September 10, 2004


Paul Ehrlich vs. the IPCC (Tim Worstall, 09/09/2004, Tech Central Station)

God save Paul Ehrlich, patron saint of lazy hacks (coff, coff) the world over. He appears to be incapable of opening his mouth without providing a comment suitable for refutation and derision in a thousand articles, his latest being this from the New York Times:

"I have severe doubts that we can support even two billion if they all live like citizens of the U.S.," he said. "The world can support a lot more vegetarian saints than Hummer-driving idiots."

It's a less than magisterial response to an article that trashes his public stance of the past 35 years that there is nothing we can do to solve the population problem. The article pointed out that we have actually solved it and we did so by getting rich. I will agree that he got one thing right, that the world would be a better place with more saints than idiots; but that appears not to be the way the Good Lord planned it.

His more substantial point, that the world cannot support 2 billion at US standards of living, is easily refutable. In fact, it is refuted by a large and well known piece of research that the Professor himself urges us all to take note of. I refer, of course, to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. There are many here and elsewhere who have doubts about the science behind the report but let us, for a moment, take the authors at their word. The foundation of the whole process is the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) which provides the emissions that are then run through the various climate and temperature models. We know very well the conclusion that is reached, that global warming is coming and we have to do something about it. As indeed we are doing something about it, some things sensible, like researching non-fossil fuel methods of energy generation, others less so, like spending fortunes on the implementation of such methods before finishing that research.

There is one point that I would like to draw your attention to. It is that a basic assumption of the models and scenarios is that, in 2100, the entire population of the planet is assumed to be living at or around current US levels of wealth. Interesting little factoid, no?

Population control isn't about population but about control.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 10, 2004 9:03 AM

"Soilent Green is people" will probably be Erlich's last words when he's on his deathbed at some future date. The only question will be if starvation is listed as the cause of death.

Posted by: John at September 10, 2004 9:38 AM

One thought the result of the bet he famously made with Paul Simon (no, not the late Illinois senator) some years ago regarding whether nonrenewable resource prices would inexorably continue to rise (they didn't) would have chastened him. One sees it didn't.

Posted by: Joe at September 10, 2004 9:52 AM

A solution to the problems he champions would be for all US citizens to commit suicide. He should provide the role model and be the first to do so by starvation.

Posted by: genecis at September 10, 2004 10:22 AM

It was with Julian Simon, an economist at the Univ of Virginia, I believe.

Much of the current real science, not Ehrlich, concerning population issues (people like Thomas Homer-Dixon) relates to water usage. As you are no doubt aware, what the Chicken Littles failed to account for was the Green Revolution that started in earnest in the 60s and has caused much of the world's former disaster areas like India and the PRC to be self-sufficient in food. However, to my understanding, one of the drawbacks has been a destruction of the world's aquifers through overuse. Wells are being dug deeper and deeper and many of the overpopulated areas of India are in almost permanent drought conditions. Overgrazing has led to desertification in the Sahel of Africa and many areas of Asia.

The importance of stable population growth should not be under-estimated. It is a major contributing factor to pretty much every East Asian tiger, especially Thailand.

Posted by: Bart at September 10, 2004 11:18 AM

You said it, Reverend Malthus.

Posted by: oj at September 10, 2004 11:33 AM

Run those aquifers dry, and Malthus will come back with a parched vengeance.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 10, 2004 11:47 AM


Your Darwinism forces you to cling to a thoroughouly debunked Malthusianism.

Posted by: oj at September 10, 2004 12:04 PM


I didn't realize you had been invited to join the Club of Rome. Congratulations.

Posted by: Peter B at September 10, 2004 12:27 PM

Good one, OJ; another fave is P.J. O'Rourke's line that the slogan of population controllers is "there's just enough of me, but way too much of you."

Posted by: Matt Murphy at September 10, 2004 2:35 PM

If God had intended us to run out of water, He would not have provided us with enough U-235 (U-many in Brazil) to provide enough energy to run desalinization plants.

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at September 10, 2004 3:09 PM

"The importance of stable population growth should not be under-estimated. It is a major contributing factor to pretty much every East Asian tiger, especially Thailand."

Bart, this begs the question: how long can the world sustain population growth? Either the world figures out how to accomodate zero population growth at some point, or we are forced to grow the population forever. Erlich's limit is too low, but surely there is a limit somewhere, if not for resource use, for social stability.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at September 11, 2004 11:31 AM


Where is the evidence that there's a limit?

Posted by: oj at September 11, 2004 11:38 AM

OJ, just take the square footage of the Earth's surface (ES), and divide by the amount of room, in square feet, that you would absolutely requre for your own personal space (PS) and there is your limit (L). To recap, L = ES/PS. This assumes that every square foot of dry land on the planet is dedicated to living space, and not required for resource procurement.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at September 11, 2004 3:41 PM

Simon was at U. of Maryland

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 11, 2004 3:46 PM


Tokyo and Manhattan are the two wealthiest locales on the planet. At that rate we could fit all 6.5 billion of us in a Dakota.

Posted by: oj at September 11, 2004 3:57 PM

Robert Duquette:

You're right, there is a limit, but it's far, far higher than you believe. Just as a back-of-the-envelope guess, 20 TRILLION.

The problem with L = ES/PS is that you should be factoring in cubic feet, not square feet. We can go up and down with only slightly more difficulty than we can expand horizontally.

I believe that you're right, though, that the ultimate limiting factor is social, which is why I have a hard time believing that the Earth's population will ever even press one trillion.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 11, 2004 5:14 PM

Tokyo and Manhattan are not self sustaining ecosystems, they are nodes in a massive economic network, which channel the economic output of large portions of the planet. Besides, most of the people who work in Manhattan live outside of Manhattan, in communities as far dispersed as Long Island, western Connecticut, northern New Jersey, the southern Hudson river valley, and probably parts of Pennsylvania as well.
What you are also neglecting is that wealth has had the effect of reducing population density in the 20th century. The reason that much of the land that could be used to house the teeming hordes of the future will not be available is that it will be private property. How many of the well-to-do from Manhattan do you think own vacation property in New England, or the Poconos, or in Mexico? Are you factoring that land into the density calculation?

Michael, social factors will make L much smaller than the theoretical limit you envision. As I state above, private property rights will reduce the availability of living space long before resource constraints will.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at September 11, 2004 9:12 PM


Plenty of people own no land, only cubic space, i.e., an apartment or condo. There's no reason to stack apartments only ten stories high when there's demand for twenty stories; no reason to hold onto vacation property now worth tens of millions to developers.

The market will find a price most private property owners will accept.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 11, 2004 11:01 PM

Michael, have you heard of the science fiction book series "Chung Kuo" by David Wingrove? It is about a future world in which the Earth's population is around 1 trillion, and just about every square foot of Earth is enclosed by a domed super-city of high rise living and working spaces. And the world is run by a restored Chinese Emperorship. Sounds similar to what you are suggesting, except the book is dystopian.

I never realized so many people would be amenable to living like sardines, but maybe I'm wrong.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at September 12, 2004 1:39 AM