Controversial environmental author Paul Ehrlich talks biofuels, offshore drilling, peak oil

Forty years ago, author Paul Ehrlich stirred up controversy by predicting that the world's steady population growth would cause hundreds of millions of people to starve within a decade of publication of "The Population Bomb." Though his predictions were wrong, he is often credited with having had a major influence on the environmental movement in the '60s and '70s. During today's OnPoint, Paul Ehrlich, author of the new book "The Dominant Animal" and Bing professor of population studies and professor of biological sciences at Stanford University, gives his take on today's top energy and environment issues. He also responds to critics who have accused him of using scare tactics.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Paul Ehrlich, author of the new book "The Dominant Animal." Paul is a Bing professor of population studies and a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Paul's controversial and widely read book, "The Population Bomb." Paul, thanks for coming on the show.

Paul Ehrlich: Great to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: Paul, you made a name for yourself in the 60s by publishing "The Population Bomb" and it took a hard look at population growth and the impact that it could have on food supplies, the environment. With all due respect, there are probably some viewers out there that are thinking "Him again?"

Paul Ehrlich: Him again, yeah, well, I'm sorry. I just haven't died.

Monica Trauzzi: What's the new message that you're putting forth in this new book "The Dominant Animal" that might get some of these skeptics that on your side?

Paul Ehrlich: Well, it's an updated message basically. The things that have changed have almost all changed in a negative direction. For instance, when "The Population Bomb" was written, we didn't know anything about the destruction of the ozone layer. We thought that global climate change, climate disruption, was going to be something for the end of this century because we only knew half of the greenhouse forcing. We knew about carbon dioxide, but we didn't know about the other greenhouse gases. Norman Myers hadn't pointed out that the tropical forests were disappearing and we were losing the working parts of our life-support systems. We wrote about big epidemics, but AIDS hadn't hit yet. So, basically the things are back where they were then only much, much worse, because, of course, because instead of having 3 1/2 billion people today we have almost twice that many. We've added more people to the planet since I wrote that book than were alive when I was born in 1932, which seems like a very short time ago to me.

Monica Trauzzi: So, you're saying what, that humans are doing things that are damaging the environment, we're damaging the world we're living in and we're not going to be able to continue living here?

Paul Ehrlich: "The Dominant Animal," A, tells you where we came from. Most people don't know that. How did we get to be the dominant animal? How did we get the enormous cultural power that's allowing us to change the entire planet? And then second, why are we changing the entire planet stupidly in ways that are going to make it impossible for us to continue civilization? And the scientific community is essentially unanimous on this and the big problem today is how in hell do you get people to pay attention and change their behavior? I mean we're having a presidential election in which none of the truly crucial issues are being properly addressed.

Monica Trauzzi: It's been widely thought that you paved the way for environmentalism in the 60s. It's a different time now though and there are a lot of big names who have come into play, Al Gore, T. Boone Pickens recently. What makes this book different from all of the other environmental books that are out there?

Paul Ehrlich: Well, first of all, it gives the background. It tells where we came from, how we evolved and how we're evolving. The second thing is it's an overview which has been vetted by essentially the key people in the scientific community of where we are, what we're doing, and what we need to do. Now, for instance, I've known Al for a long time. We worked together on the nuclear winter issue back in the early 1980s. What he says is perfectly true, that is we could really shift away from using fossil fuels in about a decade. The problem is to do that we'd have to have a World War II type mobilization. It would take the whole society to get together and decide to do it. In World War II we went from building tens of thousands of cars one year to building tens of thousands of airplanes the next. And at the end of the war we did the reverse. We can do it. The issue is there's not the slightest sign of it. We have a government that's pushing the other way. Most people, for instance, we're having a big debate over where to drill for more oil, despite the fact, A, that any place we drill will not change energy prices; B, gasoline is still much too cheap as any economist can tell you; and, C, we should not be burning anymore oil that we can ever. We should not be drilling for oil anywhere because burning oil and coal and natural gas is what's destroying our environment, our climate. And we need the climate if we're going to eat.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, I want to run through, you just mentioned offshore drilling, that's a big issue. I want to run through some of the other major issues that are being discussed on the Hill and get your take on them.

