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Paul Ehrlich’s False Gospel

John Maddox (1925 – 2009) was for many years the editor of Nature, one of the two most important general science journals in the world. In 1972 he published a broadside against the radical pessimism then very prevalent with the title The Doomsday Syndrome: An Assault on Pessimism. In this book, which makes interesting reading today, Maddox attacked the propensity of scientists such as Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner to project current trends indefinitely into the future and to conclude therefrom that catastrophe must sooner or later (usually sooner) result.

Ehrlich – who is still predicting catastrophe with as much confidence as if all that he had predicted for the recent past had actually come to pass – famously, or infamously, asserted in his neo-Malthusian book, The Population Bomb, published in 1968, that the battle to feed mankind was over and that hundreds of millions of people would inevitably starve to death in the 1970s, irrespective of what anyone did to try to avoid it.

His prediction was not borne out; forty years later the greatest nutritional problem in the world is probably obesity caused by over-eating. But like those persons on the fringe of religion who predict that the world will beyond peradventure end on a certain date but whose faith is quite unshaken by the failure of that wicked world to conform to their righteous prophecies, so Professor Ehrlich continues to assert that really he was right all along: merely that he mistook the date of the great reckoning.

The problem with an open-ended prediction, or rather prophecy, is that it can never be proved wrong, however long it fails to be borne out. To the argument that the prophet’s direst prognostications have not come to pass, he can always return the answer, ‘No, not yet.’

I doubt there is anyone who never makes such prophecies and who does not derive a certain satisfaction from doing so, for there is undoubtedly a pleasure to be had from the contemplation of future catastrophe provided that that remains is the parallel psychological universes of possibility or geographical distance. Catastrophe is not, of course, such fun to live.

The Lighthouse

An illustration from Jules Verne’s “The Lighthouse at the End of the World”

Maddox pointed out the fundamental flaws of such prophecies of catastrophe: the unjustified projection of trends indefinitely into the future and the failure to take into account the possibility of countervailing developments. And he was not just concerned to refute the notion of overpopulation; he attacked those who saw in the possibility of genetic engineering only the shadow of Brave New World and in the new information technology only that of Nineteen Eighty-Four. He thought that scientific and technological advance would enrich our lives by (for example) delivering us from many diseases and enabling us to have more leisure time to pursue our interests pleasurably.

Now in a sense Maddox made some of the same errors as his self-chosen opponents. If it cannot be known that technological advance will be used to bad ends, neither can it be known that it will be used for good; and to say, as he does, that ‘medical men’ (as he calls them, not foreseeing a time when most ‘medical men’ would actually be women) will use genetic engineering for human benefit because in the past they have always used technical advance for human benefit is a projection of a kind that he elsewhere decries and even ridicules. Much in the future remains radically unknowable; and Maddox, though he was very well-informed, had no precognition of developments such as the internet or the polymerase chain reaction that has so revolutionized genetic engineering. He even thought that cloning of mammals was likely to remain forever in the realms of science fiction.

His assault on pessimism, however, seems to me to be a little simplistic because it is based on the assumption that pessimism rests largely or solely on wrongful projections or on the belief that technical advance will always be put to bad ends. But it is possible to remain pessimistic even in the absence of these errors. I believe in the possibility of indefinite technical advance, and I do not believe that such advance will invariably be put to bad ends (though some if it may). I think, for example, it is likely that medicine will continue to advance, that many diseases now incurable will become curable, and that, provided we refrain from doping ourselves up with corn syrup, our healthy lifespan will continue to lengthen. But I certainly do not believe that our life will get ‘ever happier, ever merrier,’ to quote one of the greatest optimists of all time, Josef Vissarionovich Stalin.

Pessimists are of two types, the catastrophists, that is to say the types who look up in the starry heavens and see (metaphorically) only asteroids in the sky racing towards us to wipe us out as the dinosaurs were wiped out; and existential pessimists, that is to say those who see dissatisfaction as the permanent condition of mankind because of his inherent makeup, his contradictory desires and emotions, dissatisfaction that is perfectly compatible however with a great deal of enjoyment of life. I am a pessimist of the latter kind.

The former kind of pessimist, those who foresee inevitable universal collapse, destruction, death by epidemic, and so forth, have no sense of humor, or at least of irony. For them, the furrowed brow and the shoulder weighed down by care are signs of intellectual and moral seriousness, the sine qua non genuine concern for humanity and (God preserve us) the planet. Like catastrophe itself, they are not much fun.

