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Howlin’ Wolf: Paul Ehrlich on Energy (Part I: Demeaning Julian Simon; Energy as Desecrator; Doom from Depletion)

[Editor's note: Part II in this five-part series examines Dr. Ehrlich's failed predictions in energy. Part III examines Ehrlich's conservation(ism) views.]

“Most of our colleagues don’t seem to grasp that we’re not in a gentlepersons’ debate, we’re in a street fight against well-funded, merciless enemies who play by entirely different rules.”

- Paul R. Ehrlich, quoted in Stephen Dinan, “Climate Scientists to Fight Back Against Skeptics,” Washington Times, March 5, 2010.

“Everyone is scared shitless [about the attacks from climate-science critics], but they don’t know what to do.”

- Paul Ehrlich. Quoted in “Climate of Fear,” Nature, March 11, 2010.

Paul Ehrlich is back in the news regarding Climategate and the IPCC controversy.  How ironic!  Dr. Ehrlich’s multi-decadal over-the-top pronouncements of doom-and-gloom, and his arrogant behavior towards his critics (Julian Simon in particular), might qualify as Malthusgate.

And part of Malthusgate is Dr. Ehrlich’s protégé on energy, John Holdren, who has been prone to radical pronouncements and wild exaggeration time and again (and even joining in on the global cooling scare)–and with little remorse.

I do not know of any mainstream scientist who has been more errant in his worldview predictions and who has gotten away with more sub-intellectual behavior. When the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) dared publish an essay by Simon, Ehrlich fumed: “Could the editors have found someone to review Simon’s manuscript who had to take off his shoes to count to 20?”

Name calling, ignoring contrary evidence, perverting the peer review process–this did not start with Climategate.

Julian Simon–Ehrlich’s Victor

Julian Simon (1932-98) tirelessly examined the statistical record relating to human welfare[1] to conclude, “Malthusian diminishing returns theory does not fit these observed facts and is not compelling intellectually; a theory of endogenous invention is more persuasive, in my view.”[2] Elsewhere he added, “I’m not an optimist, I’m a realist.”[3]

For three decades, Paul Ehrlich (1932- ), a biologist at Stanford University, has been the arch foe of Julian Simon’s views of natural resource scarcity, population growth, and the future human condition. Ehrlich’s dissatisfaction with Simon carried over to the personal realm. He likened Simon to “an imbecile,” a “flat earther,” and a “fringe character.”[4] As late as 1991 Paul and Anne Ehrlich belittled Simon as “an economist specializing in mail-order marketing.”[5] Only in their 1996 book did the Ehrlichs refer to Simon by his professional affiliation—Professor of Business Administration at the University of Maryland.[6]

Ehrlich’s doomsayer worldview proved popular, drowning out Simon’s optimistic but less newsworthy view from the late 1960s until the early 1990s. Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s books attracted a variety of top publishing houses and sold in the millions. Simon’s empirically laden books, confined to the academic market, sold in the thousands. Paul Ehrlich appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson over a dozen times, reaching millions more with his message of impending crises. Simon was able to give some major lectures, but he was never able to share his views with a national audience in any medium.[7] Ehrlich, meanwhile, refused to give Simon an opportunity to debate him.[8]

While Simon received few awards and honors until being named a senior fellow at the Cato Institute late in his career, Paul Ehrlich was showered with many prestigious awards and distinctions. Ehrlich held an endowed chair as the Bing Professor of Population Studies in the Biology Department at Stanford and was elected president of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and received many awards and prizes, including the inaugural prize of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for Science in the Service of Humanity, a MacArthur Genius Award’ the Volvo Environmental Prize the World Ecology Metal from the International Center for Tropical Ecology, and the International Ecology Institute Prize.

He also received what is hyped as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in a field where it is not awarded—the Crafoord Prize in Population Biology and the Conservation of Biological Diversity. A number of other awards were jointly received with his wife Anne Ehrlich, herself the holder of several distinguished positions and a member of Stanford’s Department of Biological Sciences.

