'True Zionists Should Have Small Families' Suggests Paul Ehrlich, 40 Years After Writing 'The Population Bomb'

'It makes me sad to see people who don't realize there are more urgent things than military force,' the Jewish-American biologist tells Haaretz.

Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv

In 1932, the year of Paul Ehrlich’s birth, the population of the world was 2 billion. In 1968, when “The Population Bomb” – by Ehrlich and his wife, Anne – was published, there were 3.5 billion people in the world. Today, there are 7.5 billion, and by 2050 there will be 9 billion. Prof. Ehrlich was not the first to talk about the problem of population growth, but his book spawned a lively and still-ongoing global discussion. It was praised for raising consciousness about the subject and subsequently was skewered for its inaccurate predictions. Today, more than 40 years later, Ehrlich is still an active scientist and one of the most important of the academics who warn that population growth is the greatest threat to the future of humanity.

Ehrlich is a highly regarded, multi-titled Jewish-American biologist from Stanford University, and a prolific author. “The Population Bomb” predicted that the world’s population would become too large for the planet to accommodate, with consequences ranging from a global food crisis, lethal epidemics, wars over natural resources and a chain reaction of environmental disasters. The storm unleashed by the book was intensified by the tempestuous personality of the indefatigable Ehrlich, who has published near?y 50 books and hundreds of scientific articles, given about a thousand media interviews and who continues to work, research and travel the world.

My first meeting with Ehrlich took place at Ben-Gurion International Airport, where he arrived after spending two days in airports due to canceled flights. He was in Israel to take part in a conference on desertification at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva. This followed three weeks of research in Australia and ahead of another stop on his way back to Stanford. None of this had left marks of fatigue or dulled senses on the face of the tall blue-eyed and affable man opposite me. He has a fine sense of humor and a phenomenal memory. If he needs a moment to remember the name of a researcher or the title of a book, he smiles and says, “Sorry, I am having a senior moment,” and immediately afterward comes up with the desired information.

Together with two other books published around the same time as “The Population Bomb” Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962) and “The Limits to Growth” (1972), by a group of scientists Ehrlich’s book is considered a prime promotor of the environmental movement, which was born in the 1970s and swelled to its present vast dimensions around the world. Over and above the pioneering aspect, it’s clear that what sparked the furor over the book is the controversial and sensitive subject at its center: chil?birth. That is a discussion that almost inevitably slides into volatile ideological, religious or political realms.

“Population Bomb” urged immediate action to curtail the exponential growth of the world’s population. Ehrlich’s call, which he continues to sound, riled both religious believers and liberals. “All religions control the sexuality of their believers; therefore it’s hard to talk about demography in a religious-driven world,” he says. On the other side are the liberals, who associate controls on childbirth with rigid regimes such as that of China. It’s not easy to persuade advocates of individual rights to acc?pt governmental intervention in an individual decision, such as how many children to have.

Between these two poles lies the fact that a discussion of the population explosion necessarily includes talk about what goes on in the bedroom a subject most people are not eager to debate. But all this aside, the obvious needs to be reasserted: Most of the world’s environmental problems stem from rampant population growth. Global warming, desertification, vanishing resources, loss of open areas, pollution of all kinds, reduced biological diversity, nonperishable waste, and many other evils are all brought about largely by too many people trying to share a finite volume of resources.

More equality, fewer children

No expert on environmental quality, including Ehrlich, believes that the way to resolve the population explosion is to stop having children. The most simplistic and schematic solution speaks of families with two children; two, that is, who will replace the parental couple. But it’s clear that the story does not end with this superficial notion. In his book, Ehrlich suggests reducing the rate of population growth concurrent with increasing the food supply. In his view, the United States, as the world’s majo? consumer and with the leadership position it holds, should be at the forefront of a trend to limit population increase. He proposes economic encouragement in the form of taxes and subsidies, which would be managed by a strong government ministry dealing with population and environment.

The book suggests a range of other solutions to the problem, but Ehrlich now says that “the first and foremost solution is giving women equal rights. When women will have the same opportunities as men, among them free access to birth control, naturally there will be fewer children in the world. Most of the big families are found in patriarchal societies, where children are a working force and constitute security for the parents, who have no pension.”

Ehrlich recalls the sequence of events that led him to write “The Population Bomb.” “When I started teaching in Stanford, my main subject was evolution. A semester at Stanford lasts for 10 weeks, so for nine weeks I would answer the question ‘Where do we come from?’ and in the last week I would answer the question ‘Where are we going?’ The lectures of the last week became popular and many people came to listen to them. At one point, the Commonwealth Club invited me to lecture there. I didn’t know, but those talks were broadcast on the radio, and that led to many more lectures.”