The existential pessimist is light-hearted, for he knows that human life is not perfectible, and can therefore enjoy what it has to offer without any sense of guilt that he is not spending his every waking hour averting disaster or bringing perfection about. He does not deny that many diseases currently incurable will one day change their status and that this is a good thing, for taken in the round more life is better than less; but neither does he expect that, when formerly incurable diseases have become curable, human complaint and dissatisfaction will become things of the past. Golden ages in the future are just as mythical as golden ages in the past (except, perhaps, in isolated fields, as exemplified in Dutch painting).

As for radical optimists, they are as insufferable as the catastrophist pessimists. America has produced perhaps more of them than anywhere else: which is why, perhaps, its best literature is so overwhelmingly tragic in tone.

Reader Discussion

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on March 11, 2013 at 08:28:38 am

I could never have conceived it possible to have much in common on any fundamental philosophical level, with Joseph Stalin. Profoundly, I thank you for that quote.

Given his context I cannot conceive of him being light hearted, except that it trebles the evidence that he was a monumental sociopath.

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tom perkins
on March 11, 2013 at 09:25:48 am

"To the argument that the prophet’s direst prognostications have not come to pass, he can always return the answer, ‘No, not yet.’"

That argument reminds me of the Keynesian Economists. When their recommendations do not work, the answer is they would have worked if we had just spent more.

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Image of Rick Caird
Rick Caird
on March 11, 2013 at 09:45:52 am

This reminds me of something the physicist Richard Feynman said in his book of anecdotes about his past, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman":

(John) von Neumann gave me an interesting idea: that you don't have to be responsible for the world that you're in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of von Neumann's advice. It's made me a very happy man ever since.

Another side of this way of thinking is that you should make sure to be glad about things that have gotten better, since it's not guaranteed in any way.

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Derek Lowe
on March 11, 2013 at 09:50:21 am

Enjoyed your takedown of Ehrlich via the insights of Maddox.

For your readers homework assignment, I'd recommend Robert Zubrin's latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism for in-depth history and context re Ehrlich and his ilk. Reviewer Steven W. Mosher, President, Population Research Institute said: “Robert Zubrin’s masterful study…makes for riveting reading. .... a cautionary tale of what happens when powerful, unprincipled elites are not only alienated from the mass of their fellow men, but come to see them as a barrier to imagined social, evolutionary, or environmental progress.”

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Roger Giellis
on March 11, 2013 at 11:16:51 am

An "existential pessimist" is what I am, only I call it being an optimist. Maybe that's just from hanging around with catastrophists too much.

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Tedd
on March 11, 2013 at 13:13:08 pm

I ahd to read this before I started at Vanderbilt6 University in 1971. 'Twas drivel then, is drivel now.

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sandi
on March 11, 2013 at 14:15:36 pm

Okay. Where's the mistake below?
1. Value is determined by supply and demand (this is not a principle of capitalist economics or of human economics; it is a fact of life). Therefore ...
2. A world in which human life is precious is a world in which human life is scarce.
3. Earth's human population cannot grow without limit.
4. Earth's human population will stop growing when either (a) the death rate rises to meet the birth rate or (b) the birth rate falls to meet the death rate.
5. Earth's human population wil stop growing as a result of either (a) deliberate human agency or (b) other.
6. Deliberate human agency is either (a) democratically controlled or (b) other.
7. The government of a locality is the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in that locality (definition, after Weber).
8. All human behavioral traits are heritable. Therefore...
9. Voluntary programs for population control will selectively breed non-compliant individuals.
10. The Earth's maximum possible instantaneous human population is greater than its maximum possible sustainable human population.
11. The Earth's maximum possible sustainable human population leaves little room for wilderness of large terrestrial animals.
Where do you disagree?
Ehrlich's error was to imagine that "inevitable" meant "immanent". Models stripped of real-world complications are clear and clarity makes distant things appear close.

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Malcolm Kirkpatrick
on March 11, 2013 at 19:42:41 pm

'@Malcolm, your hypothesis suffers from the same flaws as Ehrlich's in that it fails to account for human ingenuity to recognize and abate existential threats. The population bomb was remedied in most first world countries more by the advent of birth control, empowering women and providing a democratic robust economy. Also, like Ehrlich, your itemized vision is an extrapolation based on the way things are today; assuming nothing will change; i.e., large scale space exploration, asteroid resource mining, even better elective means for birth control, &c.

Be pessimistic but don't fail to think sideways.

