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Paul Erhlich interview- Humanity on a tightrope

In this wide-ranging interview, after 40 books, thousands of scientific papers, and 40 years after "The Population Bomb" - Dr. Paul Ehrlich talks about our dependence of fossil fuels, climate change, toxic disruption, and food.

His new book "Humanity on a Tightrope" is not about population! Instead, Erhlich and co-author psychologist Robert E. Ornstein look into the human brain for a tool that could help us survive the multiple threats facing humanity.

Humans were a "small group animal." We are hard-wired to know and operate in groups of less than 150 people. Within that group, we also have nerves in the brain which allow us to more or less know how the others think. This empathy may be unique among the animals, with the ability to "step into the other person's shoes".

Erhlich and Ornstein argue this empathy trait must be extended to include the whole human family, if we are to survive.

In this important interview, Dr. Ehrlich is not optimistic we will do it. Our prognosis doesn't look good, as he explains. Still, it is possible - and we spend time looking at the reasons for hope.

Alex Smith
Radio Ecoshock

Radio Ecoshock interview with Alex Smith, February 11, 2011

When it comes to population, the name Paul Ehrlich inevitably comes up. In 1968, Dr. Ehrlich published "The Population Bomb". About 40 years, and 40 books later, this distinguished scientist comes to us with a new book called "Humanity On A Tightrope."

Dr. Erhlich, it's an honor to welcome you to Radio Ecoshock.

PRE: Great to be with you.

Alex Smith: First off, you have an authoritative co-author for this project. Can you tell us a bit about Robert E. Ornstein, and how you two came to write this book?

PRE: Well, Bob and I have been friends for years. And he's a very distinguished psychologist, noted for some of his early work in split brains, for a number of great books explaining what we know about how the brain works.

We're both very, very concerned about human behavior, in various dimensions. So we decided that it was time to write a second book together. We wrote one about twenty years ago called "New World New Mind". So this is in a sense a follow-up.

AS: Listeners and readers may be surprised, to find your new book is not specifically about population. Instead, you propose a common tool we'll need to face the many threats to civilization. Things like climate change, energy, polluted oceans, and so on.

Dr. Ehrlich, what is the common human ability we need to develop?

PRE: We already have one that allows us to put us in each others' shoes. That's a very unusual trait for an animal, but we have it. It's a critical one, and we do it automatically when in small groups. Because, as you know, for most of our evolutionary history we've been a small group animal. We lived for hundreds of thousands of years as homo-sapiens, and before that as other species in groups of 50 to 150 people where we could easily tell, often, what was going on in the minds of other individuals and in a sense feel what they were feeling.

We actually have nerves that are designed, in our brain, to let us put ourselves in other peoples' shoes. That's a really crucial thing which we need to spread much further these days.

AS: Part of your exploration is the positive and negative implications of our feelings for "family." How should we rethink all that?

PRE: First of all, human beings have come up with - particularly since the time of the agricultural revolution - with all different kinds of family structures, many of which work well. Some of them don't work so well.

I mean, the current myth that human beings are designed to be monogamous, one man doing the work, one woman raising the kids, and 2.4 kids that never think about drugs or sex...simply doesn't exist. It existed in the minds of some right-wingers for about five years after 1945. But we found as a species all different kinds of family arrangements.

What we need to do now, is to design an overall family arrangement which lets us put ourselves in the shoes, not of a hundred or a hundred and fifty other people, but something like seven billion other people.

We are a small-group animal, faced with the problem of figuring out how to live peacefully in gigantic groups. And treat each other - and our environment - in ways which will allow our civilization to persist.

AS: If I'm being honest, I'm not really convinced that feelings for distant humans will win out. I think of Libertarians like Ron Paul, he wants to end foreign wars, but also foreign aid. In it's economic troubles, America may withdraw into isolationism, again.

What are the signs that empathy is growing?

PRE: First of all, you gotta look at what time course your're talking about.

By the way, I'm talking to you about what will be REQUIRED, if we are to reach a sustainable society. Nowhere is it written that we will.

Many civilizations in the past have collapsed. And we are now facing the first global collapse of a civilization. I'm not sure where I would put my money any more. I would tend to put it on 'We're not going to do the obvious things we should do to prevent it.'

