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“Valuable . . . clear-eyed.” —Jonathan V. Last, The Wall Street Journal
A Best Science Book of 2013, New Scientist
“Provides surprising insights for anyone involved in addressing the world’s ‘wicked problems.’ Most of all, it gave me new perspective on why so many big challenges get bogged down in political battles rather than being focused on problem-solving."—Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, "The Best Books I Read in 2013," TheGatesNotes.com
Biologist to the Rescue
It was the winter of 1968, and David Brower wanted to recruit Paul Ehrlich. The longtime executive director of the Sierra Club had heard Ehrlich on the radio predicting disaster: food shortages and famines, a deteriorating natural environment, and increased conflict on a crowded planet. Now Brower wanted the thirty-five-year-old Stanford biologist to write up his ideas as a book for a Sierra Club series of paperbacks published by Ballantine Books. Ehrlich agreed. In a fit of feverish productivity, Ehrlich collaborated closely with his wife, Anne, to write the manuscript over the next few months. He wrote the draft "as 'wild' as I could" in just a few weeks and then let friends help tone it down. The Population Bomb, published with Paul Ehrlich as its sole author, came out in mid-1968, in an effort, Ehrlich said, to "make the population crisis an issue in this year's elections." "I will be on the 'campaign trail' for at least the rest of this academic year," Ehrlich wrote his friend Charles Birch. Ehrlich was determined to change the way Americans thought about population issues.
Ehrlich delivered The Population Bomb to an audience receptive to grim predictions about the future. That same year saw Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated, riots in Washington, DC, Chicago, and Kansas City, and student rebellions in Paris and Mexico City. Meanwhile, the death toll mounted in Vietnam. To these woes, Ehrlich added his warning of "vast famines" and his call for "radical surgery" to excise the "cancer" of runaway human population growth. Ehrlich folded the crises of the late 1960s into a much larger story. Humanity had enjoyed four centuries of economic growth, Ehrlich said, but "the boom is clearly over." He urged his readers to bring every argument about social problems back to sheer numbers of people. Too many cars caused smog, but it was overpopulation that created the overabundance of vehicles. More children meant more schools and more school bond debt to pay off. In order to maintain social welfare, the birthrate needed to be brought into balance with the death rate, Ehrlich warned, or "mankind will breed itself into oblivion."
As The Population Bomb became a best-seller, going through twenty-two reprintings in the first three years, Ehrlich emerged as a prominent national spokesman on environmental issues, inundated with speaking requests. Within the framework of overpopulation, Ehrlich also addressed broader threats from excessive consumption, pesticide use, disease, and the ecological limits that he thought constrained future food production. Many environmentalists came to view the sharp-tongued, passionate Ehrlich as the "best champion we got." Ehrlich's quick humor stayed relentlessly on message. At seven o'clock one Thanksgiving morning, Ehrlich answered questions on a San Francisco television show. When a woman called to tell Ehrlich that "vegetarianism was the answer ... I replied 'only if eating salads makes men impotent.'" "What do you call people who use the rhythm method?" Ehrlich would joke. "Parents." Ehrlich was a skilled raconteur and a master of verbal combat, the opposite of a stereotypical brainy researcher who struggled to explain his work. To make sure The Population Bomb would reach the widest possible audience, Ehrlich paid his twelve-year-old daughter ten dollars to read the draft manuscript and flag any difficult passages.
Ehrlich soon had a crammed schedule of public appearances that transformed him from a scientist to a celebrity. His speaking fee increased to a thousand dollars per lecture (adjusted for inflation, around six thousand dollars in 2013). Television and radio shows called for interviews and publishers solicited manuscripts. "I seem to be spending more time on radio and TV than in bed these days," Ehrlich told a friend in August 1968. On one day in Washington, DC, that month, Ehrlich did seven radio and television shows between 7:00 a.m. and midnight, plus lunch with a newspaper reporter. "The book is giving me a lot of opportunity to shoot my mouth off over the public media, and I am determined to take full advantage of it," Ehrlich explained. Within a year of the book's publication, Ehrlich's frenetic pace had driven him to a state of exhaustion and poor health. His doctor ordered him to curtail his activities, but he scarcely heeded. In 1970 alone, Ehrlich gave a hundred public lectures and appeared on two hundred radio and television shows. Each time, he returned home from a trip to dozens of letters from people suggesting ideas and asking him questions or seeking advice. Paul Ehrlich had arrived where he wanted to be, on center stage, with a large and interested public audience. For the rest of his career, Ehrlich would spend only part of his time in active biological research, choosing to devote much of his prodigious energy to writing and speaking about humankind's precarious relationship with the natural world.