Paul Ehrlich: OK.

Monica Trauzzi: Biofuels and the food to fuel issue?

Paul Ehrlich: Biofuels is a scam. Companies went into that without having done any scientific research on what it meant for the atmosphere, for food prices, for the biodiversity that supports agriculture. We should, with minor exceptions, not be thinking at all about feeding our SUVs instead of feeding people. Agriculture is our most environmentally damaging activity. It could be less so, but to use agriculture, to expand agriculture to keep the SUVs running, that's just plain crazy.

Monica Trauzzi: What about second-generation biofuels?

Paul Ehrlich: Possibly, but, again, why aren't we working very hard to deploy more various forms of solar power, wind energy, which is a form of solar power, direct solar, starting to build a hydrogen economy and so on? In other words, we could do these things, but we're still looking for more, we're fighting a huge war to get our hands on a material, oil, and also in Central Asia, in Afghanistan on gas, when those are things we shouldn't be burning. We're not running out of fossil fuels. We're running out of environment.

Monica Trauzzi: But you're saying don't use oil, don't drill for more. Biofuels is not a good option. I mean, what ...

Paul Ehrlich: Well, yeah, what we should be ...

Monica Trauzzi: What are we supposed to be using?

Paul Ehrlich: Well, first of all, we should be redesigning, we should have started 20 or 30 years ago redesigning our cities around people, not automobiles. In Washington there's a huge plan to add more freeway lanes on the Beltway. That's crazy. We know from history that the more roads you build the more traffic jams you get. We can't afford to continue on the fossil fuel basis, but of course we have to continue for a while. The issue is can we do a Gore-like, or other people say 20-year transition where we get together as a major effort by our society and move to sustainable sources of energy? The nice thing about solar or wind is once you put the infrastructure in you don't have to worry about price shifts. God gives us the wind whether we want it or not all the time. So you're not going to be, for instance, if you have a solar economy in the United States, we won't care what the Arabs are charging for their oil because nobody will be buying. So, we need to make this transition. And to think that you can just somehow continue, well, if we recycle a little here, if we raise the standards so that you have to have 50 miles to the gallon in the average car, that's not going to solve it, particularly since our population is still growing. The United States is already the most overpopulated nation in the world and we're the only big developed country that's still growing. We celebrated getting 300 million people, even though no one has ever come up with an even semi-sane idea for having more than 140 million Americans alive at the same time.

Monica Trauzzi: What do you think about the idea of relying on technology to get us out of this problem that we're having with climate change? It's something that President Bush has spoken about, that technology can get us through, can help us get to a point where we're not emitting as much.

Paul Ehrlich: Well, technology can certainly help us. We are no longer in a position to go back to being hunters and gatherers and living off of dead mammoths. But, Bush talks a good game, he does nothing. He pushes continually in the other direction and, of course, he's a wholly owned subsidiary of the oil companies. What would you expect him to say? So, no question we need technology. What we need is more efficient solar technologies, more efficient wind technologies, much lighter cars and many fewer cars. We've got to technologically build transport systems that don't involve everybody riding around in several tons of metal. So, yes, we absolutely need technology, but more than that we need to change our general behavior.

Monica Trauzzi: Peak oil? True or false?

