A Free-Market Energy Blog

Howlin’ Wolf: Paul Ehrlich on Energy (Part III: Conservationism)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- March 23, 2010

Editor note: Part I examined Dr. Ehrlich’s views on Julian Simon, growing energy usage, and depletion. Part II examined his errant energy forecasts. (Previous posts on the worldview and statements of Obama science advisor John Holdren are here.)

Energy conservation(ism) was the Ehrlichs’ silver bullet for fossil-fuel depletion. Current usage levels were decried as enormously wasteful. Depletion and climate change called for “a reorganization of the American way of life” to cut energy usage in half or else “the nation would go bankrupt.” [1] The bankruptcy would come after “frequent unpredictable blackouts and brownouts, the continual need to devise more ‘emergency’ measures, and the return of closed gasoline stations.” [2]

Transportation Usage

On the transportation side, smaller cars, alternative vehicles (even with “miserable pickup”), “slower coast-to-coast transportation,” and an end to two-car families were recommended as, potentially, “the cost of survival.” [3] Paul Ehrlich took on automobiles as status symbols with sarcasm:

“Cars are for transportation, and proper use of the media could once again persuade American men to get their sexual kicks out of sex (not reproduction) instead of a series of automotive sexual surrogates. Restriction of families to ownership of single small cars also would put some pressure against over-reproducers.” [4]

Another part of his “auto-control program” was a ban on motorized camping on public land so “people could be encouraged to regain an appreciation of their place in nature.” An exception was made “for those physically unable to back-pack.” [5] The use of off-road vehicles (dirt bikes, dune buggies, all-terrain vehicles, etc.) was censured as devastating the environment. [6] Government agencies could lease “special purpose vehicles . . . to provide whatever level of usage is determined to be ecologically acceptable” on public lands.[7] In the longer term, “America’s transportation system could be redesigned to minimize the need for automobiles and trucks and maximize the use of feet and bicycles for local transport.” [8] Trains and planes as public transportation (“mass transportation”) were to be utilized for long distances. [9] This makeover of the transportation system “means our settlement patterns must also change” toward urbanization and away from “leapfrogging suburbs.” [10]

So long as cars existed, their number, size, mechanics, and fuel consumption had to be regulated to minimize oil usage.[11] “The large automobile should disappear entirely, except for some taxis, and these could be designed to run economically.” [12] Lower speed limits were suggested. [13] Cars should be designed to be recyclable. [14] Consumers were invited to boycott “one or more” of the automobile manufacturers’ products. [15] Consumers were also urged to buy used cars rather than new ones. [16] Automobile vacations were discouraged, as were three-day weekends responsible for “enormous jams on highways.” [17] A monthly step-up in motor fuel taxes was recommended “until gasoline costs $2.50-$3.00 per gallon, comparable to [1990] prices in Europe and Japan.” [18] In the long run, Paul Ehrlich believed, cars would have to be powered by an energy source other than gasoline. [19]

“Many other restrictions,” such as banning power lawnmowers in the suburbs, were part of Paul Ehrlich’s ideal world. [20] A side benefit (he liked to tie-in his policy objectives) was offered:

“People in those areas might learn to plant attractive displays of native plants rather than struggling with pesticides, fertilizers, and mowers to keep a monoculture of grass under control. And as a result their lives, and those of their neighbors, will become quieter, more relaxed, and less polluted.” [21]

Electricity Usage

Ehrlich and Harriman considered “the generation and use of electric power . . . [as] one of the prime activities that results in environmental deterioration.” [22] They worried that at the usage growth rates encouraged by electric utilities, “every square inch of the United States would be covered with conventional power plants in two hundred years or so.” [23] Consequently,

“Except in special circumstances, all construction of power generating facilities should cease immediately, and power companies should be forbidden to encourage people to use more power. Power is much too cheap. It should certainly be made more expensive and perhaps rationed, in order to reduce its frivolous use.” [24]

To promote this result, the Ehrlichs and John Holdren suggested a ban on utility advertising. [25]

Numerous regulations and lifestyle changes were proposed to pare power demand. The most general strategy, mentioned above, was to increase electricity rates. This could be accomplished in part through new rate designs by state public utility commissions. [26] Air conditioning “in large part [could] be closed” except “where people must work around hot machines” or heat-sensitive electronics were present. [27] Not to worry— “the summer heat can be beaten by most of us in many other ways (as it had to be beaten by all of us only two or three decades ago!).” [28]

“Laws may well be passed strictly limiting the number of appliances a single family may possess.” One television per family, for example, would be “simpler than learning to live on a planet made uninhabitable by an unending quest for material possessions.” [29]

Businesses should not “deface the nighttime sky of our cities” with “garish use of electric signs,” many of which “carry the kind of deceptive advertising that fuels our frenzied economy [30]. . . Advertising signs on restaurants, motels, and the like could be shut off by law at night when the establishment was not open.” [31] In addition, “unnecessary lighting in offices and factories should . . . be banned.” [32]

