Environmental Ineffectiveness

Ehrlich, Paul R. | September 30, 2014 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Illustration by Jim Benton accessed from morallymarketed.com

Years ago when I was on the board of the Audubon Society, one of the group’s main foci was recycling.  Recycling is a complex business.  Sometimes it makes sense to recycle, sometimes not, depending on the product, the materials it is made of, the location of the recycler relative to recycling facilities, and so on.  The claim is sometimes made that recycling is beneficial because it adds to awareness of environmental problems.  The counter to this is that a person wheeling their recycling to the curb past a five-car garage containing five large SUVs, one for each kid, could actually believe he or she is living an environmentally benign existence.  Considering this complexity, I repeatedly suggested that Audubon recycling literature always include a statement to the effect that no matter how much recycling is practiced the collapse of civilization will be delayed very little by it as long as the human population and consumption by the rich continues to grow.  Of course, no such statement was ever added.

The failure of environmental groups to deal with the drivers of environmental deterioration is in many ways understandable.  Population concerns raise the issue of racism – and certainly some of the proponents of demographic measures want them applied against “others.”  Environmental organizations want to be as large and inclusive as possible, so why bring up controversial issues that may be off-putting to many.  Demographic measures also face religious barriers ranging from the immoral teachings of the Catholic hierarchy to the well-funded high priests of what Naomi Klein called “disaster capitalism” and other cults of endless economic growth and unlimited consumption.

Leaders of NGOs, even those who understand the situation, are thus loathe to tell the truth because of the potential effects on their recruitment and, especially fund raising.  They often tend to be heavily dependent on foundation support.  But those in control of large foundations are usually personally well-off and are slow to believe that the entire socio-political-economic system that brought them to the top needs dramatic revision.  They believe incremental change will cure society’s ills.  Thus they are reluctant to fund programs that would challenge those powerful religious beliefs.  And the general public, victims of a broken educational system and corporate-controlled media, can hardly even imagine anything but business-as-usual.  Why tell them the truth just because it might save civilization?

At good example of the plight of the NGOs was recently provided by Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, one of the most effective organizations trying to help preserve human life-support systems.  A close colleague attended a speech by Brune in a small Colorado resort town.    The audience was heavily environmentally-oriented people, many very well-off.  Brune talked about the success the Club has had in killing coal-fired power plants in the U.S. – a very good thing.  Reducing dependence on coal is a small but important start on the needed transition away from fossil fuel burning.  But Brune totally ignored the key drivers of environmental destruction – America’s continuing population growth and cultural addiction not to health and happiness of its citizens but to ever-increasing consumption.  And he didn’t note that the Club’s wise emphasis on developing more solar power has a dark side in a world of perpetual growth – solar energy can be used to destroy human life-support systems just as can energy mobilized by burning fossil fuels. The bottom line was that likely no one gained any more insight about the drivers underlying climate change and other existential threats, nor the urgency of our environmental situation, even though many in that audience were clearly ready to deal with the drivers and the big issues.  Now, then, is the time for responsible environmental leaders to be educating the public about them.  The speech was unlikely to be of much help to the Club, since the omissions distressed knowledgeable people in the audience and at least one potential funder was disgusted enough to say that no more support would go to the Club.

One hope of the MAHB is that it can help push environmental groups and other elements of civil society to focus on drivers, not just symptoms, and to coordinate efforts to bring them to public attention.  Any time you hear an environmental lecture or see a video or ad that does not at least direct people toward the malign roles of overpopulation and overconsumption by the rich, you are witnessing a lost opportunity.

MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/environmental-ineffectiveness/

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • Hon

    Environmentalism has done good things to clean up water and air in some parts of the world. However, it has been largely inneffective. The only thing that is going to drastically improve the environment and reduce manmade pollution is drastic societal and political reform, honest industrial oversight and also population reduction. We will not abandon technology and industrialization and return to an agrarian society, that ship has sailed. The way food is grown now, without modern technology, transportation / farming etc, billions would starve to death, war and conflict would become more widespread.
    Population reduction has to occur, politicians wont touch that subject. It brings up images of genocide, forced sterilizations and abortions, eugenics.
    Serious punishment has to occur for white collar bankster criminals has to be on par with what happens to ordinary people. The corporation / political oligarchy has be dismantled. The catch is at the same time…Education, political and economic stability will be key to reducing overpopulation. Society has to transform completely over the next century. If the nation states cease to exist I am pessimistic though, knowing the nature of power and corruption, not sure a world under one government is possible without greater evil and oppression from those on high.
    Too bad that most humans (myself included) spend our entire lives scratching for sustenance or pursuing money to accumulate crap they dont need and wont provide joy or satisfaction. Seldom do we realize our full potential.
    The time is running out…. As George Carlin said, The planet isn’t going anywhere, we are! Were going away…

  • Very intriguing discussion indeed. Environmental policies should come from within if you ask me. Every company must take proper actions to be effective and contribute for saving the environment. For example, I work at an office cleaning company in London – http://www.foslondon.co.uk where we have began to use only eco-friendly cleaning detergents. It might be a small step, but it’s still better than nothing.

