Paul R. Ehrlich is one of the world's most well known population scientists, Malthusians and "doom-sayers". He is famous for his constant predictions of famine, riots and the breakdown of human society should population control not be implemented. He is also famous for the number of times he's been wrong.
Ehrlich was born in 1932 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He recieved a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas, and holds the posts of Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University. His wife Anne Ehrlich is senior research associate in the Department of Biological Sciences, and associate director of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford. Together they were awarded the 1998 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. In 1990 Ehrlich won a five-year MacArthur Foundation grant, and shared half of the Crafoord Prize - which is like the Nobel prize for ecologists.
The Ehrlichs began collaborating in the 1950s when studying butterfly population ecology. They soon turned to human population ecology, studying the impact that humans have on the environment. In a series of books, papers and interviews, Paul Ehrlich published his predictions of what would come to pass should the human population explosion not be curbed. In his 1968 book "The Population Bomb", Ehrlich wrote:
"The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. Population control is the only answer."
Ehrlich was modernising the views of Thomas Malthus, who in 1798 stated that because populations will always increase faster than the growth in food supply, human society was doomed to starvation. Malthus failed to take into account the place of technology in increasing food supply, and two centuries later, human society is still going strong. Ehrlich uses similar arguments to Malthus's logic. Resources such as petroleum and minerals are finite. We will eventually run out of them, and economic disaster will follow. Without these resources, we will be unable to produce sufficient food, and much of the human race will starve to death.
In 1969, Ehrlich stated "By 1985 enough millions will have died to reduce the earth's population to some acceptable level, like 1.5 billion people." He added that by 1980 the United States would see its life expectancy drop to 42 because of pesticides, and by 1999 its population would drop to 22.6 million. In the seventies, Ehrlich envisioned the President dissolving Congress "during the food riots of the 1980s," followed by the United States suffering a nuclear attack for its mass use of insecticides.
Ehrlich's most famous opponent was Julian Simon (1932 - 1998), an economist and "doom-slayer", who turned Ehrlich's statistical proofs back on him by demonstrating that, despite Ehrlich's insistence that the world was on a downwards slide, in fact, humans were better off than ever before. Ehrlich generally ignored or insulted Simon, refusing to debate him, calling him a fringe character, an imbecile, and making various other denigrating comments.
Eventually, in 1980, Ehrlich accepted Simon's offer of a bet, to test the veracity of their opposing viewpoints. Ehrlich was to choose $1000 worth (in total) of 5 mineral resources that he thought would become scarcer over the next decade, and hence increase in price. If they did in fact increase in price, Simon would pay Ehrlich the amount by which they increased. If they decreased in price, indicating that they had become more abundant, Ehrlich would pay Simon the amount by which they decreased. In 1990, Ehrlich lost the bet, as all 5 of the minerals decreased in price, and Ehrlich paid Simon $576.06. Ehrlich declined the offer of another bet.
Paul Ehrlich did offer Julian Simon a bet on 15 different measures of human welfare, to be concluded in 2004. Simon did not accept the bet - as they could not agree on acceptable measures of human welfare. We shall have to wait for 2004 to see if Ehrlich was right on these counts.
Ehrlich continues to publish his views on population control. He has recieved many awards, is constantly quoted as an expert on population ecology, and the sales from his books keep his pockets well lined.
I realise that this biography has been somewhat biased - and I apologise. If any Ehrlich fan wants to write a flattering one, be my guest. I was an Ehrlich supporter for many years, but his habit of always being wrong eventually put me off. So, I apologise again, in advance, but I'm going to finish this writeup with a quote from Michael Fumento, one of Ehrlich's newer opponents.
Technology has always thwarted Ehrlich's predictions, and you needn't be Nostradamus to know it always will. But Ehrlich will continue to garner accolades because while in reality he's always wrong, politically he's always correct.
But if he tells you it's going to be sunny and dry today, you'd better bring an umbrella.
Acknowledgments: http://www.fumento.com/paul.html, http://www.sepp.org/controv/ehrlich.html, http://www.acton.org/ppolicy/environment/population/simon.html, http://www.richarddnorth.com/rdnjournogreen/simon.htm, http://www.cato.org/pubs/policy_report/cpr-20n2-1.html, http://www.goodbyemag.com/jan98/simon.html "The truth about the environment", Bjorn Lomborg, in The Economist, August 4th 2001, http://www.usc.edu/dept/LAS/tylerprize/tyler98.html (that last web site says nice things about Ehrlich. No, really.)