Global Dash of Folly

Ehrlich, Anne H., Paul R. Ehrlich | January 21, 2014 | Leave a Comment

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Individuals have been raising alarm about the impacts of humanity on its life-support systems as far back as George Perkins Marsh in the 1800s and even Plato BCE.  But the scientific community only began to give organized voice to environmental concerns in the United States in the late 1960s with the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Resources and Man, followed quickly by the Study of Critical Environmental Problems (SCEP) at MIT in 1970.  In 1972, the United Nations held the first Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, which was followed by others in 1982 and 1992. Escalating concerns in the 1970s led to passage of an array of environmental legislation in the U.S. and other developed nations, the emergence of the field of conservation biology, and the founding of the Society for Conservation Biology in the 1980s, soon followed by the International Society for Ecological Economics.  Important steps included the establishment by the UN in 1988 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the release in 1993 of the joint statement on population by academies of science in 58 nations and the U.S. Union of Concerned Scientists’ “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.”  Since those early efforts there has been a deluge of scientific papers and meetings detailing the human predicament and suggesting measures to deal with the overgrowth of the human enterprise and its prospective consequences.  Scientists also continue to release statements trying to alert the public to their growing concerns (e.g., and a series of IPCC reports,

What brought all this to our minds again was reading a fine book entitled “Japan 1941.”  It shows in substantial detail how Japan’s leaders, having miscalculated in starting the war with China (1937), were perfectly aware, in detail, that they could not win a war with the United States.  Nonetheless, they proceeded with the fateful attack on Pearl Harbor, planned by Yamamoto Isoroko – ironically one of the Japanese leaders who had explicitly warned against tempting fate.  In short, Japan faced an existential threat, and went right ahead risking the end because internal dynamics made it impossible for the nation to change a course many knew was insane. The parallel to today’s situation in the United States (and much of the world) is thought-provoking.

Confronted with an existential threat, the high probability of catastrophic consequences for civilization, and a small probability of the extinction of Homo sapiens, society seems paralyzed.  The “news” in the U.S. focuses almost entirely on the relatively trivial.  Besides the litany of gun deaths and sports reports, the “news” features idiotic battles over budgets or a health-care plan (a small improvement on the previous inequitable system, but not a modern single-payer government system), and the travails of trying to maintain a global empire designed to keep oil and other resources  flowing in and products moving out. Evening TV “news” coverage of the quite alarming 2013 IPCC report was eclipsed by a story about a retiring baseball pitcher.  Many stories focus on battling terrorism, not mentioning that much of it is largely motivated by such things as slaughtering wedding parties in attempts to kill groups who don’t like the empire’s actions, or that many of the enemies were U.S.-armed “freedom fighters” who have morphed into “terrorists.”

Population growth, the most difficult-to-cure driver on the road to collapse is rarely mentioned, outside of responses to the Census Bureau noting that the runaway population explosion in the U.S. was slowing down.  This was greeted by a swarm of stories about how the nation was becoming demographically “stagnant” Overconsumption?  All the end-of-the-year talk in 2013 was on the need for growth.  Typical was deeply ignorant coverage on NPR, in which a historian opined that the famous Ehrlich, Harte, Holdren bet in 1980 with mail-order-marketer Julian Simon (who thought the human population could grow for another seven billion years) “set the stage for a world where environmental debates are framed by the extremes — one side warning of certain catastrophe, and the other saying everything is going to be great.”

Well, things aren’t going great, and they are unlikely to get better even in the middle term.  Barbara Tuchman long ago defined “folly” as governments doing incredibly stupid things when knowledgeable groups were explaining to them in detail what was wrong with their actions.  The world’s governments are now accelerating folly, repeating the old Japanese pattern of leaders refusing to act on wise advice and detailed information, even when they knew it was right. They were blinded by tradition, legend, ego, jealousy, and fear of change.  The Japanese population was kept in near total ignorance of the nation’s military capacities compared to those of the United States, just as the corporate media today ignores what the scientific community is telling us about our capacity to sustain perpetual growth.

Catastrophe looks more likely every day.

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  • Steven Earl Salmony

    Please take a moment to celebrate the 450th birthday of Galileo Galilei, which occurred on February 15, 2014. Likely all of you are aware of the personal trials and tribulations that he endured as a result of his indomitable will to speak truth to power. The memory of this exemplar to all of us leads me to ask a question. What is Galileo is doing tonight? My hope would be that the great man is resting in peace and that his head is not spinning in his grave. How, now, can Galileo possibly have peace? So few scientists with appropriate expertise speak out clearly and loudly regarding whatsoever they believe to be true regarding at least one root cause of the colossal, distinctly human-driven global predicament looming so ominously before humanity: human population dynamics/overpopulation of Earth. The human community could soon be confronted by multiple global ecological threats to future human wellbeing and environmental health that appear to result directly from the unbridled overproduction, unreserved per capita overconsumption and unregulated overpopulation activities of the human species which are now rapidly overspreading the Earth (lower TFRs in many countries notwithstanding) and threatening to ravage the planetary home we are blessed us to inhabit. Many too many leaders and a predominant coterie of the ‘brightest and best’ experts are choosing to remain silent rather than acknowledge the best available science. Please consider how the elective mutism of so many of the most highly-regarded and knowledgeable scientists among us could be contributing to the effective ruination of Earth and its environs as a fit place for human habitation.

