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PAUL EHRLICH Printer Friendly Page

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March 10, 1998

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  • Professor of population studies and biology at Stanford Univesity
  •  Author of the 1968 book The Population Bomb
  •  Predicted worldwide famines as a result of overpopulation
  •  “We’ve already had too much economic growth in the United States. Economic growth in rich countries like ours is the disease, not the cure.”


Paul Ehrlich is a professor of population studies and biological sciences at Stanford University. In 1968 he co-founded the group Zero Population Growth, now known as Population Connection. He is best known as an environmentalist who first gained notoriety from the publication of his 1968 book The Population Bomb (co-authored by his wife Anne Ehrlich), which predicted an impending ecological apocalypse followed by mass starvation.

“The battle to feed humanity is over,” Ehrlich wrote in that book. “In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. Population control is the only answer.” Ehrlich further decreed: “We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.” He suggested adding “temporary sterilants” to the water supply but thought “society would probably dissolve” before the government could do that. And he called China’s policy of forced abortion “vigorous and effective,” a “grand experiment in the management of population.”

Ehrlich’s predictions snared a generation of reporters and Green activists in the 1970s, who gave his totalitarian prescriptions serious consideration. Among his other predictions were the following:

  • “Smog disasters” in 1973 might kill 200,000 people in New York and Los Angeles. (1969)
  • “I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” (1969)
  • Falling temperatures will cause the ice caps to sink into the ocean, producing “a global tidal wave that could wipe out a substantial portion of mankind, and the sea level could rise 60 to 100 feet.” (1970)
  • “Before 1985, mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity ... in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion.” (1976) 

In more recent years, Ehrlich has also made the following statements:

  • “Actually, the problem in the world is that there is [sic] much too many rich people.” (Quoted by the Associated Press, April 6, 1990)
  • “Giving society cheap, abundant energy would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.” (Quoted by R. Emmett Tyrrell in The American Spectator, September 6, 1992)
  • “We’ve already had too much economic growth in the United States. Economic growth in rich countries like ours is the disease, not the cure.” (Quoted by Dixy Lee Ray in her book Trashing the Planet, 1990)  

After switching from predicting an impending Ice Age to its logical opposite, Global Warming, Ehrlich said, “The population of the U.S. will shrink from 250 million to about 22.5 million before 1999 because of famine and global warming.”

Ehrlich is an inveterate critic of American foreign and domestic policies. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, he theorized that a central cause of the attacks against the United States was the unequal distribution of wealth worldwide, and that American affluence was resented by much of the human race.

Ehrlich urged the U.S. to respond to 9/11 not with a military strike against the Taliban, but rather with charity and financial aid for the people of Afghanistan; the Taliban, in his view, should have been permitted to remain in power. Speculating on how the U.S. could “counter the intention of the terrorists” and “make a small symbolic start at solving the structural problems that have led to the current situation,” Ehrlich wrote in September 2001:

“Since we have moved a major aerial force into a position to bomb Afghanistan, we [meaning himself and others of a like mind] think the United States should use its airpower. We envision a huge flight of B-52s over that nation, opening their bomb-bay doors, and salvoing -- parachutes carrying containers of food. It could be followed up by fighter-bombers dropping some of our pre-packaged medical facilities, and leaflets volunteering to supply physicians on loan to operate them. … [F]ood is cheaper than bombs. … This is not to say we should not continue to try to … destroy terrorist networks and punish the perpetrators of the recent atrocities. But some move like this might make clear that the United States will not indisc[r]iminately destroy innocent people to get revenge on the guilty. [And] it might give us a good start on the sort of ‘Marshall Plan to the World’ that we and others think needs to be pursued over the long term to help close the widening gap between haves and have-nots, clearly one of the roots of recent terrorism. It might also help counter the idea that the West wishes to wage war on Islam.”

In a November 2002 article titled “Getting at the Roots of Terrorism,” Ehrlich elaborated on these themes, impugning the Bush administration for “its utter failure to take any steps to reduce the factors that inspire terrorists to attack us,” and its “apparent plans to take control of Iraq’s vast petroleum reserves.” “Oil,” he added, “also explains the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, which enrages some Muslims, especially Osama bin Laden.”

Ehrlich identified “demographic and socioeconomic factors, especially poverty, inequality and large numbers of young men facing dim economic prospects” as “likely contributors to terrorism.” “[T]he severely unequal distribution of wealth between and within nations,” he explained, had caused Muslims’ rage to boil over into acts of mass murder. Ehrlich similarly blamed America’s “exceptional support of Israel coupled with its oil profligacy.”

In Ehrlich’s view, U.S. arrogance and selfishness (he derided America’s “pathetic level of foreign aid”) were largely to blame for the 9/11 attacks. His proposed remedy was for America to respond with contrition and compensatory generosity. “I am convinced that the prudent course for the United States and other rich nations,” he said, “is to work to ameliorate social and economic rich-poor disparities while trying to unravel the complex root causes of terrorism. ... The United States should play a central role in improving demographic and socioeconomic conditions in developing nations. It is one of the stingiest rich nations in terms of development assistance … Without dramatic action, however, the demographic and socioeconomic conditions that prevail in much of the world will help provide a substrate on which 9/11-type terrorism can thrive into the foreseeable future. Exacerbating terrorist tendencies are policies [such as] waging war on anyone who we decide might impede the flow of oil into American SUVs and dollars into the pockets of George Bush’s friends.”

In addition to The Population Bomb, Ehrlich has also authored the books Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospec; Betrayal of Science and Reason : How Anti-Environment Rhetoric Threatens Our Future; and The End of Affluence.

Ehrlich serves, along with Maurice Strong and others, as an honorary board member of the David Suzuki Foundation.



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