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Why We're So Pessimistic: Read An Excerpt from Upside
In recent years, however, the King of Doom has been Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich is a biologist at Stanford University who originally trained in the study of butterflies, but he transitioned to human ecology. Though most popular in the 1970s and 1980s, his work is still influential. Ehrlich has taken an updated Malthusian approach, linking sustainability to three factors: population size, affluence, and technology. He identifies larger, more affluent, and more technically advanced societies as using more natural resources than other societies, and since societies worldwide are moving toward affluence and growth, he views the world as headed toward scarcity. Based on this perspective, Ehrlich made the following predictions in the 1970s and 1980s, which I'll present along with what really happened.
- Ehrlich: "The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people will starve to death."
- What happened: The percentage of people starving worldwide has dropped from 38% in 1970 to 18% in 2001.
- "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980," or "be self-sufficient in food by 1971."
- India has grown to over one billion people, and their average caloric intake is 50% higher than in the 1950s.
- "Before 1985, mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity in which many things besides energy will be in short supply. . . . Such diverse commodities as food, fresh water, copper, and paper will become increasingly difficult to obtain and thus much more expensive."
- Most commodities are cheaper and more widely available now than ever.
- "The U.S. life expectancy will drop to forty-two years by 1980, due to cancer epidemics."
- American life expectancy has steadily risen in past decades, and now it's at about seventy-eight years.
- "Smog disasters in 1973 might kill 200,000 people in New York and Los Angeles."
- The air in Los Angeles, New York, and most American cities is substantially cleaner now than in the 1970s.
And my personal favorite:
- "I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000."
- I have it on good authority that England is still there.
How wrong was Ehrlich with these predictions? As my seventeen-year-old son, Gus, would say, Ehrlich was "epic-ally" wrong. Yet many people believed Ehrlich back then and many still do. Over the summer, I was asked by a publisher to review a forthcoming textbook for introductory sociology. It had a chapter on the environment, and its primary source was Paul Ehrlich and his Malthusian vision, written as if it were still the early 1970s.
As an aside, one can only hope that Ehrlich himself experienced an optimism gap, feeling better about his own life than the world as a whole. Can you imagine otherwise? "Hey, Paul, want to eat out tonight?" "No, thanks, the restaurants are probably out of food and there might be food riots." "Okay. How about a drive?" "No, we'll probably choke to death on smog while caught in traffic jams." "Hmm, how about a trip to England?"