Renowned scientist Paul Ehrlich has been in the public spotlight for half a century now. But there’s a question at the heart of the story of Ehrlich’s unlikely rise to prominence. A question that must be answered. Why is it that this entomologist has become such a superstar of science, received so many accolades and awards, and wielded such influence over the public conversation on population despite being so remarkably, consistently, staggeringly wrong about the issues he presumes to lecture the public on?
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INTERVIEWER: Your main concern has been “The Population Bomb,” as you call it in your book. Do you feel that this takes precedence over any other type of pollution, and certainly human pollution?
PAUL EHRLICH: Yeah, it takes precedence in the following sense: The reason I named the book The Population Bomb was [that] in 1968, when I wrote it, everyone was getting concerned about pollution but people hadn’t seen the other element. I thought the emphasis ought to go there.
The thing that’s important to remember about population control is that if we want to avoid a tremendous rise in the death rate we absolutely must have a tremendous decrease in the birth rate. Now because the world’s population is so young, it means that even if we got a tremendous decrease in the birth rate—if the average completed family size immediately moved down to the vicinity of two—we would still face 40 or 50 years of rapid population growth. There’s a tremendous lag time built into it because those young people—the 40% of the people in the world that are under 15—are going to have children and grandchildren before they get old enough to die of old age.
So we have this tremendous built-in lag time, which means that we’ve got to start instantly on population control only because we know it’ll take so long.
SOURCE: Dr Paul Ehrlich Tape 2
Renowned scientist Paul Ehrlich has been in the public spotlight for half a century now. Showered with accolades and heralded in the press, his message has been remarkably consistent: there are too many humans using too many resources and the only way to avert catastrophe is population control, strictly administered by a centralized, supra-national government.
But there’s a question at the heart of the story of Ehrlich’s unlikely rise to prominence. A question that must be answered. Why is it that this entomologist has become such a superstar of science, received so many accolades and awards, and wielded such influence over the public conversation on population despite being so remarkably, consistently, staggeringly wrong about the issues he presumes to lecture the public on?
This isn’t a rhetorical question, it’s a real one. And the answer may surprise you.
Meet Paul Ehrlich, Pseudoscience Charlatan. This is The Corbett Report.
50 years ago, Paul Ralph Ehrlich, an entomologist by training and a professor of biology at Stanford University, published The Population Bomb. As far as books by practicing scientists go, it was about as big as it gets. It sold more than two million copies worldwide, was translated into numerous languages, shaped public discourse around the population issue for a generation, and catapulted Paul Ehrlich into the unlikely category of “superstar scientist.”
Of course, it wasn’t a success from the get-go. It was Ehrlich’s appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in February 1970—a full year and a half after the book’s publication—that finally made The Population Bomb into a bestseller, and it was dozens of subsequent appearances on the show that thrust his ideas into the national spotlight and began a wave of hysteria over the impending population crisis.
And hysteria it was. It may be difficult to remember, but fear of overpopulation was for a time one of the chief public concerns, constantly reinforced by all manner of cultural programming.
HODAN: The birth rate continued to rise and the population grew until now Gideon is encased in a living mass. We can find no rest, no peace, no joy.
JAMES T. KIRK: Then why haven’t you any of the new techniques to sterilize men and women?
SOURCE: Star Trek: “The Mark of Gideon”
HOWARD K. SMITH: Overpopulation, so long predicted, has stolen upon us. It’s getting worse week by week.
SOURCE: ABC News 8-18-1969
THE PRESIDENT: Because it has been agreed by the nations of the world that the earth can no longer sustain a continuously increasing population, as of today child bearing is herewith forbidden.
SOURCE: Z.P.G. (1972)
RICHARD NIXON: Our cities are going to be choked with people, they’re going to be choked with traffic, they’re going to be choked with crime, they’re going to be choked with pollution, and they will be impossible places in which to live. And the explosion will be even worse.
DETECTIVE THORN: Listen to me, Hatcher. You’ve gotta tell them. Soylent Green is peeeeeeeople!
SOURCE: Soylent Green Is People
Ehrlich was many things, but cautious and understated he was not. The Population Bomb opens with the lines: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
And it only got worse from there.
EHRLICH: As far as petroleum goes, you all know that where the action is there we’re running out rapidly. Some estimates are it’ll all be gone by the year 2000 and conflict over that is getting to be rather serious.