  • Vince

    This is a very interesting discussion with some closely held opinions underlying the comments. Thanks to Dr. Ehlich for bringing it up.

    As a student of sustainability with a particular interest in carbon footprint analysis, I am surprised at how little discussion there is of the difference in environmental impact between cultures. This is the problem that may be bigger than population (that’s a joke).
    An average Afganhi or African has a vastly different footprint than a Westerner (or the ~1/3 of Chinese population that lives a “developed” world lifestyle). Theirs is mostly from the impact on forests (and other species, but I won’t point fingers until we bring back the wild bison). By virtue of living in the US, I am stuck with an average carbon footprint of about 17.564 tons CO2e/year. Much of that is embedded in our infrastructure. But, I live a mile or less from just about everything I need, have an electric car (old conversion), and ride my bike and public transportation when I can. My home is modestly sized and energy efficient. I seldom fly anymore, except for emergencies, and always offset my carbon when I must fly.

    I am not going to get all righteous about a vegan diet, (sorry, Sailesh, loved Cowspiracy, and I keep doing my best at pushing myself down the food chain), but support everyone eating lower on the food chain. I have not eaten mammals in a long time, have not regularly eaten fowl for a few years, but still occasionally eat sustainably harvested fish, when I am near the ocean, or if I catch it myself. Overall, my carbon and more generally, my environmental footprint is closer to a European standard of about 10 tons/yr, maybe less. I should re-calculate it soon, I might have something to brag about.

    My footprint is still a long way from the 0.3 to 5 tons/year for the vast majority of the world’s population (generally, the same people who live on <1 to ~2 dollars a day). Accumulated over a lifetime (my life expectancy, not Afgan), that's an overall difference in impact over one hundred fold. Please, do not argue about the numbers, I am talking two orders of magnitude. If it is 140 or 70 is not the point. It is huge compared to the world's average population.

    My lifetime environmental impact is more than average still. Will I give up cars, etc., and live in a 100 sq ft hut. Not yet, still have a job to do. Where is my copy of Walden Pond? Back to the point. That was, umm, Oh, yeah, the so-called population taboo. While agree with Dr Ehrlich's essay, most of the comments seem to have missed the point. Population growth is a problem. Solutions exist, and most do not involved coercive policies. Over-consumption, that may be harder, especially for Americans.

    Simple numerical analysis says it is the US lifestyle that is killing the planet, not just sheer numbers of people. YES, population is a problem, but so too is over-development. This has been the crux of the impasse in climate negotiations. The Global South says we have a right to develop to, say, 7 tons/yr/person before they need to limit their society's growth. Led by the US, the rest of the haves point to population. BOTH need to be fixed, and soon.

    Live simply, so that others may simply live.

  • John Weyland


    i agree, we need to focus on causes. apart from consumption, our violent culture is not good at providing respect and control to members, so a lot of cultural norms need reform. for example, i see that most groups get smaller and its members get older with time, and then it dies.

    in Adelaide you talked about the need for an ongoing conversation leading to a mass movement. i’ve heard other professors echo that and i totally agree.

    i’d like to be part of such a conversation, or start one with you: working to make it work and then starting others.

    i don’t see ‘blog, and comments’ as effective so please email me.

    my current thinking is of a process like a “citizen jury”, to reduce bias and concentrate on justice for all: used at the community level, being the basis of a mass movement, and beyond.

