Ehrlich: Scientists increasingly vocal


Paul Ehrlich

Since the publication of his 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb, ecologist Paul Ehrlich has remained one of Stanford's most prolific faculty authors. This year, Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies, has released two new books. One with Nineveh: Politics, Consumption and the Human Future, co-authored with wife and fellow scientist Anne Ehrlich, deals with overconsumption, global inequality and other "fundamental issues of the human predicament." On the Wings of Checkerspots: A Model System for Population Biology, co-edited with University of Helsinki ecologist Ikka Hanski, synthesizes 40 years of research by Ehrlich and others on the checkerspot butterfly. In a recent interview with Stanford Report writer Mark Shwartz, Ehrlich discussed the books and their relevance to current events.

Q: These two books-

A: Are not very much alike.

Q: But there are definite themes running through both.

A: The two books show the opposite side of the same coin. On the Wings of Checkerspots has a very heavy theme on what was learned in 40 years on the conservation of insects. We, for example, worked very hard to understand why the bay checkerspot butterfly went extinct on Jasper Ridge. That kind of scientific information is useful, but the world continues to pave over areas that need to be occupied by other organisms. So the checkerspot book describes the science, but One with Nineveh focuses much more on how we change the politics so that the science can do some good.

Q: What do you think the scientific community can and should be doing?

A: We have a lot of suggestions on what might be done in terms of modifications of our government to make it more responsive to long-term issues, particularly when the short term is going to make the lives of our grandchildren miserable. The major thing we're pushing right now as a single step is to start something we call the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior to raise all the difficult questions of human behavior and the ethical implications of them, and get them aired in a way that might attract the attention of people and help them to understand the consequences of their behavior.

Q: It seems to me that the science community has become much more vocal during the past four years.

A: The science community is not just getting vocal, it's getting desperate, and more and more people are speaking out. The community is extremely distressed, and although Anne and I are often beaten up for taking far-out views, in fact, we take the views that are generally the consensus scientific views. The environment isn't just one more political pressure point-if we decide to put the money there, we'll just fix it. There's not going to be any way to fix the melting of the glaciers, the rising of the sea temperature and all the unhappy things that will arise from that. If you live in the southeastern United States and you're going to vote for George Bush, I suggest you sell your property, move inland or north as fast as possible.

Q: The concerns from the science community seem to go beyond the environment. There's stem cell research, there's creationism-

A: We have a situation where basically far-right religious nuts are starting to control the country. It should be particularly frightening to people in academia. If you believe in the Rapture and all the good guys are going to be swept away to heaven in the next year or two and all the rest of us are going to go to hell, then why protect the environment?

Q: Your work on bay checkerspot butterflies in Jasper Ridge started in 1959. How has your perspective on invertebrates evolved?

A: It's evolved tremendously.

Q: Give me one example.

A: We used to think that the most important thing about a nature reserve was how big it was. But it turns out that it may be more important how topographically heterogeneous it is-that is, how hilly it is. If you have a lot of different slopes in the habitat, it means that in almost any kind of year, rainy or dry, there's some part of the habitat that is suitable for the butterflies. Whereas if you have just a single slope, you get the same kind of climate across the whole thing and the butterfly can go extinct. That's what happened in Jasper Ridge. The butterflies went extinct, first in the big flat areas, and last in the small hilly area. And we think the same thing applies even with some mammals.

Q: What do you think of the new Stanford Institute for the Environment?

A: Stanford has been the leading university in the world on environmental issues for a long time. Stanford has actually been responsible for shaping the whole view of the environmental problem over the last 20 or 30 years. But what it hasn't had is a centralized operation that makes people realize what we're doing. The new institute is a way of bringing it all together, formalizing it and hopefully getting some of the funds that are needed to do the pathbreaking things we need to do.

Q: What do you want people to take from One with Nineveh?

A: That it's not hopeless, and that there are all sorts of things one could do if you put your mind to it that could change human behavior.

Q: I am surprised that you're optimistic.

A: Well, I'm optimistic about what we could do. I'm pessimistic about what we're doing when you realize that, for the first time in the history of our planet, we're faced with global collapse.

Q: What do you want the nonscientist to get out of On the Wings of Checkerspots?

A: That the world is extremely complicated. One of the problems in the world is there's a lot of change through time. If you just go out and study something for one season somewhere, you really haven't got a clue of what it means. So it's a continual learning experience. Sometimes people say to me, "Boy, you said this in The Population Bomb and I don't think that's right." It's probably something I don't think is right either. What kind of science do we expect that your views in 1968 would be the same in 2004?