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Paul Ehrlich: “We Don’t Have any Consumption Condoms”
February 28, 2011 Environment

Today I am doing my best not to comment, so again, as with the “Save the Kids” commercial, I’ll leave the comments for another day. I cover these claims in Environmental Economics, in case students are interested in learning more/

From a new LA Times Interview with Paul Ehrlich (author of the Population Bomb, and probably the father of modern Malthusianism):

If we don’t figure out how to change human behavior toward sustainability, we’re basically ? screwed,

For interested readers, when folks like Ehrlich mean “sustainable” they have an equation known as I=PAT in their heads, which means that (negative) environmental impact of human life is a multiplicative function of population (P), wealth (A = affluence, such as “cars per person”) and the technology (T such as how much destruction those things in “A” inflict). I will post lecture notes on this soon enough. But the point is simple for Ehrlich, reduce people, reduce wealth and reduce the damage that those items of wealth can do, and then the world is “sustainable.” Never mind what that means, or what the empirical evidence says, just accept it and enjoy these …

When asked how he responds to his critics that show that his predictions from the 1960s and 1970s were wrong:

Scientists live by their reputations with their colleagues, not with Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin.

In other words, no one serious criticizes him, it is all a radical loony right wing conspiracy that we have not all starved and died. I never knew I’d have such good company. He continues:

When we wrote it, there were about 3.5 billion people on the planet; about half a billion of them were hungry. Today there are 7 billion people on the planet and about a billion of them are hungry. We’ve lost something on the order of 200 million to 400 million to starvation and diseases related to starvation since the book was written. How “wrong” [were] we?

I’ll show you his original claims shortly. And we should ask Mr. Ehrlich not only where that data come from, but what the source/causes of the starvation was, and how those numbers have trended since 1968 (he is saying at the top end, 10 million deaths to starvation each year). Hint, very little (nothing?) has to do with lack of food.

And now he tells me I can no longer count to 20 while getting changed:

Everybody who can count up to 20 without taking off their shoes is aware there’s a population problem. But most politicians and many economists still think that more consumption is the cure for everything rather than part of the disease.

And how about a little central planning and massive coercion to show we have it in us to get poorer, faster:

We know we can change our consumption habits very nearly overnight: In 1941, the U.S. produced almost 4 million passenger cars. Then came Dec. 7, and for the next several years we produced millions of military vehicles, tanks, trucks, thousands of military aircraft and ships, developed nuclear weapons and detonated them, rationed rubber, sugar, coffee, gasoline — showing that if the incentives are right, [we] can change our consumption patterns, including the way industry works, basically overnight.

Then I think he just got the same memo that several of my e-mailers must have gotten lately. Apparently the world is ending because “we” treat corporations as people:

This is obviously opinion, but a major problem is that we have corporations now considered to be individuals like you and me. The idea that corporations should have free speech, I think, is insane. The free speech of the corporations is the petroleum industry and their buddies setting up entire institutions to lie to the public about fossil fuels and so on. I’m pretty depressed about that.

On prospects for the future:

What I usually say is look, there’s a 15% chance of preventing the collapse of civilization, if we work at it really hard.

And he is surprised why he’s having a hard time talking to kids. I’d remind you that the public sector controls over 90% of the schools, and influences the other 10% a great deal, so consider that when you hear why he thinks our problems persist:

Part of the blame is [on] what we’ve let happen to our public education system. Think about it — you can get all the way through most California schools and then get a PhD at Stanford and not have a clue where your food comes from — [you can] think it comes from the supermarket.

The beauty of a well functioning private property order is that we don’t need to know. And to be honest, we all have lots of other things to be doing. That is why we have prices. If these things were problems, their prices would tell us so, so we don’t need to think about where it all comes from.

And next up, Ehrlich calls me a Keynesian:

One problem ecologists have talking to the general public is that we tend to think in much longer terms than the average economist and even the average person.

The entire concept of economics as folks like me teach is focuses on the long-term, and certainly that was Julian Simon’s exact approach – I’ll grant Ehrlich a pass for jabbing at Simon who is no longer on this Earth to defend a concept Ehrlich so clearly misunderstands.

And despite the evidence that global population growth has slowed (on its own) considerably and is now expected to peak by mid-century, before perhaps even falling:

And you get some leadership. If an American president got up and said, “Patriotic Americans stop at two [children]” — that’s where you need some guts. Consumption is equally important. I’d think the biggest problem is figuring out what to do on consumption. We don’t have any consumption condoms.

Even if we did have said prophylactics, it’s beyond creepy that you seem to covet the possibility of obtaining the authority to roll them on us. No thanks big guy.

"2" Comments
  1. Even after all of these years, Paul Ehrlich has apparently gained little if any wisdom, only added hubris. Julian Simon was the better man.

  2. Current events evoke a deja vu emotion in me: I keep seeing Jimmy Carter sitting at his desk in a cardigan sweater with the White House thermostat turned down to 68. Back then, the world was running out of natural resources, and oil was so scarce that 1984 was the target date for it to run out. So said the Club of Rome and the ZPG folks.

    Now, of course, we’ve substituted prohibitions on drilling and demands for smaller carbon footprints for the claimed natural resource shortages of the Carter years. If one can’t claim any more that we’re running out of fossil fuels in the near future, just gin up a bogus theory about how the Maldive Islands and lower Manhattan might get flooded if we don’t fix our errant consumption. (What is the downside of flooding lower Manhattan?)

    There is indeed a lot of hunger in this world, and you are right to say it has little to do with the unavailability of food. It is a simple equation: the less economic and political liberty, the greater the likelihood of starvation. You can look it up under these topics: Soviet Union Five Year Plans; Communist Regimes in Africa; Mao; Fidel Castro. A converse proposition: the more capitalism, the more people will prosper.

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