The extinction next time

Paul Ehrlich is alive — I thought that was news — and he is still predicting doom. He was among the featured experts on last night’s 60 Minutes segment “Scientists say planet in midst of sixth mass extinction, Earth’s wildlife running out of places to live” (video below). CBS’s Scott Pelley tracked him down:

At the age of 90, biologist Paul Ehrlich may have lived long enough to see some of his dire prophecies come true[?].

Scott Pelley: You seem to be saying that humanity is not sustainable?

Paul Ehrlich: Oh, humanity is not sustainable. To maintain our lifestyle (yours and mine, basically) for the entire planet, you’d need five more Earths. Not clear where they’re gonna come from.

Scott Pelley: Just in terms of the resources that would be required?

Paul Ehrlich: Resources that would be required, the systems that support our lives, which of course are the biodiversity that we’re wiping out. Humanity is very busily sitting on a limb that we’re sawing off.

In 1968, Ehrlich, a biology professor at Stanford, became a doomsday celebrity with a bestseller forecasting the collapse of nature.

Scott Pelley: When “The Population Bomb” came out, you were described as an alarmist.

Paul Ehrlich: I was alarmed. I am still alarmed. All of my colleagues are alarmed.

The alarm Ehrlich sounded in ’68 warned that overpopulation would trigger widespread famine. He was wrong about that. The green revolution fed the world. But he also wrote in ’68 that heat from greenhouse gases would melt polar ice and humanity would overwhelm the wild. Today, humans have taken over 70% of the planet’s land and 70% of the freshwater.

Paul Ehrlich: The rate of extinction is extraordinarily high now and getting higher all the time.

So Ehrlich was right? According to the 60 Minutes segment, the “sixth mass extinction” is nigh.

But I thought the “climate change” apocalypse was going to get us first. Well, there is that too. It earns a mention in the consideration of what is to be done:

Gerardo Ceballos: All the big success that we have in protecting forests and recovering animals, like tigers in India, jaguars in Mexico, elephants in Botswana, and so on, are incredible, amazing, successes. But they are like grains of sand in a beach. And to really make a big impact we need to scale up this 10,000 times. So, they are important because they give us hope. But they are completely insufficient to cope with climate change.

Scott Pelley: So what would the world have to do?

Gerardo Ceballos: What we will have to do is to really understand that the climate change and the species extinction is a threat to humanity. And then put all the machinery of society: political, economic, and social, towards finding solutions to the problems.

Finding solutions to the problems was the goal, two weeks ago, at the U.N. Biodiversity Conference, where nations agreed to conservation targets. But at the same meeting in 2010, those nations agreed to limit the destruction of the Earth by 2020—and not one of those goals was met. This, despite thousands of studies including the continuing research of Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich.

Scott Pelley: You know that there is no political will to do any of the things that you’re recommending.

Paul Ehrlich: I know there’s no political will to do any of the things that I’m concerned with, which is exactly why I and the vast majority of my colleagues think we’ve had it; that the next few decades will be the end of the kind of civilization we’re used to.

Ehrlich has been peddling doom since since 1968. It has made him a rich man. “[T]he end of the kind of civilization we’re used to” is a formulation that seems like weasel words for the failure of the famine he predicted in 1968 to materialize. At age 90, is he hedging his bets?

Students of ancient history may recall Ehrlich’s bet with Julian Simon on Ehrlich’s population-bomb theme of resource depletion. Ehrlich lost the bet. See How Julian Simon Won a $1,000 Bet with Population Bomb Author Paul Ehrlich” and ”Julian Simon Was Right: A Half‐​Century of Population Growth, Increasing Prosperity, and Falling Commodity Prices.”

Pelley didn’t see fit to mention the Ehrlich-Simon bet, but the 60 Minutes segment itself was testimony to the fact that we are still here despite the population bomb. Resource depletion (or the extinction of “wild plants and animals”) may represent a threat of a kind, but it’s got nothing on the likes of Ehrlich et al. and their proposed solutions.

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