On the other hand, if you look at the last few hundred years, for example, the sorts of things we've done that cheer me up is we got rid of slavery, at least in the United States, at least open slavery.

When I was a kid in the Thirties, if you were a woman your choice of jobs if you wanted one was going to be a Grammer School teacher, a nurse maybe, or a secretary, and that's it.

I'm an instrument-rated pilot. And I ended up taking my instrument training from a woman pilot. Today many of your listeners probably have flown on airliners piloted by women. That's a change in the right direction.

World War Two changed our view of what women could do. And also changed race relations. I was a Brooklyn Dodger fan in the 1940's. When Jackie Robinson broke in in 1948, there were big discussions about whether people with dark skin could actually play sports. Of course, before that, in the '30's lynchings were common.

So we haven't gone far enough on gender equity or on racial equity, but we've come a very long way in just one short lifetime. We have changed in the right direction in the past, just not far enough. And now we have to do it really fast.

AS: Reading your book, did bring some dark doubts to my mind. For example, many people in the land of cars and supermarkets, that they think they are "green" or "progressive" - but they still somehow expect a billion or more people will die off. They are confident it will be "them," those other people on the other side of the planet, and not "us" here at home.

Is that really how it could play out?

[Time: 5:40]

PRE: Personally, I don't think so. In other words, I don't think those people understand how tightly our fates are tied to people in the rest of the world, and how much we have to care - not just about them, but about descendants.

I have a great-grand daughter that I would like to see have a wonderful world.

Think about it for a minute. There are about 1.6 billion people utterly dependent on the ice and snow of the Himalayas, and the Tibetan Plateau for their agricultural water. There are people who are already having problems with their food supplies because the warming of the planet has cut the productivity of the grains, wheat and rice, that they are dependent upon.

If the agricultural water dries up, you are going to have a horrendous situation there, among people who are already well-armed with nuclear weapons. The most recent studies show, for instance, that if India and Pakistan get into it, with a relatively small nuclear war, a few hundred Hiroshima-size weapons, say 15 kilotons - they are firecrackers by today's standards, that would end the civilization in the United States and Europe.

So, things are not exactly charming. We really have to do something about it.

AS: And also, if we let a few billion people starve away in slums, we also have a disease breeding mechanism. It only takes one day for the airplane to arrive with that disease here.

PRE: Absolutely. The rapid transit systems, a growing population increases the chances of a nasty jumping from animals to human beings, like AIDS did recently. Like all our infectious diseases did at one time or another. The disease situation is horrendous.

The toxic situation is horrendous. In some Sub-Arctic villages, there are roughly two times as many girl babies born as boy babies, even though the normal sex ratio is a hundred and five boys, roughly, to a hundred girls. That is a sign, going along with inter-sex alligators, and frogs with five legs and so on, that show us that the hundreds of thousands of toxic chemicals that we've spread from Pole to Pole, are not harmless. They could very well turn out to be more serious than climate disruption, as far as our future options go.

AS: I'm surprised you de-emphasized population in the book. It seems like your ship is coming in now. I'm thinking of the tensions in Egypt, with double the population since 1980, fifty percent unemployment. Do you think the crisis you PREdicted in 1968 is starting to boil now?

PRE: Oh, first of all. One of the complaints about 'The Population Bomb' was we said 'The battle to feed all of humanity is over.'

That was 1968. There were three and a half billion people. About a half a billion were hungry. Now we've got seven billion people, and about a billion of them are hungry.

In other words, the predictions saying 'Oh, we can easily take care of five billion people. Technology will do it. Don't worry about it.' - simply haven't come true. And population is a huge element in it.

The problem is: if we want to humanely deal with population, it's going to take us many decades. Which means we should have started long ago, we should be starting right now.

Our biggest tool of the moment, besides having to start on the population issue because if we don't do that, we'll never get anywhere, is we have to change our consumption patterns. And we have to change the system of stealing from the poor and giving to the rich, which in the United States, and the world as a whole, has been so successful since Ronald Reagan instituted the program.

[Time: 9:03]

AS: Just before we get back to your new book, I have one question from a listener: Dr. Ehrlich have you looked into how declining, or more expensive fossil fuels, will impact population?

