Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Reinvention of Paul Ehrlich

This email found appeared in my inbox yesterday with the subject line:

40 Years Later – is Paul Ehrlich’s ‘Population Bomb’ Finally Exploding?

Um, no.

But I digress. Here's the email itself:

From: Severn Williams []
Sent: Wednesday, May 14, 2008 11:35 AM
Subject: 40 Years Later – is Paul Ehrlich’s ‘Population Bomb’ Finally Exploding?

May 14, 2008 - Contact: Severn Williams - 510-336-9566

Dear Eric,

He wrote the book that helped launch the modern environmental movement. He is one of the most accomplished - and controversial - scientists of his generation. He has counseled governments, appeared in television shows ranging from documentaries to The Tonight Show, and won a Macarthur Genius Award.

Now, exactly 40 years since the publication of The Population Bomb ignited debate and action around the globe, author and scientist Paul R. Ehrlich is back with a new book, The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment.

A quick glance at today's headlines tells the story: world food prices at record levels, increasing conflict over scarce resources, the immediate threat of global climate change, the spread of toxic chemicals into drinking water and food, and more. In short, it looks an awful lot as though the "Population Bomb" Paul Ehrlich warned us of in 1968 is now exploding.

In The Dominant Animal, Paul joins with his wife, Anne H. Ehrlich, a prize-winning scientist herself, to examine this growing crisis - from its roots in human evolution to the failure of modern government to respond. It is a powerful examination of how the humans today are creating the world of humans of tomorrow-and what it will take for our civilization to survive.

The Ehrlichs bring us to the startling realization that our domination of Earth has, in part, prompted a period of rapid change the scope of which the planet has not seen since an asteroid hit the earth 65 million years ago.

Paul Ehrlich is known for his provocative and interesting interviews and his cogent explanations of scientific knowledge. The 40-year anniversary of The Population Bomb and the publication of The Dominant Animal in June provides a great opportunity for an in-depth look at Paul Ehrlich's original warning to the planet in 1968, his legacy, and his continuing work to understand and explain the crisis facing our civilization.

Paul and Anne are available for extensive interviews, profiles, or brief commentary in relation to reporting on broader stories.

Copies of the book can be requested by contacting Severn Williams at 510-336-9566 or


Severn Williams, Island Press

Paul (Worst. Prognosticator. Ever.) Ehrlich is to demography what the Jehovah's Witnesses are to eschatology.

(To their credit, though, at least the JW's have taken the hint and now no longer attempt to set dates for their apocalyptic predictions.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have an essay on Paul Ehrlich and the Jehovah Witnesses.


“It’s the end of the world as we know it,” go the lyrics of a song by the rock group REM. Indeed, the end of the world seems to be a recurring theme these days. Just recently the international newswires reported on a Russian doomsday sect that hid in a cave awaiting an impending apocalypse. Eleven years earlier the California-based cult Heaven’s Gate made headlines when its members, fearing the Earth would be “recycled” along with all its inhabitants, sought to escape this fate by committing suicide en masse. But apocalypticism (the belief that the world will soon end) is not the exclusive domain of religious extremists: various secular authorities have forecast global destruction caused by overpopulation and nuclear war among other things. What therefore is behind such thinking and how should we as Christians interpret it?

Christian apocalyptists tend to base their views on three parts of the Bible: the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the Book of Revelation. In the first of the three, the prophet Daniel tells of a dream he has in which the Son of Man (i.e. Jesus Christ) and his saints are given dominion over the Earth following a war with a fearsome beast representing the Antichrist. Later on in the Gospels Jesus states that when He comes again “Heaven and earth shall pass away” (Matthew 24:35). This will be preceded by “wars and rumours of wars… famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes” (Matthew 24: 6-7). In Revelation the Apostle John describes a scenario whereby the forces of Satan and those of Christ fight one another in the Battle of Armageddon, after which the wicked are thrown into a lake of fire (Revelation 20:15). John then sees a “new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and first earth were passed away” (Revelation 21:1). Many Christian doomsayers claim that at some point the believers will be taken up to heaven in a so-called Rapture. At this moment Christ will rule over the world for a thousand years – from Revelation 20:4’s “they [the just] lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” – until it is finally destroyed.

