Howlin’ Wolf: Paul Ehrlich on Energy (Part II: Failed Predictions)
The Ehrlichs’ angst about the energy future was rife with forecasts that have been proven false–and embarrassingly so. As mentioned in Part I, the Ehrlichs’ protégé John Holdren has made similar radical pronouncements and wild exaggerations (see here and here) and even joined Stephen Schneider and other climate scientists in the global cooling scare.
Running Out of Oil
Writing in 1974, the Ehrlichs predicted that “we can be reasonably sure . . . that within the next quarter of a century mankind will be looking elsewhere than in oil wells for its main source of energy.”  Consequently, “we can also be reasonably sure that the search for alternatives will be a frantic one.”  He predicted that proved world oil reserves were no more than 35 years of supply at current demand levels. 
“The energy mini-crisis [of the 1970s],” the Ehrlichs confidently concluded, “illuminated once and for all the hopeless incompetence of our political leaders and our institutions when it comes to coping with fundamental change.”  More generally, the Ehrlichs predicted that “America’s economic joyride is coming to an end: there will be no more cheap, abundant energy, no more cheap abundant food.”  Thus, “continuing to increase our dependence on petroleum consumption is clearly a suicidal course of action.” 
A quarter century after Ehrlich’s calculation, the world’s proved oil reserves stand at more than 50 percent above year-end 1973 levels despite substantial and ever-increasing consumption in the interim. The 1970s energy “mini-crisis” (seen by the Ehrlichs as “the leading edge of the age of scarcity” for America  ) has not been followed by a far greater reckoning as predicted.  In fact, the major crises have periodically been for oil producers from falling prices (such as in 1981/82, 1986, and 1998).
The transformation of energy demand, energy supplies, and public policy since the 1970s has been profound. Market learning, new strategies, new institutions, and technological revolution have hallmarked the last quarter century—contradicting the Ehrlichs’ belief that the 1970s was a taste of things to come. There has been no “frantic search” for energy substitutes since the ill-fated experience with synthetic fuels in the 1980-85 period.  The frantic activity has focused instead on retaining and expanding government subsidies and mandatory quotas for alternative power generation technologies (such as solar, wind, and biomass) and motor vehicles fueled by electricity, ethanol, methanol, electricity, and natural gas/propane.
Running Out of Environment
Paul Ehrlich’s energy pessimism extended to energy-environmental issues. He predicted that Los Angeles’ smog problem would not significantly improve as long as “we have an automobile industry centered on the internal combustion engine and a social system which values large, overpowered cars as status symbols.” 
Today, with several times more cars, the internal combustion engine in full use, and sports utility vehicles the rage, Los Angeles has recorded a 75 percent decline in peak ozone levels since the 1950s.  Even the Ehrlichs had to admit as part of their 1996 retreat that “Los Angeles, famous worldwide for its smog, is a salient success story—all the more so given its substantial population (and car population) growth in recent decades.” 
Ehrlich’s failed predictions go well beyond energy. Taken together, the falsities indicate a false worldview, not some errant here-and-there facts.
But in a recent retrospective on The Population Bomb, the Ehrlichs wrote: “Perhaps the most serious flaw in The Bomb was that it was much too optimistic about the future…. Signs of potential collapse, environmental and political, seem to be growing.”
The Population Bomb was too optimistic?
Let’s go back to the opening lines of the Prologue to his 1968 book (which the Ehrlichs’ now say they regret writing):
“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines–hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
And this paragraph ended the book (p. 198):
“Remember, above all, that more than half of the world is in misery now. That alone should be enough to galvanize us into action, regardless of the exact dimensions of the future disaster now staring Homo sapiens in the face.”
We have had millions of deaths by starvation (some 300 million, the Ehrlichs say). But we have new manmade greenhouse gases and the ozone hole, they say, that will ruin us. The worst is just ahead. Forget Julian Simon and that quaint notion of human ingenuity, Paul and Anne Ehlrich now say.
Their errant worldview is intact. But is the alarm and doom just in their words and not reality? Is their ‘scientitific’ contribution in postmodernism? The good news–and reason to be optimistic about mankind in a self-interested world is that it is.
Made up minds are hard to change. But for the open-minded, the doom-and-gloom worldview can be redirected to real cause of human misery and underperformance: statism.
Radical free-market capitalism to create the mass wealth to empower the individual to help himself or herself–and then others–is the ticket out of the Malthusian/neo-Malthusian bog.
 See Robert Bradley, “The Increasing Sustainability of Conventional Energy,” (Cato Institute, April 1999), pp. 31-32.