Letter to Skeptic Magazine

In their vol. 5, no. 1 issue, Skeptic magazine published several articles on environmental science in general and on the population controversy specifically. Writer Frank Miele contributed an excellent overview, “Souled out or … souled short?” which mentions Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich and provides graphs and information taken from Joel Cohen’s How Many People Can the Earth Support? Below is a letter-to-the editor I sent Skeptic about the controversy.

July 15, 1997

Editor, Skeptic,

As a regular reader and maintainer of a web site devoted to the overpopulation controversy (http://www.carnell.com/overpopulation.html), I found Frank Miele’s “Souled out or … souled short?” an interesting introduction to the differing perspectives between environmentalists and economists and like Miele I find Joel Cohen’s How Many People Can the Earth Support? an excellent book on the topic.

As someone who sides with Julian Simon in his debates with Paul Ehrlich, let me sum up my position as briefly as possible: Ehrlich is no Joel Cohen.

Cohen’s book sticks to what can be known, and throughout he does an admirable job of explaining the limitations of population statistics and models. Few of Cohen’s conclusions occur without at least one, and usually numerous, caveats. Cohen realizes, as do most demographers and others involved in population issues, that the subject is incredibly complex.

By contrast, Ehrlich is largely a headline writer. Rather than acknowledge the complexity and uncertainty of the issues, Ehrlich has repeatedly insisted on going for the zingers that get him a lot of media coverage but usually turn out to be scientifically unsound. As Ehrlich told Stanford magazine in 1990, “Everyone wants to know what’s going to happen. So, the question is, Do you say, ‘I don’t know,’ in which case they all go back to bed — or do you say, ‘Hell, in ten years you’re likely to be going without food and water’ and [get] their attention?”

Ehrlich has paid the price for playing the entertainer rather than the scientist. Year after year he has made one outlandish prediction after another that has failed to come true. If a popular astrologer or psychic made claims that consistently proved not only wrong but wildly wrong, it is doubtful many of your readers would take him or her seriously.

Ehrlich, however, seems to be the Teflon environmentalist. Time after time his predictions are falsified and yet almost no one considers looking at the underlying model to wonder if maybe there isn’t something wrong with the theory. Instead, much as the Ptolemaic astronomers resorted to ever more complicated epicycles, so Ehrlich’s adherents find ever more convoluted explanations of why Ehrlich is right even though the predictions his theory entails consistently fail.

The tragedy is Ehrlich’s attempts at grabbing the media’s imagination have led to a trend of polarization which makes rational discussions of environmental issues such as overpopulation all but impossible. Your picture of Simon with devil’s horns is an accurate but sad commentary on how he is viewed by many. We have reached a point where those who disagree with Ehrlich are, as the title of his latest book puts it, responsible for The Betrayal of Science and Reason.

As a result there has been a similar backlash among some critics. We now have people like Rush Limbaugh who respond to Ehrlich’s bombast with similarly uninformed bombast of their own. Scientific investigation of a matter of extreme importance to our species is reduced to a shouting match between two camps each accusing the other of heresy.

The most important lesson I hope readers of your series of articles on environmentalists and their critics is the enormous danger of allowing scientific inquiry to become politicized. Ehrlich’s explicit politicization of population concerns in the early 1960s started a chain reaction which today makes honest debate and inquiry far more difficult than it need or should be.

Product Plug

In talking in person or through e-mail with people about population issues
I am consistently struck by the lack of interest or awareness of serious academic
resources on the topic. Demographers and others do write and publish lots of
extremely helpful information on population-related issues.

Probably the best for laypeople and professionals alike is publications by
the Population Reference Bureau, Inc.
The PRB publishes quarterly “Population Bulletins” which look in depth
at specific issues along with a monthly newsletter and other resources. Individual
subscriptions to a year’s worth of PRB publications runs $49 and can be had
by writing the PRB at 1875 Connecticut Ave. NW Suite 520, Washington, DC, 20009.
For those without $49, PRB publications are available at many libraries and
on the web.

