Paul Ehrlich, Still Catastrophizing

Here’s Paul Ehrlich, best known for his book The Population Bomb, in a 1970 interview.

Why is this surfacing, 50+ years later?  Because just the other day,  60 Minutes chose to put him on the air for more catastrophizing.   Ehrlich’s dismal track record for accuracy of  predictions–Alex Epstein called him ‘the anti-human ecologist who has been 180 degrees wrong for 55 years”–was apparently no problem in the eyes of those responsible for this program.

Here are a few of Ehrlich’s assertions from back in 1968-1970:

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over.  In the 1970s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death”

“In 10 years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct.”

“I will take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000”

“You oughta make the FCC see to it that large families are always treated in a negative light on television”

(and if that isn’t enough, “the government will simply tell you how many children you can have and throw you in jail if you have too many”)

“Enjoy what little time you have left.  That point for me is 1972.”

Perhaps worst and most revealing:  Allowing women to have as many babies as they wanted is akin to letting everyone “throw as much of their garbage into their neighbor’s backyard as they want.”

And how did Ehrlich respond when his most recent media appearance was critiqued?  Like this:

60 Minutes extinction story has brought the usual right-wing out in force. If I’m always wrong so is science, since my work is always peer-reviewed, including the POPULATION BOMB and I’ve gotten virtually every scientific honor. Sure I’ve made some mistakes, but no basic ones.

To which Mary Madigan retorted:

Here, Paul Ehrlich gives us the most comprehensive condemnation of the peer review system ever made.



38 thoughts on “Paul Ehrlich, Still Catastrophizing”

  1. Damn … I had him mixed up with Alvin Toffler – another Disasterfarian. Predicted that the speed of technology would have us all curled up in our beds in the fetal position with the electric blanket turned up.
    Surprised that either of them are still alive, though.

  2. He was admitted to the Prometheus Society in 1988. I was president at the time and could have inquired by which method he had qualified, but I did not bother. He was an excellent example of what I saw as refusing to see the limits of IQ. Having brute intellectual strength allows one to force a wrong idea along quite a way, like a powerful man able to twist a screw that is cross-threaded in anyway. Most of humanity has a different false belief, that IQ is not real or has little value. That is also irritating. But while most people at the high outlying regions of intelligence have a proper, even amused understanding that it is not much good in isolation, there remained those who simply worshiped the number, the higher the better. Erlich was fawned over by a few but mostly ignored. (See also Marilyn Mach Vos Savant, who emphatically does NOT have an IQ around 220.)

  3. Mom says that when someone criticized her for having five kids, she asked him which of us he wanted her to get rid of.

  4. “And how did Ehrlich respond when his most recent media appearance was critiqued? Like this:
    “’60 Minutes extinction story has brought the usual right-wing out in force. If I’m always wrong so is science, since my work is always peer-reviewed, including the POPULATION BOMB and I’ve gotten virtually every scientific honor. Sure I’ve made some mistakes, but no basic ones.’
    “To which Mary Madigan retorted:
    “Here, Paul Ehrlich gives us the most comprehensive condemnation of the peer review system ever made.'”

    “Ooh. Gonna need a medic for THAT one.” — Dusty Katt, “Seven Nation Army Part III”

  5. Back in high school I remember a teacher telling a friend of mine “It may be that your only purpose in life will be to serve as a warning to others.: With that aphorism in mind I will give a (slightly) sympathetic yet cynical take on Ehrlich.

    Back when he made his bones, Ehrlich hit the proverbial sweet spot in that he was young, good-looking, fairly articulated, and had academic credentials. He straddled the sweet spot in our cultural history where both the zeitgeist was changing from the post-war boom to a dystopian view, we had an emerging fascination with the public intellectual, and there were now opportunities in terms of mass-market publishing and media to give voice to someone willing to explain the future. In other words the marketplace was buying what Ehrlich was selling and I count him as being sincere in his beliefs so why should he be blamed for seeking fame and fortune for his views?

    I should add that when Ehrlich burst on the scene that the notion of the infallible administrative state was on its steepest rise. We believed that experts could reduce the complexity of human society enough to both be able to manage it and divine its future. Of course Ehrlich, as evidenced by his bet with Julian Simon, was spectacularly wrong both in his aforementioned conceit and his ignorance of man’s capacity for innovation. I have always seen Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics as an implicit refutation of Ehrlich.

    The problem is not with Ehrlich, but with our elite’s continued fascination with him. Ehrlich’s scarcity views have been proven wrong, but I believe that his place in history has been secured because it has exposed the problems with both academia (which is basically a bureaucracy of laser-focused intellectuals) and with central planning. The problem is that the media, as evidenced by 60 Minutes, still feel he is worthy of digging up from the crypt and allowing him a stage – and we know why because he adds value to the zeitgeist of the environmental catastrophism of today (climate change).

    I don’t know of any current show or podcast that regularly has media figure as guests in order to have them justify their stories but if not I think there is a market for it. I would pay good one for someone willing to grill Scot Pelley on his Ehrlich story.