SOURCE: Dr Paul Ehrlich in the Armory
EHRLICH: You just gotta remember this: There’s no way out of the arithmetic. There will never be 7 billion people in the year 2000.
SOURCE: Dr Paul Ehrlich Tape 2
EHRLICH: Sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come. And by “the end” I mean an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.
Incredibly, these predictions of doomsday are no mere aberrations in the career of an otherwise careful and understated researcher. In fact, they barely scratch the surface of the catalogue of Ehrlich’s ridiculous—and ridiculously wrong—Chicken Little pronouncements.
Speaking at the Institute of Biology in London in 1969, Ehrlich opined that “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”
“Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make,” Ehrlich told Mademoiselle magazine in 1970. “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”
And what of the decade after that? Writing about the “Great Die-Off” in the pages of The Progressive in April 1970, Ehrlich warned that 4 billion people would starve to death in the 1980s, including 65 million Americans.
Most remarkable of all, decades of being spectacularly wrong have not stopped Ehrlich from continuing to spread his particularly distasteful brand of doomporn. He was back at it just this past March, assuring readers of The Guardian that overpopulation means that the collapse of civilization itself “is a near certainty in the next few decades.”
If only Paul Ehrlich was an unsuccessful charlatan, barking his end-of-the-world predictions like a madman on a street corner, it may be possible to dismiss him as a harmless crank. But rather than being shunned as a charlatan, Ehrlich has been embraced by the “respectable” scientific community.
He has been awarded The Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the World Ecology Award from the University of Missouri, the Distinguished Scientist Award of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, as well as prizes and awards from the Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Fund, the United Nations and a slew of other organizations. He was awarded a MacArthur Prize Fellowship and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 2012. He continues to deliver lectures around the world and is still sought after for comment on population and ecology issues by mainstream media outlets, and he currently holds the position of Bing Professor of Population Studies of the Department of Biology at Stanford University.
But none of this—not the consistently wrong predictions, not the fearmongering, not the accolades and career success—is as concerning as Ehrlich’s ultimate “solution” for the “problem” of overpopulation that he claims to detail.
ADRIANA ZAJA: Hi. My question is for Paul Ehrlich. Do you have any regrets about urging developed countries to use their political power to coerce vulnerable countries into drastic population control programs, having heard of the atrocities in India and China?
EHRLICH: Yes, definitely. If I were writing the – if Anne and I were writing The Population Bomb again today, we’d write it differently. Sometimes you make mistakes. I think that was a mistake. I don’t think the – the recent thing that the are you going to have a question later on the Chinese policy?
TONY JONES: No, please, you can go on. I’m not trying to censor what you say here.
EHRLICH: No, no, no. That’s all right. I think the main problem with the Chinese stopping, I think, their one child family program is the moral hazard one, that is the Chinese it is not going to increase their family size very much. We know now that in the past they probably would have gotten to the same place if they had not had the relatively coercive program. It is still much debated. But some of the things we did not recommend. We said these are the sorts of things that have been suggested or could be done. A good example is we said in one of our publications that it would be one of the things that might be good if you could do it safely and biologically safely would be to add something to the water supply – excuse my laryngitis – add something to the water supply that would make you have to take an antidote before you can have a baby and everybody say, “That’s just terrible. That is ghastly.” Ghastly? It would get rid of the whole abortion problem. It would get rid of the whole unwanted child problem, make people make rational decisions. It is certainly one of the things that every government must pay great attention to is the size and composition of its population. It’s probably the number one thing that should be in government policy. It at least discussed in Australia. In the United States, you can’t even dare discuss it.
Protestations aside, forced sterilization programs were indeed something that Ehrlich discussed frequently and in great detail in his early work on the population issue—that is, before the public fully realized the horrors of his ostensible “solution” to the population “crisis.”
In 1969 The New York Times reported how Ehrlich had told the United States Commission for UNESCO that “the Government might have to put sterility drugs in reservoirs and in food shipped to foreign countries to limit human multiplication.”
A 1972 article in the Boca Raton News noting this proposal decried Ehrlich as “worse than Hitler,” and pointed out how he opposed efforts to lift the Chinese out of poverty. It also quoted him as suggesting that some form of world governance was going to be necessary to institute “international policy planning” to “save the globe.”
