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Healing the Planet: Strategies for Solving the Environmental Crisis.

Environmental problems are alarming enough without the doomsayers' exaggerations

Easterbrook's law of doomsaying holds: Predict dreadful events whose arrival impends no sooner than 5 years hence, no later than 10. That time window is near enough to cause worry, far enough off that when it actually rolls around everyone will have forgotten what you predicted. Thus in his influential The Population Bomb in 1968, Paul Ehrlich declared, "The battle to feed humanity is already lost, in the sense that we will not be able to prevent large-scale famines in the next decade." Perfect doomsay timing. Ehrlich won attention for his book; when the prediction failed to come true, no one remembered.

But then impending world famine was a trendy belief in the late sixties. Another best-seller of the period, Famine 1975, made the same prediction, using the same time-frame couching. Both volumes suggested that deaths from outright starvation would run into the many millions, perhaps even billions; that not even developed nations would be spared. Instead, though malnourishment continues to plague the Third World, mass starvation (which happened even in western nations like Ireland during the last century) has become virtually unknown in recent decades. Famines have struck mainly because of government policies during civil wars, such as in Ethiopia. World food production increases have consistently exceeded population growth, even in India.

In 1969, Ehrlich suggested in Rampatis that by the mid-seventies "smog disasters" would cause 200,000 Americans per year to drop dead, with "hundreds of unattended people choking out their lives outside of New York's hospitals." The Population Bomb declared that it was "not inconceivable" that some new disease arising from environmental conditions would kill 500 million people. The idea that India could "ever" become self-sufficient in food production, Ehrlich said, was a "fantasy." (India has been essentially self-sufficient in agriculture for more than a decade now, in 1986 briefly entering the grain export market.) The Population Bomb concluded by saying that because each new human being was just a little selfishness machine, the tax code should penalize those who have babies, with levies increasing after the first two. Talk about a user fee ! Of course man writers commit to print divinations that weather poorly. I've made my share, though I'm certainly not going to let on where to look them up. And it may well be that exaggerated warnings such as those sounded by The Population Bomb helped inspire the environmental reforms that staved off the effects Ehrlich feared.

So if something works for you, why not stick with the formula? Thus in his latest work Ehrlich, a biologist at Stanford, joined by Anne Ehrlich, a researcher there, declares that "a billion or more people could starve in the first decades of the next century."

That is possible: Just because a gloomy prediction has failed to come true in the past hardly ensures it will not in the future. But in the field of environmental affairs, gloom predictions have a special status, and are often used as a substitute for careful thinking. That hardly anything Ehrlich predicts has come true (except population growth, a given) while he is still considered one of the world's foremost environmental prophets says something about the condition of ecological analysis.

Healing the Planet is a greatly different work from The Population Bomb. The latter was more like an extended Parade magazine article; the new book is chock with detailed technical explanations of environmental processes, reflecting that science, once seen as an enemy of environmentalism, is gaining status in that field. In the sixties, science was considered a vassal of the establishment, its practitioners devoted to inventing patent chemicals, nuclear devices, and rationales for raping the earth. Now that science has produced evidence of stratospheric ozone depletion and many scientists have become converts to environmental causes, the profession is viewed with more warmth. Cultural clue: Though Ehrlich is an accomplished biologist, in the sixties he usually identified himself as a "professor." Today, he calls himself a scientist.

Adding science to environmental analysis is a constructive development, but not, unfortunately, one that guarantees clarity of thought. In Healing the Planet, the Ehrlichs propose that science be used as a device to suppress thoughts that don't conform to a PC doomsday line. For example, they dismiss the conservative analysts Julian Simon and Ben Wattenberg, who have defended population growth, as elements of the lunatic fringe." News organizations should not acknowledge cornucopian theories, the Ehrlichs argue: Though political and social reporting should contain the views of all sides, journalists should "recognize the limits to reasonable debate in the physical and medical sciences" by ignoring any views that are not alarmist.

