CBS recently featured infamous doomsayer Paul Ehrlich on their long-running show 60 Minutes. In his segment, Ehrlich tries to convince viewers we’re on a fast track to an environmental disaster of existential proportions, particularly when it comes to animal extinctions.
"In ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct,” Ehrlich said. “Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish."
But that quote isn’t from the 60 Minutes appearance.
The problem is he said that back in 1970. And he’s saying the exact same thing in the year of our Lord 2023.
Ehrlich has been singing this same song for nearly 60 years. In his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, Ehrlich announced to the world that the 21st century would be one of poverty and mass starvation brought about by overpopulation.
He famously claimed that England would no longer exist in the year 2000 because of environmental disasters caused by overpopulation, and his biggest claim to fame is losing a bet to the late economist Julian Simon about the increasing abundance of resources.
On Twitter, Ehrlich is unhappy that people are ignoring his awards and homing in on his stupendous mistakes.
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— Paul R. Ehrlich (@PaulREhrlich) January 3, 2023
The last line of his Tweet, that he’s made no basic mistakes, is wrong as well. We know this is true, because Ehrlich always makes mistakes that go in the same direction. He always over-predicts environmental crises and never under-predicts them.
This systematic error is indicative of a basic error. For example, if you always show up five minutes late to everything despite an intention to show up on time, it must be the case that you are making some basic mistake. Maybe your clock is 5 minutes slow, maybe you’ve underestimated your commute, or maybe you take longer to get ready than you think. It’s not just random chance because if it were random you’d also be 5 minutes early sometimes.
Similarly, Ehrlich has made the most basic mistake of all, which is at the root of all his other mistakes.
I’m not going to go through the details of Ehrlich being wrong about extinction woes here, because other articles have successfully highlighted how peer-reviewed research acknowledges the failure of the sorts of estimates Ehrlich relies on.
Another thing that works against Ehrlich is, again, he’s made these same claims before and they didn’t bear out.
But the biggest issue with Ehrlich is that he does make a basic mistake—one that Julian Simon tried to explain to him for many years.
Ehrlich sees humans as mouths to feed in a literal and metaphorical sense. To Ehrlich, humans are consumers, not much different than the animal populations he’s used to studying.
But humans are different in that they can use their creative capacity to reshape and create their environments to their liking in unparalleled ways. In Simon’s words, “Human beings are not just more mouths to feed, but are productive and inventive minds.”
The earliest incarnation of Ehrlich’s concerns about the environment were that we would run out of food, land, and other natural resources.
But to paraphrase Simon, resources come out of the human mind—not the ground. Consider oil. What causes us to treat oil as a valuable commodity worthy of our pursuit rather than some gross black liquid? Human ingenuity.
The ability to convert the black liquid into things like heat, transportation, and food distribution for millions of people was created via humans.
And humans can increase the supply of supposedly fixed resources through innovation. Doubling the fuel efficiency of cars effectively doubles the amount of oil available for driving. We also develop new techniques for extracting previously unattainable oil. These sort of processes are why Ehrlich and many scientists over the years have tried and failed to predict “peak oil” estimates.
Ehrlich frequently blames the Green Revolution in agriculture for confounding his predictions about mass starvation. The problem? The Green Revolution was the result of the very human minds Ehrlich was blaming for the ongoing disaster. A smaller population means fewer minds to produce new ideas, and less demand to compensate individuals for those ideas.
Because Ehrlich consistently focuses on the cost human beings bring to the table but never the benefit, he is systematically incorrect in his predictions.The fact that Ehrlich constantly overpredicts disaster and never underpredicts it is evidence of this basic systematic error.
In response to his failures, Ehrlich has said it’s unlikely that another innovation like the Green Revolution can occur. But why? Ehrlich failed to predict the first Green Revolution, so why would we expect he would be able to predict a second massive innovation?
At this point readers may argue that Ehrlich’s most recent interview is a different type of issue. In the past he was wrong about the abundance of resources, but now he’s talking about species extinctions. How can human ingenuity solve that?
Human creativity is not limited to simple commodities. Anything that humans value can be protected and sustained through creative ways.
One claim made by those concerned about extinctions is that eliminating biodiversity will destroy, for example, molds, fungi, and other organisms beneficial for humans. Penicillin is a primary example of a mold of this type. Imagine if there was an organism which could do as much good for humans as Penicillin but went extinct before we discovered it.