But most damning of all is Ecoscience, a 1977 textbook co-authored by Paul Ehrlich, his wife, Anne, and John P. Holdren, who would go on to become Obama’s “science czar.” In this book they not only double down on the idea of adding sterilants to the water supply (noting that “No such sterilant exists today” and lamenting that it would have to clear a number of technical hurdles in order to be “acceptable”), but they actually go so far as argue the constitutionality of population control and even forced abortions, concluding that such a practice “could be sustained under the existing Constitution.”
In this book they also greatly elaborate on the type of world governmental body that would be required to enact a truly global population control program. Calling it a “Planetary Regime,” which they describe as “sort of an international superagency for population, resources, and environment,” they argue that it could “control the development, administration, conservation, and distribution of all natural resources, renewable or nonrenewable, at least insofar as international implications exist,” including all international trade and all food on the international market.
“The Planetary Regime might be given responsibility for determining the optimum population for the world and for each region and for arbitrating various countries’ shares within their regional limits. Control of population size might remain the responsibility of each government, but the Regime would have some power to enforce the agreed limits.”
Not surprisingly to those who have studied the confluence of eugenics, environmentalism and technocracy that formed the nucleus of our exploration of “Why Big Oil Conquered the World,” the “answer” to the tehnocrats’ (imaginary) problem is, once again, a global system of total control to implement the ultimate eugenics program of forced sterilization, forced abortion and selective breeding.
The worst part about this proposed system of population control is that it is not just based on a faulty premise, but a premise that is in fact the exact opposite of the truth. We are not facing the ticking time bomb of population explosion at all, but a demographic winter of plummeting fertility, where a growing number of countries, and eventually the world as a whole, will face terminal population decline.
KIM JIYEON: It’s becoming harder to hearThe crying of newborns in Korea. The nation’s birth rate has been on a steady decline over the past 40 years. Currently it has the lowest birth rate among the 34 OECD member countries. Last year the number of newborns stood at 436,500 a year, a 10 percent decrease from 2012. This means about 8.6 babies were born among a population of 1,000, the lowest since the year 1970, when the government first began recording population data.
JACK BARTON: Italy is struggling to escape recession and to bring down record high unemployment. Even if it manages that it
may still face its biggest economic challenge ahead, which is having one of the lowest birth rates in the world and a rapidly aging population.
MARY MERVA: The demographic timebomb is a huge threat and the solutions to that aren’t politically acceptable: raise taxes, cut benefits, become more productive.
BARTON: Economists say Italy’s problem is that more than a fifth of its population is now aged 65 years or over, and it’s estimated that by the midpoint of this century the population will have fallen by 16 million people.
SOURCE: Italy’s low birthrate problem
PRESENTER: Japan’s leaders are working on a raft of new measures to encourage citizens to get married and have children in a bid to boost the country’s flagging birth rate. With fewer babies being born and a rapidly aging population, Japan is facing an unprecedented demographic crisis with vast social, economic, and political repercussions.
SOURCE: Japan’s Baby Drain
REPORTER: Spain has always had a low birthrate, but the impact of the financial crisis and high unemployment has further tipped the demographic balance. The number of births per year has dropped almost 13 percent since 2008. Today the average household has just 1.3 children, and the average age for a woman to have her first child is 31.
WU GUOXIU: The world’s most populous country has a dangerously low birth rate. A written report from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences says the fertility rate in China is now at 1.4 children/woman, close to the global warning line of 1.3, or the “low fertility trap.” And it warns once it slips into the trap, no country has ever returned to the replacement level.
REPORTER: Fewer babies are being born in the United States. The latest birth statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show birth rates in this country are at a record low. Less than four million babies were born in the US last year, the smallest number in 30 years.
SOURCE: U.S. Birth Rates Hit a Baby Bust
MALCOLM BRABANT: With its rapidly aging population, Greece is not only facing a demographic time bomb. Its young generation is in the firing line of what a sociologist calls “geneocide” or annihilation.
SOTIRIS XTOURIS: If a country is losing a creative young generation, they do not have the means to reproduce itself. This will be a vicious cycle of degradation, of decline of the society.