    Where are the top rank researchers and well-established professionals with appropriate expertise who will stop colluding in silence, who are willing to examine and report on science that exists in the form of solid, uncontested research? Look at the dismaying disarray in which we find ourselves now and how far we have to travel in a short time to move the human family away from precipitating some unimaginable sort of global ecological wreckage. What would the world we inhabit look like if scientists like Galileo had chosen not to disclose science, but instead adopted a code of silence in order to serve the interests of the powers that be. In such circumstances Galileo as well as scientists today would speak only about scientific evidence that the super-rich and most powerful people believe to be politically convenient, religiously tolerable, economically expedient, socially correct and culturally prescribed? By so doing, Galileo and modern-day scientists would effectively breach their responsibilities to science and duty to humanity to report objectively findings from their research, as honestly as they can report it.

    Heretofore silent scientists are called upon now to follow the example of Galileo. The politically correct silence of so many knowledgeable but apparently dumbstruck experts on one hand, as well as the incessant mass media jabber of absurdly enriched sycophants and other bought and paid for minions of wealthy power brokers on the other hand, could be killing the world we inhabit as well as life as we know it. Most scientists have not actively engaged in inimical ‘sins of commission’, as have many too many deceitful, chattering non-scientist experts (e. g., economists, politicians and demographers); and yet too many scientists on our watch appear to have chosen to maintain their silence by not speaking out ‘as if each one was a million voices’. It appears scientists have been and continue willfully to deny the best available scientific evidence that specifically relates to human population dynamics. Is their collusion to remain electively mute correctly described as a sin of omission or a lie of silence? If science does not overcome silence soon, then much of the world the human community believes we are preserving and protecting will be irreversibly degraded and relentlessly dissipated, if not destroyed outright. Surely, objective empirical reports from intellectually honest and moral courageous scientists regarding the population dynamics of the human species and the human overpopulation of Earth will give Galileo Galilei peace.

  • William (Bill) Lidicker


    “Two thumbs up” to Paul and Anne Ehrlich for their forthright summary of humanity’s
    propensity to ignore objective, albeit unpleasant, evidence of reality, and
    thereby accept the negative consequences of this folly. Even for the relatively
    well-educated citizens of the United States, political pundits are fond of
    pointing out that large blocks of voters habitually vote for candidates who
    will predictably work against the voters’ self-interests. How is it that humans
    endowed with extraordinary intelligence could so readily fall prey to this
    damaging, even suicidal, behavior? Here are a few suggestions.

    It may be that humans are such social creatures that our views of reality are
    constrained by our social instincts. These make it imperative that we must honor
    friendships, political considerations, cultural traditions, legends, fear of
    change, and ideological guidelines as our highest priorities. Personal
    discomforts shackle us with saving face, egomania, jealousies, and fears of
    social rejection. Moreover, we are molded by our early education and
    experiences that instill our values, mores, social attitudes, tolerance of
    diversity among our fellow human beings, and our willingness to confront
    novelty. These humanitarian attributes have served us well in the past, and
    have allowed us to survive and prosper. As a consequence, they are now
    entrenched in our genetic heritage. Unfortunately, not much of humanity is
    currently educated in an environment that celebrates open-mindedness,
    tolerance, fairness, civility, rational thinking, and the importance of
    cooperative problem solving.

    The good news is that our strong social instincts and structures remain essential
    for human perseverance. We need only extend the perceived boundaries of the
    social network beyond the family, village, or ethnic enclave. Our educational
    systems must not only celebrate local uniqueness, but simultaneously embrace
    and appreciate human diversity on a larger scale. We will also need to learn
    how to deal with rapid cultural and environmental changes. These are now
    occurring on decadal rather than generational time scales. I agree with the
    Ehrlich’s that we do not have much time to adapt to the new realities, but
    having a clearer notion of what we need to do, might improve our chances of

    Bill Lidicker


  • Dac Crossley

    Thanks, Paul and Anne. Well said, as you usually manage. A few positives – environmental awareness is way up, from what it was when we started. And our leaders are beginning to acknowledge the extremes of poverty in our country, and ponder the consequences.