Biologist Paul Ehrlich gives dire prediction for global civilization

Paul Ehrlich spoke about the collapse of civilization due to environmental problems on Tuesday, April 30, 2013, at the University of Vermont. Photo by Audrey Clark

Paul Ehrlich spoke about the collapse of civilization due to environmental problems on Tuesday at the University of Vermont. Photo by Audrey Clark

The 81-year-old Ehrlich, a professor at Stanford University, spurred the growth of new fields of science and called attention to environmental problems through his work on overpopulation, evolutionary biology, and conservation. He addressed a packed ballroom at the University of Vermont on Tuesday.

Ehrlich, who paced back and forth across the stage, ignoring the podium, started by saying, “I believe and all of my colleagues believe that we are on a straightforward course to a collapse of our civilization.” He cited signs, such as diminishing returns from natural resources, that he said were recognizable from studying the collapse of other civilizations throughout history.

The problem can be traced to our evolution, said Ehrlich.

“We’re a small-group animal, both genetically and culturally. We have evolved to relate to groups of somewhere between 50 and 150 people,” he said. “And now suddenly we’re trying to live in a group not of 150 or 100 people, but of seven billion people, somewhat over seven billion people at the moment, and that is presenting us with a whole array of problems.”

Those problems include an inability to recognize gradual, large-scale changes in our environment as dangerous.

“Another thing that’s related to that, that’s presenting us with a whole array of problems, is that most of our evolution going on now is cultural evolution,” Ehrlich went on. “And the problem is cultural evolution has not gone on at the same rate in every area of human endeavor. Where has it gone on most rapidly? It’s gone on most rapidly in the area of technology.”

In contrast, our cultural evolution has not progressed much at all in terms of ethics, said Ehrlich.

Ehrlich, gesturing and joking with the audience, made frequent forays into insulting public figures and declaiming popular beliefs.

“Any of you ever watch the False News Network? Rupert Murdoch requires them not to say the word ‘climate’ on it. These are paid prostitutes and Rupert’s their pimp.”

Much of Ehrlich’s talk focused on environmental problems, including climate change.

“We’re facing climate disruption,” he said. “That is the most talked about environmental problem we face. It’s not necessarily the most serious. … It may be some of the others are even more serious. The global spread of toxic substances is getting worse every year.” Some substances are more dangerous to us in small quantities than large because of the way our cells process them, and we’ve spread these substances far and wide. “There’s already nasty signs about the effects. For instance in some sub-Arctic villages they’re having twice as many girl babies born as boy babies.”

“The first place I think that we ought to be concentrating if we’re going to solve the problem and avoid a collapse is to rework the entire agricultural system and move feeding people — which is really our most important activity as human beings — up to the top of the list of what we should be doing, not how many iPad new versions we can get in the next six months.”

Ehrlich said we are remarkably unprepared to deal with most of our environmental problems.

“Climate change we at least have nut-case solutions for. If it gets away from us, we can do what’s called geo-engineering. Absolutely insane, but we at least have insane ideas about what to do about it. Whereas if the chemicals we’re releasing give everybody bladder cancer by the time they’re four years old, we wouldn’t have the first clue what to do about it. … We’re basically sawing off the limb that we’re sitting on.”

All of these environmental problems, said Ehrlich, have the scientific community worried. “The scientific community has spoken out repeatedly and in detail about this.” But they have been largely ignored by the media.

“At this point I always need a little gin in my talk,” added Ehrlich, pausing to pour himself some water.

After speaking for 20 minutes about environmental problems, Ehrlich moved to solutions. He said we have to cut our fossil fuel use dramatically and completely redesign our water management infrastructure. If we don’t, changing precipitation patterns will make it impossible to feed everyone on Earth.

“We’re doing a crappy job of feeding people today, and yet we’re sitting in a society that with equanimity looks at adding another two and a half billion people to the seven billion people we’ve got already.”

“Nothing’s probably more important to the lives of Americans in the future to your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren, your children, maybe even you if you’re young enough, is how many people we have in this country and how much each one feels required to consume.”

So, said Ehrlich, we are faced with serious, interrelated problems with serious political and economic implications. What to do?

“The first place I think that we ought to be concentrating if we’re going to solve the problem and avoid a collapse is to rework the entire agricultural system and move feeding people — which is really our most important activity as human beings — up to the top of the list of what we should be doing, not how many iPad new versions we can get in the next six months.”

Ehrlich said we also need to concentrate on gradually slowing and then reversing population growth. The Earth’s carrying capacity is 1.5 billion people at the very most. To cut the global population from its current level to 1.5 billion, we need a fertility rate of 1.5 children per family.

“How do you do it humanely? Well, first thing you do is work very hard to get every woman on the planet exactly the same rights, opportunities, pay, and so on as every man. When women get rights, birth rates go down.” Next, promote birth control. “Those two things alone would go far to solve the population problem.”

