Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Why Paul Ehrlich Matters

SPOTLIGHT: Whether the predictions in Paul Ehrlich’s 50-year-old bestseller, The Population Bomb, were right or wrong matters. Because scientists and environmentalists continue to follow in his footsteps.

BIG PICTURE: Ehrlich is an important case study. His conviction that humanity is a blight on the planet is shared by many ordinary people, as well as by many influential ones.

In Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail – and Why We Believe Them Anyway, journalist Dan Gardiner describes how Ehrlich became a “rock star” after his book appeared in 1968. By 1970, thousands were being turned away from his speaking events. He “was invited to talk with [late-night television host] Johnny Carson and his millions of viewers more than twenty times.”

Let us be clear about one thing. If it had been within Ehrlich’s power to take the steps he insisted were necessary, the human rights abuses would have been horrendous. I’ve explained that he advocated the deployment of US helicopters to forcibly sterilize Indian peasants. I’ve highlighted his declaration that “we can no longer tolerate” television shows that present large families in a positive light.

Coercion and censorship are the tools of fascism. They lead to mass murder. Ehrlich displayed enthusiasm for these tools.

His book urged political leaders to be “relentless,” to “take whatever steps are necessary.” He urged them to support “any program” and “any policies” that would reduce global population (pp. 138, 166, 210, 211). A world in which Ehrlich was in charge would be neither democratic nor free. Instead, bureaucrats would decide how many children were allowed to be born.

Toward the end he posed the question: “What if I’m wrong?” But this was mere lip-service, a cavalier dismissal:

If I’m right, we will save the world. If I’m wrong, people will still be better fed, better housed, and happier, thanks to our efforts. (p. 198)

How could this be remotely true when, 33 pages earlier, he admitted that stemming overpopulation in developing countries would require “many apparently brutal and heartless decisions” that would cause intense pain?

Gardiner labels Ehrlich’s above rationalization “glib nonsense.” Had the authorities taken his advice and denied food aid to nations that declined to pursue barbarous anti-population measures, famines would have been caused rather than averted. Many human beings would have died. Large numbers of them would have been children (see the front cover of Ehrlich’s book).

There’s a huge problem when scientists who advocate coercive, anti-democratic behaviour are celebrated rather than shunned. Here’s Gardiner again:

It was clear by the 1990s that the dire forecasts Ehrlich had made in the 1970s had come to nothing but that didn’t slow the shower of awards Ehrlich enjoyed that decade. There was the Gold Medal Award of the World Wildlife Fund International; the John Muir Award of the Sierra Club; the Volvo Environmental Prize; the Blue Planet Prize of the Asahi Glass Foundation; the Tyler Prize from the University of Southern California; the Heinz Award…the Sasakawa Prize from the United Nations; and the MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the “Genius Award.” Ehrlich also won the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which is widely considered the Nobel of environmentalism.”

More recently, Ehrlich was honoured with membership in the UK’s Royal Society, the world’s most prestigious science academy.

TOP TAKEAWAY: It’s OK to make wildly erroneous predictions about the future. It’s OK to embrace fascism by another name. The Paul Ehrlich case demonstrates that scientific bodies and environmental organizations will sing your praises anyway.


Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail – and Why We Believe Them Anyway
Dan Gardner
The Population Bomb
Paul Ehrlich



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