China, once seen as ground zero for the population bomb, is now leading the way into this new reality of demographic winter. Their one-child policy, hailed by population control advocates like Ehrlich, quickly turned into a socially disastrous epidemic of sex-selective abortion and infanticide. Now China’s working age population is shrinking, its retirement age population is booming, and its 25-49 year old population—responsible for new housing starts and most of the spending in the economy—reached its peak in 2014 and is now in permanent decline.
Recognizing the demographic disaster that their attempts at population control helped bring about, the Chinese government officially dropped the one-child policy in 2015. Ehrlich’s response? To call the move “gibbering insanity” from “the growth-forever gang.”
Japan’s population is now shrinking and expected to drop under one hundred million—a 20% decline—by the middle part of the century. If current trends continue, the Japanese people are expected to be extinct within the next 1,700 years.
Low birth rates and economic migration have hit Eastern Europe especially hard, with countries like Bulgaria expecting a 30% population decline in the coming decades.
While there are many factors that play into these trends—political, social and economic—there are certain scientific factors discernible in the statistics that point to something more nefarious entirely.
Since the 1950s a growing body of scientific literature has documented a steady decline in sperm count of men in certain geographic areas, most notably in parts of Europe and North America. Although there is still vigorous debate over the cause and nature of this decline in semen quality, endocrine disrupting chemicals such as phthalates that have been proven to disrupt sperm production in fish are being looked at as a potential cause. The bad news is that these offending chemicals are to be found in a bewildering array of products in the modern world, from sunscreen and cosmetics to shower curtains, frying pans, and even cheese.
NARRATOR: A new study reports significant declines in sperm count among men from Western countries and scientists aren’t sure why. The researchers found total sperm count in men from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand declined by almost 60%, while sperm concentration dropped 52%.
Declines in sperm count have been reported since 1992 but previous studies were criticized for small sample numbers and conflicting results this new study takes a broader approach looking at more than 7,000 studies from 1973 to 2011.
DR. HAGAI LEVINE: These findings have wide implications for Public health.
NARRATOR: Some synthetic chemicals can disrupt or block the functioning of testosterone in the body, permanently damaging the sexual development of male children. This disruption of the human body’s own system may be the greatest unintended consequences of the 20th century’s chemical revolution.
SOURCE: The Disappearing Male
MELISSA DYKES: ‘A mass sterilization exercise’: Kenyan doctors find anti-fertility agent in UN tetanus vaccine. Kenyan doctors find anti-fertility agents in UN tetanus vaccine, and unfortunately this is not new and it’s actually something that has been in the works since the 60s and it’s happened in multiple other countries and it’s horrifying that they’re doing this. This is what’s going on right now.
“Kenya’s Catholic bishops are charging two United Nations organizations with sterilizing millions of girls and women under cover of an anti-tetanus inoculation program sponsored by the Kenyan government.”
They are administering this tetanus toxoid vaccine to 2.3 million girls and women. It’s sponsored through the World Health Organization and UNICEF and they’ve sent six samples of these vaccines to two different labs and both of them have come back conclusively that these vaccines are positive for HCG antigens all of these vaccines are laced with HCG.
So now, half a century after Ehrlich announced the “population bomb,” and four decades after people like Ehrlich and Holdren wrote of the need for a planetary regime to control the world population by adding sterilants to the water supply, the world is awash in chemicals that are causing mass infertility and declining sperm counts, abortifacients are ending up in UN-sponsored vaccination drives, and birth rates are plummeting across the globe. There are some that would argue this is coincidence.
But regardless of why the world is facing this infertility crisis at this particular moment, it remains the case that the overpopulation fearmongering has been remarkably successful. Ask 100 people on the street whether there are too many people in the world and 99 of them will answer in the affirmative. When these people, locked into this crisis mindset, finally discover the truth about declining fertility and falling birth rates, most of them will see this as a good thing.
This is the real issue: Most people believe that the world is a fixed and depleting pie over whose scraps we are condemned to fight. From this perspective, every new baby born into the world is merely a competitor for a limited supply of resources. A human obstacle in the path to abundance.
This “fixed pie” way of looking at the world is the depletionist mindset: More people means less resources to go around. The more of us there are, the poorer everyone will be. This is such an intuitive way of thinking about the world that most people never stop to realize that it is not, in fact, true.
INTERVIEWER: If you want more people you must like people.