PRE: More expensive fossil fuels are already impacting population, in the sense that they are increasing hunger in the world. The food riots trace in part to our attempts to keep the fossil fuels up, and by creating corn into the equivalent of a fossil fuel, that is into ethanol.

So there's no question our food system is incredibly dependent on fossil fuels, and we are not showing any sign of transitioning off of them. Which means that the fossil fuels get more expensive, scarcer, and more importantly, as the climate system changes ever more rapidly, it's going to clobber agriculture. You clobber agriculture where people get hungry and have nuclear weapons and you can paint your own scenarios. And they are not going to be painted in sky-blue happy colors.

AS: This is Radio Ecoshock. Our guest is Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich, with his new book "Humanity on A Tightrope, thoughts on empathy, family, and big changes for a viable future."

Dr. Erhlich I found the book really started to shine with some of the solutions you and Robert Ornstein suggest. Maybe we could start with your own stomping grounds, the University system. What changes do we need to makethere, to survive into the future?

PRE: First of all, we need to teach people how the world works. You could - I mean I'm at the greatest university in the world, it's been a wonderful place. But I would guess that 90 percent of our graduates, and 90 percent of our faculty, couldn't give you a coherent story of where your food comes from.

If you ask the average American where there food comes from, and the average educated American, and they'll say 'the supermarket.' They have no idea, for example, the huge connection between fossil fuel supply and their food supply. They have that the sort of cosy sounding 'global warming' may mean 'global getting rid of a lot of the food we need.'

The first thing we should do, is start at the very bottom, of course, in our Grade schools. In other words, we should get off of the 'see Spot run' reader, and have one that says 'see the plant grow in the Sun.' So that people would understand the connection between photosynthesis and their own lives.

And go on up right through, closing what Anne and I call 'the culture gap.' The fact that, for the first time in human history now, the average person have less than a billionth of the information that is possessed by the culture as a whole.

So that you have, for instance, a Congress full of people utterly clueless on how the world works. The people who think that global change, that climate change, climate disruption is 'a hoax' just don't have a clue. It's very simple to teach someone how you know that the Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, coming from burning fossil fuels, nobody every told them. And of course, they are besides being pig ignorant, a lot of them don't want to learn.

And so we've got to really start educating through our school system, changing our University structures. We have to develop 21st century universities, instead of 19th century ones, and that's a big order too.

There's a lot to do, and I can't tell you I'm thrilled by the prospects that we are actually going to do it.

AS: How could we translate your book to develop what I would call "empathy activism"? How do we make this work?

PRE: I think that one of the thing that goes for us is we are great social animals. We like getting together with other people. And we can get together with other people to solve problems, and a lot of people already do it. Look at the people who do charity work. Look at the people working in environmental organizations, NGO's, the Sierra Club, and so on, all trying to make a better world. That's the kind of thing we've got the best chance of spreading. And it's gotta come from the bottom up.

We're actually working very hard to try to organize the scholarly community to get the job done. We're bringing social scientists in to talk to natural scientists about how human behavior can be changed. We're people in the Humanities involved, because we know that just telling people the scientific results doesn't do it. You gotta give it in the proper narratives. And we are trying to get the general public involved.

Whether it will work or not, who knows? But of course, part of it is programs like yours, and me raving on them, to try and get people thinking about these things and learning about them.

AS: This is really interesting. You say in the book that we have passed the time where we need more physical science, more proof. What we really need a rapid response team, to figure out how to change human behavior.

Could you tell us about the "Millenial Assessment of Human Behavior" or (MAHB)? [pronounced "mob" ]

[Time 13:40]

PRE: The MAHB is now an international group. It's really a network of people in the humanities, in the natural sciences, in the social sciences, and just interested people, who have been talking together and working together about how to change the behavior of the people of the world. Where we want to go, and how we can possibly get there.

Because again, the basic facts of the situation are now well known. Even the dumbest economist who writes for the Wall Street Journal knows that gasoline is underpriced in our country, and should be much more expensive - so we cut driving the big cars, and start phasing out fossil fuels, and stop killing people in places like Iraq and Afghanistan to try and keep our flow of fossil fuels going.

