Barbara Kay on Paul Ehrlich: A petrified pundit
Yesterday, chancing to find myself on the Sde Boker campus of Ben Gurion University in Israel’s Negev region, I dropped in on the fourth annual Drylands, Deserts & Desertification conference to hear the kickoff “Greetings” address by Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University.
The name Ehrlich may be familiar to you as the author of the 1968 book, The Population Bomb (which he wrote with his wife Anne, who remained uncredited for a time), in which he — they — predicted the world would come to an end in the 1970s, when the planet’s population reached five billion, food inevitably ran out and we all starved to death.
The world’s population is now at seven billion and rising, with mass hunger a function of bad politics, not scarcity. But neither time nor failure has dimmed Professor Ehrlich’s bullish self-confidence. In the intellectual shell game he plays, the audience is too dazzled by verbal legerdemain to notice the disparity between personal opinion and reality.
Professor Ehrlich favours the dual stylistic approach of apocalypticism and cheap personal attack. Imagine a kind of grizzled, male version of Ann Coulter, but on the left – with the same ominously merry twinkle in the eye, but minus the wit. At one point during the 45-minute rant he’d travelled 36 hours from Australia to deliver (fat carbon footprint there!), he declared, “The fact is, the world is coming to an end.” He also insisted fossil fuels and cars have to go if man is to survive, though he did allow that cars have one useful purpose: as a place for teenagers to make love. Oh dear: Superannuated 1968 humour for a petrified pundit.
But that was well into his speech. He began with a completely gratuitous disparaging remark about Bibi Netanyahu, and soon after made an entirely gratuitous disparaging remark about Mitt Romney, which set the tone for a vigorous stream of denunciation of America and Israel in general — and no other country in particular or general. Professor Ehrlich is obsessed with overpopulation, and it seems both America and Israel are having far too many children for his liking.
America, he said, is “the most overpopulated country in the world.” (What are India and China — chopped liver?) As for Israel, that cheeky little start-up nation is “like a third-rate country” in its off-putting trend of families averaging 3.3 children, comfortably over replacement level. “It should be half that rate!” he scolded.
Awkward. This is a country founded on the ashes of six million murdered Jews. A more sensitive observer might reasonably conclude the Jews deserve a pass on the overpopulation file, at least until its numbers approach the pre-Holocaust era, and swallow his indignation. Is it really “unethical” of Israel, of all the countries in the world, to want larger families? Could it not be a reassuring sign of optimism and confidence in the future? Indeed, that was the question I put to him later in the press conference. No dice. Confidence in the future is at odds with the millenarian vision Professor Ehrlich commands us to share.
But Professor Ehrlich’s distaste for Israel’s optimism pales beside his disgust with America, Israel’s partner in selfish entrepreneurial sin: “There is nothing remotely democratic about the United States,” he said. But just in case, he added: “I’m not sure Israel’s that much better.” And lest we didn’t get the message the first time, Ehrlich later assured us he is “not proud of being American,” “not at all proud of American behaviour” and that “Israel should not be proud of its behaviour.” Welcome to the Ehrlich Super-Nanny school of environmentalism.
Professor Ehrlich is not only pretentious, he is a conspiracy theorist to boot, I was by now not surprised to learn. The politicians are “all owned by the oil companies” and the military budget “is totally designed to protect the oil flow”; oh, and Obama himself “knows what’s going on,” but his political advisors won’t let him deal with the problem.
I don’t know if anyone over the age of 22 actually takes Ehrlich seriously any more. But it was a shame that an important conference had to be held in the wake of such a clownish performance. Which isn’t to say that Professor Ehrlich is not deeply knowledgeable in his field. When it comes to water, soil, trees, carbon and desertification, Professor Ehrlich is a veritable cataract of data. About human nature and communication skills, though — and especially about strategies for extending his message beyond the adoring choir of left-wing, redistributionist eco-warriors to reasonable people wishing to be informed on desertification uncontaminated by ideology — not so much.