JULIAN SIMON: Yes, I do like people. But I like them, I also admire them, luckily, however,
this admiration does not conflict with what we know about the scientific evidence about people. And let me cite a body of scientific literature which is now almost 30 years old, 25 years old.
For long—2,000 years and more—we know that people have believed that if you have more human beings that there would be less to go around, and that economies would develop more slowly than if there are fewer people. We can hang this idea on Malthus for convenient memory, but the idea has simply been that if you have two people trying to work an acre of land there’ll be less output per acre than there would be if there’s only one person. And if you have 10 people in the family there’d be less food and other goodies to go around that if they’re only five people.
Then perhaps 25 years ago some economists began to explore the matter and say, “Let’s check it out empirically. Let’s look at the evidence that’s available to us. Let’s consider the sample of countries that we have historically and see if it really works that way.” So the first of these was a man named Simon Kuznets, perhaps the greatest economic/demographic/statistical historian who has ever lived. And he looked at the evidence for all the countries which we have data for the past hundred years to see whether those countries that had faster population growth had slower economic growth. Lo and behold, no such negative relationship! Then he and other people also looked at the country’s much larger number of countries which we had data, say for the past 25 years, and once again: no negative relationship. Exactly the opposite from what the simple-minded Malthusian theory had led us to expect for all these years.
This empirical scientific research liberates us to feel good about people in ways that we might not otherwise. We can not only like people and admire them for their individual qualities, but we can also see that people on balance are good for other people.
INTERVIEWER: But not all people.
SIMON: Not all people!
INTERVIEWER: I’m sure there’s some behavior that you would—
SIMON: Not all people. But on average people create a little bit more than they use up in their lifetimes. People leave a little bit of good behind them so that each generation is a little bit richer and lives a little bit better than the generation which went before, on average. Now you’re right that there are periods and there are places when we do worse. There are some of us who don’t contribute and who use more than we let me contribute on average people give more to other people than they take and therefore we can admire people in the large as well as individually for being creators more than they are destroyers.
INTERVIEWER: Well at the individual level, what kind of person aren’t you comfortable with? What kind of attributes cause you the most problem in an individual?
SIMON: That’s a real curve ball, Bob. I think the attribute that distresses me most—aside from the usual ugly things of people who are bullies or exploiters—but among ordinary good people the attribute that causes me most trouble is lack of imagination and the inability to imagine the good things that can be created by other people. This feeds into people’s fear about population growth, about their fear that we are going to be running out of copper and of oil. They can’t imagine so many people simply are unable to conceive how other people can respond to problems with new ideas with imagination of the solutions which will leave us better off than the problems that never risen.
SOURCE: The PRC Forum – Julian Simon
Julian Simon, famed economist and author of The Ultimate Resource, had a remarkably similar background to Paul Ehrlich. Both were born in New Jersey in 1932. Both attended Ivy League schools. And both became interested in the problem of overpopulation.
Versed in the same literature and reading the same academic treatises as Ehrlich, Simon, too, became an advocate of population control. His earliest academic writing included essays drawing on his experience in the private sector to suggest ways of marketing population control programs to the public.
But, spurred by doubts about whether population reduction might actually harm humanity rather than save it, Simon (unlike Ehrlich) went back to the data to see if the population hysteria was actually justified. Finding that the data in fact showed the opposite of what doomsayers like Ehrlich were saying, Simon began writing articles arguing against the population control advocates.
But in the midst of the population bomb hysteria, it was almost impossible to get an anti-Malthusian message in front of the public. And so, as Pierre Desrochers of the University of Toronto Mississauga explains, Simon hit upon an idea for challenging Ehrlich’s fearmongering in the most public way possible.
PIERRE DESROCHERS: OK, well. So Simon is at home watching Ehrlich on the Johnny Carson show when he goes bananas because he sees him all the time in his opinion spouting nonsense things that are not backed up by the data. But then, what are you gonna do? Because if you know the media you know that if it bleeds it leads and nobody wants to listen to him. He might be, you know, the most prominent anti-Malthusian but that’s kind of like saying that you’re the tallest of the seven dwarfs. I mean, he has no popular impact whatsoever.