A close examination of Ehrlich’s views on energy is necessary for several reasons. First, there is historical interest—and warning—in a case study about sensationalism’s victory over fact-based analysis in the mainstream media and public mind and the triumph of political correctness over deeper scholarship in academia.[9]

Second, Ehrlich’s demeaning treatment of a serious and relatively polite adversary  inspires a full airing of his exaggerated, incorrect, emotive, and even fantastically errant energy pronouncements. Third, the Ehrlich diversion provides insight into the thinking of some of his colleagues who currently hold esteemed academic positions, such as John Holdren (Teresa and John Heinz Professor, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University) and John Harte (Energy and Resources Group, University of California, Berkeley).

Finally, the energy views of Paul (and Anne) Ehrlich, while stripped of some of the excesses of the past, are representative of the alarmist wing in today’s debate over climate change and energy transformation.

Energy as Desecrator

Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s view of energy and energy policy was a lynchpin of their overall Malthusian worldview. Energy—that “very-difficult-to-perceive but crucial part of our world”[10]— was the primary enabler of environmental desecration. In the mid-1970s they wrote:

“The level of energy consumption is probably the best index of the amount of damage that an individual or a society can do the environment. Indeed, energy use is central to nearly every kind of environmental impact from human activities. Destruction accompanies the extraction of all fossil fuels—especially by strip mining—and the building of hydroelectric projects. Transportation of petroleum pollutes the oceans through oil spills. The burning of fuels, whether in factories or vehicles, causes most of the air pollution, at least in developed countries. Energy-intensive industry, ‘development,’ and agriculture generate a wide variety of assaults upon ecological systems, overloading them, poisoning them, paving them over, and plowing them under. Environmental deterioration and energy consumption go hand-in-hand.”[11]

Among other ills, energy-led development was a primary cause of specie endangerment:

“Ecologists view rates of energy use as a crucial indicator of human impact on ecosystems. Almost all of the activities that lead to the indirect endangering of other species are energy-intensive. It takes a lot of energy to build buildings, pave roads and parking lots, cut down trees, and plow fields. It takes vast amounts of energy to power the cars . . . [and build] . . . giant industrial complexes. . . . Energy is used to tear the raw materials out of the Earth, and energy is used to process them and to create the pollution of air and water from industrial sources. Energy drives the gigantic machines that are involved in the tearing down of forests, and energy powers the off-road vehicles that demolish deserts. On the stored capital of fossil-fuel energy, humanity has risen to the stature of a global ecological force.”[12]

The Ehrlichs’ formalized the energy desecration argument:

“Energy use is so central to the human assault on the environment that it can serve as a surrogate in the [Impact = Population·Affluence·Technology] equation. In fact, it plays such a key role in causing Earth’s environmental ills that we begin our consideration of those ills and their possible cures with an examination of energy impacts and energy options.”[13]

This is why not only the many different forms of energy, but energy usage itself, were decried in the Ehrlichs’ Multidecadal writings.

Depletion Scare

The early Ehrlich writings emphasized the perils of natural resource depletion and impending scarcity. Petroleum was prominent in this regard. In the late 1960s Paul Ehrlich wrote, “High-grade iron, copper, and other ores are no longer easily accessible; nor does oil bubble to the surface. . . . The world is running short of vital resources, and the American economic system must adjust to this reality.”[14]

In 1970, Paul and Anne Ehrlich wrote, “We are living beyond our means, ‘spending our capital,’ depleting what are essentially nonrenewable resources.”[15] In his next book Paul Ehrlich and coauthor Richard Harriman spelled out their depletion argument:

“No matter how you slice it, the resources of the planet are finite, and many of them are non-renewable. Each giant molecule of petroleum is lost forever when we tear it asunder by burning to release the energy the sunlight stored in it millions of years ago. Concentrations of mineral wealth are being dispersed beyond recall, senselessly scattered far and wide to where we cannot afford the energy to reconcentrate them.”[16]

