Apocalypse Then

By Keith Kloor | June 5, 2014 8:51 am

One of the best books I’ve read in the last year is “The Bet,” by Yale historian Paul Sabin. The author penned a New York Times op-ed around the time of its publication. As Fred Pearce wrote in his New Scientist review, Saban “has produced an absorbing narrative of how two people’s ‘clashing insights’ unleashed on the world polarized views of the environmental and resource threats we face in the 21st century.”

Those two people would be the economist Julian Simon and biologist Paul Ehrlich. When you see those names paired together, their famous wager will surely be mentioned in the same breath. Saban’s book is a must-read if you want to learn how the stage was set for the acrid, polarized climate debate playing out today. This incubation is something I discuss in my recent review of the “The Bet.”

Admirers and detractors of Paul Ehrlich are aware of the enormous influence he had on the trajectory of the environmental discourse. This passage from “The Bet” speaks to the conflicted assessment of Ehrlich by his peers just as he was making his mark in the early 1970s:

Few scientists had the internal constitution or rhetorical skills to play the public role that Ehrlich did. Some of Ehrlich’s scientific colleagues described feeling “schizophrenic,” torn between professional responsibilities and their personal reticence, on the one hand, and the “moral bind” that overpopulation placed on them, on the other. Others questioned whether Ehrlich’s provocative style served him well, and criticized his apocalyptic rhetoric. As Eugene Odum, a leading ecologist, wrote to Ehrlich in 1970, “while some of us like yourself must remain ‘highly visible,” we have also got to encourage other ecologists to back up this visibility with what we might call real credibility.” In a tough review of Paul and Ann Ehrich’s 1970 Population, Resources, Environment: Issues in Human Ecology, Roger Revelle, a leading oceanographer and the director of Harvard’s Center for Population Studies, called Ehrlich the “New High Priest of Ecocatastrophe.” The “emotional and quasi-religious force” of Ehrlich’s writing, Revelle wrote, was not likely to “lead to the hard thinking and effective action which the overwhelming issues so urgently demand.”

So would this be hippie punching or foreshadowing?

  • Steve Crook

    Despite being wrong on so many things, why does anyone continue to pay any attention to anything Ehrlich says?

    Perhaps what’s missing is that there’s no feedback. By which I mean extremists like Ehrlich should have to accept some measure of responsibility for what happens when governments actually take heed of what they’re saying…

    So how much responsibility do Ehrlich (and his fellow travellers) have for the forced sterilisations and abortions performed by states in the name of population control?

    • JH

      “Despite being wrong on so many things, why does anyone continue to pay any attention to anything Ehrlich says?”

      Because it – the idea of coming scarcity of everything – sounds too good to pass up, and because it falls in line with several other psuedo-religious ideas that various intellectuals are in a panic about – not so much because it’s a real problem for humanity or country, but because it threatens something the like, like perhaps their lifestyle.

    • Jeffn

      A related question- Why is he still at Stanford? Academia insists on being taken seriously and insists on offering Ehrlich as an example of “serious.”
      The precautionary principle says treat with extreme caution. The media says “front page, here I come!”

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Silent Spring accurately predicted the extinction of all species. Limits to Growth accurately predicted the utter starvation of technological civilization. It is sciences’ fault for ruining everything. This is nothing new. Petroleum refining knocked the legs out from under whale bio-fuels. Antibiotics ruined disease. The Green Revolution ruined mass starvation. We can recover Eden!

    Now that grant-funding is a proper business model – funding nothing that is not assured and ending the risk of discovery ruining PERT charts – collapse will proceed on schedule on a much grander scale. No contraception!

    http://practicalaction.org/images/events/publicgood-king-7.gif

  • JH

    So let’s see here: 32S. Does that work?

    (edit: nope. No superscript or subscript tags.*sigh*)

    • mem_somerville

      Oh, really³²?

  • Jeffn

    In your review, you wrote:
    “Inaccurate past claims about population growth and resource scarcity… …undermined the credibility of scientists and environmentalists advocating action on climate.” That doesn’t make for a legitimate excuse for continued climate denial and inaction, but as Shakespeare said, “What’s past is prologue.””

    Two questions- 1. Is it “denial” to believe that AGW is far less catastrophic than advocates have claimed (as born out by the actual data on warming)?

    2. Why isn’t it a legitimate excuse? Seriously, we have a group of people with a documented track record of gross exaggeration – population bomb, limits to growth, anti-GMO, anti-nuclear, CAGW – why on earth shouldn’t we take what they say with a giant grain of salt? How is “action” working out in Europe?

  • Viva La Evolucion

    It seems appropriate to me that Paul Ehrlich, age 82, has outlived Julian Simon (who died at relatively young age of 65). I believe that you can tell a lot about someone by how they take care of their own health. I would like to see a study showing the health and longevity of people who identify themselves as being environmentalist vs health/lifespan of people who identify themselves as climate change denialist. I would be willing to bet $1,000 that the environmentalist on average live longer and have better health, than the climate change denialist.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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