Paul Ehrlich grew up in suburban New Jersey at the dawn of the nuclear and chemical age and during a great wave of suburban expansion. His father, William, was a shirt salesman, and his mother, Ruth, who had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, was a homemaker. The family moved from Philadelphia to Maplewood, New Jersey, in 1941, when Paul was nine years old and his younger sister, Sally, was four and a half. The Ehrlichs were part of a migration of Jewish families from nearby cities to the suburban town with its quiet streets and excellent school system. The family even purchased a house right across from the high school. William Ehrlich traveled frequently for work, often lugging around large sample cases. He also developed Hodgkin lymphoma in his thirties, a few years after they moved to New Jersey. Between his tiring work and the debilitating illness, which finally killed him in 1955, William left most of the childrearing to Ruth. He did not care much for Paul's early interest in insects and butterflies, but Ruth encouraged Paul to explore the outdoors. Ruth Ehrlich was tough but warm, and like her son, she "didn't suffer fools lightly." After William's death, she would return to Philadelphia to become an English and Latin teacher.
As a teenager, Ehrlich roamed the fields around Maplewood, often with a butterfly net in hand, exploring the pockets of nature. He had first learned to catch and preserve butterfly specimens as a young teenager at summer camp in Vermont. He thought that they were simply "beautiful," and he loved collecting things. Specimen drawers filled with butterflies soon piled up in his bedroom. Aquariums containing tropical fish cluttered the second floor. At one point, Ehrlich started sleeping in the attic to make more space in his bedroom for his collections. One day, the heat or power went off in the house, and his mother rushed to school to get him so that he could come home to rescue his fish. At the age of fifteen, Ehrlich took the train into New York City and presented himself for employment to Charles Michener, the curator of the American Museum of Natural History's butterfly collection. Michener had little money to pay a high school student worker. So he instead rewarded the young Ehrlich with colorful tropical butterflies that were unlabeled and therefore not valuable to the museum collection.
Even in high school, Ehrlich showed a precocious ability in science, including a willingness to challenge the ideas of others and a love for fieldwork. He always "very much believed in himself and his ideas." At just fifteen, in 1947, Ehrlich became a charter member of the newly established Lepidopterist Society for the study of butterflies. He was one of just a handful of members from his home state of New Jersey. The following year, Ehrlich published his first scientific field notes in the society's mimeographed Lepidopterists' News. Ehrlich's three-paragraph report detailed his observations of butterflies at home in Maplewood, as well as in Bethesda, Maryland, where he had spent the summer. Ehrlich had examined the eye color of more than four hundred specimens of the orange sulfur butterfly. His passion for science set him apart from his peers. "He was pretty much a loner," his mother later recalled. "After all, he had a butterfly net and he was chasing butterflies, and people ridiculed him." Ehrlich learned at a young age to follow his own muse. He developed a strong belief in his ability to understand how the world worked. He saw patterns and beauty in nature that his peers simply ignored.
Suburban New Jersey proved fertile ground for breeding a young environmentalist. Maplewood and its surrounding towns were a war zone in the chemical battle against insects. Large trucks would roll down the streets spraying the pesticide DDT to kill off mosquitoes. Ehrlich found it increasingly difficult to find "food plants to feed caterpillars that weren't soused in DDT." The chemical later became an academic interest for Ehrlich. His first graduate school assistantship in 1952 focused on the development of resistance to DDT in fruit flies. Housing developers also were ripping up New Jersey's farms and rolling hills and its small country roads for suburban tract housing. Ehrlich disliked how the New Jersey landscape was changing around him. He recalled later that his environmental interest grew "when I saw the subdivisions being put over the places where I used to go collect butterflies." Ehrlich was thus part of a generation of environmentalists who would grow up in the booming suburbs. The fields, woods, and backyards attracted their families, but the construction boom and the effort to control mosquitoes and other pests also threatened suburban nature and politicized many young suburbanites like Ehrlich.
Ehrlich's passion for insects and biology continued at the University of Pennsylvania, where he entered college in the fall of 1949. During one of his years, Ehrlich lived in an off-campus apartment in Philadelphia with two World War II veterans. He liked to have a good time with his friends, and although he enjoyed his studies, he later described his college years as majoring in "liquor and women." With a loud voice and booming laugh, Ehrlich held forth with strong opinions on most any topic. The future of humanity provided a favored theme. Around this time, Ehrlich read Fairfield Osborn's Our Plundered Planet and William Vogt's Road to Survival, two popular 1948 warnings about overpopulation and resource scarcity. Osborn, president of the New York Zoological Society, and Vogt, a leading ornithologist, emphasized the dependence of humanity on nature. They used the recent world war to emphasize dangers posed by resource depletion and overpopulation. "Man's conflict with nature," Osborn wrote, was a "silent war" that threatened an "ultimate disaster greater even than would follow the misuse of atomic power." Describing depleted forests and shortages of arable land and the danger of population growth, Osborn warned that "another century like the last and civilization will be facing its final crisis." Osborn called for a new humility: "The time for defiance is at an end." Humanity, the "new geologic force," must "recognize the necessity of cooperating with nature." William Vogt shared Osborn's view that overpopulation and resource depletion endangered humanity's survival. "Man's destructive methods of exploitation mushroom like the atomic cloud over Hiroshima," Vogt wrote. He insisted that man was just another "biological creature subject to biological laws." For the young Ehrlich, Osborn's and Vogt's books provided ample fodder for late-night discussions with friends. He embraced their ideas that people were like other living creatures, subject to the same laws of nature and resource constraints, and that humanity risked a dire reckoning.