    yours sincerely

  • David Higham

    Thanks to Paul Ehrlich for this essay.I agree with most of Michael Tobias’s comment.
    Most readers of this blog realize that economic growth is possible for a limited time only ,and cannot continue on a finite planet.
    How many realize that even a steady state economy would eventually reach a similar predicament to the one we are now in,if that society was dependent on fossil fuels for its functioning?
    Since we first discovered the energy bonanza of fossil fuels we’ve behaved like bacteria in a petri dish.We’ve assiduously built a bubble civilisation around that finite energy bonanza,which is accompanied by an invisible,lethal byproduct,CO2.
    Our grotesquely inflated population is dependent on industrial agriculture for it’s survival.If we stop using fossil fuels,billions die within months,because industrial agriculture is dependent on fossil fuels.
    If we continue to use fossil fuels,the effects of climate disruption become increasingly severe,and will cause the collapse of this civilisation this century,possibly before mid century.
    The irresistible energy bonanza of fossil fuels has led us into a progress trap .
    There is no way out of our current situation without an enormous population die-off.
    It seems to me that Michael Tobias is incorrect in stating that our population will reach 11 billion.Every ecosystem is in freefall.The ocean situation is horrendous.
    (Read ‘Stung ‘by Gershwin for up to date information .)The rapidly deteriorating climate disruption situation and it’s manifold effects will mean that the population will peak before 2030,I think.
    I will leave it at that Thank you,Paul and Anne Ehrlich,for doing your utmost to change
    the trajectory and bring ecological literacy to the populace.I am 59 now,Joanna and I had no children as I,like you,have been aware of the unsustainable trajectory of our civilisation for most of my life.

  • Sailesh Rao

    Mainstream environmental organizations have actually been very effective – at getting themselves funded. And that’s why they are mainstream.

    To get themselves funded, they keep two subjects taboo: consumption and population, both factors which impact the growth of the capitalist economy, the very source of their almighty dollars.

    But if the dollar is viewed as a proxy for “value” in our society, isn’t this what we should have expected, in the first place? There is no point in blaming mainstream environmental organizations, who are simply reflecting our present values as a society.

    We deserve them.

  • Michael Tobias

    Dr. Ehrlich has it precisely right. He and Anne Ehrlich have never been wrong. Only the incessant beneficiaries of scorn and attack by right wing fanatics who do not have a clue about gardening, birds, bees or life in general. Sample the current US Congress with respect to their knowledge of biodiversity: you will be shocked by the pervasive ignorance, arrogance, and special interests that would keep the status quo in place, despite our widespread demolition of the very support systems that have taken over 4 billion years of creative evolution on Earth to develop.

    Paul Ehrlich is the smartest ecologist since Darwin. More than a mere genius, like Mozart, he speaks his mind, and this is why he is a living treasure.

    Deep demography means deep impact. I would add, animal rights to the equation for the perfect storm. Our species, haphazardly enfranchised, largely oblivious, struggling, ecologically illiterate and multiplying as rapidly as the e coli bacterium, is likely – more than likely – to see the majority of its populations go extinct within 50 years or less. Those who survive had better start thinking very clearly about the world – a depauperate one – they will be inhabiting; how they can revivify those species that might best accommodate resuscitation; and how to most compassionately engage in politics and economics and social contracts for which triage will have become the new norm. Today’s report by the WWF (Living Planet Report) underscores the verity I am trying illustrate: Note, among other desperately alarming facts, is the following WWF declaration: “Wildlife populations have dropped sharply, by 52 per cent between 1970 and 2010, especially freshwater vertebrate species, which declined 76 per cent.” And that is with 7.3 billion monstrously invasive Homo sapiens. Just wait until we surpass 11 billion, which we will.

    Students who insist on optimism from their elders and professors need to reckon on a world where the majority of charismatic vertebrates and invertebrates have long ceased to exist. This “Wasteland” which we are courting with phenomenal speed, will leave the world looking like burnt out impoverished portions of all too familiar cities, from Detroit to Lagos to the desperate fringes of Jakarta, Mexico City, and Calcutta.

    I suggest all serious students of ecology adopt a paramedics oath of Hippocratic realism out on the battle field, because that is where our species has landed itself, along with tens-of-millions of other populations and species we are dragging down willy-nilly.

    Solutions? Become a vegetarian. Have no children. Pay your taxes with zeal. Vote. Volunteer. Save every single animal and plant you can. Stint not. If you cannot become an ecological Saint, then you are doing something wrong. Nothing should come easier to you than kindness.

    Better get your priorities straight, kid.

  • JohnTaves

    Paul Ehrlich could have said the same thing about population scientists, including himself. The whole lot, environmentalists, population scientists, the MAHB, and everyone but the Chinese leadership, are ineffective at getting to the root problem.

    The Chinese have limits on the number of babies each is allowed to create. Nobody else is advocating such a thing. Indeed the population scientists from the west, like Ehrlich, generally have the belief that it is a fundamental right to be able to have as many children as you like. Never mind that if we all choose to have 3, we will ensure that in the long run 1/3 of all children will die. These population scientists have produced studies that show that if China had not done the OCP and instead did the sort of things that Iran did, their birth rate would have dropped the same. This nonsense conclusion ignores the fact that the ugly side effects of the OCP prove that people wanted more babies.

