Paul Ehrlich and Andrew Revkin at UW-Madison: Two Speakers – One Topic

You remember that quote about how the world is going to Hell in a handcart, and we nod our heads wisely – only to find out the quote is from someone in ancient Rome?  It’s a case of chronocentrism: people always believe they are living in the most critical of times.  Yesterday I heard two major minds say that this time it’s true — We are living in a momentous time.

I believe we are.  Yesterday I was told by Both  New York Times Science Reporter Andrew Revkin , at the 15th Annual Fall Ecology Symposium AND Environmentalist Extraordinaire Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, and, most recently, The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment as he addressed the  Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences at their first annual meeting.

Their two talks hammered home a single message.

Now is the time to get serious about our future.

Andrew C. Revkin

...Andrew C. Revkin speaks at UW Ecology Symposium

...Andrew C. Revkin speaks at UW Ecology Symposium

We are a planetary-scale force, Revkin said.  We are aware that we are a planetary-scale force, and we can communicate about this instantaneously.  So the question is, what do we want to be when we grow up?

How many people can earth hold, Revkin asked.  How much stuff?  It’s not just the number of people but what we do with our lives.   Black Friday times 9 billion?  What is the right level of development?  We are heading towards adding two more Chinas in the next 50 years.  We are at a juncture.  There have never been a billion teenagers on  Planet Earth before.  (Check out I Buy Different – a site that pulls together the connection between teens, shopping and protecting the environment.)

Two Energy Crises

Poor countries – Revkin showed a photo of boys who had walked from nearby slums to sit on the sidewalk of the airport – the only place they could get light to do their homework.  He showed another of a family gathered around a tiny, smoking stove breathing in deadly soot to warm themselves and their food.

Rich countries – the major consumers and polluters.  I don’t think I need to elaborate here.  The U.S. population will grow from 300 million to 400 million in the next 30-40 years, Revkin said.  “100 million more Americans is a big deal!”

To the science writers in the room, Revkin said, Global warming is a story.  It’s about our relationship with energy, and scientists are revealing the consequences of that relationship.  Don’t settle the common practice of journalists:  For every PhD, there is an equal and opposite PhD.  It’s not that simple.

He talked about Prudhoe Bay Oil Field in Alaska, which used to have 200 days a year when you could drive on the ice.  It’s down to 100 days a year now, which means less time to look for and extract oil.  We started to drill oil there in 1968, Revkin said.  In four decades we have turned the arctic coast wilderness into an industrial site.

Revkin’s blog, Dot Earth is a good way to learn more, and it’s not all doom and gloom.

We need people finally to come up with ideas that will work, he said, and he is putting his hope in what he calls Generation E.  He urged science communicators to plug into the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.

Global warming is a story, Revkin said.  It’s about our relationship with energy, and scientists are revealing the consequences.

Then I ran four blocks.  Good!  It’s not raining right now!  Into the Union Theater and find a seat near the front.  Just in time.  Sit down and return to regular breathing during lengthy double introduction of

Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich

Tall, and lean, at 76 Ehrlich climbed briskly to the stage and began to pace as he gave the   keynote address at the First Annual meeting of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences meeting in Madison this week.

Ehrlich has been a professor at Stanford University since 1959.  His book The Population Bomb was published in 1968.  He has written 35 books and over a thousand papers in his career and is still projecting a grim future.  He wasn’t holding his punches last night.

Climate change scenarios that involve warming and rising sea levels, he warned, may be the least of our worries.   Ehrlich warned the most crucial aspect of climate change may be agricultural devastation as precipitation patterns change and the possibility of death by starvation of billions of people.

Areas of China, India, and Pakistan are some of the countries most at risk for agricultural damage, “and they all have nuclear weapons.  Even a tiny nuclear war between India and Pakistan will take us out too.”

overcrowding U.S. National Archives

photo from U.S. National Archives

Plagues:  More than a billion people, he said, are hungry today, Ehrlich said.  Malnutrition compromises your immune system.  The more immune compromised people you have – the greater the chance of novel disease transfer from animals to humans, and our rapid transport spreads these diseases.

Toxic pollution:  He said we have released thousands of synthetic compounds into the environment.  One group is hormone mimics that are already disrupting gender balance and causing cancer.

Then he started to talk directly about population, saying, “The next 2.5 billion people are going to do immensely more damage than the last 2.5 billion.”  Because they will be farming more marginal land, digging deeper for resources and squandering water as it is transported and bickered over.

Ehrlich offered 5 issues to lean into.


Having intervened in the death rate – we have to intervene in the birth rate.  He noted that Europe is starting to get a decline in population.  He noted that again politicians don’t like to see population shrink.  It puts too many people in the above 65 category.  Well, he said.  We can deal with that now, or leave it to our kids, who will have many more problems to deal with at the same time.


Conservation has to be put ahead of consumption.  Advertising drives consumption.  He advises that people try consuming virtually through arenas like Second Life


Ehrlich said we have to do cost-benefit analysis of the substances we invent.  New compounds should be assessed.  If the compound makes eyelash glue a little stronger is not the same as a compound to cure breast cancer.


This is happening, he said.  150 years ago, if your horse or your slave stumbled, you could take a stick and beat it to death in the street.  We are getting more empathetic.  We need to care more about the whole world.  “Nation states cannot solve our problems.”  We are small group animals and we need to expand our pseudo-kin.  We need to get rid of discounting by distance.


We tell people to stop doing things, but we don’t show them how it could be better, Ehrlich said.  Our car-driving society should be made more human.  How about a 3-4 day work week to end unemployment?

Society can change rapidly, he said.  Look what happened to cigarettes.  Look at women’s employment choices.  Look at racial employment opportunities.  Look at the coming down of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union.

The time is ripe.

Things can happen very rapidly.

The challenge is for us to find ways to ripen the time.

Both Revkin and Ehrlich are looking to studies of human behavior and human communication to kickstart the future.  One place to start  is the website Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior This is what Ehrlich is pouring himself into now.

4 replies

  1. Denise,

    #5 seems incredibly vital to me. For far too long we’ve been existing as a worldwide society without a positive vision. We need new mythologies, and new stories to guide us toward a more meaningful way of life. I’m reminded of William Kitteridge’s book “Taking Care,” wherein he writes, “We live in stories. What we are is stories. We do things because of what is called character, and character is formed by the stories we learn to live in…Useful stories I think are radical in that they help us see freshly. Thats what stories are for, to help us see, and reinvent ourselves.” (Have you read this book by the way? As a writer and lover of the land I think you’d enjoy it immensely)

    As artists and writers I think we’re charged with the duty of introducing new visions, of re-imagining our relationship with the natural world, and proposing a positive step forward. Its great to be involved with people who are busy proposing and enacting such changes.

    Be well,

  2. I agree. It seems like the starting point for all the other issues. Our taming-the-West mentality isn’t going to cut it in a world that needs to be nurtured rather than subdued.
    I haven’t read Kittredge yet, but I just requested one of his books from the library. They didn’t seem to have Taking Care.

    on a totally unrelated note, I just came across an interesting use of wood to celebrate wonderful food and thought I would pass the site along to you:

  3. Can anyone direct me to a video or some similar demonstration that carbon diox. in the atmosphere creates warming? I mean a real demo/experiment and not animation.

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