Stanford's Nuttiest Tenured Turkey

By Mike Toth
Copyright 1998 The Stanford Review
March 10, 1998

Do you have trouble confusing fact and myth? Do you have a penchant for spending days, months, years reaffirming what has been uniformly proven false? Have you ever lost money because of your unyielding faith in your nutty ideas? If you answered "Yes" to one or more of these questions, fear not! -- you'll get an A from at least one Stanford professor, tenured biologist Paul Ehrlich.

Author of the best-selling Population Bomb, an intellectual spark for the modern ecological movement, Ehrlich has been a tenured faculty member on the Farm since the early sixties. While his early research centered on butterflies, Ehrlich reached national prominence for the startling ecological predictions he made in his 1968 Population Bomb and on a famous Tonight Show interview shortly after the release of his book.

The three-million copies of the Population Bomb that sold were influential in the radicalizing of conservationist organizations such as the Sierra Club, and in the creating new ones like Greenpeace. A founding father of Earth Day, in 1990 Ehrlich won a five-year MacArthur Foundation grant for $345,000 and shared half of the Crafoord Prize, the ecologist's version of the Nobel. Most recently, Ehrlich and his wife Anne published Betrayal of Science and Reason: How Anti-Environmental Rhetoric Threatens our Future . This spring, he is teaching a Freshman Seminar entitled, "Environmental Problems and Solutions."

So hurrah for Professor Ehrlich and hurrah for Stanford University. Except for one problem. Since his foray into environmental tomfoolery, Ehrlich's predictions have been consistently and tragically wrong, for four decades and counting.

In the mid-sixties, Ehrlich began the modern ecological movement's resurrection of Malthusian thought. Thomas Malthus was the British economist who, in 1798, predicted that, because population growth outstrips the growth in food supply, the starvation of Great Britain was imminent and inevitable. Unfortunately for Malthus, Great Britain was still alive and well two centuries later; unfortunately for the world, Ehrlich made it his task to bring Malthus' dead wrong ideas back to life.

After limiting his family size to one (Ehrlich had a vasectomy shortly after receiving tenure at Stanford -- showing once again that tenure does limit production), Ehrlich resolved in 1968 to write an environmental text that would warn the world of the immediate danger it faced. Ehrlich's logic was simple: a growing population increasingly consumes the earth's finite resources.This left humanity with three options: 1) stop producing, 2) stop consuming, or 3) die from starvation.

His Population Bomb began, "The battle to feed all of humanity is over ... hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death." In 1969, Ehrlich added, "By 1985 enough millions will have died to reduce the earth's population to some acceptable level, like 1.5 billion people." The same year, he predicted in an article entitled "Eco-Catastrophe!" that by 1980 the United States would see its life expectancy drop to 42 because of pesticides, and by 1999 its population would drop to 22.6 million. In the mid-seventies, with the release of his The End of Affluence, Ehrlich incorporated drama into his dire prophesies. He envisioned the President dissolving Congress "during the food riots of the 1980s," followed by the United States suffering a nuclear attack for its mass use of insecticides. That's right, Ehrlich thought that the United States would get nuked in retaliation for killing bugs.

As good as they were for the rest of us, the 1980s weren't so kind to Prof. Ehrlich. There were no food riots of 1980, Congress stayed in session (though perhaps Reagan should have taken a hint from Ehrlich when the Senate started wondering why we didn't send the Girl Scouts to deal with the Sandinistas), and in general Americans got richer, fatter, and more numerous. As did the rest of the world. According to the Food and Agriculture, the Third World now consumes 27 percent more calories per person per day than it did in 1963. India is now exporting food, and deaths from famine, starvation, and malnutrition are fewer than ever before.

Despite the increase in population and consumption, there is no sight of the shortages that Ehrlich predicted. Since 1980, The Economist reports, the world food commodity index has fallen 50 percent. If there were no food left, it would make little sense for farmers to lower the price on what little remains. During the 1980s thirty-three of thirty-five common minerals fell in price. In 1990, unexploited reserves of oil amounted to 900 billion barrels, 350 billion more than the total oil reserves of the 1970s, when Paul Ehrlich asked poignantly, "What will we do when the pumps run dry?"

For those wondering why things are so good when they should be so bad, the answer is not Al Gore. Rather, we're richer, fatter, and more populous because technology -- the gift of free minds -- has again advanced us. When scarcity rears its angry head, historically it's been techies (the types that consider the "outdoors" to be the parking lot outside the lab) that have kept humanity afloat, and not academic doomsayers or pretentious tie-dyed greens. The Iron Age began after wars in the eastern Mediterranean caused tin shortages; the age of coal resulted from timber shortages in 16th century Britain; the 1850s shortage of whale oil translated into the first oil well in 1859; as pessimists began worrying about the copper shortage that telephone wiring would cause, fiber optic communication emerged.

This was at least the theory of a lone American economist, Julian Simon. And after a decade of being attacked or ignored by Ehrlich, Simon resolved to show Ehrlich what a joke the doomsayers were. The two never debated (Ehrlich refused, calling Simon a "fringe character"), rather he put his money were his mouth was. In 1980, when Ehrlich was still predicting imminent scarcity, Simon set up a bet wherein he would sell Ehrlich $1,000 dollars worth of any five commodities that Ehrlich chose. Ehrlich would hold the commodities for ten years. If the prices rose -- meaning scarcity -- Simon would buy the commodities back from Ehrlich at the higher price. If the prices fell, Ehrlich would pay Simon the difference. Professor Ehrlich jumped at the bet, noting that he wanted to "accept the offer before other greedy people jumped in."

In October of 1990, Ehrlich mailed Simon a check for $570.07. As Simon predicted, free markets provided lower prices and more options. Simon would have won even if prices weren't adjusted for inflation. He then offered to raise the wager to $20,000 and use any resources at any time that Ehrlich preferred. The Stanford professor was slightly less bold this time. He refused Simon's offers, mailing him only a check and a table of his calculations, with no note attached. No longer was the bet Ehrlich's way of saving Simon from greedy speculators. Looking back, Ehrlich claimed that he was "goaded into making a bet with Simon on a matter of marginal environmental importance."

Like any good loser, the Stanford biologist has yet to acknowledge any fault in his career of failed predictions, and frankly, The Review is not holding its breath, expecting Ehrlich to take a trip to Damascus. To some there seems little relevance to focus on a scientist whose predictions were never realized. History is already in the course of forgetting Professor Ehrlich. Fortune magazine recently listed Simon among "the world's most stimulating thinkers." Ehrlich's name didn't appear. But before we forget Professor Ehrlich, we must remember the influence his ideas have had on the world. Ehrlich has suggested that governments should consider using coercion to limit family size and that the United States should end food aid for countries that refuse population control. His fellow eco-nut Garrett Hardin said bluntly the "freedom to breed is intolerable."

Coerced birth control had its day; China adopted the one child per family policy and slaughtered a disproportionate number of female children, as birth control advocates stood in silent assent. The Third World has grown healthier, richer, and more populous as Mr. Ehrlich"s predictions have failed. But if Professor Ehrlich's ideas were left unchecked, we would have scores of nations that would have not been allowed to enjoy the same material progress we have enjoyed. Often it's difficult to miss in the rhetoric of population controllers like Professor Ehrlich a message that endorses a world in which there are more of us -- clean, earth-conscious First Worlders -- than them -- the rest of the world. It's tragic to think of a world in which a mother in Zaire is told what her family must look like, while Paul Ehrlich lives well in Palo Alto.

Mike Toth will make wagers with any member of the Stanford faculty.

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