    Population scientists should be teaching the following:
    1) our numbers are at the limit and have always been at the limit. This means that births are killing. A birth anywhere in the world, contributes to the horrid child mortality rates you see in clumps throughout the world.

    2) we do not know how to keep our current numbers alive without destroying resources faster than they renew. This concept is blatantly obvious and tells us we have a moral obligation to ensure everyone averages less than 2 babies. In the absence of laws like the Chinese OCP, an individual that knows this will stop at OneTwoFour (no more than 1 child, 2 grandchildren, 4 greats).
    3) If my descendants average more than 2 babies, they will cause the death of (x-2)/x children. In other words, you cannot depend on others to have less than 2 to balance your excess, it must be your descendants. This tells us we must teach our children to limit their births. This also tells our scientists that the sampling that is inherent in the data they use filters out information that is passed from one generation to the next and renders their conclusions (e.g. the demographic transition theory) bogus.
    4) Averaging too many babies is a worse evil than infanticide. This is not religion, or a belief. It is a logical conclusion from the facts of nature. Did you know this? If not, maybe you should.

    5) If we do the algorithm that nobody creates a child if they will be unable to afford to keep that child alive until it becomes an adult, we will stop killing children as a consequence of too many births, however we will guarantee that (x-2)/x of those children will grow up to be so poor that they know they cannot have a child. In short, the belief that you can have as many children as you can afford is an evil belief. Notice that we have never succeeded at this algorithm, and it has about as much chance of success as hell freezing over.

  • Mike

    Most environmental organizations are more interested in short term political correctness, numbers and money than in their mission. Some were advised to ignore (US) population by a well known population organization.

    In the 1970’s, the Sierra Club actually called the USA “The most overpopulated nation” (based on impact). Now, well, it seems only I remember.

    The change is rarely acknowledged. The failure is rarely recognized. The future may be bleak as a result.

  • Joern Fischer

    Readers may also be interested in my recent blog post on Obama’s quote:

    “What’s troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics”, which is here:


    There are quite a few other MAHB-related blog posts on ideas4sustainability.wordpress.com, too – which you can find here:


  • Sailesh Rao

    Please watch the documentary, “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret,” for an incisive analysis of why environmental organizations do what they do. The filmmakers are Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, both in their 20s/30s. If the millennial generation is full of people like Kip and Keegan, it makes me so hopeful for the future of humanity.

  • Laurie Gourlay

    With 35 years working on campaigns and with environment and social justice organizations I’ve been looking for that magic formula to become more effective.

    Lately I’m seeing many folks becoming discouraged by diminishing opportunities to take part in the solutions, to contribute to meaningful discussions or have effective input to public hearings. The scale of change is often overwhelming, and individuals think their ideas will simply be dismissed – that their suggestions are not appreciated or welcome.

    The funds and resources released by the ‘development’ interests, and those hired to advocate, stonewall and initiate SLAPP suits, also creates a chill – a realization that it will take a great deal of effort and personal sacrifice for those who dare to get involved in precedent-setting decisions. And they may well be shunned in their professions or communities for raising issues of concern.

    Time demands to become involved, as well as to see results, also play a big part in decisions about adding your voice to a cause. Long-term versus short-term considerations often see immediate and local issues being favoured over the complicated and muddied regional and global campaigns. And sometimes you just don’t know who to believe.

    For instance, a few years ago I was personally prevented from speaking before a local community planning meeting on a topic that I thought was pertinent because, I was told, “climate change does not apply here”. And just last month a local farmer and representative of farmers from all over Vancouver Island – who I was trying to work with to organize a food security project, told me she “doesn’t believe in climate change.”

    On top of all this is the stunning failure of our democratic systems here in North America to implement measures for proportional representation, so that everyone’s vote counts and is valued. The first-past-the-post system serves those with deep pockets very well. It also reflects the worst tendencies of our financial systems, which are increasingly rewarding transnational monopolies and free trade agreements that ensure all levels of government are accountable and beholden to international corporate goals and bottom-line agendas.

    Environmental and other campaigns therefore need to retain the skills and professional expertise in order to find ways they can participate, and to contribute to meaningful changes in legislation. At the same time they must be able to mobilize vocal public support across sectoral interests, while identifying new networking and partnership opportunities if they are to ensure success.

    In short, if one has the mettle and humanitarian bravado that they should choose to serve the greater common good, and not just themselves in this short life we are given, it will take involvement, dedication and commitment along with a willingness to forego at least some of their personal goals and ambitions.