The Ehrlichs certainly ignore them. Assessing why the imminent ecological catastrophes predicted in the sixties and seventies mostly did not happen (the big exception was Chernobyl) would seem a natural starting point for the Ehrlichs' 21st century predictions. Instead, they prefer to see the past two decades as one disaster after another. "The only major [environmental] surprise that was not entirely nasty," they write, "was the success of the green revolution in increasing food production in poor nations like India."

True, ozone layer depletion has since 1968 been confirmed, and this is unquestionably a nasty development. Indications of artificial global warming continue to accumulate. But by the same token, there have been many happy surprises. For example, U.S. air quality is now better by most measures than in 1968. Lead and smoke, considered the two worst air pollutants in the sixties, are nearly gone from the American sky; smog continues to be a problem, but has fallen relative to population growth, indicating that with further efforts, such as the new restrictions in last year's Clean Air Act, smog can be bested too.

Though in the past decade Americans have become aware of acid rain, during that same period emissions of sulphur dioxide, the cause, have steadily declined; the new Clean Air Act will cut them in half again. Throughout the Western world, use of CFCS, the main factor in ozone depletion, has been declining; a treaty signed by such greenies as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher will cause the compounds to be banned by the year 2000. (The treaty imposed a 50 percent reduction; George Bush extended the number to 100 percent.) During the seventies and eighties, energy efficiency in the United States took a big jump, the key figure being that total BTUs consumed have fallen even as population and GNP output have increased. Since fossil fuel use is the culprit in the greenhouse effect, this is at least mildly encouraging news. Most measures of surface water quality have shown improvement-Boston Harbor and many other "dead" water bodies will soon be swimmable again-while drinking water quality has remained normal, despite fears that industrial toxics would seep into the water supply.

And since the oft-predicted "poisoning of America" has failed to materialize, it never will, toxics now being much more tightly regulated than they once were. For all the proclamations that chemicals are killing us-Healing the Planet predicts that "impairment of the earth's life-support systems could subtract a decade or two from the average person's life"-alarmists never seem to want to discuss the fact that on average people are living longer with better overall health, even in most of the developing world. It is now 13 years since Love Canal and Times Beach, and exhaustive public health studies of areas where toxics were grossly mishandled show that only a tiny number of people were harmed. That ought to teach an important lesson about not overusing the ecological panic button. This lesson is missing from Healing the Planet, which declares, for example, that "the nation is dotted with tens of thousands of Superfund sites." Actually the number of sites that may pose some danger is 1,245-which is miserable enough. Why exaggerate?

Immodest proposal

The bulk of the Ehrlich's analysis turns on world population growth. There can be no doubt this is a deeply troubling subject. The world population, now around five billion (300 years ago it was one tenth that number) appears certain to hit at least eight billion. Currently the United Nations predicts that a stability point will not be reached until there are 10 to 14 billion human souls. That not only means physical crowding in some nations but also more loss of habitats for nature; if citizens of the developing world are to enjoy anything like a decent material lifestyle, resource and energy consumption will increase drastically in the century to come. Therefore it is likely that even as pollution trends down in the western world, it will accelerate everywhere else.

As Paul Ehrlich wrote in 1968, in population dynamics "it is the relationship between the birth rate and the death rate that is most critical." What matters is not so much that more people are being born but that far fewer are dying, until old age. This transition is triggered mainly by 20th century drugs such as antibiotics and vaccines, which trump some of nature's checks on overpopulation. Perhaps the biggest single social issue in the developing world is that it is no longer necessary for parents to have 10 children if they want 3 to survive to adulthood and guarantee their old age; now of 10 children, 9 will survive to adulthood. Until that message sinks in to third world culture, population growth will continue.

One mildly encouraging note that has been missed in the media: Though the world population continues to build, the rate of increase has already peaked. Annual world population growth was 2.1 percent in 1969, 1.8 percent in 1980, and is 1.7 percent now. Unfortunately 1.7 percent annual growth is ample to create misery in many countries, but the decline in the rate of increase suggests that human expansion will not run unchecked forever.

In The Population Bomb, Ehrlich wrote that famine would replace disease as nature's population-checking mechanism for human beings. This hasn't happened, and with luck never will. But the notion points to a problem common to many ecological doomsaying accounts, namely the implication that it is good for people to die. At an environmental seminar at Harvard Divinity School two years ago, I listened to one professor expound on how it was wrong of the West to have given antibiotics and vaccines to the developing world, because if peasants still expired in the traditional numbers, the rain forests would be secure.