The problem of overconsumption, Ehrlich said, could be solved almost instantly, given the right government. As an example, he mentioned how quickly the U.S. switched from producing cars to manufacturing tanks during World War II.

Despite giving a speech bulging with data, Ehrlich cautioned that telling people about the problems doesn’t change their behavior. Citing social science research, he said that when you tell people everyone else is doing it, and especially that everyone else in their neighborhood is doing it, that’s when their behavior changes. The way to change behavior is peer pressure.

After an hour-long talk about all the reasons why a collapse of civilization is likely and how hard it will be to prevent, Ehrlich offered one iota of hope: “If there’s any reason for hope, it’s that we do have a history of showing that human beings, human societies, in relatively recent times can change extremely dramatically, extremely rapidly.”

Ehrlich went on, “For some reason — we don’t fully understand it — when the time is right, you can get dramatic, dramatic changes, which indicates to me that there’s a chance that when the time is right, we can change the way we behave towards each other and towards our environment and it can happen very very rapidly. I think … your main challenge is to find a way to ripen the time.”

What does Ehrlich think of Vermont?

“I think it’s way ahead of the game. You’re very lucky because you have New Hampshire next door for contrast. You know, brilliance on one side, idiocy on the other. … Having the Gund Institute here, having the Population Media Center here, having a generally environmentally conscious population, not being nuts for guns, you know there are a lot of advantages to being in Vermont.”

Audrey Clark

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34 Comments on "Biologist Paul Ehrlich gives dire prediction for global civilization"


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3 years 8 months ago

It’s an inspirational story of human tenacity to see Paul doubling down after all these years of his predictions being flatly wrong.

Contrasting the careers of Ehrlich and Amory Lovins is most instructive: you can get a lot of good work done when you focus on numbers and avoid alarmist, divisive rhetoric. Paul has been a liability for the environmental cause since “Famine 1975!” — meanwhile, Lovins has been actively making positive changes to the US industrial system and infrastructure.

George Plumb
3 years 8 months ago

Right on Justin! Global warming with its droughts and floods isn’t happening. The oceans aren’t rising and getting warmer and more acidic. The sixth great extinction isn’t happening.
Millions of people are not undernourished or starving. We are not living of off our capital resources instead of our renewable resources. We can grow forever even though it is a finite planet. We just have to make some technical changes in how we do things.

3 years 8 months ago

Please understand, this is about Paul. We (obviously) live in a finite world and a human dieoff & infrastructure collapse is inevitable.

None of that means Ehrlich is some kind of prophet.

Buckminster Fuller was laying all this out before Paul, and William Catton did an encyclopedic job in his 1980 tome Overshoot. My beef with Paul is his lazy thinking and bad math. The environmental movement has far more intelligent and honest thinkers in the ranks, there is no need to lionize old Paul.

3 years 8 months ago

The 21st century will overturn many of our previously-held assumptions about civilization. The challenges and opportunities land development stakeholders now face – to fulfill the needs of society and achieve a favorable return on investment without harming the environment – have vast implications on the sustainability of our communities around the world.

How do we develop a sustainable civilization? By delivering the “holy grail of sustainable decision making” – a universal geometrical algorithm that balances the needs of people, planet and profit – The SLDI Code.

Sustainable Land Development Initiative
Designing a ‘Big Wheel’ for Civilization

Karl Riemer
3 years 8 months ago

I entered this into Google Translate hoping for an intelligible English rendition but it couldn’t detect the language. It appears to be some sort of cultural creation legend in free verse.

Kelly Stettner
3 years 8 months ago

And this guy isn’t laughed out of public places for all his wrong predictions; he’s a highly paid professor at a prestigious university. Now that’s a comment on our cultural ‘devolution’ if ever there was one.

3 years 8 months ago
I am pleased Paul Ehrlich, (his name means honest in German) agrees, the world’s carrying capacity (providing healthy food, adequate shelter, absorbing pollution, etc.) is AT MOST 1.5 billion people. I used 1 billion in my articles. In the early 1800s, there were about one billion people. In Europe, there was overpopulation and a lack of resources at THAT time. The reason so many millions (of the then small population) emigrated. Wood had run out and coal was not yet mined in sufficient quantities to replace it, oil had not yet been discovered and the technology to… Read more »
Jason Farrell
3 years 8 months ago

How exactly do you propose we achieve this “population reduction” that you believe we must achieve prior to investments in renewable energy?

Are you advocating for Vermont to undertake a 21st century eugenics project?

Maybe Vermont is on the right path to achieving your goal of “population reduction” and should continue by increasing the “oppresive tax burden” on our wealthy neighbors instead?

Help me understand your thinking on this point.