  6. Musk is closer to the truth. Now if we go with the green new deal, etc. we might be able to cause the mass starvation predicted. That would present us with a crisis that we can use to grow elite control at the price of liberty and creative productive activity.


  7. Paul Ehrlich is back because the authorities want to force his predictions of catastrophy into being true through the power of government edicts.

  8. — I believe I read somewhere that Johnny Carson loved Ehrlich and had him on the show many times (over 30?). Carson’s power to shape public opinion in those days was enormous. Plus, what could possibly have more appeal than saving the planet and the human race? For the morally immature, the appeal is impossible to resist. It’s the opportunity to cast oneself as the moral superhero while providing a readily identified evil perpetrator to hate and blame. Morally self-righteous hatred is always an easy sell.

    — Our society has developed a weird fetish for “expertise”. Lots of reasons. The more complex life becomes, the more people want to believe that someone somewhere understands what to do and can guide them. Also, in our information age, many people have degrees or credentials, but no particular talent. Those folks don’t want anyone challenging the ‘experts’ because once the public realizes that the ‘science’ is BS, they are going to start wondering whether the pretenders are BS. There are millions and millions of pretenders.

    Universities are likely the most corrupt, least productive institutions in America. I always laugh when people claim that college athletics diverts money from academics. The athletic depts are the only part of most colleges that have any accountability and actually strive to perform. The claim is worth examining, however, because it demonstrates the nearly child-like faith people have in universities. We throw massive amounts of money at them without the slightest interest in measuring a return for the investment. Value is presumed for every marginal dollar. All part of the expertise fetish.

  9. Deep Lurker: I wonder if Satan may be gearing up for an overt attempt to pass off the Golden Rule as evil.

  10. Back in the day, I was a hippie freak eco-activist an an environmental information center in Berserkeley. Paul Erlich gave “free school” lectures there one day a week. I read his Population Resources Environment book several times. Like you say, Paul Erlich wasn’t exactly the best of prophets. “If trends continue…” But they didn’t. The stink the environmental movement raised helped spur the cleanup of Los Angeles smog. The Fertility rate in the Third World dropped from 6.0 to around 2.0 outside Africa.

    There were some rather conceited people in the Bay Area back then. At the environmental information center, I heard two middle-aged professionals predict that in the future Berkeley would be viewed the way we view Renaissance Italy today. Don’t think so.

  11. “The revolution is successful. But survival depends on drastic measures. Your continued existence represents a threat to the well-being of society. Your lives mean slow death to the more valued members of the colony. Therefore, I have no alternative but to sentence you to death. Your execution is so ordered, signed Kodos, Governor of Tarsus IV.” — Star Trek: The Original Series, “The Conscience of the King”

    And it makes sense that Hoshi Sato from Star Trek: Enterprise would be among the victims; such pogroms typically treat the elderly as worthless.

  12. @ Mike – that’s a very good point. There are lots of clever fools in the world, but if people keep paying them and honoring them, why would they stop? The problem is the support system for such foolishness.

  13. re Expertise…from the early 1950s thru around 1970, the prestige of science….actual science…was very high, in the light of such things as nuclear energy, space exploration, antibiotics, mainframe computers, and more. Other fields, such as sociology and psychology,
    ‘borrowed’ a claim to expertise without feeling a need to demonstrate that their capabilities for prediction and useful results were anything like those achieve in physics, engineering, pharmaceuticals, etc.

  14. In these politically supercharged times, I get so angry and yet I wonder if these times are really different, or has the press always been agenda driven?

    I’m thinking of WR Hearst’s (most probably) fictionalizing the cause of the battleship Maine blowing up in Havana Harbor, causing the Spanish-American War.

    Most probably the ship blew up because of internal reasons in the magazine.

    One would think, if one wants to proclaim himself a “journalist”, that he ould work to get at the truth, wherever that would lead.

    Those kind are few and far between.

  15. some what like the nordstream pipeline, that course of action seemed possible at the time,

    ehrlich seemed to have be the technical consultant on many sci fi dystopias of the era, logans run, silent running soylent running, based on harry harrisons ‘make room, make room’ and inspired at least two bond villains stromberg and drax

  16. James Woudhysen wrote about something I commented on earlier, about the willingness of people to continue to take Ehrlich seriously and in part came to the same conclusion I did; that you cannot blame Ehrlich for spouting the same discredited theories if there are those willing to give him a platform ( Likewise there are many other figures who pitch sketchy ideas, Nicole Hannah-Jones & Ibram Kendi come to find but I’m sure you can find others across the ideological spectrum, but when people are willing to provide you with fame and fortune for doing so why wouldn’t you? There are plenty of people who would be willing to take $20,000 of public school dollars for an hour-long speech (by Zoom!) on why those in the audience are little better than a KKK Grand Cyclops.

    Btw… Stan you were right about Ehrlich and Carson, he was on the Tonight Show 18 times.