The Ehrlichs evince this kind of thinking when they say the United States would not need to import oil if its population had been capped at 135 million, the level of 1940-although "no one has ever suggested a sane reason for having even that number of Americans." I'll suggest one-people like to be alive. Isn't it interesting that Paul Ehrlich, who was born in 1932, picks as his moment for slamming the door on new children a year after he himself arrived? Possessing the gift of life yourself, it's easy to intone that others should be denied the privilege. And though environmentalists sometimes counter this objection by saying that human population control would help make the Earth a more rewarding place to live, a powerful argument, there is a self-centered aspect to such thinking-that population control will ensure there are resources, land, and pleasantly rustic parks for us, the chosen.

The Ehrlichs declare that "the essential strategy for saving biodiversity and ourselves [is to] reduce the scale of human enterprise." Fair enough, but have the Ehrlichs personally followed that prescription? Do they, for example, decline to appear at environmental conferences because doing so would require them to fly in resource-consuming jets and stay at input-intensive hotels? You know the answer. At the other extreme are those like Julian Simon, who say that because every arrival on earth increases the sum of human brainpower that can be applied to solving the world's problems, there can never be too many people. Probably the Earth can support more souls than it does today, perhaps with reasonable ecological protection, and at a reasonable standard of living for all. But until there is some fundamental shift in the equality of nations, to think that each new child born into poverty on the streets of Jakarta or Manila is a cause for celebration seems as far removed from reality as supposing population ought to be capped by some unspecified force.

Perhaps there is a middle ground between blind optimism and doomsaying-mne the Ehrlichs, suspicious of human enterprise, fail to come to terms with. According to a recent study by a former State Department agricultural analyst, Dennis Avery, since 1968 annual world grain production has grown by 60 percent; excess food stocks relative to consumption have grown faster than the population for 30 years running. India had 19.5 million tons of grain held in stockpile last year. Of course, malnutrition exists even in a world with excess food. The problem, Avery asserts, is distributing and paying for the food, not producing it-still a significant dilemma, as famine in Ethiopia and the Sudan attest, but one that may be open to solution.

The Ehrlichs take a predictably gloomy approach to agricultural production increases, declaring they have been made possible only by plowing under too much land and that, anyway, "the end of the expansion" has been reached because adding more pesticides, herbicides, and irrigation water is no longer practical. The latter is true, but neatly overlooks several major trends in agriculture-managing insects through knowledge of their lifecycles rather than chemicals (market forces are pressing for this, since pesticides are expensive), new plant strains that need less water, and genetic engineering. Anyone who fears gene modification, easier in plants than animals, should bear in mind that its first practical impact on society should be to reduce the need for food chemicals, by producing seeds bearing genetic resistance to diseases and pests.

In The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich went so far as to predict that "we are depleting the world's supply of oxygen by burning vast quantities of fossil fuels and by clearing iron-rich tropical soils in which the iron is then oxidized." Two decades later, with every possible environmental doom story in print, no one has again suggested there will be an oxygen shortage. The Ehrlichs have abandoned this idea in Healing the Planet.

But why isn't the world running out of oxygen? After all, the stuff is being burned up in fuel combustion while plants, the sole source, are on the run as more acres of tropical forest are destroyed each year by fires that themselves consume oxygen. Yet the atmospheric content of oxygen is stable. A possible explanation: By cultivating high-yield agriculture, humankind has created a new source of this precious element, since growing young plants make oxygen faster than mature trees. The environment, for eons accustomed to change, has simply found a new equilibrium point.

Deep dislike of this kind of thinking runs through ecological doom commentary; somehow the earth is never supposed to change, the only safe course is to stop in place and alter nothing. This is not the way of nature, which has been creating and disposing of species, habitats, and objects as large as continents for spans of time that people cannot fathom. The earth, after all, is a living system; safeguarding its environmental needs may prove more feasible than books such as Healing the Planet suggest.
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Author:Easterbrook, Gregg
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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