The spectacular success of the talks gave rise to the book, which became an overnight best-seller. “The publishers thought the book could affect the [1968 presidential] elections. It was a naive thought, but it helped the book come out very fast.”

The paramount criticism of your thesis is that it puts the blame in the wrong place. The environmental crisis is not caused by a population explosion, but by overconsumption and unfair resource distribution. After all, the only reason the inhabitants of rich countries are able to pursue their consumer-driven way of life is that people in the poor countries live in conditions of hunger and want.

“The debate over what causes more harm the size of the population on Earth, resource consumption or the inequality in resources distribution is like the debate over what contributes more to a triangle, the base or the sides,” Ehrlich replies. “One cannot separate the three aspects. For the long term, the size of the population does have more of an effect than consumption. On the other hand, consumption is an aspect we know better how to deal with. If we don’t change these three elements at once, our li?e will change dramatically. And not because of us, but because of nature. Today, humanity might be hitting on nature, but nature will definitely hit last.”

If we reduce consumption, will population growth become less critical?

“The state of the planet today is so bad that everything might help. Not long ago, we sent an article to an economic affairs periodical, the Journal of Economic Perspectives. It was an article cowritten by environmentalists and economists, which asked, ‘Do we consume too much?’ They published it, but behind our backs called it ‘The article by the communist group.’ It’s not easy to talk about consumption reduction in a capitalist world.”

In a talk to students at Tel Aviv University, Ehrlich was asked what he considers the optimal population size in relation to the world’s available resources. “Nobody knows, but we don’t really need to know; we just need to reduce it,” he replied. “There is an assumption that if humanity consumes equally, our planet could accommodate 15 billion people. But if everybody wants to have the same life style as in Israel, it could accommodate only 2 billion people.”

As might be expected from someone whose worldview places him in daily confrontation with religious organizations, Ehrlich attaches little importance to his Jewishness and is put off by anything with a religious aura about it. Nevertheless, he talks about Israel with high emotion, both in his public talks in the country and, indeed, from the moment the tape recorder is turned on: “Israel is overpopulated. How do we know that? From the ecological footprint.”

He is referring to an index that quantifies the natural resources required and the planet’s capacity to contain pollutants in relation to the size of the population. The local Israeli index, which was published in 2007, found that if everyone in the world were to have an Israeli standard of living, three planet Earths would be needed. The forecast is that within fewer than four decades, 20 million people will be living in the territory of present-day Israel. “The thought of 20 million Israelis is quite fri?htening when one drives the roads here,” Ehrlich laughs, and then snaps into seriousness: “Israel could be the first developed country to adopt a demographic policy. It has to declare that true Zionists have small families.”

That is not going to happen. The first commandment in the Bible is “Be fruitful and multiply,” and the demographic threat is central to the Zionist ethos. For secular Israelis, under three children is considered few, and religious families have an average of seven children per family (see box).

“In the end, Israel will not have a choice, once it is clear that there is a major security problem in its future, other than the military one. When Israel dries out completely and experiences extreme weather, people will have to deal with overpopulation. It always makes me sad to see people who don’t realize there are much more urgent things than military force. It is about time that Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab neighbors started thinking about how to solve the region’s water, land and pollution pr?blems. People say it’s not practical, or like you’ve said that there is no chance but I know for sure that it’s unpractical behavior to debate religious issues while the vital elements for our survival are on trial.”

In 1980, an amusing anecdotal event occurred in Ehrlich’s career, known as the “Simon-Ehlrich wager.” The late Julian Simon, a professor of business administration from the University of Maryland, drew on numerical evidence to reject Ehrlich’s apocalyptic theses, and used every possible platform to argue that his predictions were mistaken. Simon invited Ehrlich to choose five commodities whose price he thought would rise: according to Ehrlich’s thesis, the resources’ growing scarcity would drive up their p?ice. Simon maintained that the price of the five commodities would decrease over time. According to Wikipedia, Ehrlich and his colleagues (including John Holdren, later a science and technology adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama) picked five metals whose prices they thought would rise sharply: chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten. Then, on paper, they bought $200 worth of each, for a total bet of $1,000, using the prices on September 29, 1980, as an index. They set September 29, 1990, 10 years ?own the road, as the payoff date. If the inflation-adjusted prices of the various metals rose in the interim, Simon would pay Ehrlich the combined difference. If the prices fell, Ehrlich et al would pay Simon.

In the intervening decade, the world’s population grew by more than 800 million, the largest one-decade increase in one decade in history. But by September 1990, the price of each of Ehrlich’s selected metals had fallen. Accordingly, in October 1990, Paul Ehrlich mailed Julian Simon a check for $576.07 to settle the wager in Simon’s favor.