Matthew Choate
3 years 8 months ago

That’s pretty simple…stop having children….that said, its a difficult policy to implement. I have chosen to have none as I think there are too many people now and that is at the root of many of our problems. Just as noted in the article we should work to equalize the status of women relative to men. When women have control over reproduction, have equivalent pay, and equivalent education, the birth rate drops and the drain on the planets resources will drop as well.

Joe Leone
3 years 5 months ago

What happens when “women have control over reproduction,” and some of them still choose to have five or six children? There are plenty of big families in the U.S., where contraception is ubiquitous and abortion-on-demand is the law of the land. (FYI: My wife and I have seven children.) Lebensraum? Spazio vitale? Racial hygiene? National Socialism had a very difficult time implementing their policies with respect to untermenschen. Those difficulties did not stop them from trying. No thank you.

Jeffrey Pascoe
3 years 8 months ago

If Jason and others are seriously interested in constructive approaches to population reduction, they might check out this organization that just happens to be based in Charlotte, VT:

In my opinion they are well worth supporting.

I also appreciate Matthew’s comments about empowering women and note that these views are well presented in a book called “Half the Sky”.

John Greenberg
3 years 8 months ago

“There are no funds to do RE and EE at the same time.” We ARE doing both and compared to most places in the world, Vermont’s doing just fine economically (and incredibly well if you happen to be a high-income Vermonter). Moreover, we could do a good deal MORE of both and STILL do fine economically, if the political will were there. This is a question of priorities, not economics.

3 years 8 months ago
Matthew, Because we use energy much more efficiently than people in 1800, we create much more “damage”* with the energy we use (go a greater distance, make more goods and services), i.e., the above 49 times is an understatement by at least a factor of ten. Our efficiency is actually making things worse, because it makes it easier to make and consume more goods and services. * steam engines were 3% efficient, modern CCGTs are 60% efficient; Dutch wind mills were 2-4% efficient, modern wind turbines are about 50% of the theoretical maximum of Betz’s Law of 59%; wood/peat OPEN… Read more »
John Greenberg
3 years 8 months ago
Willem I was not attempting to address whether the money we spend on either efficiency or on renewables in Vermont is optimally spent. That’s a different issue. I was merely pointing out that, as a simple matter of fact, we ARE doing both, so there’s no contradiction between them. As to Vermont’s efficiency programs, I have long been a critic, not just of EV but of the programs the utilities ran before that. I have long believed that what we need is a comprehensive program which targets ALL forms of energy, audits all usage, and then prioritizes efficiency efforts. The… Read more »
3 years 8 months ago
John, It is an uphill battle, until the ground shifts underneath them. A simple way to reduce electricity usage, at no cost to the state, and at no state involvement, is to have rate schedules that vary by the hour, for illustration, say 5 c/kWh, if you use electricity from say 11 at night to 5 in the morning, but 40 c/kWh, if you use it from say 2 in the afternoon to 10 at night. Rates would follow demand; high demand, high rates, low demand, low rates. Smart meters would make it all possible. To operate the utility system… Read more »
John Greenberg
3 years 8 months ago
For once, I agree. I suspect that’s where we’re heading once the smart meter roll-out is complete. Thirty years ago, I suggested that Vermont adopt a rate structure similar to what CA has now: namely, tiered rates which rise sharply as usage rises. I believe you’ve suggested that as well. Charging more for higher usage would also send an important economic signal. Before adopting it, I would want to make sure that unintended consequences had been considered and mitigated — e.g. effects on low income families, small businesses (especially those whose business requires high energy use), etc. We’ve only begun… Read more »
Kathy Sherman
3 years 8 months ago

And don’t forget that lifespan has increased markedly, especially since advances in the 20th century in perinatal survival (based on NYC stats on infant mortality) and associated survival the female of the species.

Greg Lapworth
3 years 8 months ago
Wow, he’s still alive!! I thought he was buried under a massive glacier in N.Y.. He really came prepared….does he know what Vermont’s gun laws are? I think you can take everything else this bitter loser says as mere babble. He really has a nasty way of attacking people with differing views…..clear sign of a of an inept/incompetent educator. Unfortunately there are many “sheeple” that will take his word and “drink the “kool-aid”. We have a surplus of doomsayers today…..many right here Vermont. People were suckered once by him………..don’t let it happen again. Its how he makes his very lucrative… Read more »
Wes Hopper
3 years 8 months ago

He may not be the warm and fuzzy person that draw people to like him, but he’s correct in many of his conclusions. Lack of effective action will result in Nature’s solution, which will be pitiless. Because most of the worst effects right now are happening out of sight of the West, people remain unconcerned. That will change, but will it change fast enough? Probably not. The international response to the melting Arctic is to start a stampede to drill for oil and gas there. You can’t make this stuff up.