    And with 7 billion people and climbing, and the need for four planets to sustain everyone in our western style, there is still a ways to go before those working for environmental protection are depicted in the same manner that society has reserved for its war heroes and industrial giants.

    If we continue to work together however, and to share the benefits of our labours, to help protect the ecosystems and renewable resources that we depend upon, I personally still believe we can find our way to a healthy and sustainable steady-state environment and economy.

    But I’m an optimist …good luck to us, one and all.

    Laurie Gourlay, President,
    Vancouver Island & Coast Conservation Society

  • I disagree with most of the author’s points both in direction and detail. The environmental groups have successfully pushed mercury to be added as a regulated emission under the Clean Air Act ( a blow to coal), and have rallied to push the EPA rule on carbon emissions (a blow to fossil fuels). At the State level, they have slowed mountain top removal, pushed local laws to ban fracking as well as public listing of fracking chemicals. They have protected certain land and water areas successfully as “off limits” to energy development. So the environmental community is far from ineffective. And the snide comment that solar can be used for evil is really ludicrous — compared to what ? Living is polluting and can contribute to evil too – I don’t suggest that anyone “ends it all”. Environmental awareness is a journey with no 30 minute resolutions like on TV, and while we have some progress on the federal government level, we have more to show at the state and local government levels that have more control over many of the issues environmentalists care about. – Scott Sklar, Adjunct Prof, GWU, and Chair of the Steering Committee of The Sustainable Energy Coalition, Washington, DC (solarsklar@aol.com)

    • Mark M

      Many environmental victories are wiped out by growing human numbers.

      • jane

        Exactly and this is still the elephant in the room:the recent climate change protests made no mention of human numbers.

        “The WWF also advises ditching the car in favour of public transport, increasing recycling and reducing consumption of meat and dairy products to cut down on the amount of land being deforested for farming.

        And the charity is calling for measures including expanding protected areas, scaling up renewable energy production, and diverting investment from damaging activities, making consumption patterns more sustainable – all the more necessary as the human population grows.”

        This quote was taken from an article in the UK’s Daily Telegraph on the recent WWF report : the growing human population is taken as a given.

        We are on a hiding to nothing unless we can bring this to the fore and overcome political correctness,the stranglehold of various religious and human rights lobbies and the reluctance and ignorance of the public at large .

    • rosa

      This is exactly what he’s talking about; the type of thinking that shows you don’t get the big picture. Pretty much every environmental problem is caused or exacerbated by overpopulation and overconsumption. We use 19 million barrels of oil a day in the US. If oil use goes down, people are still going to want things, and the amount of renewables needed to replace the infrastructure, would cause unsustainable environmental damage in its own right. No matter what you do, unless you address consumption it’s putting a bandaid over a bullet wound. 30% lower co2 emissions on coal plants won’t matter if total energy use continues to grow. Solar energy has a lower impact, but still an impact, and no energy form or strategy can support the consumption and growth we have now sustainably. No local and state laws will change this, and we cannot avoid collapse without addressing the big picture.

      • JohnTaves

        I agree with your point about Sklar’s comment, but don’t agree with your point about consumption.

        Unless we limit the number of babies we are allowed to create, it is putting a bandaid over a bullet wound.

        • Chris

          I can only agree with John Taves completely.

          I have often considered the concept of a perpetual motion as best defined as a drive to reproduce. All species are very good at it. The local paper yesterday showed a family with eight children . Their father was out of work ….. only an unskilled worker… with no prospects of getting more work.
          All the sympathies with this Adelaide couple were described as being the result of a poor jobs market. No mention that the eight children were more to do with their misery and poverty.

          Also Thomas Hardy’s novel “Jude The Obscure” discusses family size very well …… leading to a very important incident in the novel. In it the son of Jude , and stepson of Susan, whose name is Little Father Time smothers his two siblings and then hangs himself. He left a scribbled note saying “done because we are too many”

          And this is so relevant to 2014. Probably more than ever.

    • Richard Hampton

      You are correct in stating that the environmental movement has had many successes, especially at the local level. There are countless local initiatives that have held back environmental degradation. These efforts should be lauded and the successes be celebrated. However, the active environmental community might be described as another “one percent” but without the far reaching power and influence of the other “one percent”, those who control our economies and politics. The reality we face is that in spite of the efforts and successes of the environmental movement, pur world continues to bne degraded on an enormous scale as resource consumption and population continue to grow.

      Ehrlich is absolutely correct in stating that we need to “push environmental groups and other elements of civil society to focus on the drivers, not just the symptoms”. His hope that the MAHB can “help push” is commendable and should be encouraged.

      Richard Hampton, Director
      Qualicum Institute (MAHB node)