“It should immediately be made illegal to construct a building with windows which cannot be opened.” [33] A reoriented economy away from goods and toward services would also reduce energy consumption. [34]

“Enormous displays of Christmas lights” were ridiculed. [35] Casting culinary concerns aside, he implored readers to “eat cold meals [36]. . . Do laundry, ironing, and dishwashing in the evening [37]. . . Unplug instant-on television sets when they are not in use [38]. . . Turn off unneeded lights when watching television [39]. . . Completely frivolous uses of power, such as gas yard lamps that are permanently lit, should be outlawed altogether.” [40] Thermostats should be reset lower in the winter and higher in the summer. [41] All this required an “enormous campaign” to educate consumers to “try to live below your means.” [42] To Julian Simon, such inconveniences were not only unnecessary but wasted a resource far scarcer than energy and genuinely depletable—a person’s time.

What level of energy usage should a person or family have? The Ehrlichs answered this question when discussing the energy needs of the developing world.

“On average each person should be able to achieve the basics of a decent life: clean water, adequate food and food storage facilities, energy for cooking, basic medical care, schooling, and opportunities for work. Beyond these essentials, at least bicycles, transistor radios, and access to communal TV viewing facilities could be made available to virtually everyone. . . . This, of course, does not mean that every family in poor countries will (or should) immediately have a car, refrigerator, TV, VCR, microwave oven, washing machine, and dryer.” [43]

What about the developed countries like the United States? The Ehrlichs and John Holdren advocated “a massive campaign . . . to de-develop the United States [44] . . . The enemy,” the Ehrlichs said elsewhere, “is not only ‘us’ but virtually all human activities.” [45] This said, “the United States could halve its energy consumption per person and enjoy a quality of life even higher than today’s.” [46]


Civil libertarians, not only economic libertarians, should be concerned about the likes of Paul Ehrlich when it comes to planning the energy economy on false alarms and raw emotions. If Dr. Ehrlich is this stingent on paper, what would he be like if in government?

Energy despotism anyone?

[1] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The End of Affluence, p. 221.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, pp. 105, 142.

[4] Paul Ehrlich and Richard Harriman, How to Be a Survivor, p. 67. Ehrlich and another coauthor would later add, “A popular president as Ronald Reagan might have persuaded insecure American males that their machismo, love lives, and economic image would be enhanced by driving small cars as efficient as their computers rather than clunky Detroit gas guzzlers” (Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich, New World New Mind, p. 158).

[5] Paul Ehrlich and Richard Harriman, How to Be a Survivor, p. 68.

[6] Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Extinction, pp. 168-69.

[7] Paul Ehrlich and Richard Harriman, How to Be a Survivor, p. 68.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. Rail would replace trucks as part of this transformation. Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The End of Affluence, p. 223.

[10] Ibid, 222, 224.

[11] Paul Ehrlich and Richard Harriman, How to Be a Survivor, p. 67.

[12] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The End of Affluence, p. 223. This position would later be modified to allow large cars but with a gas-guzzling tax (Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, Healing the Planet, p. 259).

[13] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The End of Affluence, p. 48.

[14] Paul Ehrlich and Richard Harriman, How to Be a Survivor, p. 67.

[15] Ibid, p. 149.

[16] Ibid, 149-50.

[17] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The End of Affluence, p. 227.

[18] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The Population Explosion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), pp. 219-20. The Ehrlichs preferred tax is now “a steep carbon tax on all fossil fuels” (Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, Betrayal of Science and Reason, p. 96).

[19] Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, p. 104. Also see Paul Ehrlich, Anne Ehrlich, and John Holdren, Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions, pp. 125-27, 262-63. The Ehrlichs elsewhere questioned whether burning scarce “organic molecules” was inappropriate compared to “many other uses in areas as diverse as lubrication and the production of plastics” (Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, Population, Resources, Environment, p. 56).

[20] Paul Ehrlich and Richard Harriman, How to Be a Survivor, p. 69.

[21] Ibid, p. 70.

[22] Ibid, p. 71.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid, p. 72. Power generation capacity twice as great as when this policy was proposed—752 gigawatts in 2008 versus 369 gigawatts in 1971 (U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review 1983 [Washington, D.C.: Department of Energy, 1984], p. 201). Ehrlich’s 1996 retreat also included rejecting energy rationing (see above).

[25] Paul Ehrlich, Anne Ehrlich, and John Holdren, Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions, p. 265. They added (ibid.), “references to size, power or sexual potency (direct or implied) could be banned from automobile advertising.”

[26] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The End of Affluence, p. 226.

[27] Paul Ehrlich and Richard Harriman, How to Be a Survivor, pp. 73-74. The authors go on to recommend 20-hour work weeks to reemploy “all the unemployed air conditioner repair men.”

[28] Ibid, p. 74.

[29] Ibid, p. 69. Durability and recycling requirements for appliances would also be required. (ibid.).