Everybody knows that. Try politically to try and put a tax on the price of gasoline, or even start raising the prices toward what gasoline costs in Europe, and you'll be out of office! How do we change that behavior? That's the discussion we are starting.

We've had some positive results, but it's still a baby at the moment.

AS: But despite all the bad news, you and Robert offer us page after page of hope. Why should we be hopeful?

PRE: We should be hopeful because we can do it. It's not like the monster army from Mars is invading and they are fifty times as technologically talented as we are, and they are going to devour us. There's a statement - you are probably too young to remember - but one of the greatest scientists of all time was named 'Pogo'. He came up with the straight answer: 'We have met the enemy, and he is us.'

Therefore, we have the capability of doing it. In the past we've seen very rapid turnarounds in attitudes. To just give you a relatively recent example, nobody I knew predicted that the Berlin Wall would come down and the Soviet Union would collapse as fast as it did. But it did.

Our big hope is we can change our behavior towards each other, and towards our life support systems, suddenly and rapidly, so we can get the job done.

We know, that given the right incentives, this sort of job, gigantic change can be effected. In 1941, the U.S. produced almost 4 million passenger cars. And then December 7th came along, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor - and over the next four years we switched to producing hundreds of thousands of tanks, hundreds of thousands of military trucks, over three hundred thousand military aircraft, dozens of aircraft carriers. We rationed meat, we rationed oil and gasoline, we rationed sugar. We designed and built nuclear weapons. We won the Second World War, and that was only four years.

Then the next year, we turned it all around, and went back to manufacturing automobiles and TV sets. In other words, when you have the right incentive... we could for instance do what Al Gore said we could do, and we could do it in much less than ten years. And that is: convert all electricity in the United States to not using fossil fuels.

It would take a huge effort, a World War Two style mobilization. That's what we need. We've got to recognize the enemy, and as I say, he is us.

[Time: 16:50]

AS: As we approach the close here, I wanted to ask you what research is interesting you most now?

PRE: The research that is interesting me most is what we have been talking about. I've been working with several colleagues trying to figure out culture, that is non-genetic information, evolves.

We have a pretty good picture - not complete and with some very interesting holes in it - of how our genetic evolution works. But we really don't our cultural revolution. The answer of why do you have Sarah Palin as a possible candidate for President? It seems absolutely insane. We don't understand why we have the kind of anomaly. We've got to learn how to understand that sort of thing, and how to steer people in a direction that's going to be useful for the survival of people, and their children.

AS: One of the problems that I've been working, and is part of that, is we have a movement now, the Transition movement, or the relocalization movement, where people are trying to make face-to-face groups that are under that 150 small-group animal level that you discuss in your book. And yet we have these global problems, and you are suggesting we need global empathy.

Are they contradictory moves?

PRE: No, they aren't. It's gotta be a combination. Because, first of all, we can be empathetic with more people. We actually can't avoid being empathetic to anybody we are exposed to.

I mean think about people, if they watch a television soap opera like 'Law and Order.' If something happens to the hero, you feel bad. If you read a great novel, and something happens to the hero, you can't help but feel bad.

Our ancestors solved this same sort of problem when they put together thirteen disparate colonies into a union, where they tried to maintain individuality, smaller group functions, which they did quite effectively. And yet got together, all thirteen, do do things they couldn't do individually, like protect themselves from the British.

And we face the same thing with nation states today. We can keep out individual groups, and value them. But we can also value the larger groups, and understand that what somebody does in Tibet affects our lives and vice versa. And that we've got to give up some of our soverignty and develop some mechanisms for helping other people in the world, because it is helping ourselves.

If we do not stop the distribution of stuff from the poor to the rich, and reverse it. If we don't start treating our environment right, we are all going to go down in the collapse.

So we have to spread our empathy. It doesn't mean we lose our empathy for people that we know even more personally - we just spread it around.

AS: You have been listening to Dr. Paul Ehrlich. He and co-author Robert Ornstein say we have an innate ability to understand and care about all humans. We need to re-develop that skill, to survive in a troubled world. To understand how, the book is "Humanity on A Tightrope".

Dr. Ehrlich, thank you for spending time with us on Radio Ecoshock.

PRE: My great pleasure.

AS: I'm Alex Smith.

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