Biologist Paul Ehrlich gives dire prediction for global civilization

Paul Ehrlich spoke about the collapse of civilization due to environmental problems on Tuesday, April 30, 2013, at the University of Vermont. Photo by Audrey Clark

Paul Ehrlich spoke about the collapse of civilization due to environmental problems on Tuesday at the University of Vermont. Photo by Audrey Clark

The 81-year-old Ehrlich, a professor at Stanford University, spurred the growth of new fields of science and called attention to environmental problems through his work on overpopulation, evolutionary biology, and conservation. He addressed a packed ballroom at the University of Vermont on Tuesday.

Ehrlich, who paced back and forth across the stage, ignoring the podium, started by saying, “I believe and all of my colleagues believe that we are on a straightforward course to a collapse of our civilization.” He cited signs, such as diminishing returns from natural resources, that he said were recognizable from studying the collapse of other civilizations throughout history.

The problem can be traced to our evolution, said Ehrlich.

“We’re a small-group animal, both genetically and culturally. We have evolved to relate to groups of somewhere between 50 and 150 people,” he said. “And now suddenly we’re trying to live in a group not of 150 or 100 people, but of seven billion people, somewhat over seven billion people at the moment, and that is presenting us with a whole array of problems.”

Those problems include an inability to recognize gradual, large-scale changes in our environment as dangerous.

“Another thing that’s related to that, that’s presenting us with a whole array of problems, is that most of our evolution going on now is cultural evolution,” Ehrlich went on. “And the problem is cultural evolution has not gone on at the same rate in every area of human endeavor. Where has it gone on most rapidly? It’s gone on most rapidly in the area of technology.”

In contrast, our cultural evolution has not progressed much at all in terms of ethics, said Ehrlich.

Ehrlich, gesturing and joking with the audience, made frequent forays into insulting public figures and declaiming popular beliefs.

“Any of you ever watch the False News Network? Rupert Murdoch requires them not to say the word ‘climate’ on it. These are paid prostitutes and Rupert’s their pimp.”

Much of Ehrlich’s talk focused on environmental problems, including climate change.

“We’re facing climate disruption,” he said. “That is the most talked about environmental problem we face. It’s not necessarily the most serious. … It may be some of the others are even more serious. The global spread of toxic substances is getting worse every year.” Some substances are more dangerous to us in small quantities than large because of the way our cells process them, and we’ve spread these substances far and wide. “There’s already nasty signs about the effects. For instance in some sub-Arctic villages they’re having twice as many girl babies born as boy babies.”

“The first place I think that we ought to be concentrating if we’re going to solve the problem and avoid a collapse is to rework the entire agricultural system and move feeding people — which is really our most important activity as human beings — up to the top of the list of what we should be doing, not how many iPad new versions we can get in the next six months.”

Ehrlich said we are remarkably unprepared to deal with most of our environmental problems.

“Climate change we at least have nut-case solutions for. If it gets away from us, we can do what’s called geo-engineering. Absolutely insane, but we at least have insane ideas about what to do about it. Whereas if the chemicals we’re releasing give everybody bladder cancer by the time they’re four years old, we wouldn’t have the first clue what to do about it. … We’re basically sawing off the limb that we’re sitting on.”

All of these environmental problems, said Ehrlich, have the scientific community worried. “The scientific community has spoken out repeatedly and in detail about this.” But they have been largely ignored by the media.

“At this point I always need a little gin in my talk,” added Ehrlich, pausing to pour himself some water…

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