3 years 8 months ago


The worst effects have happened and are happening right before your eyes.

Building interstate highways, sprawl, splurging on consumer goods and services. All that needs to be reduced by factors of about 100 or more.

See my above comments and read my articles.

Jason Rouleau
3 years 8 months ago

Is this a world tour? I think he should schedule some stops within China.

Cynthia Quilici
3 years 8 months ago

yeah, China is becoming the world’s primary polluter and energy user, but that has been in order to feed American Mall*Warts and Christmas Tree Shops to bursting. The most pathetic aspect of which is that you know that the Chinese have no idea why they are making most of the idiotic plastic gee-gaws they are making. And Americans don’t even really know why they are buying them.

Rolf Mueller
3 years 8 months ago

You got that right!

ralph mcrae
3 years 8 months ago
Checking through the comments, I’m not surprised that there are the usual clowns who don’t understand the ecological crisis Paul Ehrlich predicted 40 years ago was not proven wrong….just delayed, because the “green revolution” had little to do with hybrid seeds, and more to do with drilling deep underground and pumping out fossil aquifers to irrigate more farmland. Add the increase in oil-based fertilizers, and the real story is that we have spent the last 40 years borrowing more from nature, instead of stopping population growth back then when there were half as many people on Earth. Now that we… Read more »
Carl Werth
3 years 8 months ago

Doesn’t every species on earth – including homo sapiens – face eventual extinction?

3 years 8 months ago

You comments are 100% correct.

Ehrlich sees the biological picture very clearly. The only reason his predictions are not happening sooner is modern medicine.

If it were not for modern medicine, the human race would be in the same serious trouble as the rest of the fauna and flora.

Just look at Vermont’s forests. What remains is a sickly remnant of what was in 1800. Using this remnant for biofuels is beyond rational.

To destroy pristine ridge lines for Lowell wind turbines is a most extreme blasphemy of nature.

Denny Hall
3 years 8 months ago
We have a population bubble, and like all the other bubbles, the limits of the systems it depends on will cause it to crash sooner or later. Bubbles are like that, whether in housing, or shares or tulips or whatever. Jeremy Grantham has counted oh, about 330 bubbles. He loves bubbles. They make him rich. While the suckers pile in, he piles out and shorts. So I suggest that smart people who understand the science of population bubbles and climate change, get the big coal and oil suckers to buy their houses and apartments on the coast. Also anywhere that… Read more »
Tad Smith
3 years 8 months ago

The guy is a crack pot,thankfully some of his “followers” opt not to have children. Social darwinism at work.

3 years 8 months ago
Here are some numbers of interest. In 1800 the World Gross Product was $175.24 billion, population 1.0 billion In 2012 the WGP was $71,830 billion, 407 times greater, population 7.0 billion WGP/capita = 407/7 = 58 times greater than in 1800 In 1800, world per capita energy consumption was 20 GJ In 2010, 80 GJ With 4 times the energy use per capita, 58 times the WGP/capita is achieved, i.e., energy/capita is used about 14.5 times more effectively than in 1800. WGP multiplier from 1800 to 2010 = 4 x 7 x 14.7 = 407 Because of this… Read more »
Rolf Mueller
3 years 8 months ago

It really is just a matter of math.
If you have the stamina to watch the most boring video.
The disturbing part is the certainty of math.
It leaves no doubt.

3 years 8 months ago
“It’s an inspirational story of human tenacity to see Paul doubling down after all these years of his predictions being flatly wrong.” His problem seems to be that he does not understand the economic impact of new technologies. Here is an analysis of his well known bets with economist Julian Simon: As for the over population argument, that does not seem to be the biggest crisis we currently face. There is a lot of demographic evidence that suggests we are entering into a period of declining birthrates. This is the single biggest civilizational challenge that the developed world faces.… Read more »
3 years 8 months ago
Robert, You are underestimating Paul Ehrlich’s thinking, as do many other people who lack information about eco-systems, pollution and cell biology. As he and his peers are advocating measures that are “not good for business” and “too upsetting, life-style wise”, they are denigrated by the media, etc. He stated our technological developments have run far ahead of our ethical/moral development. The lack of concurrent ethical/moral development leaves many people at a loss about what is proper. Increased ethical/moral development would be “bad for business” He and his peers are correctly predicting a more general breakdown of fauna and flora systems… Read more »
Bill Denneen
3 years 8 months ago

Forty years ago Paul’s Population book was required reading in my college Bio.
& Human Ecology classes—the world should have listened.
Bill Denneen, Nipomo, CA.

Bill Denneen
3 years 8 months ago

What is the world Population Carrying Capacity?
Above: 1.5 billion. I say: .5 billion. Actual: SEVEN billion
In nature all population explosions are followed by a population collapse.
Why do we call ourselves Homo sapiens meaning “man wise” ??????????????

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