T.E. Lawrence: Good Morning, Sir.
General Sir Archibald Murray: Salute! If you're insubordinate with me, Lawrence, I shall put you under arrest.
T.E. Lawrence: It's my manner, sir.
General Murray: Your what?
T.E. Lawrence: My manner, sir. It looks insubordinate, but it isn't, really.
General Murray: I can't make out whether you're bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted.
T.E. Lawrence: I have the same problem, sir.
General Murray: SHUT UP!!!
Scene from Lawrence of Arabia
Screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson
I can't help it; I just disagree.
While preparing a previous post (Demagraphics and Demagoguery) I read two essays: It's the Demography, Stupid, by Mr. Mark Steyn, and Facing the Islamist Menace by Mr. Christopher Hitchens. Both pieces concerned Mr. Steyn's views regarding the growing Islamic population in the West. Mr. Steyn laid out his views in his essay and Mr. Hitchens responded to and in some cases rebutted those views in his own. Both authors, however, agreed on one thing:
Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich's 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb has not withstood the test of time.
To Steyn The Population Bomb is part of the "geat cult of worrying," an "eco-doom blockbuster of the 1970's" that made dire predictions which never came to pass.
Hitchens dismisses the entire work in barely half a line, calling its pleas to limit family size "fatuously self-satisfied."
That was enough for me. I went to my local library, checked out The Population Bomb, and read it.
What I found was surprisingly fresh. No human being is a perfect oracle and Dr. Ehrlich did not have the benefit of modern research, but many of his ideas sound familiar:
"The greenhouse effect is being enhanced how by the greatly increased level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere..."
"With a few degrees of heating the polar ice caps would melt, perhaps raising ocean levels 250 feet. Gondola to the Empire State Building, maybe?"
You can almost see Former Vice-President Al Gore flagging down the gondolier.
Dr. Ehrlich wrote about greenhouse gases when they were still called 'smog' and pinned the blame on auto emissions:
"The only longterm direction for the automobile industry , considering the finite nature of the petroleum supply, is to move to different sources of power, anyway."
With this quote Dr. Ehrlich appears to anticipate by several decades the concept of 'peak oil' that we hear so much about today. In 2004 National Geographic ran a story by Tim Appenzeller titled The End of Cheap Oil. Allow me to quote from it:
"Humanity's way of life is on a collision course with geology- with the stark fact that the Earth holds a finite supply of oil. The flood of crude from fields around the world will ultimately top out, then dwindle. It could be 5 years from now or 30: No one knows for sure, and geologists and economists are embroiled in debate about just when the "oil peak" will be upon us. But few doubt that it is coming."
You can almost imagine Mr. Appenzeller interviewing Dr. Ehrlich over lunch.
Among the other topics discussed in the Population Bomb is Agribusiness. Dr. Ehrlich saw the development of mass, mechanized agriculture as a response to population pressures- a response, however well-intentioned, with consequences of its own:
"Plans for increasing food production invariably involve large-scale efforts at environmental modification. These plans involve the 'inputs' so beloved of the agricultural propagandist- especially fertilizers to enrich soils and pesticides to discourage competitors."
This comment moved me to look up my copy of The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. The final section of this 2001 book describes Mr. Pollan's investigation of industrial potato farming:
"The modern industrial farmer cannot grow that much food without large quantities of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, machinery and fuel. This expensive set of "inputs," as they're called, saddles the farmer with debt, jeopardizes his health, erodes his soil and ruins its fertility, pollutes the groundwater and compromises the safety of the food we eat."
Mr. Pollan describes an industrial potato field in Idaho as "a bright green circle of plants that have been doused with so much pesticide that their leaves wear a dull white chemical bloom and the soil they're rooted in is a lifeless grey powder."
Which sends us back to Dr. Ehrlich:
"Pesticides, of course, also reduce the diversity of life in the soil...Damage from pesticides must be added to all of the other sources of soil deterioration active today."
In the end, both Mr. Pollan and Dr. Ehrlich agree that the cost of agribusiness is being "charged to the future," (in Mr. Pollan's words) as weeds and pests develop resistance to various chemicals intended to wipe them out.
The more you read, the more difficult it becomes to dismiss The Population Bomb. As I said earlier, Dr. Erhlich was no oracle- he predicted food riots in China and Brazil that never came to pass and viewed wholesale famine in the Third World as inevitable and irreversible. Yet there is an eerie prescience to many of his remarks that keeps much of The Population Bomb sounding fresh and current. The reader is tempted to wonder if at least part of the "eco-doom" message put forth by Dr. Ehrlich and others was heeded in time to postpone the date of reckoning. Certainly his work helped push concepts such as "greenhouse gases" and "sustainable agriculture" into mainstream public thought, and that should be acknowledged---
---As must be the well-earned standing of public intellectuals such as Mr. Steyn and Mr. Hitchens. I do not intend to make an internet career out of impudently nipping at the heels of accomplished writers. If either of them is offended I would apologize and refer them to the opening quote above.
It's just my manner. It looks insubordinate but it isn't, really.
I can't help it; I just disagree.
The Population Bomb by Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich
The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
The End of Cheap Oil by Tim Appenzeller