    I see also that Ehrlich defends his predictions in part due to he fact they were peer-reviewed, ( Leave aside that predicting the future is not really what science was cut-out for, it does a raise a problem that is not often discussed but is implicitly raised by Ehrlich himself, that is the difference between the scientific method and Science. The scientific method is a set of procedures that is aimed at testing hypothesis and arriving at provisional theories and facts. However Science is composed of the body of people who use the scientific method with all the frailty, ego, and imperfections that being human entails. We can appreciate the tool while acknowledging the imperfections of both the individuals and the community that wields it.

    A herd of independent minds as it was

    The popular image of Science is a group of lab-coated, best-and-brightest superheroes selflessly discovering the truth while keeping the forces of darkness and superstition at bay. Perhaps that is somewhat true in the abstract terms of generations or the Grand Sweep of History but down in the grubby world of the present time these actual superheroes are as fallible as the rest of us because they are human. It seems everyone has learned the story of Galileo being persecuted by the Inquisition for his pursuit of scientific truth, in fact it has become one of the cornerstones of science’s claim to primacy over religion. However when a member of the scientist community publishes something dissenting against the reigning orthodoxy, say on climate change, and the box formation of academia/media/government responds who is on the side of scientific method and who is on the side of the Inquisition?

  17. Mom says that when someone criticized her for having five kids, she asked him which of us he wanted her to get rid of.

    Korora –

    Not really germane to the post or as serious as your comment, but this put me in mind of a story my father-in-law used to tell:

    My wife was a colicky baby, during which time my in-laws lived in an apartment house in Brooklyn. My FIL would walk the floor with her at night, trying to get her to settle and stop crying, often to the accompaniment of a broom handle being banged on the ceiling from the apartment below.

    One night, he brought the baby downstairs, knocked on the door, and when it opened, went to hand her to the (broom-clutching) resident, while offering “YOU walk around with the baby for one night and I’LL bang on your floor, how about that?”

    The response was a literal jaw drop and a muttered “I’m sorry, it’ll never happen again.”

  18. “I can’t be wrong. I always made straight A’s!”

    LOL. They sent me off to private school when I was 8. I made sure I passed. I would never give them more than that. Straight up 50%+ and that got me to grade 13. Then I actually did some work out of boredom, and as I had aced my SAT, got invited to MIT. ;)

    As a couple of us broke into the bursars office, private schools produce the best criminals, I knew my IQ was 138, from the test result forms he had there. ;)

  19. Ehrlich was merely extrapolating. To take just two examples, Russia and China had, in the preceding 20 years, been enjoying all the blessings of Marxist rule. Chronic food shortages when it wasn’t outright famine, successions of “natural” disasters exacerbated by corrupt and incompetent government combined with decrepit and defective infrastructure. History due to repeat immanently. Africa enjoying even more corrupt and incompetent socialist “post colonialism”. The Asian “Tigers” just starting to get underway. Likewise South Asia and South America were and still are suffering from various perversions and convulsions.

    If he had bothered to both extend his baseline and make an even superficial allowance for other, more positive, trends, he would have produced something better than the embarrassing hackwork that he did. Too late for that now so he fakes it while the various journohacks are happy to hold their noses and go along.

  20. Do they hold their noses or figure this is too good to be checked? The world clearly isn’t appreciating them (otherwise they’d have the greater happiness which their very visions prohibit) so obviously other people are at fault. Here we see yet another reasons getting people to think not of the pie but of the entrepreneur baking more pies, not of jealousy of others’ property but a society that respects each individual’s property make for a more productive, resilient, happy world. Heaven forbid.

  21. To the extent that people know Galileo’s story, they see it as scientific genius against uncomprehending authority.

    In reality, the pope and many other church leaders understood Galileo’s theories and proofs just fine, and agreed that his math was correct. The problem wasn’t their intellectual failure to comprehend, it was that what he argued differed from settled orthodoxy.

    I’m not sure we can give our present ‘secular, scientific’ authorities credit for understanding what they want to censor, which says a lot about our predicament.

  22. With Galileo, worth noting explicitly that, in addition to Cousin Eddie’s and Korora’s valid points, that the orthodoxy being challenged by Galileo was much more scientific orthodoxy of the time, and its deep classical roots in Ptolemy and Aristotle, than anything to do with Christianity or religion in general. many of the opposing churchmen were patrons of science and philosophy themselves, and all enthusiasts of the classical world as good men of the Renaissance. It’s just that the ancients had gotten it wrong.

  23. Being a jerk. What an indictment.

    Graham is correct: for most of the RCC’s existence, most matters of natural science were punted to the great pagans, especially Aristotle.

    Which doesn’t change the fact that Galileo’s opponents were driven by ideology, not science.

  24. CS Lewis raised an interesting thought…he said that moderns think that moving away from an earth-cenric model diminished the importance of human, and that that was a main reason why there was pushback against Galileo’s alternative model.

    But, according to Lewis, the earth’s position at the center was by no means a compliment to humanity—earthly things were viewed as Low, in spiritual terms, compared with higher, celestial things.

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