towards people and make people able to live closer to where they work, to go by bike, to walk (much healthier) or go on mass transit, if you can arrange that, or work from home in a virtual office. Lots of things can be done, but it takes political will and to get political will, I think you've got to hold politicians feet to the fire.

JD: Now that means bringing people and work closer together, but many people work to eat, but ultimately, we don't eat work, we eat food, and most previous civilizations that managed to survive spent a lot of their time thinking about how to produce food. What can America do to produce its food in a more sensible kind of a way?

PE: Well, that's another long conversation but among other things we should look very closely, for instance, at the cattle industry, and how it functions. We should ask a lot of questions about the intensity of our farming system and what needs to be done with it and so on. There are a lot of technical issues there, but the US is very lucky in the sense that we still have a lot of our deep, rich agricultural soils, although we are paving over some of the richest of them. We should take a much more long term view of how we run our agricultural system and that's a huge problem, and it deals with a lot of issues, such as subsidies for example, same thing with fisheries.

Transcribed by Rita Wiltsie is part of the MetaFoundation People & Environment Initiative.

Bill Totten


Post a Comment

<< Home