Paul Ehrlich discusses new book on human evolution

Paul Ehrlich

Earlier this year, Paul Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies, and Anne Ehrlich, a senior research scientist in biology, released their latest book, The Dominant Animal (Island Press). The book explains where human beings came from, where we are and where we are headed. It developed from lecture notes for a class Paul Ehrlich teaches at Stanford called Human Evolution and the Environment. Stanford Report talked with him earlier this week about the book.

How has human evolution affected the environment?

Genetic evolution gave us the ability to amass a huge amount of nongenetic information, which is our culture. What we've done with our culture is taken over the planet. We have affected every bit of the biosphere with the possible exception of some of the deepest ocean trenches.

The cultural evolution in how we treat each other, and the ethics of treating our environment, has been glacial while the evolution of our power to destroy the environment has been extraordinarily rapid. We are an adolescent species—there is no question about it.

How might we prod ourselves into growing up and preserving the planet?

The main thing is to change our population size, our consumption patterns and our equity patterns. Because although it now looks like the world is going into what some people call the fortress mode, in which we just let several billion people fade away, die of starvation, live in total misery, people are missing that those very people now have nuclear weapons and may not be charmed by that particular approach.

So the equity issue, closing the wealth gaps both within and between nations, should be a top priority. But there is not the slightest sign we want to do it.

That is why I am interested in the MAHB, a Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior, just to have people start thinking about what might life be like if we didn't all have to work all the time. What are we getting out of the work besides destroying our life support systems?

Talk about reducing our population size.

Obviously we are going to have to reduce our population size, as rapidly as you can do it humanely. Otherwise, it may be reduced for us automatically by nature; that is what we are trying to avoid. We have got to get birth rates down to the level they are now in many European countries, in Japan, where you are having roughly 1.5 children per family.

The worry about not having enough [young working] people to support the old people, because inevitably as you stop population growth, the age composition of the population changes, is just insane.

It's something that scientists call spherically senseless. That is, it's insane from any point of view you look at it.

You mentioned problems with our consumption patterns …

When people ask how many people can the world support, one of the first issues is, living how? Somewhere between 2 and 3 billion people in the world live on less than $2 a day, many of them on less than $1.25 a day. And the average European cow is subsidized to the tune of $2.50 a day. One of the things we need to do is get people talking about how life should be lived. Are we going to be forced to have more resource wars? Now we have a resource war where the U.S. is unsuccessfully trying to grab Iraq's oil. And that war is sort of like drilling for cyanide to eat.

What role might renewable energy and carbon capture technologies play?

We have got to move much more toward renewables, and there are going to be lots of problems in doing it. One of the most serious problems is one of time. If we decide to go entirely into renewables tomorrow, it will probably be 60 years before we get anywhere near it.

So when you hear Al Gore talk about a 10-year program, he's talking about basically a Manhattan Project-type mobilization. If people really wake up, we could have a World War II type mobilization and change our energy technologies very, very rapidly, but it would mean a huge economic dislocation, just like the war did.

I'm not charmed by the idea of moving heavily into carbon capture because it's a tailpipe kind of solution. It's much better from a thermodynamic viewpoint not to let the crap out in the first place rather than to try and figure out some place to put it once you've unleashed it.

Do we need a philosophical reassessment of what constitutes a successful life?

Yes. Right now what is thought of as a satisfactory life is dictated to most Americans in the form of advertising. People are told that you can have anything you want, and you can pile up the debt on your credit card. It's a very appealing sort of thing.

I'm the other side of the coin, because my dad lost his job a couple days after I was born, in the Depression. I heard throughout my teenage years that you don't buy anything that you don't have the money for. We may be going through it again, who knows. I'm disgusted by the whole thing, frankly.

What do you think of humanity's prospects?

I would say that I'm optimistic about what we could do, but I'm very pessimistic about what we will do. There is certainly hope, and if we work hard, we may actually get there, but it is hard to remain optimistic when you have a vice presidential candidate of one party who has a brain like a leaf blower.

How can we in the developed world best influence the developing world?

You have got to lead by example. For curious reasons, they don't trust us. I mean, we screw them over perpetually. So I don't think that us telling them what to do will work, and I don't think we should. We in the U.S. make up about 4 or 5 percent of the people in the world and about 25 percent of the resources are flowing toward us.

If we don't change our ways, how in hell can we expect them to change theirs? I wouldn't.

Did I cheer you up?