A well-known apocalyptic religion are the Jehovah Witnesses. They basically centre their entire existence around the Battle of Armageddon, which they feel will take place sooner rather than later and after which the true believers (i.e. the Jehovah Witnesses) will inhabit an earthly paradise. Over the years the Witnesses have set several specific points in time for the apocalypse, among them 1910, 1914 and 1975. When these prophecies fail to materialize, the dates are merely pushed forward. For example, in 1975 some Witnesses were disappointed when the Vietnam War drew to a close, as they had viewed it as a sign of the Earth’s final hour and the return of Jesus Christ. On a more humorous note, author Faye Resnick – a chronicler of the O.J. Simpson case – wrote in her book The Diary of a Private Life Interrupted that her parents’ embrace of the Jehovah Witness faith motivated her to lose her virginity in her teens because she wanted to have that experience before the end came.

One denomination that began as an apocalyptic group but later moved away from that position is the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Their founder, a former Baptist preacher named William Miller, had predicted that Christ would return to Earth in 1844. When this did not happen, Adventists became disinclined to make further such predictions. For instance, unlike some other fundamentalists the Seventh Day Adventists declined to declare the AIDS epidemic a signal of the end times.

The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and mainline Protestant (Lutheran, Anglican, etcetera) Churches - the so-called liturgical churches - officially reject apocalypticism. They go by the premise that it is not for humankind to know when Jesus will come again or when the present world will end. However, some individual members or subgroups within these denominations do look to an immediate apocalypse. The above-mentioned Russian doomsday sect was a breakaway faction of the Orthodox Church. A Catholic friend told me of an aunt and uncle of his who stored food, candles and other supplies in their basement in the event of Armageddon. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that the majority of Catholics, Orthodox and traditional Protestants do not see the Earth’s final hour occurring anytime soon. Fundamentalist Protestant denominations like the Baptists and Pentecostals take a sort of middle position between that of the liturgical churches and, say, the Jehovah Witnesses. Many of their members believe in an upcoming Rapture but do not place it at the centre of their theology.

As stated previously, not all apocalyptic philosophies have been religious. One famous doomsday tract was the 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb by Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, an atheist. He warned that the rising human population would bring about a series of global catastrophes. His imagery of these disasters rivalled that of the Book of Revelation. For example, Ehrlich said that all ocean life would become extinct from DDT poisoning, that thousands would die in smog disasters in major American cities, and that by 2000 England would no longer exist (a possibility that seems almost humorous to me as a subject of Good Queen Liz). When these cataclysmic events did not occur, he followed in the footsteps of the Jehovah Witnesses: he simply postponed them. Obviously Ehrlich’s lack of religious faith did not stop him from embarking on a fire and brimstone-style tirade.

How should we as Christians view apocalypticism? I personally have always referred to Jesus’ statement that only the Father knows when the present Earth will pass away (Matthew 24:36). It therefore strikes me as rather presumptuous to purport to know the exact time the world will end when Jesus Himself makes no such claim. I also have a problem with the apocalyptic doctrine that the reign of Christ, which in our church’s doctrine is happening right now, amounts to literally one thousand years. St. Peter in his Epistles counsels against trying to foretell Judgement Day by human standards of time. “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (II Peter 3:8),” he explains. Finally, the great Doctor of the Church St. Augustine writes in City of God that “it is in vain, therefore, that we try to reckon and put a limit to the number of years that remain for this world, since we hear from the mouth of Truth that it is not for us to know this.” From a purely rationalistic perspective, if a stockbroker advised me to invest in ventures that continually lost money, I would do well to change stockbrokers. Given their poor track record, it might be worth taking prophets of gloom and doom, whether secular or religious, with a huge saltlick.