A Free-Market Energy Blog

Howlin’ Wolf: Paul Ehrlich on Energy (Part II: Failed Predictions)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- March 20, 2010

[Editor’s note: Part I in this five-part series examined Dr. Ehrlich’s views on Julian Simon, growing energy usage, and depletion. Part III examines Ehrlich’s conservation(ism) views.]

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.” [1] Consequently, “we can also be reasonably sure that the search for alternatives will be a frantic one.” [2] He predicted that proved world oil reserves were no more than 35 years of supply at current demand levels. [3]

“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.” [4] 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.” [5] Thus, “continuing to increase our dependence on petroleum consumption is clearly a suicidal course of action.” [6]

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 [7] ) has not been followed by a far greater reckoning as predicted. [8] 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. [9] 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.” [10]

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. [11] 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.” [12]


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.


[1] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The End of Affluence (Rivercity, Mass.: Rivercity Press, 1974, 1975), p. 49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, p. 48.

[4] Ibid, p. 34.

[5] Ibid, p. 219.

[6] Ibid, 48.

[7] Ibid, 51.

[8] Ibid, 44.

[9] See Robert Bradley, “The Increasing Sustainability of Conventional Energy,” (Cato Institute, April 1999), pp. 31-32.

[10] Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, (New York: Ballentine Books, 1968),  p. 112.

[11] Bradley, Julian Simon and the Triumph of Energy Sustainability, pp. 80-81.

[12] Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The Betrayal of Science and Reason, (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1996)p. 46.


  1. Contemplationist  

    The Ehrlichs and Holdrens of this world need to be shipped to a nice vacation resort in the Caribbean. I wouldn’t mind being taxed to pay for this. Just get rid of these megalomaniacal collectivists already.


  2. Jim C.  

    Ehrlich counters his critics in this YouTube clip: http://tinyurl.com/22nvafl

    He covers many things there, like the “global cooling” debate in the 70s, explaining that the additional forcing effects of methane and other GHGs weren’t known at that time. Science progresses its knowledge, unlike lock-box conservatism.

    He points out that he didn’t actually “predict” a lot of what he’s panned for. He offered worst-case scenarios that have been jumped on by cornucopians who’ve always been in denial of Earth’s finitude. They are the nutty ones, insisting that nature somehow owes a living to an indefinite number of people. They’re the first ones to call for animal culls when a few cougars wander into a subdivision, yet turn a blind eye to 75,000,000 annual human population growth.

    The famous Ehrlich/Simon bet was a money play, not proof of an infinite Earth. Depletion of most non-renewable resources is ongoing and very real. You can pretend it isn’t happening all the way until a peak or sudden shortfall occurs. You can only manipulate money for so long until the (lack of) physical resources behind it unmasks the Ponzi scheme.

    You can’t just go back to 1968, cite a few overwrought scenarios and therefore claim we have “no problems” today. Population growth is always putting more pressure on resources, land and wildlife. The world is changing, not static. Time is on the side of pessimists on a finite planet, as long as the population keeps growing and fossil fuels keep driving it.


  3. rbradley  

    Jim C.:

    The happy fact is that with private property, free markets, and the rule of law, resources expand rather than deplete.

    Human ingenuity is the ultimate resource. The statistics point toward human beings being the solution, not the problem. Statism, central planning by a political elite, is the major threat to sustainable development, not free minds and markets.

    I would fear analytic failure and government failure, not market failure.

    I also recommend the four-part series by Indur Goklany here at MasterResource for an updated look at the increasing plenty that free people provide.


  4. Jim C.  

    Triumphal generalities don’t address physical limits on a finite planet with a current net population gain of over 75,000,000 people. That’s twice the population of California added to the globe each year, draining resources, not replenishing them.

    In biology, a species that continually TAKES more than it gives back to nature is known as a parasite or plague organism. If our level of endless takings represents the “ultimate resource,” the resources in question are not physical. Will we be eating sound-bytes and drinking RSS feeds at some point?

    Scale the Earth down to the size of Hawaii and the math of finitude and depletion might start to register. Most people understand that Hawaii’s population cannot grow indefinitely, nor should it ever attempt to. So why should something so obvious not apply to a larger area? The only difference between Hawaii and a larger island called Earth is the size and time scale of carrying-capacity overload.


  5. rbradley  

    The “generalities” are that human beings produce more than they consume in market settings. More people equals more resources because of the ultimate resource of human ingenuity that has, is, and will overcome ‘the limits to nature.’

    The Hawaii example is negated by imports. Las Vegas is a better model of what imports can do.

    Here is a thought experiment. Does the United States have more oil and gas today than when the country was founded in 1776? The wrong answer is the one that Malthusians and natural scientists would say: No.

    The right answer is the business/economic one: we have more oil and gas today than ever before, and the same will be true in the future as far as can be seen. The hydrocarbon age is still young.


  6. Jim C.  

    Quote: “The right answer is the business/economic one: we have more oil and gas today than ever before, and the same will be true in the future as far as can be seen.”