Simon explained the meaning of his victory in a 1996 book, “The State of Humanity,” writing, “More people, and increased income, cause resources to become more scarce in the short run. Heightened scarcity causes prices to rise. The higher prices present opportunity, and prompt inventors and entrepreneurs to search for solutions. Many fail in the search, at cost to themselves. But in a free society, solutions are eventually found. And in the long run, the new developments leave us better off than if the problems had not arisen. That is, prices eventually become lower than before the increased scarcity occurred.”

Ehrlich shot back, telling The New York Times in December 1990 that Julian Simon “is like the guy who jumps off the Empire State Building and says how great things are going so far as he passes the tenth floor.” He added that he still thought the price of those metals would increase eventually.

Now Ehrlich says, “I consulted with many of my colleagues at the time. It’s clear today that if we had chosen a later date, such as the present, or different resources, such as oil, we would have won. In retrospect it was a silly thing to do, but at the time we hoped it would keep Julian quiet for some time.” (In fact, the price of metals such as gold and silver, and of resources such as oil and uranium, have risen in recent years, owing to heightened demand.)

Your forecasts are marked by emotional duality. On the one hand, there is the scholarly desire for them to be borne out; but if they are realized, the world will be an awful place. How do you reconcile that contradiction?

“You try to make people change their behavior, so the assumptions won’t come to realization. I know today that ‘The Population Bomb’ was too optimistic. We didn’t know back then that global warming would become so hazardous; we didn’t understand thoroughly the danger of greenhouse gases; we didn’t write about the loss of biodiversity because the term was not yet in existence; and we weren’t acquainted with AIDS back then.”

Ehrlich’s mention of AIDS brings to mind a fascinating study by Geoffrey West, a theoretical physicist and former president of the Santa Fe Institute. By conducting statistical studies of dozens of cities, West discovered, among other findings, that doubling the size of a city’s population drives up the AIDS rate by 15 percent. Ehrlich adduces a dry biological explanation for this phenomenon: “When there are few people and an epidemic disease breaks out, either the people die or the virus. But when there a?e more people, and ill-nurtured, which makes them less immune, they become more sensitive to the virus and it becomes epidemic. All epidemic diseases are transferred to human beings from animals. That’s why modern agriculture is so frightening; it’s like an amusement park for viruses.”

Because the environment is strewn with politics, and because this is a post-election period in the United States and a preelection period in Israel, that topic naturally came up.

“The elections in the States were quite disappointing for me and for my colleagues,” Ehrlich says. “The environmental issue was not mentioned at all. The main subject was the debt. That’s bullshit. For each dollar of debt, there are two dollars of credit somewhere. One can solve the economic crisis by fair distribution, but one cannot negotiate with Earth. You can’t go ask the planet, ‘Please let me raise the temperature two degrees.’”

Nor does Ehrlich spare the reelected president. “It’s true that the health system of the States is terrible and that it’s important to improve it. But it cost Obama so much energy and political resources, which in my opinion would have been much better invested in reducing global warming. That could have done far more to improve humanity’s health. Most politicians don’t understand how the world works. They don’t understand civilization and they are not acquainted with the academic community. Not that this community is important in itself, but sometimes it has important things to say. Among scientists there is no doubt that the environment is crucial, but politicians just don’t get it.”

Much concern is being voiced about the East, particularly China. What do you think?

“The East is imitating the Western model, which is a big mistake. In South Korea there is a second industrial revolution; in India there is a water shortage; and China is the scariest place, environmentally speaking.

“Meat consumption there has risen by 30 percent, and 1.3 billion people means a lot of resources, energy and greenhouse gases,” he notes. “That said, one of the most fascinating aspects of my visits to China is the ability to talk about demographic policy far more freely than in other places.”

Glint of hope

Ehrlich and his wife Anne have been married 58 years and have coauthored many books on environmental issues. “She begins the chapter and I continue, or the opposite,” he says.

She also took part in the writing of “The Population Bomb” but was not credited as coauthor because the publisher claimed that books by two people sell less well. Ehrlich explains that they were young at the time, and happy that a publisher had approached them at all, so they accepted his reasoning.

They also agreed to another compromise, concerning the book’s title. The Ehrlichs wanted to call the book “Population, Resources and Environment,” but the publisher insisted on something catchier. (The title was taken, with permission, from the late General William H. Draper, founder of the Population Crisis Committee and author of a 1954 pamphlet on the subject.)

“Anne studied biology, but never finished,” Ehrlich relates. “I would call her a great scientist from a different era. When we got married, the times were different. There was an expectation that I would provide and she would run the house.

“I don’t think our situation was ideal, but it was the accepted way and we were happy with our share.”

The Ehrlichs have one child, Lisa, who recently made a career switch from economics lecturer at the University of Maryland to dog trainer. “She’s happy today as I’ve never seen her,” her father says. “She says that teaching economics and training dogs are very similar both require a rolled newspaper.”