Ehrlich vs. Ehrlich

An excellent article by Glenn Hodges in the Jan./Feb. issue of The Washington
Monthly
illustrates the hypocrisy of doomsayers such as Paul Ehrlich
who believe in one criteria to judge themselves and an entirely separate criteria
to judge anyone who dares disagree with them.

Discussing Ehrlich’s numerous failed predictions over the past quarter century,
Hodges cites a 1990 interview in Stanford magazine which quoted Ehrlich
as saying, “Everyone wants to know what’s going to happen. So, the question
is, Do you say, ‘I don’t know,’ in which case they all go back to bed — or
do you say, ‘Hell, in ten years you’re likely to be going without food and water’
and [get] their attention?”

To Ehrlich, then, it’s okay if most of his predictions are extremely exaggerated
and rarely reflect reality since they serve as a wakeup call. Of course, when
it comes to his critics, the tables are turned. As Ehrlich and his wife Anne
write in their 1996 book, The Betrayal of Science and Reason, “[W]e
and our colleagues in environmental science make no claim to perfection, only
to doing science as it should be done and to having our work constantly reviewed
by peers so that it represents more than our own idiosyncratic opinions.”

The Oil Glut

Of course the world is running out of oil and the entire fossil fuel economy
is on borrowed time, which makes me wonder why there’s still so damn much
of the stuff around. A July 8 story by Reuters Information Service reported
that even with a rise in U.S. demand for oil, crude prices declined dramatically
this spring and are expected to fall even further when Iraq resumes exporting
oil.

The International Energy Agency
reported that its revised forecast of 1997 world oil demand was 73.8 million
barrels per day. At the same time world oil inventories rose an estimated 1.6
million barrels per day in the second quarter of 1997. The Washington-based
Petroleum Finance Company said, “… crude production will outstrip demand
by an average of one million bpd in 1997.

The result was predictable — crude oil futures have fallen 30 percent in 1997,
hitting a low of $17.32 in mid-June.

“I Don’t Believe In A Global Doomsday Scenario”

In a small blurb in the July 1997 issue of Discover, demographer Wolfgang Lutz
confirmed the main thesis of the Overpopulation FAQ — the doomsday population
scenarios aren’t going to happen.

“I don’t believe in a global doomsday scenario,” said Lutz,
who is a demographer at the International
Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
and editor of the IIASA’s recent
book, “The
Future of World Population
.” The IIASA is a highly respected group
which has been involved in the creation of the often-cited United Nations models
predicting future world population.

Unlike population doomsayers such as Paul Ehrlich, Lutz assembled a panel of
20 experts in areas such as fertility, mortality, population migration to examine
past scenarios of population growth and create a new model. The result? The
most likely scenario produced by the group forecasts world population growing
to 10.6 billion by 2050 and then declining in the latter half of the 21st and
beginning of the 22nd century.

Continuing declines in fertility levels around the world, increased urbanization,
and an increase in educational opportunities for women are just some of the
factors which Lutz and the panel believe will bring fertility rates to replacement
level by 2050.

The Key to Happiness — Die Young

In its seemingly unending quest to ridicule even the very idea of human progress
in our century, the United Nations World Health Organization has discovered
a new threat — people the world over are living too long.

Despite horror stories and doomsday predictions, human beings
are living far longer today than at any time in history and as Western technology
and lifestyles spread over the globe even more people will enjoy long lives.
And there’s the rub — people are living longer, but are they living happier
or healthier?

Not according to WHO. According to the World
Health Report 1997
. Longer life can be a penalty as well as a prize. A large
part of the price to be paid is in the currency of chronic disease.”

You heard it from the United Nations first — if you save a 3-year-old
from dying of dysentery, you condemn him to dying of a heart attack or cancer
in his 50s or 60s. People who don’t die from malaria when they’re
7 might develop diabetes when they’re 40. Oh the horrors of it all.

Apparently until they’ve found a cure for death, Western
nations should simply stop tampering with nature! Better to let people perish
as infants than subject them to living into their 60s.