Allow me to make a prediction: Paul Ehrlich’s new memoir, “Life: A Journey through Science and Politics,” will not be a flop.
It should be, but it won’t.
And while I don’t expect the 90-year-old Stanford University biologist to sell millions of copies, as he did with his 1968 bestseller “The Population Bomb,” he will sell tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of copies to boomers nostalgic for Woodstock, “The Stones” and their own vigor and youth.
Thus Ehrlich, the prophet of doom, covered by the media with obsequious deference, will end his career by profiting one last time from capitalist consumption, which he spent his entire life decrying.
We live in a world of paradoxes. Discount the years of pandemic, reduced life expectancy, high inflation and falling standards of living, and you’ll quickly realize that life for most people in advanced countries is still pretty good. By historical standards, we are astonishingly rich, and even in the developing world, the share of the population in absolute poverty has fallen to single digits.
Compared to the past, a fraction of infants and their mothers die in childbirth. We are so well fed that obesity is rising in Africa, the world’s poorest continent. We live longer and more interesting lives than our ancestors did, pursuing our goals unencumbered by distance or lack of opportunities. Race, sex and sexual orientation never mattered less when moving up the social hierarchy. We carry the entirety of human knowledge — including information about long-term trends in human well-being — in our pockets. Yet, we are addicted to “doomporn.” Why?
“Organisms that treat threats as more urgent than opportunities have a better chance to survive and reproduce,” wrote eminent Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his 2013 book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Put differently, humans have evolved to prioritize bad news. That’s true of our hardware, or the physical structure of the brain, and our software, the evolved programs with which we react to the world around us.
Human beings, explain Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler in their 2012 bestselling book “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think,” are constantly bombarded with information. And because our brains have limited computing power, they must separate what is paramount (such as a lion running toward us) from what is mundane (such as a bed of flowers). Survival is more important than all other considerations, so most information is first sifted through the amygdala, a part of the brain that is “responsible for primal emotions like rage, hate, and fear.” Information relating to those primal emotions gets our attention first because “the amygdala is always looking for something to fear.”
That is a very powerful impulse that can deceive even the most dispassionate and rational observers. As Mark Trussler and Stuart Soroka from McGill University report in their 2014 paper, “Consumer Demand for Cynical and Negative News,” even when people expressly say that they are interested in more good news, eye-tracking experiments show that they are in fact much more interested in bad news.
“Regardless of what participants say,” the authors of the study conclude, people “exhibit a preference for negative news content.” Moreover, as Steven Pinker from Harvard University has noted, the nature of cognition and the nature of news interact in ways that make us think that the world is worse than it really is.
News, after all, is about things that happen. As Pinker points out, we “never see a reporter saying to the camera, ‘Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out.’” News coverage, in other words, tend to focus on the negative.
Finally, the apocalypse is a great subject — perhaps the greatest — for drama and rumination. The end of days raises existential questions pertaining to the meaning of life and the fate of our consciousness thereafter. When you sell the apocalypse, like Ehrlich has spent much of his life doing, you come across as deep and caring. When you discuss solutions to our problems and make a case for rational optimism, you come across as glib and uncaring.
Is it any wonder that the number of apocalyptic movies has risen in every decade since the 1950s, with the 1990s being the sole exception? Most have dealt with such apocalyptic subjects as runaway climate change, asteroids, nuclear holocausts, pandemics, zombies, cybernetic revolts, dysgenics and alien invasions. And some, like the 1973 movie “Soylent Green,” which dealt with the catastrophic consequences of resource depletion in 2022 New York City, were inspired by none other than Paul Ehrlich.
Ehrlich is, of course, best known for predicting mass famine that never happened. In an April 1970 interview with Mademoiselle magazine, he claimed, “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100–200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”
There were other predictions. On Aug. 10, 1969, The New York Times ran an article titled “Foe of Pollution Sees Lack of Time, Asserts Environmental Ills Outrun Public Concern.” The article warned that by the time society becomes convinced of the seriousness of major environmental problems, it is usually already too late. It quoted Ehrlich, then 37, as saying, “We must realize that unless we are extremely lucky, everybody will disappear in a cloud of blue steam in 20 years.”
That is to say, in 1989.
In 1970, Ehrlich also predicted that “if I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”
That reference to gambling may have inspired a little-known economist from Maryland University and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute (my employer) to challenge Ehrlich to a bet.
Ehrlich, along with ecologist John Harte and scientist John P. Holdren, bet $1,000 on $200 quantities of five metals: chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten. They signed a futures contract that stipulated that the economist, Julian Simon, would sell these same quantities of metal to Ehrlich’s group for the same price in 10 years’ time.
Since price is a reflection of scarcity, Simon would pay if population increases made these metals scarcer. But if they became more abundant and therefore cheaper, Ehrlich would pay. The bet would last from Sept. 29, 1980 to Sept. 29, 1990. In fact, all five metals became cheaper over the decade, with the prices of three of them falling at a faster pace than inflation. The prices of tin and tungsten fell by more than half.
Ehrlich mailed Simon a spreadsheet of metal prices and a check for $576.07, representing a 36% decrease in inflation-adjusted prices. Ehrlich’s wife, Anne, signed it. There was no letter accompanying the check.
Search, if you will, for a reference to Simon in Ehrlich’s memoir. If the book’s index, which is available online, is anything to go by, you’ll search in vain.
In spite of a spectacular series of failures, Ehrlich went on to win a series of prestigious prizes, including the John Muir Award from the Sierra Club, the Gold Medal Award from the World Wildlife Fund International, a MacArthur Prize Fellowship, The Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Volvo Environmental Prize, the Blue Planet Prize, the United Nations Sasakawa Environment Prize and numerous others.
Simon, for his troubles, quipped that “I can’t even get a McDonald’s (prize)!”
In his 2022 book “Fossil Future,” Alex Epstein notes the persistence of so-called “designated experts” that the media goes to for opinions on certain subjects regardless of whether those experts were correct in the past. It helps if these designated experts say things that the various media outlets and their audiences already believe.
Ehrlich’s 60 years of doom-mongering and designation as a “resource expert,” therefore, is a feature of our broken information delivery and consumption system, not a bug. It is partly for that reason that Ehrlich’s memoir (and the coverage it is likely to enjoy) will not be a commercial disaster.
That’s the fate apparently reserved for hundreds of books and articles debunking him.
Marian L. Tupy is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is the co-author, with Gale L. Pooley of BYU-Hawaii, of “Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet.”