    You’ve got to be either a Creationist, you think geologists are lying, or you believe in abiotic oil. Apparently you missed the fact that U.S. oil production peaked around 1970, hence our need to get more and more of it from foreign sources, which are themselves now approaching a peak. Look it up; it’s widely known. America uses about 7 billion barrels of oil a year and high estimates are 30 billion more barrels from U.S. land & sea sources. That’s what the peak was all about, not just lack of access to “drill, baby, drill.” Oil shale remains a pipe dream and tar sands are very inefficient and rapacious.

    Finite actually means FINITE, not “uh… so what?” The reason we now have to drill in 5,000 feet of water (and risk monster spills, which you probably see as collateral damage) is that the easy stuff is already tapped and being bled dry. This is well known among petroleum geologists, and even people who would stand to make fortunes from remaining oil, e.g. T. Boone Pickens; oil magnate and peak oil realist.

    A recent Kuwaiti study predicted a global oil production peak by 2014, and the conservative EIA predicts it by 2020. To ignore these things requires a detachment from physical reality, hence my assumption that you think a supernatural power is creating resources by magic.

    Even if your claims were feasible, the historical and ongoing decline of other species at the hands of the “ultimate resource” (75,000,000 more people demanding more land, water and food each year) makes cornucopian braggadocio immoral in my book. There’s a lot more going on in the world than just meeting human needs. Can’t you even see that billions of our own are barely getting by?

    I live on the planet What-IS (6.8 billion people, heading toward at least 9 billion), not the planet What-IF. What-IF is where cornucopians reside, tucked away in cubicles, writing for think-tanks, pretending that dollars are more important than physical resources, and that nature is mandated to shrink in the name of human gluttony & avarice.


  7. rbradley  

    In terms of reserves (versus production), the U.S. did not peak in the 1970s. We are at record levels today with oil and particularly with natural gas. The recent natural gas boom has given us hundreds of years of supply. “Resources are not, they become” “Resources come from the mind, not the ground.” My “Resourceship” article explains why: http://www.politicalcapitalism.org/aboutrb/Resourceship.pdf

    You are severely underestimating human ingenuity.

    The data of minerals worldwide speak for themselves–humans create more than they destroy in a free society.


  8. Jim C.  

    I hesitate to reply again, in my futile attempt to elicit reason, but here goes:

    By denying the reality of peak oil circa 1970 (widely known by petroleum geologists) you’re still claiming that resources are infinite. You deftly changed the subject to natural gas, which can only replace a few of oil’s uses. I won’t bother you with the non-trivial details of that, since you’ll just shift the subject again.

    Julian Simon wrote this logical absurdity in “The Ultimate Resource” (1981), which I suspect you’re in lock-step with.

    “Our energy supply is non-finite, and oil is an important example . . . the number of oil wells that will eventually produce oil, and in what quantities, is not known or measurable at present and probably never will be, and hence is not meaningfully finite.” (Julian Simon)

    If one’s height or weight can’t be measured with atomic precision on a given day, is one infinitely tall or heavy? They are by Simon’s logic. If the fish in the sea can never be precisely counted, is Man not depleting them at a frightening rate? By Simon’s logic we needn’t ever worry about lack of fish, and so on with any resource. I wonder if (the late) Simon thought that not being able to know the exact date of his death meant he’d live forever?

    Mindless optimism is, in many ways, a vain attempt to stave off death. People go through a life cycle that ultimately ends, just like oil field output. Look up Cantarell (Mexico) as one example. All oil fields follow the Cantarell bell curve of plateau, then decline. The sum of their TOTAL output follows that same rule, just staggered over time. It happened in the U.S. in California, Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Alaska, too. “New” reserves have been smaller and harder to come by (hence risky deep-water drilling) and they too will shrink as they get depleted. Protest the evidence all you like, but there is no such thing as abiotic oil (i.e. self-regenerating). We are burning millions of years of capital in a matter of decades.

    I should have read the bio earlier. You were mired in the ENRON Ponzi scheme, probably hired as an eternal optimist, which is exactly why such schemes work for awhile. It also explains why debating people like you is futile. No matter how much evidence of a finite Earth is presented, the comeback will always be “that’s not true!” or “there’s plenty of resource X!” or “resource Y will substitute for X!” (ad infinitum). The term “pie in the sky” was coined for such thinking.

    [RLB: Re Enron, you have it backwards. I was a trenchant critic of the company’s climate alarmism and ‘green’ initiatives. : see here and here]


  9. rbradley  

    Jim C

    The ad hominem arguments do not make you look very impressive….

    I would urge you to examine the statistical record of minerals from beginning to now and tell us which minerals have peaked and are the way down in terms of production/consumption, and whether the ‘peak’ is do to market reasons or physical reasons.

    The point is that in market settings, with full incentives, resources are always more plentiful than the Malthusians claim, and new resource types substitute for older resource types. For example, crude oil has and will lose market share to heavier oils. And heavier oils will lose market share some time in the future to another type of oil. So ‘peak oil’ is not very meaningful.

    Ultimately, we are taking about energy. Do you believe in peak energy? And if not, where do you stop?


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