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Sailfish
on March 12, 2013 at 01:33:45 am

I'm sure Stalin was meaning it ironically, or perhaps or his own life only. But he wasn't wrong. Peoples' lives have become objectively better over the ages. Will they always find something to complain about? Sure but the complaints will become ever more trivial. I recall reading a list of "first world problems." The one I especially remember is going to bathroom then being disappointed because you'd forgot your phone. It's funny because it's true.

The right thought experiment here is to imagine asking a modern person if they'd trade places with someone 10000 years ago or 1000 or 200 or 50 or 10. I'm quite sure the average person would have increasingly less resistance to the idea as the amount of time diminished. And conversely I expect those people from older times who'd been shown and understood what life is like now compared to their time would gladly trade.

Existential pessimist doesn't fit. You choose to focus on the diminshing negative rather than the increasing positive. Let's call you a temperamental pessimist instead.

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Ed
on March 12, 2013 at 14:26:28 pm

Hope is not a strategy.

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Malcolm Kirkpatrick
on March 12, 2013 at 17:36:31 pm

No, you are wrong. The UN says that the rate of population increase will be rolling over about 2050. The Earth will peak out at about 9 billion and go back down. Here are points which you don't mention.

1. Agrarian societies have more children, because each child is a benefit. Urban societies have fewer children since the child is a net drain on the family. Most of the population increase has been in the third world due to improvements in medicine and wider markets.

2. Societies which have lost their religion, e.g. Europe, do not reproduce at replacement levels. Muslims, who do, will replace them.

3. The more general prosperity there is, the fewer the children are born.

4. Coercive birth control produces more males born or reared. This leads to war and polygamy.

5. The possible population depends on how effective growing techniques are. Most current methods are primitive, so they use large areas with poor yields. If the world used modern farming methods, then less than a third of land, in use, would be needed.

6. Deliberate human agency via Eugenics or the killing of competitors produces bad side effects. It requires authoritarian cultures which are not competitive with freer markets.

7. As technology improves, it takes fewer inputs to survive.

8. The Environmentalists are intentionally killing off people in the third world by denying them DDT, genetically modified food and modern medicine.
Most of the early deaths could be ended by no longer cooking over open flames. But to do that, you need electricity. If you suppress economic improvement by anti-colonialism and Socialist Kleptocracies, then this means more deaths.

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Louis Wheeler
on March 12, 2013 at 22:07:37 pm

Projections from current trends do not take my propositions #8, 9 into consideration. The relation between family income and fecundity in modern societies is U-shaped (Kennedys and welfare mothers have more kids than middle-class parents). Try talk a salmon out of reproducing.

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Malcolm Kirkpatrick
on March 17, 2013 at 09:35:45 am

So you're an optimistic pessimist, not one of those insufferable pessimistic pessimists.

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Alex
on March 17, 2013 at 23:49:04 pm

Whichever way you slice it or dice it, this planet is going down hill without a brake and I can't get off between stops.

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Image of S. Suchindranath Aiyer
S. Suchindranath Aiyer
on April 25, 2013 at 13:44:39 pm

[...] (he’s currently 72 years old). Our society has no mechanism for holding scientists – some of whom have been falsely predicting catastrophe for decades – accountable for their mistaken [...]

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on May 19, 2013 at 13:17:38 pm

1. Value is not determined by supply and demand, it is determined by how much Value people think the thing has.

The rest of Malcolm's argument is flawed and of course boggle eyed crazy!

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Image of Andy
Andy
on May 27, 2013 at 16:13:44 pm

[...] my own political preferences. While I certainly see the value in aspiration and improvement, the existential pessimist in me keeps in mind the resilient habits and tendencies that generally limit our species. Our [...]

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on May 28, 2013 at 03:32:41 am

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on May 28, 2013 at 09:01:11 am

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on September 13, 2013 at 21:54:32 pm

Numbers 8. and 9. are false. Human behavioral traits are the result of genetics in combination with environment. Same genetics with different environments leads to different behaviors. Environments include both external (such as physical, economic, social) and internal (such as hormone levels). Fertility is decreasing throughout the world, despite no change in genetics. No sign of any shift in the opposite direction. Kennedys' aren't having 10 kids anymore.

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Image of John K. Vogt
John K. Vogt
on March 01, 2016 at 17:56:23 pm

[…] coil (he’s currently 72 years old). Our society has no mechanism for holding scientists – some of whom have been falsely predicting catastrophe for decades – accountable for their mistaken […]

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on June 30, 2018 at 13:56:40 pm

[…] with, seemingly as a psychological rule. It’s closer to what Theodore Dalrymple called “existential pessimism“. Anyone who’s lived to adulthood should have experienced this. As an adolescent, I […]

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