Our Environmental CRISIS
Plain Truth Magazine
June-July 1970
Volume: Vol XXXV, No.6-7
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Our Environmental CRISIS
Paul R Ehrlich  

The earth faces a crisis of staggering dimensions. Biologists and population experts speak of the "Death of the Earth. "Warnings of impending global famine, killing hundreds of millions, have been sounded. But why? Just where do we stand, today? How urgent is the crisis? What really lies ahead? Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich of the Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University, author of The Population Bomb, recently addressed a "World Hunger Conference" in Anaheim, California. He spoke emphatically of the grave tragedy that lies ahead unless massive action is taken now. Dr. Ehrlich has condensed that address for inclusion in Plain Truth. In this article, we present his frightening warning, which deserves immediate attention and action!

   At THE MOMENT we have 3.6 billion people in the world. We are adding 70 million more every year. That number will soon increase to 80 million more people annually.
   In all the wars of the United States that is, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, and the Vietnam War we have had roughly 600,000 battle deaths. World population growth makes up that number every three days.
   If current world population growth rates are projected, preposterous figures are reached almost instantaneously. If we continue growing at the rate we're growing now, there will be seven billion people in the year 2000. About 900 years from now there would be a thousand people per square foot of the earth's surface; about a thousand years after that there would be a weight of people equivalent to the weight of the earth; and a couple thousand years after that the entire universe would be solid people, and the ball of people would be expanding at the speed of light!
   But we are already in grave trouble right here and now. The world population is doubling at a rate of once every 35 years.

Doubling Populations

   In the so-called underdeveloped countries which would be much more honestly called the never-to-be-developed countries the population doubling time ranges around 20 to 25 years.
   Contemplate for a minute what it means for a nation to double its population size in 20 years as, for instance, Honduras is doing at the moment. If those people are going to maintain their present quality of life, every amenity for the support of people in that country will have to be essentially duplicated in 20 years. That means where there are two dwelling units today there will have to be four in 20 years. A road with a certain capacity today will have to have double the capacity in 20 years. It will be necessary to double farm production, double imports, double exports, and so forth.
   The job of doubling everything in 20 years would be a colossal one for a nation like the United States. The very thought of a country like Honduras doubling everything in 20 years is simply preposterous.
   As Professor Georg Borgstrom of Michigan State University wrote, the world is basically a worldwide network of slums with a few islands of affluence. Roughly only 15% of the people in the world have anything similar to the quality of life that we have.

Starvation NOW!

   One thing people often say to me is, "When is this population-food crisis going to be upon us?" For about ten to twenty million people in the world last year, it has been upon them, stomped them into the ground, and moved on. Last year between ten and twenty million people starved to death.
   But some dogmatically assert, "Nobody starved in India last year." It's quite true if you check Indian vital statistics you will find no column that says "starved to death." No country in the world will admit that its citizens are dying of starvation. People get weaker and weaker from hunger or malnutrition and then die of a common cold or a festering hangnail and are chalked up in the mortality columns under "common cold" or "festering hangnail." But there is only one rational standard of death by starvation: anyone has starved, to death who would have lived if he had had an adequate diet.
   How many people in the world have an adequate diet today? It's very difficult to say. But somewhere between one and two billion of the total 3.6 billion do not. An inadequate diet means one or both of two things: either undernourishment that is, the individual receives too few calories or what is perhaps more serious in the world, malnourishment, usually inadequate access to animal protein, or other high-quality protein.
   Protein malnourishment may be the most pressing nutritional problem in the world today. If pregnant women and very young children do not receive adequate protein in their diets, the children grow up mentally retarded.
   So there is a very serious food problem right now. Right now we are not managing to feed adequately more than half of the population of the earth.

Environmental Deterioration

   I wish I could tell you that the only problem we face is an imbalance between food and people. But it's not that simple. Overlying the whole situation is the general problem of environmental deterioration.
   We are utterly dependent on the ecological systems of this planet for all of our food. We are also dependent on them for our waste disposal, and, of course, for our oxygen supply. Our very lives depend on this complex of systems and what are we doing to them? Just about everything you can think of.
   We are dosing the environment with materials that poison virtually everything. Some of these poisons are extremely persistent and are absolutely everywhere!

