John P. Holdren is the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He also serves as Director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy program at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Holdren earned a bachelor’s degree from MIT in 1965 and a Ph.D. in plasma physics from Stanford University five years later. He taught at UC Berkeley for more than twenty years, and chaired the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science from February 2007 to February 2008. Today he directs the Woods Hole Research Center, whose mission is to “understand the causes and consequences of environmental change as a basis for policy solutions for a better world.”
In 1969 Holdren wrote that it was imperative “to convince society and its leaders that there is no alternative but the cessation of our irresponsible, all-demanding, and all-consuming population growth.” That same year, he and professor of population studies Paul Ehrlich jointly predicted: “If … population control measures are not initiated immediately and effectively, all the technology man can bring to bear will not fend off the misery to come.”
In 1971 Holdren and Ehrlich warned that “some form of ecocatastrophe, if not thermonuclear war, seems almost certain to overtake us before the end of the century.”
Viewing capitalism as an economic system that is inherently harmful to the natural environment, Holdren and Ehrlich (in their 1973 book Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions) called for “a massive campaign … to de-develop the United States” and other Western nations in order to conserve energy and facilitate growth in underdeveloped countries. “De-development,” they said, “means bringing our economic system into line with the realities of ecology and the world resource situation.” “By de-development,” they elaborated, “we mean lower per-capita energy consumption, fewer gadgets, and the abolition of planned obsolescence.” The authors added:
"The need for de-development presents our economists with a major challenge. They must design a stable, low-consumption economy in which there is a much more equitable distribution of wealth than in the present one. Redistribution of wealth both within and among nations is absolutely essential if a decent life is to be provided for every human being."
On another occasion, Holdren, when asked whether Americans would "need to reduce their living standards," said:
"I think ultimately that the rate of growth of material consumption is going to have to come down, and there’s going to have to be a degree of redistribution of how much we consume, in terms of energy and material resources, in order to leave room for people who are poor to become more prosperous."
In 1977 Holdren and Ehrlich quantified their anti-capitalist philosophy in a mathematical equation, I=PAT, where a negative environmental impact (I) was the product of such undesirable factors as population growth (P), increasing affluence (A), and improving technology (T). In an effort to minimize environmental damage, they prescribed “organized evasive action: population control, limitation of material consumption, redistribution of wealth, transitions to technologies that are environmentally and socially less disruptive than today’s, and movement toward some kind of world government.”
In the 1980s Holdren opposed the Reagan administration’s military buildup, warning that it would likely “increase the belligerency of the Soviet government.”
In 1984, Holdren served on the editorial board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a publication whose personnel were accused of providing vital nuclear information that helped the Soviet Union develop its first atomic bomb. Two of the magazine's founding sponsors, Leo Szilard and Robert Oppenheimer, were accused of passing information from the Manhattan Project, in which they were key participants, to the Soviets.
In 1986 Holdren predicted that “carbon dioxide-induced famines could kill as many as a billion people before the year 2020.”
In 2006 Holdren suggested that as a result of global warming, sea levels worldwide could rise by 13 feet by the end of the 21st century. A subsequent estimate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change placed the figure at 13 inches.
In the October 2008 issue of Scientific American, Holdren wrote: “The ongoing disruption of the Earth's climate by man-made greenhouse gases is already well beyond dangerous and is careening toward completely unmanageable.” “Carbon dioxide (CO2),” he added, “is the most important of civilization's emissions and the most difficult to reduce. About 80 percent comes from burning coal, oil and natural gas; most of the rest comes from deforestation in the tropics.”
Today Holdren characterizes researchers who doubt whether human activity is responsible for global warming, or that global warming even poses a serious threat, as people who “infest” the public discourse with “dangerous” ideas that pose “a menace” to humanity.
Holdren is a longtome anti-nuclear activist. From 1987-97 he chaired the Executive Committee of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (PCSWA), an international group of scientists who promote arms control. In 1995 he delivered a Nobel Peace Prize acceptance lecture on behalf of the PCSWA. From 1993-2004 he chaired the Committee on International Security and Arms Control of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. In 2005 he called on the U.S. to issue a “no first use” policy for nuclear weapons and to eliminate nuclear retaliation as a possible response to chemical or biological attacks.
On December 20, 2008, President-elect Barack Obama named Holdren as his choice to be Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
Holden has co-authored and co-edited approximately 20 books and book-length reports on such topics as energy, the environment, and arms control. He currently chairs the Advisory Board for Innovations, a quarterly MIT Press journal focusing on solutions to global challenges. He is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences.
In 1981 Holdren was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship. In 1993 he and Paul Ehrlich were co-recipients of the Volvo Environment Prize. From 1994-2001 he was a member of President Clinton’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology. He received the Kaul Foundation Award in Science and Environmental Policy in 1999, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement in 2000, and the Heinz Award in Public Policy in 2001. In 2006 he was named President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.