Human beings have harnessed culture and technology to become the most dominant animals on Earth, said Paul Ehrlich at a September 18, 2008, launch of his new Island Press book, The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment, but “we’re really backward ethically—in terms of how we treat each other and…the environment. And this leads to a lot of problems, not the least of which is we’re destroying our life-support system.”
Climate change, according to Ehrlich, is an example of human dominance undermining the environment that enables it. He is most concerned about continually shifting patterns of precipitation, which could wreak havoc on agriculture and water infrastructure. “Don’t worry so much about sea level rise—worry about where your food’s going to come from,” he said, adding, “The people who are starving, of course, will also have nuclear weapons, which makes the whole situation a little dicier.”
Using his and John Holdren’s famous IPAT equation—human impact on the environment equals population times affluence times technology—Ehrlich argued that reducing population growth will be far easier than reducing consumption (i.e., affluence). According to Ehrlich, the steps necessary to reduce fertility—improving women’s access to education, jobs, and voluntary family planning—are well-known and have been successfully implemented around the world.
To Ehrlich, consumption is a much thornier issue. As many as two billion people currently live in absolute poverty, so their standard of living—and thus their level of consumption—should be significantly increased. Yet the consumption of people in wealthier countries must decline dramatically if we are to address climate change or a host of other environmental problems. “It’s much more important that we have [population] shrinkage in countries like the United States and Europe and Japan than it is, say, in Bangladesh or Nigeria” because the former are consuming so much more, Ehrlich explains.
The Least of Our Problems?
Ehrlich warned that other environmental problems may be more damaging than climate change. For example, if one of the thousands of toxic chemicals polluting the Earth proved seriously harmful to human health, there would be no way to remove it quickly. In addition, epidemics of new diseases—such as avian flu or hantavirus—could kill more people than climate change-induced famines, he says.
All Is Not Lost: Recommendations For Action
Ehrlich offered six principal recommendations for bringing environmental ethics up to speed with human dominance:
Show the same concern for birth rates as death rates. “If you change one half of the equation and you know the planet isn’t infinite, then you’ve got to change the other half of the equation,” he said.
Emphasize conservation as much as consumption.
Consider not only what new technologies will do for people, but also what they will do to people.
Educate the public about the challenges we face.
Avoid actions that will harm people on another continent or in a later generation.
Conduct a “Millennium Assessment for Human Behavior” that launches a global discussion about what kind of society we want to live in.
“Societies can change very dramatically in a very short time if they really want to do so,” said Ehrlich. But he minced no words describing the alternative to decisive action: “If we don’t change our ways, they’re going to be changed for us, and we’re not going to like it.”