The population issue was intimately tied to the natural resource issue. “The resources of the planet,” Ehrlich and Harriman added, “are finite, and as the population grows each person’s ‘share’ of those resources decreases.”[17] This was why population should be not only stabilized but drastically reduced. Paul Ehrlich estimated in 1968 that one billion people “could be sustained in reasonable comfort” for a thousand years if depletable fossil fuels were “husbanded carefully.”[18] Thus, “the desirability of having a smaller ultimate population if an energy-intensive way of life is to be maintained is obvious.”[19] What was the optimum population? Paul Ehrlich suggested a half-billion people in 1968,[20] a far cry from today’s population of twelve times that amount.

To reduce extraction of a declining resource, the Ehrlichs and John Holdren endorsed a proposal by Herman Daly to impose strict depletion quotas on natural resources, including hydrocarbons.[21] The Ehrlichs and Holdren endorsed an effluent tax (also proposed by Daly) to complement a depletion quota, although “operating at the resource rather than the rubbish end of the system is fundamentally the best approach.”[22] The authors also expressed concern about controlling imports as part of this program, influenced no doubt by the archaic mandatory oil import program that began in 1959 and lasted through the 1960s in the United States.[23]

Paul and Anne Ehrlich felt vindicated by the “mini-energy crisis” of the 1970s. The crisis was “real” and “permanent,” although “generous supplies should be available for a time.”[24] They pointed to the empirical work of Shell geologist M. King Hubbert in the 1950s, which predicted that U.S. petroleum production would peak by 1970 and henceforth decline.[25] They asked, “What will we do when the pumps run dry?”[26]

The Ehrlichs’ occasional hint of mineral resource optimism—“the real limits on energy consumption are posed by physical and environmental conditions, not mankind’s ability to discover and mobilize sources of useful energy” [27]—was quickly lost elsewhere. In the same book the Ehrlichs’ wrote: “Although we may be optimistic with regard to technological possibilities, there are many social and political reasons for pessimism about future energy supplies.”[28]

Events of the 1980s and 1990s revealed that the 1970s energy-crisis era had been caused by a surplus of regulation, not a shortage of potential resources. The Ehrlichs’ shifted their thinking as such. In their 1991 book, this statement followed a “common misapprehension” that deserved to be “cleared up immediately: There are no serious limitations on fossil-fuel supplies now or in the immediate future.”[29] Yet their pessimism lurked. On the same page was the statement: “Energy use clearly is a primary area where humanity is living on capital, not on income.”[30]

In Betrayal of Science and Reason (1996), the Ehrlichs’ toyed with a new view of energy/fossil fuel scarcity. Quoting from their energy mentor John Holdren, they stated, “We’re not running out of energy, but ‘we’re running out of environment, patience with inequality, money for sustainability, time for making a transition, and leadership to do what is required.’”[31] Yet again on the same page a concern is raised about “the prospect of relatively early exhaustion of petroleum supplies that can be economically extracted.”[32]

Another shift in thinking concerned natural resource pricing. The traditional view of the Ehrlichs was that:

“Commodities are in short supply and going up in price, and it is unlikely that classic economic mechanisms will bring the prices down in the foreseeable future. Most of the easily accessible sources of fossil fuels and mineral resources are long gone, and the rising prices reflect the necessity to dig deeper, travel farther, and refine lower-grade ore in order to obtain them.”[33]

In 1990 Paul Ehrlich, John Holdren, and John Harte lost a nationally publicized monetary wager with Simon regarding the future of natural resource prices. Simon bet that such prices would fall in real terms over time. Ehrlich et al. bet they would rise—and lost on all five commodities they chose. The Ehrlichs in their 1996 book conceded this part of Simon’s argument but added a new twist:

“The prices of more raw materials are indeed dropping than are rising, but those who cite this statistic as evidence that everything is rosy on the material resource front fail to recognize that market prices don’t capture the full social costs of resource harvesting and consumption. . . . The bottom line is: declining prices may not indicate increasing human welfare.”[34]

The retreat evident in Betrayal of Science and Reason (1996) was significant. The Ehrlichs circa 1990 were not ready to face up to natural resource reality as evidenced by the statement: “By the 1980s, the depletion of accessible reserves of many nonrenewable resources—notably, but not exclusively, petroleum—was becoming more and more evident.”[35] With their failed bet receiving national attention, they could no longer assert the opposite of what was really occurring and being regularly reported in the business press.

