National Post Barbara Kay: It’s amazing anyone still takes Paul Ehrlich’s doomsday predictions seriously

National Post - Tuesday June 23rd, 2015

1498 woodcut by Albrecht Durer
The four horseman of the Apocalypse -- are not nigh.

was quite unnerved this morning to read that a scientist had predicted the earth might be once again coming to an end in a “mass extinction event.”[1] (There have been five previous cataclysmic events, which are described in the article.) “We are now,” according to this scientist, “moving into another one of these events that could easily, easily ruin the lives of everybody on the planet.”

My heart raced at the thought, but then I looked more closely and realized that the author of the prediction (the “easily, easily” was a clue I should have picked up on: if there is alarm to be spread, this scientist will spread it with a trowel) was none other than our old friend and monarch of the Kingdom of False Predictions, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich.

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.

And yet- whoo hoo! – here all seven billion of us are, with fewer starving people than ever before (mostly due to politics, not shortages) and obesity our principal food-related problem.

Or perhaps the name rings a bell because you remember something about a “bet” that Ehrlich made. That would be the 1980 wager between Ehrlich and economist Julian Simon, who found preposterous Ehrlich’s apocalyptic prophecies of economic doom resulting from over-population, in particular his over-the-top statement, “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”

I looked more closely and realized that the author of the prediction was none other than our old friend and monarch of the Kingdom of False Predictions, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich.

Simon predicted that human well-being would increase as a consequence of flexible markets, technological advances and man’s creative ingenuity in the face of adversity. He bet $10K that five non-government-controlled raw materials would not rise in ten years, Ehrlich that they would. Basically it was in miniature a gladiatorial combat between the respective champions of environmental pessimism and free-market optimism. Guess who lost. And he paid the $10K.

In November 2012, I heard Ehrlich speak, and later met him in a press conference, in Israel, where he was the keynote speaker at an international conference on desertification. Recording my impressions, I wrote:

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.

As it turns out, Ehrlich is not only a genius at false predictions, he only critiques democracies for bringing the world to the edge of perdition. He said America is “the most over-populated country in the world” (China? India? Hello?) and Israel is “like a third-rate country” because it has the nerve to produce enough babies to keep its population growing. That ticked me off. As I wrote:


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.

It is remarkable to me that anyone takes anything this clownish and to my eyes quite narcissistic man seriously. In fact, by now we should consider Paul Ehrlich’s academic’s doom-laden predictions near-guarantees that the world is going to be just tickety-boo. With friends like this anti-Cassandra, eco-warriors don’t need enemies.

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