[30] Ibid, p. 73.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The End of Affluence, p. 226.

[33] Paul Ehrlich and Richard Harriman, How to Be a Survivor, pp. 73-74.

[34] Ibid, p. 75.

[35] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The End of Affluence, p. 41. They add (ibid): “Fewer garish commercial Christmas displays would doubtless please true Christians and atheists alike.”

[36] Ibid, p. 230.

[37] Ibid, pp. 230-31.

[38] Ibid, pp. 232.

[39] Ibid, p. 231.

[40] Ibid, p. 227.

[41] Ibid, p. 48.

[42] Paul Ehrlich and Richard Harriman, How to Be a Survivor, p. 149.

[43] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, Healing the Planet, p. 255. Elsewhere Ehrlich and a coauthor parodied U.S. electricity consumption as follows, “First everyone had to have a small black-and-white TV set, then a large screen, then color, then a VCR, then a Dolby stereo sound system, then a VCR with a Dolby stereo sound system. Soon anyone who can’t download any of 514 European, Asian, and cable television channels into his TV’s quadraplexed digital memory over the cellular modem in his moving car, transmit it to his home while moving, and play it back for his kids later than night will probably feel deprived” (Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich, New World New Mind, p. 56).

[44] Paul Ehrlich, Anne Ehrlich, and John Holdren, Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions, p. 279. Also see Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, Population, Resources, Environment, p. 323.

[45] Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Extinction, p. 242. They add, “Unless appropriate steps are taken soon to preserve Earth’s plants, animals, and microorganisms, humanity faces a catastrophe fully as serious as an all-out thermonuclear war.”

[46] Ibid, p. 247.


  1. Contemplationist  

    The depressing humans-as-mouths-to-feed worldview shines through bright. There is only a veneer of respectable ‘science’ in these Ehrlich pieces. If energy is ‘too cheap’ does that not mean its abundant and not scarce? No externalities are mentioned qua energy consumption. Simple-minded scolding, Puritan discouragement of all things joyous that may use energy is offered. This makes for depressing reading.
    One wonders how people like this are still in modern governmental institutions? How wrong do you have to be proven before you are publicly humiliated? Or is such fate only for those on the right?


  2. Kennedy Maize  

    Having spent a couple of weeks in a group tour of New Zealand with the Ehrlichs a few years ago, I feel I know them fairly well. Nice folks, but entirely convinced that they understand more than anybody how we should live our lives. That comes through in their work, as these blog entries demonstrate.
    I find it very discouraging that John Holdren, of the Ehrlich school of Malthusian environmentalism, is President Obama’s science advisor. And Carol Browner is his energy advisor. Nothing good can come of this.


  3. Shawn Grannell  

    About a decade ago, or perhaps longer, trails on state-owned land were closed in Michigan. I remember as a child taking my bicycle on these trails. When I got older we used to drive cars and 4 wheelers on these trails.

    Then the trails were closed off. This solved the “problem” of pesky teenagers hanging out on the trails, leaving behind the occasional candy wrapper, etc. No doubt the trails are cleaner now, but if nobody goes back there anymore, then how do we know that there is an improvement? If a squirrel farts in the woods and nobody is around, does it make a stink?

    The move toward “green” energy, taxes and restrictions predicated on scarcities that are in fact contrived, and reduced accessibility of public resources mesh with some of the things that Petr Beckmann said about the anti-nukes, the population controllers, and other upper-middle class elitists in the last chapter of “The Health Hazards Of Not Going Nuclear”. To quote:

    “They do not want to share their privileges with others. They are a class whose privileges are about to be lost if they have not been lost already.
    What privileges?
    The privilege of driving on roads with only a bearable number of other cars, driven by equally affluent and ‘cultured’ people; a privilege already lost, for the roads are now crowded with cars of the vulgar riff-raff that does not read the New York Review of Books and behaves as though they had an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
    The privilege of driving to the beach and finding it uncrowded. The privilege of driving rather than walking, and flying rather than driving. The privilege of flying without having to line up and rub elbows with the riff-raff by flying first class, for coach has already been invaded by it.
    The privilege of being fawned over as the people who set the tone. The privilege of esteem accorded to those who drivel rather than produce. The privilege of living the good life of being sensitive, aware, concerned, involved, and relevant, without being tainted by ‘materialistic’ subjects like physics, chemistry, engineering, business or dentistry, let alone making the vulgar living of a plumber, electrician, printer, radio operator, or (horror of horrors!) a wildcatter.”

    “Some of the privileges of these upper-middle class elitists have been lost long ago and forever; the privilege of having colored servants, for example. Others are as good as gone – the empty roads, for example. The high-powered propaganda against the ostensible vulgarity of the automobile has not driven the ‘riff-raff’ off the roads, though not for lack of trying. In yet other cases, they have shown themselves willing to sacrifice their privileges at the cost of denying them to everybody else, as in the proposals to forbid roads through national parks, which they would rather leave to the squirrels than to share with the plumbers.”


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