Paul and Anne Ehrlich on Population and a Sane World, Part 1

A Plowboy Interview with the well-known authors, ecologists and educators Anne and Paul Ehrlich.

| January/February 1984


Some of the ideas Anne and Paul Ehrlich convey in this article were initially presented in a speech to the first biennial "Conference on the Fate of the Earth" in New York City in October 1982.


Paul Ehrlich (Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University) and Anne Ehrlich (Senior Research Associate, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford) are familiar names to ecologists and environmentalists everywhere. But while most folks are aware of the Ehrlichs' popular writing in the areas of ecology and overpopulation (most of us—for instance—have read Paul's book The Population Bomb), few people have any idea of how deeply the Ehrlichs are involved in ecological research (the type that tends to be published only in technical journals and college texts). 

"Ecologists," Aldo Leopold once said, "live in a world of wounds that thinks itself whole." That remark, however, no longer holds true. Everywhere there seems to be a ground swell of public opinion reflecting the realization that the world is badly—perhaps mortally —wounded. Indeed, it would be fair to say that no sensible human being today could look at the prospects for our civilization, or even our species, without a sense of foreboding.

The first biennial "Conference on the Fate of the Earth" was convened in New York City in 1982 in recognition of the deep and complex interrelationship between the two greatest threats to the persistence of society: war and environmental destruction. These two forces share roots in the cultural traditions, economic behavior, and technological advances of Western civilization. Indeed, both trace back to the Agricultural Revolution, which some extraterrestrial historian may eventually decide was the first and last big mistake of Homo sapiens . It was, after all, that revolution that led to cities, kings, empires, science, industry, the population explosion, the emergence of humankind as a global force, and the development of hydrogen bombs. The insanity of the modern world can be traced almost directly to the dissolution of the saner world of hunters and gatherers 10,000 or so years ago.

Agriculture today is obviously a major source of environmental deterioration, and in turn is hurt by it. Soil erosion, salinization, desertification, and air pollution all work to reduce crop yields, increase hunger, and exacerbate the tensions that can lead to wars. And—to look at the other danger addressed by the Conference on the Fate of the Earth—while it's clear that the environmental impacts of "conventional" wars such as the one in Vietnam have been horrendous, the impact of a thermonuclear war would be immeasurably worse.

Growth, Greed And Power

A fundamental cause of both current threats to humanity can be seen in the limitless growth-greed-power syndrome that's so basic to society today. Not only do people strive to conquer each other . . . they strive to conquer nature itself. The result is a world in which a wealthy minority attempts to get even richer . . . while the condition of the poor majority barely improves, remains static, or worsens.

It's a world in which our civilization is held hostage by a thermonuclear arsenal capable of destroying it (see After Nuclear War) . . . an arsenal that's likely to be detonated by what, in historical perspective, can only be viewed as the most trivial of political differences.

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