Do you have only one child for environmental reasons?

“On the one hand, we wouldn’t have missed the experience of parenthood; but on the other, we’ve saved a lot of resources by not bringing more kids into the world. I think that the best slogan is still ‘Stop at two.’ If most of the population had two children and some none at all, the demographic rate would be perfect. The average would be 1.5 children per family. The half-kids are the ones capable of voting for someone like George W. Bush.”

In his talk in Tel Aviv, Ehrlich told the students, “There are studies showing that there has been a decrease in the sperm quality of men around the world because of pollution.

“The credibility of that is debatable, but in any case it is scary. We are annihilating ourselves. On the other hand, maybe it’s good, because it’s said that a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”

With or without a bicycle, Anne Ehrlich often joins her husband on his junkets, ranging from popular tourist destinations to savannas where hardly any human has been before.

“When Anne and I got married, I promised her that we would see the world. Fortunately, I’ve been able to fulfill my promise. I’m good at traveling at other people’s expense. If you want to see the world, become a biologist.”

Ehrlich is very fond of biological research. He is capable of going a long way to examine an unknown butterfly species. That love turns into grief when biological species become extinct. Of the range of catastrophes caused by humanity, the direst is the loss of biological diversity, he says.

“Restoring biodiversity takes millions of years, and biodiversity is the main cord that coordinates our lives,” he explains. “If you get rid of natural predators you can’t get rid of pests; if you can’t get rid of pests you continue to use chemicals. When you continue to use chemicals, you make the pests resistant, and on and on.”

Do you have moments when you despair of the human species?

“One of the things we’ve proven beyond doubt in the last decade is that telling people the scientific facts doesn’t make them change their behavior. A recent study in the States showed that 70 percent of American citizens don’t think that human beings are the cause of global warming. But still, there’s one story that gives me a bit of hope: when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ he remarked to her, ‘So you are the little woman who caused this great war.’ Little m?ssages can cause great changes. The past shows us that humanity can radically change in a moment, as happened with the fall of the Soviet Union. There is no reason why it shouldn’t happen with environmentalism. Changes can happen in a second, when the time is right. Our role is to make sure the time will be right.”

Israel’s demographic obsession

“There are 11 million people living in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. That number will double within a few decades,” says Prof. Dan Rabinowitz, from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University. “It is not clear how a population of this size can be sustained in an area of 26,000 square kilometers, including the West Bank and Gaza.”

Rabinowitz is one of a number of academics trying to stir a public discussion on the issue of Israeli demographics. In an article (in Hebrew) titled “The Eco-Demographic Crisis,” three scientists from the Department of Environmental Sciences and Energy Research at the Weizmann Institute of Science Prof. Dan Yakir, Dr. Eyal Rotenberg and Tamir Klein write, “The birthrate and rate of immigration [in Israel] derive from a social and political approach by the government which is highly sensitive from the Israeli public’s point of view ... Despite the unavoidable connection between population growth and environmental quality (and the other areas of life, such as education, health and welfare), the demographic issue has become a taboo subject in Israel, with the result that hardly any moral or scientific discussion takes place about the consequences of population growth.”

Rabinowitz adds that Zionism considers itself at the forefront of two numerical struggles: increasing the number of Jews who live in Israel, as a means to counter the Palestinians’ demands, and saving as many Diaspora Jews as possible. “Israel’s immigration policy is guided exclusively by quantitative thinking, which erases any possibility of thinking about the limits of the existing resources. This is accompanied by a culture which aggressively encourages procreation, backed by a hard ideology and supported by technology, a highly developed medical system, and financial and other incentives. The result is the creation of an Israeli sacred cow, an approach that no one argues about, disputes or asks the necessary questions about, not even in academe.”

A recent issue of the Weizmann Institute journal “Ecology and Environment” (in which the article by Yakir, Rotenberg and Klein also appeared) noted that the annual rate of population growth in Israel is 1.8 percent, the highest among developed countries; that between 1970 and 2005, electricity consumption in Israel increased by 768 percent; that from 2000 to 2008, the number of kilometers driven annually by vehicles in the country rose by 30 percent; and that 77 percent of all construction starts from 1998-2007 involved housing with land attached which came at the expense of “green lung” areas.

Rabinowitz: “For a discussion of this kind to take place, the subject must be considered legitimate. In the case of Israel, the perpetual urgency of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict leaves the subject beyond the pale. I would not pretend to argue that the great issues of the regional conflict will be resolved by means of environmental thinking, but it can certainly help.”

Paul Ehrlich: 'Among scientists there is no doubt that the environment is crucial, but politicians just don’t get it.'Credit: Nir Kafri
Average number of children, per family and by region.Credit: Haaretz
Average number of children in Israeli families.Credit: Haaretz



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