[Note: Part II of this five-part series, which will resume next week, will review Paul Ehrlich's failed predictions]


With apologies to the legendary bluesman Chester Arthur Burnett, aka Howlin’ Wolf, who sang about real problems.

[1] See, generally, Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 589. For Simon’s views on energy see Bradley, Julian Simon and the Triumph of Energy Sustainability, op cit.

[2] Julian Simon, Population Matters (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1990), p. 432.

[3] Ibid, p. xi.

[4] See Simon’s summary of Ehrlich’s vendetta in “The Special Case of Paul Ehrlich,” The Ultimate Resource 2, pp. 604-609.

[5] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, Healing the Planet, pp. 6, 228. Among his other notable side ventures and accomplishments, Simon published the leading primer on setting up a mail-order marketing business. Simon, to his credit, never portrayed Ehrlich as a butterfly specialist, which was the analog to Ehrlich’s dismissal of Simon as a mail-order specialist.

[6] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, Betrayal of Science and Reason, p. 99. The Ehrlichs elsewhere in this book refer to Simon as an economist (p. 134) and a business economist (p. 192). This newfound respect for Simon was part of an overall retreat and a more modest approach to sustainable development issues.

[7] A dramatic contrast was evident on Earth Day 1990 when Paul Ehrlich addressed a crowd estimated at 200,000 in Washington, D.C., while Simon on the same day spoke to an audience of sixteen down the street at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. John Tierney, “Betting the Planet,” p. 79.

[8] The Ehrlichs’ intolerance toward opposing viewpoints was demonstrated by their statement, “We have not attempted to give equal weight to both sides of all controversial issues; where we think one side is correct we have so indicated.” Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, Population, Resources, Environment: Issues in Human Ecology (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1970), p. 326.

[9] By the mid-1990s, however, due to his winning wager against Ehrlich and to demonstrable developments in natural resource and agricultural markets, Simon could claim a solid base of academic support.

[10] Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich, New World, New Mind: Moving Toward Conscious Evolution (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p. 223.

[11] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The End of Affluence (Rivercity, Mass.: Rivercity Press, 1974, 1975), p. 40.

[12] Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species (New York: Random House, 1981), p. 174.

[13] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, Healing the Planet, pp. 38-39.

[14] Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, pp. 48, 162. He adds (p. 145), “that we are presently living beyond our means is obvious from the simple fact that we are madly depleting nonreplenishable resources.” Also see Paul Ehrlich, Anne Ehrlich, and John Holdren, Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1973), pp. 54-57.

[15] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, Population, Resources, Environment, p. 56. Elsewhere Ehrlich and a coauthor complained that mankind was living off “a one-time bonanza” of nonrenewable resources. Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich, New World New Mind, p. 45.

[16] Paul Ehrlich and Richard Harriman, How to Be a Survivor (Rivercity, Mass.: Rivercity Press, 1971, 1975), p. 4.

[17] Ibid, p. 9.

[18] Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, p. 157. His view two decades later was little changed, “Using fossil fuels ad lib to improve the lot of the billion or so human beings that lived at the time of the Industrial Revolution made sense. But now there are more than 5 billion of us, and most of them are striving to increase their use of dwindling supplies of those energy resources” (Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich, New World New Mind, p. 45).

[19] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The End of Affluence, p. 81.

[20] Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, p. 44.

[21] Paul Ehrlich, Anne Ehrlich, and John Holdren, Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions, p. 264.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid. For a review of the import control program, see Robert Bradley, The Mirage of Oil Protection, pp. 52-57, 67-69.

[24] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The End of Affluence, p. 228.

