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 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.

Coming Soon – Super Crops

I know, I know — Paul Ehrlich said the Green Revolution was a failure in
the late 1960s and that settles it, but a diverse group of scientists recently
told the European Commission that they can continue to improve crops to increase
yields and reduce the environmental impacts of human agriculture.

A July 10 Reuters Information Service report noted that 130 laboratories which
took part in a European Commission project in 1993 reported on their diverse
efforts to improve crops through genetic engineering.

Brian Forde of the Institute of Arable Crop Research used his grant to create
plants that need less fertilizer. Forde says his team has isolated a gene that
controls the important process of nitrate uptakes from soil. Forde’s goal
is to make the plant even more efficient at nitrate uptake.

Michel Cobech and others at France’s National Institute for Agricultural
Research are conducting similar research on aspergillus, a common fungus.

Others reported success in finding genes that help plants live in saltier conditions
or in the presence of drought conditions.

Imagine that — crops which produce more, use less fertilizer and more resistant
to inclement environmental conditions. Don’t get your hopes up too high,
though, because remember — Ehrlich said it was impossible in the 1960s and
that settles it.

Famine In North Korea

North Korea is on the verge of famine. According to the United Nations up
to 4.7 million people are at risk of starvation this summer unless North Korea
gets massive food assistance.

Why are so
many North Koreans so close to starving? The pat answer is that floods of agricultural
regions in 1995 and 1996 hurt agricultural production. A better answer is that
North Korea’s repressive, backward system of government prevents people
from adapting to changing conditions.

Starvation in the 20th century has almost exclusively been caused by actions
taken by governments, and North Korea’s situation is no different. Since
the early 1960s North Koreas has followed an ideology of chuch’e
— a combination of self-reliance and autarky that has proved stifling to North
Korea’s economy.

Combined with a military and industrial policy designed to shift workers toward
industry and away from agriculture, the North Korean government has done everything
in its power to ensure that any floods or drought will be followed quickly by
widespread famine. North Korea is one of the few places in the world which still
attempts collectivized agriculture and now it is paying the price.

The emphasis on industry hasn’t gotten North Korea very far either. Although
some observers note that North Korea’s economy has grown quite a lot since
the early 1960s, they fail to note the growth is largely explained by increases
in inputs such as labor and raw materials rather than improvements in efficiencies
and productivity. As a result, North Korea’s exports are extremely low
and North Korea is unable to use trade to make up for any food shortages.

The lessons of 20th century famines are clear — excessive state intervention
in the economy in general and the agricultural sector in particular can have
deadly consequences.