And so, being a marketing person, he cooks up a scenario which he thinks that, you know, will turn out to be an offer that Ehrlich cannot refuse. And so what he does is that he makes a very public bet to Ehrlich to essentially put up or shut up. And so what he tells him is, “OK, select any five resources of your liking over any period of time of more than a year, and if as you say we’re heading towards a Malthusian catastrophe, with more mouths to feed the finite resources, well obviously the price of these resources should go up over time.” I mean that’s basic economics. If on the other end hand the price of these resources decreases while population increases then it will show you that you’re wrong and that humanity is actually able to create resources, not just consume them.
And so Ehrlich agrees and put it on paper-and this is important for how we will interpret the bet later-before other greedy people jump in. And so he recruits two of his regular collaborators, so the US science czar in the Obama administration, John Holdren, who was kind of a young protege of him, and another fellow at Berkeley, John Harte, a physicist. And so Ehrlich consults not only these two collaborators but other prominent Malthusians, and he tells them, “OK, what are the commodities that are really likely to see a shortage in the coming years?” And so he settles on the five commodities that you mentioned before.
And so the idea is that, OK, they will in theory buy two dollars of these commodities in late September 1980, and ten years later if the price of these commodities has gone up Simon will pay them the difference but if the price of these commodity goes down then Ehrlich will pay the difference. And so it turns out that in October 1990 Paul Ehrlich wrote a cheque of about five hundred seventy dollars to Julian Simon, put it in an envelope—and again for young people, you know, you put a paper check in a paper envelope, you put it in a mailbox—and so in mid-October 1990, Julian Simon finds in his mailbox a check written by Paul Ehrlich with nothing else.
Ehrlich never acknowledges that his perspective might have been wrong. He honors his bet but that’s it, and then he goes on saying that, you know, “Stupid people can be wrong sometimes. The world will never run out of imbeciles.” And he’s very rude to Simon and always refuses to engage him in a public debate. So Simon won his bet with him, for years asked Ehrlich to debate him on stage, on TV, anywhere. He would agree to anything. And Ehrlich never had the guts—or would never demean himself, if you look at it from his perspective to debate someone like Julian Simon.
The “Simon-Ehrlich wager” is now remembered as “the bet of the century” and a decisive victory for the anti-Malthusian mindset. But the real importance of the bet is often lost in the interpretation.
The change in price of these commodities (copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten) was never meant to be more than an imperfect economic measure of a much more important underlying truth: that the most important resource in the world—The Ultimate Resource, in Simon’s formulation—is not chromium or tin or any other physical commodity, but human ingenuity itself.
JAMES CORBETT: Alright, a fascinating story in so many ways, and interesting, I think, for the characters of these two people, but perhaps more importantly for the ideas underlying this wager. So let’s flesh that out a little bit for people who didn’t quite catch this. So what is the ramification of commodity prices going up in ten years or going down. Why is this important to population?
DESROCHERS: OK, well that’s an imperfect measure and Simon is the first to acknowledge that. But he settles on this particular indicator because, again, he’s trying to get Ehrlich to take the bait.
And so again you’ve got to understand basic economics. You’ve got supply, you’ve got demand, and so the more a commodity is sought after the more its price should rise because, you know more people are willing to bet on it and what-have-you.
And so what is remarkable about the history of commodity prices is that in the last two centuries, as the human population went from roughly a billion people two centuries ago to over seven billion today, the price of virtually all commodities in a market economy—and this is important as Simon insisted on that the price of the commodity must not be over-regulated by governments—the price of all commodities—despite the fact that huge quantities of them are consumed and increasing quantities over time—the price of all these commodities has been either stable for long periods of times or has gone down.
Now of course you’ve got cyclical swings in the market, and so one could argue that if the bet that taken place between a different time period, Ehrlich would have won a few times, but the point that was always made by Simon and others is that if you take the longest perspective possible on any commodity, all these cyclical swings are not significant in the long run. The trend is really down. And what that means, in essence, is that resources, even the non-renewable ones, are not just a fixed amount of stuff that you have in the ground, but are created by the human brain.