But humans are now on the cusp of being able to create these sorts of organisms ourselves. Gene editing research and technology has put scientists in the position of essentially creating new organisms which could fulfill the role of a theoretically extinct mold. Innovation outpaces destruction.
Other concerns involve consideration for animals who may become extinct. Concerns for these animals are expressed both because of the benefit they bring to humans (think bees) or for their own sake (rhinos).
Are humans powerless to use innovation to stop these problems? Again, no.
The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) illustrates this well with the story of white rhinos. In 1900, only about 20 white rhinos remained on earth. The few that remained existed in a game reserve.
But in 1991, something changed. PERC explains:
“Before 1991, all wildlife in South Africa was treated by law as res nullius or un-owned property. To reap the benefits of ownership from a wild animal, it had to be killed, captured, or domesticated. This created an incentive to harvest, not protect, valuable wild species—meaning that even if a game rancher paid for a rhino, the rancher could not claim compensation if the rhino left his property or was killed by a poacher.”
Starting in 1991, ownership of white rhinos has been legally upheld. As a result, white rhino populations have soared. There are close to 20,000 white rhinos today with a general increase in population over the last 20 years.
On the other hand, black rhinos—which live primarily in countries with weaker environmental property rights institutions—have declined in population from 100,000 to around 6,000 today.
Giving someone the right to own animals and sell them provides an incentive to protect against poachers and overexploitation. Ranchers systematically slaughter cattle for money, but we don’t have any concern about cow extinction because market incentives encourage private individuals to maintain the populations for the future.
Human ingenuity, given the proper institutions which protect property and liberty, will continue to win out over environmental catastrophe.
Until Ehrlich understands that human creativity is a fundamentally different topic of study from his own, his basic mistake will continue to produce the sorts of mistakes which earned Julian Simon $576.07 against him.
Doomsaying Has Consequences
If no one listened to Ehrlich’s doomsaying, this could be just a funny joke. Sadly, Paul Ehrlich isn’t just bad at forecasting the future. Ehrlich explicitly advocated for the use of forms of coercion if necessary to curb the population “problem” in his 1968 book. In his chapter “What Needs to Be Done?” Ehrlich said,
“A good example of how we might have acted can be built around the [Dr.] Chandrasekhar incident I mentioned earlier. When we suggested sterilizing all Indian males with three or more children, he should have encouraged the Indian government to go ahead with the plan. We [the United States] should have volunteered logistic support in the form of helicopters, vehicles, and surgical instruments. We should have sent doctors to aid in the program by setting up centers for training para-medical personnel to do vasectomies. Coercion? Perhaps, but coercion in a good cause (emphasis added).”
This is tyrannical.
Unfortunately, many countries listened to rhetoric similar to Ehrlich’s. In the 1970s China began its one child policy which is responsible for countless forced sterilizations and abortions. The architect of China’s policy utilized work from The Club of Rome, an anti-population think tank and intellectual fellow-travelers of Ehrlich.
Note, I’m not saying Ehrlich created these policies (though he may have liked to based on his comments), but being one of the loudest intellectuals stoking fears of overpopulation and calling for coercion in an era where some of the biggest human rights violations of this kind occurred certainly merit him some culpability.
The same anti-population pandemonium led to the establishment of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) Award which was awarded to the coercive population programs of China and India.
The echoes of this sort of policy even persist into recent times. As recently as the 1990s, the Peruvian government facilitated its own coercive sterilization program.
So these ideas aren’t just wrong. They are actively harmful when applied. But we don’t have to let them be. Opponents of anti-human ideas can pick up where Julian Simon left off and improve the intellectual conversation by combatting doomsayers.
I encourage interested readers to check out the recent symposium on Julian Simon I co-edited with professor Louis Rouanet in the Review of Austrian economics. The pieces in the issue show Simon’s research program is alive and well.
Julian Simon’s ultimate claim was that human innovation would cause material conditions to continue to improve so long as freedom and private property were preserved. It’s not clear that academic ideas will also follow this trend, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think so.
I certainly hope ideas and discourse will continue to improve, and, if so, we may one day reach a future where Ehrlich’s ideas are extinct from reasonable minds and powerful institutions.