Changing Climate

   One of the main things that we are doing is changing the climate of the planet. We are accelerating climatic changes in all sorts of ways. The climate of the planet depends primarily on the heat balance, the balance between incoming and outgoing solar radiation. Adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which we have been doing at a merry rate since about 1870 'by burning fossil fuels, tends to warm the entire planet. The average temperature rose considerably until about 1940, and then the trend reversed. We now have a cooling trend which most meteorologists blame on the amount of particulate pollution that has been added to the atmosphere.
   Pollution is now absolutely worldwide. There has been a 35% increase in the particulate pollution over Mauna Loa, on the Island of Hawaii. There is a veil of pollution that covers the entire planet. A recent UNESCO conference estimated we have about 20 years before the atmosphere shall have become so polluted that the whole planet will start to die.
   Some meteorologists think the SST (supersonic transports) will make 100 percent cloud cover over certain areas of the planet. There already is an increase in cirrus cloud cover from the contrails from jet aircraft. Moreover, the carbon in jet aircraft exhaust catalyzes the destruction of ozone in the upper atmosphere. The presence of ozone is our protection against being fried by ultraviolet light coming in from the sun.
   All these things affect humanity in various ways. But the major effect they will have is to change the climate in relation to agriculture. Agriculture in most parts of the world is utterly dependent on the local climate. People are extremely conservative in their agricultural practices. Very often their entire lives are interwoven with their ideas about agriculture and these ideas do not change rapidly. So even in areas where the climatic change is for the better, there will almost certainly be a reduction in agricultural production accompanying a climatic change. One of the more ominous things we are doing to the environment is changing the climate of earth at a time when we are already ultra-marginal on our food production as far as the world as a whole is concerned.

The "Green Revolution"

   Another example is the green revolution. What does the picture really look like?
   There have been some spectacular yield increases in a few areas. These have been partly due to the high-yield grains and partly due to good luck with the weather in most areas. 1968 was a spectacular year in Asia for rice production. However, there was a 20% absolute drop in food production during the same period in South America, where the growth rate of the population is almost 3% a year. But the increase from these grains cannot be depended on to save humanity. It is impossible that it will buy us more than 20 years of continued population growth.
   First, there are all kinds of economic problems. The high-yield grains do not produce high yields unless they are properly fertilized and given plenty of
THE POPULATION BOMB EXPLODES At present growth rates, world population is certain to reach 7 billion by 2000. No one can predict what course world food production will take, but most likely it will grow arithmetically (2, 3, 4, 5, 6), while population grows geometrically (2, 4, 8, 16, 32) as shown here. Based on recorded U. N. data for declining food production, 1950- 1966, the world would reach a " starvation level" of 2000 calories per person per day in the underdeveloped nations in the late 1970's! Weather, disease, and soil depletion could alter that time scale a few years in either direction.
water. Where will an undeveloped country get fertilizer? They can build fertilizer plants. But building fertilizer plants requires capital. If they do not build fertilizer plants they must buy fertilizer overseas. That also requires capital. Once they have fertilizer it has to be transported to the fields, in trucks or by railroad. Trucks, railroads and farm roads also must be built or purchased with capital. One thing poor, hungry, and fast-growing countries particularly lack is capital.
   Agricultural development involves much more than new seeds. Suppose you bring in the few agricultural technicians available, take whatever fertilizer there is, take some of these high yield grain seeds, find the most progressive farmer in the area one of the people who will be willing to give up his previous farming ideas and accept the new ideas and subsidize him so he can put in more tube wells for water to irrigate. He plants these grains, he uses the fertilizer and, of course, he learns how to use chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides to kill the pests. And he gets a very fine yield.
   What happens then? Prices drop in that area, because starving people unfortunately often do not generate demand. They have no money to buy the food they need. The grain must be transported to where there is a market for it. That requires roads.
   It all boils down to the complex problem of overall development!
   Getting high yields the first year or so from new varieties is not an agricultural revolution. It is necessary to have the fertilizer, the water, the agricultural technicians, the transport systems, and to convince the farmers who were not progressive enough to use the grains during the first year. These are the economic problems.
   What about the biological problems? When high-yield grains are developed, it is done by a process of selection. In other words, every generation the plant breeder plants seeds from the plants that produced the highest yield and each generation produces more and more yield. Now in this kind of game in biology no one gets something for nothing. When high yield is obtained, something must be given up. One of the things that's usually given up is protein content. Since protein malnutrition is probably the most serious food problem in the world, the high-yield grains may be no solution at all from that point of view. Another problem is that pests just love the closely packed stalks and fibers of the Filipino rice (the new IR8 rites). Pest problems have already begun to develop.
   Here is the usual cycle of pest control; it has been repeated time and again in the world. The first year crops are coated with pesticides and the pests disappear. At the same time, although the farmer doesn't notice it, the little creatures that eat the pests also disappear. They are killed off entirely. They have very small populations to begin with. The second year there are a few more pests around the offspring of those few that were resistant to the pesticide. The next year there are a few more.
   Usually it takes about five years before the pests are back where they started. At this point, they are utterly resistant to the pesticide. But the situation is worse than before, because the natural controls are no longer around.
   This has happened time and time and time again. Therefore, the fact that there are very high crop yields at first, when new high-yield grains are introduced, is exactly what everybody predicted. But it is ridiculous on biological grounds to assume that the yields will remain that high.
   I am not against trying to increase yields in tropical areas. This is certainly one of those things that we should be doing. But our efforts until now are a drop in the bucket. We should have billions of dollars going into training the agricultural technicians, developing the farm roads, educating people how to control pests without destroying themselves, and so on. The grain seeds alone are not a revolution.

