Husband-wife biologists consider population, sustainability

Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich

Anne Ehrlich

Anne Ehrlich

"We are slowly but surely, and more rapidly in many places, destroying our life support systems," biological sciences Professor Paul Ehrlich warned a packed Kresge Auditorium on Jan. 20.

As both the global population and the ecological impact of the average person grow hand in hand, each compounding the other, the environment deteriorates, Ehrlich said. Our food, water, air and energy supply—our most basic resources—may soon be in jeopardy, he stressed, not to mention nature's aesthetic value.

The sad part, added Anne Ehrlich, a senior research scientist in biological sciences, is that "we've mostly continued rolling along the same trajectory," knowing full well the consequences of our behavior.

The Ehrlichs, who have been married since 1954, rehearsed similar sentiments during a discussion moderated by Gretchen Daily, associate professor (research) of biological sciences, as part of the Aurora Forum series. The three prominent conservationists, all affiliated with Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology, expressed their hope for a sustainable future and their fear that it may not come. The event, titled "Nature's Economy: Population, Consumption and Sustainability," left attendees with many reasons to be optimistic, despite current circumstances.

Population and consumptionThe Ehrlichs have collaborated on numerous books and research projects, including the recently released One with Nineveh. Times have changed since Paul Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies, burst into the national spotlight with The Population Bomb 37 years ago, but the pair's fundamental message has not. Experts then had predicted a global population of 12 billion by 2030. Contraceptives and the empowerment of women have slowed growth, explained the Ehrlichs, reducing that projection to only 9 billion, a daunting figure nonetheless.

"In my view, we know how to solve the population problem and are on the way to doing it. Maybe too slowly, and maybe not in time, but the degree that we don't solve it is going to be because of lack of will and relatively small effort," Paul Ehrlich said.

"It's always too little too late," added Anne Ehrlich, but "that is a major improvement." Clearly, she said, population still lies at the heart of the sustainability crisis, but the emphasis has shifted to consumption, or more specifically, overconsumption. Curbing population growth won't mean anything if every person consumes more, which the Ehrlichs said is happening today. Many people, especially politicians, can't even fathom "overconsumption" in an economy dependent on growth.

"For the average politician of either party, if the economy starts shaking, what do they say? 'Get out and buy another Hummer! You've got to keep the economy growing forever,'" said Paul Ehrlich to a chorus of laughter.

So how can we as a society consume less—less energy, less water and fewer material goods? The Ehrlichs have spent their careers trying to answer that question. Technology can help a great deal, they said, but conservation is the key, and that will come only with education. Scientific research must continue, the pair acknowledged, but people's attitudes and behaviors must change. If consumers don't pressure environmentally reckless corporations, those businesses will not adjust. If citizens don't hold the government accountable for its environmental actions, politicians will not care. In many cases, raising the issues to start a dialogue—just getting people to think about conservation—would be an improvement, they said.

"It's time the social scientists got together with the natural scientists and began to look at a lot of the issues, particularly the ethical issues, involved in how we treat each other on our planet and try to find ways to change them," Paul Ehrlich said.

Ehrlichs and ethicsIt boils down to ethics for the Ehrlichs. Stressing our moral responsibility to leave a healthy planet for future generations, they called for the developed world, and the United States in particular, to take the initiative.

"We're the main culprits in creating global warming. We're the main culprits in using up the world's energy supply," Anne Ehrlich said. Despite that status, we will not be on board when the Kyoto Protocol goes into effect on Feb. 16. "There is going to be a lot of trading of carbon credits, and guess who is left out of the game? American companies. And who deserves to be left out of the game? American companies."

Throughout the night, Daily and the Ehrlichs cited stories of progress, from the recent actions of DuPont, which has cut greenhouse emissions by two-thirds, to the sales figures for hybrid cars. Companies such as BP have taken it upon themselves to change, with their competitors likely to follow suit. The U.S. government is now under enormous pressure to deal with climate change. And the Ehrlichs attributed it all to education affecting people's attitudes, average citizens and chief executive officers alike.

Paul Ehrlich even called attention to the full auditorium: "Thirty years ago, or 40 years ago, nobody thought about the environment, and now it's a political issue around the world. That's rapid change." A great deal more could change in the next 40 years, he added.

The next Aurora Forum, "America's Jesus," is scheduled for Thursday, March 3. Stanford Professors Thomas Sheehan of Stanford, Stephen Prothero of Boston University and Richard Fox of the University of Southern California will discuss Jesus' role in the course of American history. The program begins at 7:30 p.m. in Kresge Auditorium and is free and open to the public.

Kenneth M. Dixon is a science-writing intern for the Stanford News Service.