[25] Ibid, pp. 40-41. U.S. crude production peaked in 1970, but this was a result more of environmental restrictions on domestic oil drilling and lower-cost international activity than of less domestic supply. The Ehrlichs also predicted (p. 44): “A genuine world shortage of pumpable petroleum appears certain by the turn of the century if demand continues to grow as it did in the 1960s.” World oil consumption in 1998 (over 70 million barrels per day) was more than double the usage in the 1960s.

[26] Ibid, p. 49.

[27] Ibid, p. 39.

[28] Ibid, p. 83.

[29] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, Healing the Planet, p. 46.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, Betrayal of Science and Reason, pp. 94-95.

[32] Ibid, p. 94.

[33] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The End of Affluence, p. 100.

[34] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, Betrayal of Science and Reason, pp. 98-99. The forced retreat was also evident among other top alarmists. Researchers at the Worldwatch Institute stated, “It will not necessarily be the scarcity of fuel that constrains future growth in energy consumption, but rather concerns about climate change, air quality, and water quality.” Lester Brown, Gary Gardner, and Brian Halweil, Beyond Malthus: Sixteen Dimensions of the Population Problem (Washington, D.C.: Worldwatch Institute, 1998), p. 42.

[35] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The Population Explosion, p. 57.

6 comments

1 simone { 03.13.10 at 10:26 am }

Paul and Anne crack pots that the progressive academic establishment have canonized to undermine human improvement.

2 Andrew { 03.13.10 at 1:23 pm }

Paul Ehrlich should have had live the rest of his life in miserable anonymity after his ludicrous scare mongering and out right wrong ideas. Instead, he continues to make all kinds of noise.

He makes me feel like Justice Holmes, but this man has falsely yelled fire in a crowded theater too many times.

3 Pierre Desrochers { 03.13.10 at 9:42 pm }

For the Erhlich’s most recent self-assessment of their 1968 best-seller “The Population Bomb,” along with a number of replies and rejoinders from more optimistic authors, see the latest issue of the Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development http://www.ejsd.org/

4 Robert Bradley Jr. { 03.14.10 at 9:26 am }

Yes, indeed, Pierre.

The Ehrlichs conclude: “These statements recognized that humanity has reached a dangerous turning point in its domination of the planet (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 2008), a view even more common in the scientific community today (e.g,, Hall and Day 2009). The same genius that allowed us to achieve that dominance now must be harnessed if we are to prevent our very success from sealing our doom. We think, with all its warts, The Bomb did exactly what we had hoped – alerted people to the importance of environmental issues and brought human numbers into the debate on the human future. It was thus a successful tract, and we’re proud of it.”

Read their retrospectiv at http://www.ejsd.org/public/journal_article/10.

5 fred g { 03.14.10 at 7:38 pm }

That Erhlich is coming back into the public arena just in time to push for global warming theory after it has (IMHO) been proven wrong is quite apropos. He is a reminder how wrong some scientists can be.

He has scared a lot of people needlessly with his pronouncements. I am glad the truth has come out about his record. What a disgrace to science.

6 Jim C. { 10.26.10 at 3:36 pm }

Cornucopians fail to understand (or admit) that economic growth has mostly been driven by fossil fuels, which are FINITE. That’ds the true context all this so-called progress has taken place in. You can’t just pretend energy is limitless, and pile other claims on top of that fallacy.

Agriculture is very much dependent on finite oil, and the idea that we can support endless numbers of people is lunacy. You have to take everything in the context of what allows it to exist, and will continue to allow it to exist. When global oil production peaks, the dream of endless growth will be revealed as the ultimate Ponzi scheme. And it already has been if you can see through the shallow GDP calculations that ignore physical depletion and log everything as “profit” in dollars only.

Also, the destruction of the natural world is ongoing and very serious to those who care about such things. Global overfishing already debunks hyped up carrying-capacity claims. You can say that someone is doing “fine” up until the time their food and water runs out, but failing to look at the process leading up to that time is critically dishonest.

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