Ehrlich's interest in science continued to deepen, and he decided to pursue it as a professional career. During the summers of 1951 and 1952, after his sophomore and junior years in college, Ehrlich worked as a field officer in the Northern Insect Survey, posted in the Canadian Arctic and Subarctic. Following graduation from college, Ehrlich enrolled immediately in the graduate program in biology at the University of Kansas. He resumed work on his earliest passion, butterflies, under the supervision of his high school mentor, Charles Michener, who had moved to Kansas from New York. In an interview, Michener remembered Ehrlich fondly as a "noisy and brash" young man who also was "bright and very capable." If you wanted to find Michener, people would say, go listen for Paul Ehrlich's booming voice down the hall. In this community of scientific researchers, Ehrlich stood out as charismatic and gregarious, with broad-ranging interests that extended far beyond his narrow butterfly research program.
While in graduate school, Ehrlich met Anne Howland, an undergraduate French major at the university just a year younger than Paul. Anne had read some of the same books as Paul, and she shared his worldview about population pressures on the land. She had grown up in Des Moines, Iowa, in an artistic and literary family, with a cosmopolitan outlook. One of her grandmothers had marched as a suffragist, and both her mother and her aunt had been determined to have careers. Anne's mother wrote for the society page of the Des Moines Register, while her aunt worked for a prominent Chicago advertising agency. Anne's own education and career, however, was initially derailed by her relationship with Paul. The two started dating early in her junior year, and they married just a few months later, in December 1954. Their only daughter, Lisa, came unexpectedly the following November. Short on money and with a new baby in the house, Anne dropped out of college to fulfill traditional roles of wife and mother. They did not feel that they could afford a second child, and by the time that they could, it no longer seemed like the right thing to do.
Despite her strong intellectual interests, Anne never finished her degree. Anne would work closely with Paul, first tapping her artistic skills to illustrate his doctoral thesis and then contributing hundreds of drawings to their 1961 book, How to Know the Butterflies. Drawing was work that Anne could do in spurts with a young child wandering around the house. Later, when Paul started writing essays about population, Anne became a close writing collaborator and, finally, a public figure in her own right. Paul was the "mouth" and Anne was the "brains," he liked to joke about their unusually close and symbiotic working partnership. He was the extrovert who loved being around people and making them laugh, while Anne, particularly early in their marriage, tended to recede into the background.
After a postdoctoral fellowship in Chicago, Paul and Anne Ehrlich moved with Lisa to Palo Alto in 1959, where Paul began a more than fifty-year career teaching in the biology department at Stanford University. His research in population biology would result in hundreds of scientific publications, including an influential 1965 paper, coauthored with Stanford colleague Peter Raven, that helped launch the study of co-evolution: the idea that animals and plants coevolve in a series of adaptive defenses and responses. The strength of Ehrlich's analysis, and the new ecological science that he would come to represent, lay in the ways that he drew attention to the interconnectedness of humans and the natural environment. Biologists like Ehrlich and Raven showed how ecosystems functioned, and they documented rapidly changing environments, threats to endangered species, and the migration of toxic chemicals like DDT through the global food chain.
Excerpted from The Bet by Paul Sabin. Copyright © 2013 Paul Sabin. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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1. Biologist to the Rescue.................... 10
2. D reams and Fears of Growth.................... 62
3. Listening to Cassandra.................... 96
4. T he Triumph of Optimism.................... 131
5. Polarizing Politics.................... 181
6. Betting the Future of the Planet.................... 217
SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY.................... 267
Posted September 10, 2013
This concise, well-written book starts with the bet between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon and telescopes to a fascinating discussion about environmental policy and politics from the 1970s to the present. This book is worth reading whether you are more concerned about resource degradation and overpopulation or misguided public policies intended to combat these trends. Sabin shows that neither side of the increasingly polarized environmental battles has a monopoly on truth. Smart public policies to care for the natural resources on which all life depends will draw on both Ehrlich’s recognition of resource depletion and Simon’s understanding of the power of human ingenuity and markets. The Bet is a very enjoyable, informative read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.