Dr Paul Ehrlich, author of dozens of books including the 1980’s classic “The Population Bomb”, has given a wide ranging interview on the occasion of the publication of his latest book titled “Humanity on a Tightrope“. Here is an excerpt from the interview which illustrates why the average person has no idea that humanity is “walking a tightrope”:

If you ask the average American where their food comes from, ask 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 no idea 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.

Photosynthesis, augmented by fossil fuel based industrialised agriculture, directly determines the size of the base layer of the global food pyramid, which the majority of close to seven billion humans have come to take for granted. Global warming destabilises climate patterns established over millennia, a phenomenon that we describe as “increasing frequency of extreme weather events”, causing large losses of food production. Given that stark reality, one might think we would take limits to growth such as global warming and peak oil a lot more seriously – but we collectively don’t. Why not?

Dr Ehrlich’s thesis on this crucial question, in his new book and in the interview, is that we fail to do the obvious things that we should be doing because we appear to be genetically wired to empathise with the concerns – “step into the shoes” – of no more than 100-150 other people. Thus, on a planet of billions we have been fractured into so many competing and opposing entities (even of 150 people each) as to result in “The Tragedy of the Commons” for us all.

Intrigued, I carried out a small thought experiment. Imagine that all of humanity consisted of 150 men, women and children living in a high-tech community inside giant enclosures on a 600km asteroid, somewhere in the asteroid belt beyond the orbit of Mars. Imagine that their source of natural energy from the asteroid’s resources originally in place had started declining, and that excessive carbon dioxide was building up in their enclosure by a few parts per million per year faster than their plant ecosystem could remove it. The terrible consequences of these imbalances are distant in time, yet the situation is clearly unsustainable and must of necessity be addressed at some point. The asteroidal community’s town meeting, called to address these issues, recognizes the dangers of continuing its development along a path which cannot be sustained, and takes a few obvious decisions, such as building more sources of renewable energy, using energy more efficiently, increasing the number of plants, decreasing carbon dioxide emissions. They then reprioritize their activities and set about implementing these decisions right away. End thought experiment.

Back on Earth, the alarm was first sounded when “Limits to Growth” was published by the Club of Rome in 1972. It took twenty years to hold the Earth Summit in Rio, in 1992. It took four reports since then by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for governments to permit scientists to report that they are virtually certain that greenhouse gases produced by humans are causing climate change. When that happened, the liberal elites awarded a Nobel prize to the IPCC, and the conservative elites stole emails from the computers of climate scientists in the UK and took some choice quotes out of context in order to discredit the notion that humans are causing climate change.

Or take peak oil. The former head of the Saudi oil company, Saddad al Husseini, who appears to be a well meaning individual wishing to see the world transition towards sustainability, never thought his private comments to American diplomats about Saudi oil reserves being overstated by 40% would ever see the light of day, yet Wikileaks came along and they did, and as Husseini’s family still lives in a special compound for the Saudi elites, he is naturally issuing press releases to deny he ever challenged the claims of the Saudi regime regarding their oil reserves.

Thus it was that we had all collectively wasted the last four decades here on Earth, talking about the Limits to Growth problem but not actually doing much of anything about it, whereas over the same span of forty years, on our imaginary asteroid, the small outpost of humanity has already transitioned to 100% renewable energy sources, low energy buildings and a solidly balanced photosynthesis cycle to provide them with food and oxygen.

And so, to close this post, back to the interview and to Dr Ehrlich’s view of the common tool set that we need to address all the mounting Limits to Growth problems that we face:

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.


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.