Doomsayer Paul Ehrlich Strikes (Out) Again

January 01, 2000  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Statistics

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Or so they say. But whoever coined that expression never heard of Paul Ehrlich.

For three decades now, Ehrlich, a butterfly specialist, has made an incredibly successful career out of being incredibly wrong on some of the most important matters of the day. He began his spectacular doomsaying career back in 1968 with his best-selling book The Population Bomb. Among his predictions then and since:

  1. "The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines [and] hundreds of millions of people [including Americans] are going to starve to death." (1968)
  2. "Smog disasters" in 1973 might kill 200,000 people in New York and Los Angeles. (1969)
  3. "I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000." (1969)
  4. "Before 1985 mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity . . . in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion." (1976)

Yet today: 1) Food production continues to keep ahead of population increases and it is obesity that now kills 300,000 Americans a year, 2) the air in New York and LA is cleaner than it has been in decades, 3) with two years to until 2000, England’s odds are looking pretty good, and 4) there are no key minerals facing depletion. Almost all of them, along with raw materials in general, are far cheaper now relative either to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) or wages.

Yet far from Ehrlich’s preposterous predictions tarnishing his reputation, they’ve made him both celebrated and rich. In one year – 1990 – he published a sequel to Bomb called The Population Explosion, and received the MacArthur Foundation’s famous "genius award" with a $345,000 check, and split the $240,000 Swedish Royal Academy of Science Crafoord prize with yet another doomsayer, Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson.

Last Ehrlich slammed his critics (myself included) in a book the very name of which screams chutzpa, The Betrayal of Science and Reason.

The reason Ehrlich keeps blowing it boils down to a single word: technology. It is Ehrlich’s bete noire. So he just ignores its many benefits.

Now Ehrlich is the lead author of a 7-page article in the December issue of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, saying anybody who tells you technology will continue to provide more such benefits is a liar or a fool.

Among his evidence:

We really are running out of oil, he says. That we seem to have such great reserves, he claims, comes from a 1987 decision on the part of Arab countries to simply say they had a lot more oil than they previously had been saying. (Ehrlich claims it was a 250 percent increase; actually, it was a 40 percent increase.)

Leaving aside the possibility that the revision was a proper one — that the Arabs’ earlier estimate was too low — even if you subtract the new estimate, world oil reserves have grown by 448 billion barrels since the 1968 publication of The Population Bomb.

Read Michael Fumento’s book, [Science Under Siege](../books/michaelfumentoandscienceundersiege)____Back then we had an estimated 30-year supply of known oil reserves. Now it’s up to 45 years, and pre-tax gasoline prices adjusted to the CPI are the lowest ever.

Why? Because technology has made it easier to find new oil fields at lower costs, to extract more those fields, and even pump oil from fields once considered dry.

Ehrlich tells Atlantic readers, "Since natural resources are finite, increased consumption must inevitably lead to depletion and scarcity."

Wrong. Consider copper. As it became scarcer and the price increased, industry used new technology to switch to equal or even superior materials. The government began making pennies out of copper-colored zinc. Communications companies began replacing copper wiring with glass fiber optics that are dirt-cheap and made out of a raw material even Ehrlich doesn’t fear for sand. They are also vastly superior in the number and quality of transmissions they can carry.

But on and on Ehrlich goes. "Human-induced land degradation," he says in the Atlantic Monthly, "affects about 40 percent of the planet’s vegetated land surface," and is "accelerating nearly everywhere, reducing crop yields."

Reducing? Our silos runneth over, as yields continue to increase throughout the world. For example, corn is now man’s most important crop. Both here and worldwide, we now harvest about 50 percent more corn per acre than 30 years ago. Yet, according to Hudson Institute analyst Dennis Avery, crop yields can be raised from the current world average of around 1.2 tons per acre to six to nine tons.

Moreover, developments in genetics promise to dwarf even these increases. In the next decade or two, we will see corn stalks that grow two ears, not one. We will see plants grown without soil or in sand that now can’t even sustain cactus. Crops will grow so quickly that two harvests will be possible per year, instead of one. Pesticide usage will drop as plants are genetically altered to better fend for themselves against weeds and weevils.

Technology has always thwarted Ehrlich’s predictions, and you needn’t be Nostradamus to know it always will. But Ehrlich will continue to garner accolades because while in reality he’s always wrong, politically he’s always correct.

But if he tells you it’s going to be sunny and dry today better bring an umbrella._