Paul Ehrlich: Nobody knows exactly where the peak is, but nobody should care. We have got to stop burning so much fossil fuel and we've got to do it fast. Again, the problem is not that we have too little energy, it's we have too much of the wrong kind. And we got to change that or our kids and our grandchildren are really going to suffer. Because, remember this, we are changing the patterns of the climate for the entire planet, probably for the next thousand years, which means rainfall is going to be in different places. All of our infrastructure for handling water, our irrigation systems, water for our cities and so on, is going to have to be now continually changed over the next thousand years. Do you know how expensive that's going to be and how difficult? You know, cities like Lima, Peru, depend on glaciers that are now melting. California, our biggest agricultural state, has one of the smallest snow packs ever and the snow pack is where the water for agriculture is stored. And so we're facing these incredible problems and George Bush is still meandering on about how we will use more technology and get out of it. He's got no solid suggestions. All of his administration is working to get us more oil by killing people. It's ridiculous!

Monica Trauzzi: Well, I don't know that they would agree with you going that far.

Paul Ehrlich: Oh, of course, they wouldn't agree with me, but they're wrong.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, but listen, how does population play into this? Do you think we need fewer people? We should stop our current growth rate?

Paul Ehrlich: Standard calculation is that a sustainable number, with anything like today's technology, is about 2 billion. We're going to go to nine or 10. Every person you add puts more pressure on our life-support systems than the last person, because people are smart. We didn't start farming the marginal soils and then move gradually towards the rich soils of the river bottoms, we're going the other direction. So, every person has to be fed from lousier soils, get water from deeper wells, get their energy from more difficult, distant sources, their metals from finer, you know, originally we started with copper that was lying pure on the surface of the earth. Now, we're smelting ore sometimes less than 1 percent copper, all that requires huge amounts of energy, huge amounts of environmental destruction. And you've always got to remember that our economic system is a wholly owned subsidiary of our ecological system. If our ecological systems don't function right, we won't eat, we won't do anything. We'll all be dead very soon. So, we are wrecking our life-support systems.

Monica Trauzzi: But also, in Europe, where they've been seeing a decrease in birth rates, they're encountering some issues with the economy as well, so it's a two-sided coin.

Paul Ehrlich: That's because their populations are not shrinking fast enough. You've got to remember that unless you think that the population can grow forever, in which case you're hopeless, unless you think that you're is going to get an older population when you slow population growth. And that's wonderful, because old people can work, but the dependent young people can't. You know, you can get a 50-year-old working easier than you can get a five year-old working and the 15-year-olds shrink while the numbers of over 65 increase. And so you have a dependent group that's shrinking, the criminal classes shrink, you get more old people. It's known that old people can sometimes work until after they're 70. So that's all of that worry. The New York Times articles and that, just pure nonsense, pure, pure nonsense. All you have to do is be able to do arithmetic.

Monica Trauzzi: What we do about countries like China and India? They're very focused on GDP growth and they don't want to hear anything else about it, so ...

Paul Ehrlich: Well, no, the Chinese at least have tried to do something about their population situation. Did you know there's no drinkable water in China? It's the only place you can go in a poor country and accept a glass of water anywhere, because they boil all their water before they drink it because they have no pure water left. They're running out of petroleum. And, because they're boiling water, the air over many of their cities, the rain is as acid as vinegar because they're using coal fires to boil water because there are too many people to have a pure water supply. China is probably going to split into a relatively rich coastal nation and a dead poor inland nation. Who knows what's going to happen to India, but the same thing is going to happen to the United States. What do people live in Phoenix do when they don't have any water, when they have to pay $15 a gallon for whatever gas they use and so on? It's going to be very interesting. We are facing a gigantic transition and the present political discussion is nonsensical compared to it.

Monica Trauzzi: The final question here, you've been in this game for a long time, what do you think your legacy is? What do you want it to be?

Paul Ehrlich: What I want it to be is a very healthy world for my grandchildren and great grandchildren and my colleagues and friends' kids. I have a lot of people with 5, 6, 7-year-old kids that I like a lot and I don't want them to be starving in misery or caught up in huge resource wars or sent to places like Iraq to try and get other people's resources we shouldn't use anyway.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we'll end it right there on that note. Thank you for coming on the show.

Paul Ehrlich: My pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

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