'We Are Running Out of Environment'

Population expert Paul Ehrlich says we must see the links in our planet's ills.

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In 1968, Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, a synthesis of scientific research and personal observations that offered a disturbing account of a world with too many people and too little food. The book was a national bestseller. Now 40 years later, Ehrlich, still at Stanford, and his wife, Anne, have come out with a new book, The Dominant Animal, in which they seek to explain how man's rapid rise to dominance has spawned a series of interlinked woes: soaring energy demand, agriculture crises, and, above all, environmental degradation. No longer, the Ehrlichs argue, can these issues be viewed as independent of one another, nor will a single response suffice as a remedy. U.S. News recently spoke with Paul Ehrlich. Excerpts:

Energy, food, and environment problems seem increasingly entangled. We can't talk about one without talking about the others. Where do we start?

We've got to dramatically revise the way people think about the world—and about our cultures. You can get all the way through Stanford University and still think your food comes from supermarkets. For example, people don't understand the involvement of the transport system in agriculture, or the oil connection. Obviously, there are huge problems with what's happening to people who live on two bucks a day and can't afford food, but agriculture is also our single most important activity and generates our biggest environmental threats. We can't go back to hunting and gathering. We've got to tackle the population issue, so ever more mouths don't need to be fed. There is also a consumption problem. I just spent four weeks in Africa, and there and all over the world people want to eat the way we do, which of course means more beef and pork and much more production to feed animals. The so-called new consumers in Asia have been cited as a big factor in the fuel and food crises today. Who are they?

People who have a little more money and education have, in China and India particularly, developed very rapidly the same consumptive attitudes as the average American and European. That's not necessarily bad: Who can deny them wanting the stuff we have when we haven't shown the slightest interest in reducing our own impact on the environment? In 1972, I cowrote an op-ed called "What if all the Chinese had wheels?" At that time, there were 500 million Chinese, and it looked like one day they might want cars. Now, we have 1.3 billion Chinese, and we know damn well they want cars; they're buying them and manufacturing them. Some estimates show the world population growing to about 9 billion people by 2050. Can the planet sustain that?

Probably not without disaster. If humanity put the effort in, we could end up with fewer people then. We have already seen a trend toward smaller families and actual shrinkage of population in Europe. It's not written that everybody has to have huge families. But in Africa, where the people are poor and have four, five, six kids, it will be tough. Even the optimistic scenario of population falling to 7.5 billion in 2100 takes us through roughly a doubling of energy use, and energy use is the best single measure we have of damage we do to our life-support systems. We don't have a clue if we can hold society together through that. What if these predictions are off—and population growth continues?

Population growth will end sooner or later. The big question is: Will it end by a huge die-off, or will it end because low birth rates spread in Europe, Japan, and a few other places to the rest of the world? The actual limits depend on consumption patterns and technologies available and how environmentally benign they are, and what kind of lifestyle people want to live. We can't all go back to being subsistence farmers. We must make decisions about technologies and lifestyle. If you're rich, you can by a Van Gogh or you can buy a private jet. Obviously, one of those consumption decisions has a very different impact on the environment than the other.