"Food From the Seas"?

   What about the immense riches of the sea? The deep sea, roughly 90% of the area of the ocean, produces nothing in the way of fish less than one percent of the world's fish catch comes from the deep sea.
   Immense riches of the deep sea, as far as mankind is concerned, are simply non-existent. Virtually 100 percent of our fisheries' yield is from the 10% of the sea that is along the shores, with rare exceptions. There are a few spots further out that happen to be rich with nutrients for one reason or another. But for the most part we depend on yield from the water close to shore.
   We are getting from the sea, now, about sixty million metric tons a year. Ten million tons of it (one sixth) comes from the Peruvian anchovy fishery alone. Marine biologists estimate that, if we did everything right, we could get from the sea a sustainable yield of a hundred million metric tons. That means, if we do everything right and if the population continues to grow at its present rate, there will still be a continual per capita decline in the food we get from the sea.
   But far from doing everything right, we are over-exploiting the stocks and simultaneously polluting the sea. Even if we stopped over-exploiting the fisheries and stopped the pollution, we would probably get less food out of the sea over the next few decades than we are getting now. It will take time for the stocks to recover and for the effects of pollution to wear off. But we are not yet moving toward either goal.

What Is the Solution?

   First of all, the attitude that overpopulation is a problem of hungry people in the rest of the world and not a problem for Americans is sheer rubbish. The birth of every American baby in the middle class is at least 25 times and, by many standards, 50 times the disaster for the world as the birth of an Indian baby or a ghetto child. Why? Because we, the affluent people in the United States, the Soviet Union, and Western Europe, are the super-polluters and the super-consumers of the planet.
   The United States alone plans to use all there is of several non-renewable resources before the early part of the next century is gone. We are six percent of the world's people but our annual consumption now is about 35% of all the raw materials consumed on the face of the earth.
   But we are not only consuming at a disgusting rate, we are also coating the earth with pesticides. We know much better ways of controlling pests than are now used. The only ones who benefit in the short and long run, in the pest control business today, with rare exceptions, are the petro-chemical industries. It's a losing game for the farmers, and it's a losing game for us.
   The U.S. is badly over-developed. As many economists have pointed out, we must do something about it. We must shift from a "cowboy economy" to a "spaceman economy." We must start recycling our resources, not dispersing them. We could very dramatically reduce our use of the world's resources, if we tried.
   We also must dramatically reduce the size of our population. One of my Stanford colleagues asked the following question: "How many people could the world support if everybody lived the life of the average American, ignoring the problems of environmental deterioration and resource depletion?" The answer: less than a billion!
   If we are going to save the world, we must start at home. We must stop breeding ourselves off this planet.
   Population control will require a lot of effort. We must not only control population size, but help, in every possible way, underdeveloped nations to achieve agricultural development. Everybody in the world, hopefully, will be able to have an adequate diet, adequate housing and a reasonable quality of life.
   I know that these are utopian plans. I think the most ironic thing about the world situation today is that the time has finally come when the only realistic solutions are the kind that we used to say were unrealistic or utopian!
   People often ask me whether I'm an optimist or a pessimist. And my answer is rather simple! We are in deep trouble.
   I tend to be very optimistic that we could do a lot. But I'm very pessimistic about whether we will. People still have the attitude that we can stand around on a boat and tell another passenger, "Your end of the boat is sinking."
   It really rests on all of us. If you say, "It sounds terrible, but it can't be that bad life is still full of fun in the sun there can't really be any problems" then we'll have had it.

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Plain Truth MagazineJune-July 1970Vol XXXV, No.6-7