And so petroleum, for example, would be a case in point. So throughout human history people noticed in a few places on the earth petroleum seeping out of the ground. And sometimes they would collect it for a number of reasons, but really the modern petroleum industry begins in the late 1850s in western Pennsylvania with Colonel Edwin Drake, who knows that petroleum can be used to develop kerosene, which is a substitute for whale oil which is actually becoming scarce at the time. And so he brings a few people with him and they begin to drill close to the natural oil seepages of western Pennsylvania. And so they use a technology that was first used in salt mining. You can go down about 70, feet and that’s about as deep as they can go. And lucky enough the drill, I’m told—because I’ve been there—they drilled in the one spot where they could actually get oil that way.
And so what’s interesting is that obviously all smaller deposits are finite, but over time what the petroleum industry does in the next century and a half is to create new technologies that allows humans to expand the resource base of a finite thing, which is petroleum. So over time new deposits are found, but also new technologies are developed to go get oil today—you know, you go four miles offshore, 2 miles below sea level, then another 2 miles down, then another 4 miles in one or another direction—and the cost of getting oil that way is about the same as it was in the late 1850s when, with the primitive technologies of the tim,e you could only go about 70 feet underground.
So I don’t know if you’ll show this image but there is obviously a finite amount of petroleum on earth. We don’t know how much, but we first begin drilling for the most easily available resources and then we expand over time with new technologies. But the mistake that people like Ehrlich make is to think that, “Well of course we skim the best deposits first, and as a result the price of extracting the resource will increase over time.” Whereas Simon and people of his mindset will point out, “Well, no, look at the historical data.” The price is not only not going up, it’s often going down, and that’s because on the one hand you’ve got the type of deposits that you have access to, on the other you’ve got the new technologies to access those deposits. And what human history teaches us—even in the world of non-renewable resources—is that the human brain or capacity to come up with new ideas always more than make up for the fact that we’re tapping into increasingly less interesting deposits.
And so with new technologies you can actually extract petroleum which might seem more difficult to reach than previous deposits. You can access it more easily and extract it more profitably or at least at a lower cost than before. And so you must always look at the kind of physical stuff that is around you but you must never forget the capacity of the human brain to develop technologies to tap into those resources ever more efficiently, which is why Simon referred to the human brain as “the ultimate resource.”
Ultimately what is around us is not what matters. You know, there was coal for long before human beings came along, natural gas, iron ore, but this physical stuff only became a resource through the development of human technologies that allowed our ancestors to turn this otherwise worthless stuff into things that are valuable, and to do it increasingly efficiently over time. And when in the context of a market economy, Simon and others will tell you you’ve got a few things happening. You’ve got a feedback mechanism which is the price system, which tells you that when the price of a resource temporarily goes up—you know, there might be a war, there might be a shortage, there might be a new demand for a particular resource—well, this tells people to look for more of the stuff, to use it ever more efficiently, and to develop substitute.
And through the combination of these three forces triggered by the price mechanism, humanity has been able to expand its resource base. And after a century—after almost two centuries of industrialization, we’ve never not only run out of theoretically depletable resources, we’ve got more resources than ever before.
CORBETT: I like to think of the Ehrlichs of the 19th century screaming from the rooftops “Oh no! We’re running out of whale blubber! How will we heat our homes? How will we have light? Oh no! We’re all going to hell!” and the Simons of the 19th century pointing out, “Well, you know that sticky stuff that keeps bubbling up out of the ground? That might be important in the future.”
This is what the Ehrlichs of the world don’t want you to think about. They want you to believe that the earth is a fixed and shrinking pie, and that every new baby that is born is just another mouth looking to consume a piece of that pie.
In reality, we live on a vast and expanding pie, made larger in each and every generation since Thomas Malthus started spreading his Chicken Little population propaganda by the very thing that these Malthusians hate the most: people. Babies are not a burden on the planet, not a cancer that must be eliminated from the face of the earth, but our most precious resource. Among the babies being born today are the inventors and explorers of tomorrow, the artists who will enrich our lives and the visionaries who will help us to see the world in a way we can’t even imagine yet. They will create new technologies that make hitherto unknown and unthinkable resources available to us and will help to lift billions more out of abject poverty just as billions have been lifted out of poverty in the decades since Ehrlich first started warning us that the sky was falling.
Ehrlich and the other population fearmongers have been wrong in each and every generation since Malthus started predicting famines and the collapse of civilization two centuries ago. And they will continue to be wrong until the world, realizing that the human brain is the only resource that really matters, stops giving charlatans like Ehrlich awards and start concentrating on the demographic winter that is the real threat to humanity.