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Paul Ehrlich: Still Only a 10 Percent Chance of Averting Starvation-Caused Collapse of Civilization


Stanford professor Paul Ehlrich is famous for his predicting the imminent collapse of human civilization via widespread starvation and, more recently, for the fact that President Obama picked one of his acolytes to be one of the administration’s top science advisers. Ehrlich has been predicting doom for almost a half-century now — he really got started in 1968 by predicting that hundreds of millions of people were going to die of starvation in the 1970s (instead, the Green Revolution happened). At the time, he had particularly bleak news for Blighty: “By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people . . . If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” Unfortunately, he actually did try gambling, and famously lost a 1980 wager with Cato’s Julian Simon over whether the prices of five key metals would rise or fall by 1990.

Anyway, as doomsayers usually do, Ehrlich has just continually updated his time frame of disaster, insisting that his underlying point was correct and that catastrophe remains imminent. So today, at Project Syndicate, Ehlich confidently restates his case:

Humanity faces a growing complex of serious, highly interconnected environmental problems, including much-discussed challenges like climate change, as well as the equally or more serious threat to the survival of organisms that support our lives by providing critical ecosystem services such as crop pollination and agricultural pest control. We face numerous other threats as well: the spread of toxic synthetic chemicals worldwide, vast epidemics, and a dramatic decline in the quality and accessibility of mineral resources, water, and soils. Resource wars are already with us; if a “small” nuclear resource war erupted between, say, India and Pakistan, we now know that the war alone would likely end civilization.

But our guess is that the most serious threat to global sustainability in the next few decades will be one on which there is widespread agreement: the growing difficulty of avoiding large-scale famines. . . . virtually all warnings, in our view, underestimate the food problem.

There are, Ehrlich outlines, some ways to sustain or improve our food supply (including, curiously, to “stop increasing land for agriculture (to preserve natural ecosystem services)”), but the key really is to make sure we have fewer people via . . . (surprise) contraception and abortion:

Consider the nutritional/health benefits of humanely ending population growth well before we reach nine billion people and beginning a gradual decline thereafter.

The best way, in our view, to achieve such population shrinkage is to give full rights and opportunities to women, and to make modern contraception and back-up abortion accessible to all sexually active people. While the degree to which these steps would reduce total fertility rates is a matter of controversy, they would deliver significant social and economic benefits by making huge reservoirs of fresh brain power available to solve our problems, while saving hundreds of thousands of lives by reducing the number of unsafe abortions.

Can humanity avoid a starvation-driven collapse? Yes, we can – though we currently put the odds at just 10%. As dismal as that sounds, we believe that, for the benefit of future generations, it is worth struggling to make it 11%.

One of our most distinguished colleagues, biogeographer and energy expert James Brown of the University of New Mexico, disagrees. He puts the odds of sustaining human civilization at about 1%, but thinks that it’s worth trying to increase it to 1.1%.


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