Excerpt from Hope on Earth: A Conversation, by Paul R. Ehrlich and Michael Charles Tobias (The University of Chicago Press, 2014). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
From Chapter 4: Getting One’s Priorities Right
Paul Ehrlich, hereafter PE: Sex and reproduction in our sex-soaked society is another area of social failure. There is little sound sex education anywhere, and many if not most people are confused about sexual issues or their own sexuality. It’s not restricted to the uneducated. I once had a fellow graduated student who asked me if I wouldn’t mind buying some condoms for him, and I said why don’t you buy yourself some condoms? And he said he’d be much too embarrassed to go into a drugstore (this was in the 1950s) and ask for condoms. And I said, “Well, go out to the Dynamite,” which was the local roadhouse, “go into the men’s room, and you’ll find a machine there. There’s no person, you just put a quarter in the machine, you turn this little handle, and you have a condom.” And he said that wouldn’t be any good because those were “only for the prevention of disease.” So I actually knew the only person in the universe who believed the politically correct lie that those condoms were only for the prevention of disease. People sadly often believe whatever they’re told, even if they are told it by poor Rush Limbaugh. My friend was a smart science student, but his skepticism was mostly restricted to his thinking about science.
Think of the influence on sex of the big unethical monotheisms that run much of our Western world and believe themselves to be above criticism. Prior to their dominance, the pagans in the Roman Empire let each other live and let live—as long as you helped protect your fellow citizens by doing the proper sacrifices to the local deities. The pagans weren’t interested in converting others. Of course, the most unethical thing going on now with one of the monotheisms, Catholicism, is opposition to the use of contraception. The main source of that is the Vatican and its bishops. Yet Catholics use contraception as much as non-Catholics, and they have abortions with even higher frequency. But the reason that the hierarchy fights against both is that the higher-ups in the church don’t want to admit that the Protestants and Jews were right. The picture with Islam is more mixed and not remotely as injurious as the Catholic position. Islam, like Protestantism and originally henotheistic Judaism, generally permits contraception, and since the Pharisees, Judaism has had little interest in proselytizing. All are unethical since their leaders often attempt to dictate the behavior, especially sexual behavior, of others with at the very least threats and at the worst torture and murder. All of them, with trivial exceptions, tend to oppress women. Much of this is an evolutionary continuation of male dominance, based now often on dictates received from imaginary entities. And, of course, in most societies criticizing the ridiculous ideas of religion cannot be part of reasonable social discourse.
Thus you have “God-fearing” people trying to maintain their rigid positions, especially trying to control the lives of women. I consider that their rigid opposition to something so basic, so critical to the future of life on Earth, as controlling reproduction to be just as unethical as any major affront to the environment or terrorist act. They’re working to kill people—women who need safe abortions now, and our descendants who are likely to have much higher death rates related to the decay of human life-support systems as a consequence of overpopulation. The pope and many of the bishops are one of the truly evil, regressive forces on the planet, in my opinion, interested primarily in maintaining their power. What other collective conclusions should one reasonably draw from the outrageous lawsuits that have been filed on behalf of so many victims of pedophilia and other crimes against humanity, all covered up by the church?
Consider the bishops assaulting nuns for trying to be good Christians and helping people, while turning their backs on the child abuse that has become one of the defining attributes of the church. And it’s not just the Catholic Church. Think of the state of women in general.
Michael Tobias, hereafter MT: I remember a story from my research in Nairobi. A member of the Vatican who had been visiting some of the dioceses in Kenya went into a Catholic high school—and totally at random, one of the school authorities opened up a student’s locker, and there they found some condoms. Ten years of good work by numerous family-planning NGOs and the United Nations Population Fund, the UNFPA, were finished in one Vatican-driven mindless instant. I suppose what troubles me the most about such things is the challenges that survives: What are the most effective arguments for changing human behavior? The finest models we can imagine for implementing wise land use, animal protection, for social justice at all levels?
PE: All you have to do is turn on the TV to get depressed.
Cultivate your garden
MT: There are so many priorities and so many wildfires erupting simultaneously around the planet. Two weeks prior to the Rio+20 Summit, nation-states, one by one, waffled over whether to even go or not. It was chaos, evoking the poetry of John Donne, and the way Ernest Hemmingway quoted him by way of a prefatory remark in For Whom the Bell Tolls. When you wake up in the morning, do you go back to sleep, or do you choose to remain awake? Because the challenges are so numerous, so daunting. I had this very depressing discussion with my mother last night, who said you just have to smile and be happy and be grateful for what you’ve got. Because I sort of gave her a summary of what you and I had discussed yesterday, before the mosquitoes drove us away, and she said, “Oh my God, it’s so depressing.” And then she pointed out that everybody is aware of all this. That we don’t need scientists to talk about how bad things are in the world and the coming cataclysm. And I said, “Mother, it’s not coming, it came, and it’s here, and it’s continuing, and it’s getting worse—it’s escalating.” She said she was too old to think about these things. That she just wanted to spend the rest of her days with her friends, reading good books, cultivating her garden. Which happens to be a terrific garden, in Denver. Not a bad city, as cities go.
PE: First of all, we’re struggling with the MAHB and through it trying to mobilize what, in my opinion, is essentially an ecologically uneducated population. Which makes every problem that much more difficult to attack, let alone resolve. I think on the ethical front, you know, you can look at the Galápagos as an example and realize that a biological and cultural site of enormous importance to all people is under great threat. The islands hold a fascinating and unique flora and fauna and are a key site in one of the greatest intellectual advances of our civilization—the uncovering of the mechanisms of evolution.
There were about 1,000 visitors a year in the 1960s. Now there are some 100,000. The human resident population has more than tripled, and many invasive species have been introduced. Overfishing is endemic. Yet the ecological ignorance, overpopulation, and overconsumption that are the fundamental drivers of this ethically depressing situation can’t be solved just within the Galápagos or even within Ecuador. Poor people need to make a living, and rich people don’t see the big picture or (unethically?) don’t seem to care.
One can look at any number of problems—local, regional, or global—and, in the end, issues in ethics are major roadblocks to their resolution. Think of the culture of an Inuit group that declares they have cultural rights to kill whales. But at the same time, by killing those whales, that culture is also killing global bio-heritage, “property” of all humanity. Moreover, those whales are going to disappear, and then the Inuit won’t have the cultural privilege of killing them. Then what?
People in the Galápagos would seem to have a right to live by fishing; but when the fish is gone, what will they do? One of the curses of an education in ecology is the frequent need to ask the question, “Then what?” Some claim that it is every American’s “right” to have as many SUVs as he or she can afford. But when climate disruption, in part due to SUV exhausts, wrecks agriculture, and people are starving, then what? Shouldn’t SUVs be banned right now and most other automobiles phased out over a few decades? Others say that women have the “right” to have as many children as they want. But if they want four apiece and, as a result, there’s barely food for one, then what?
MT: Like the Southern California fisherman who testified that there should be a limit on the number of sea otters in order to balance the rights of fishermen with sea otters. And yet the boundaries and population numbers established by humans out near San Nicholas Island are purely arbitrary. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying heroically to restore sea otter populations a hundred years after the mammals were driven to near extinction. Competing altruisms, typically favoring human demand.
The necessity of human population control
PE: And if we don’t solve the issues of population growth and consumption, all the rest of these issues won’t stand a chance of being remedied. Whatever your cause, it’s a lost cause without population control. Every day that is more obvious. So my basic view is that humanity ought to stick with the fundamentals. You are not going to solve the problems one at a time. The Grameen Bank, for example, is a good thing that’s helped some people. But compared to what’s going on in the world as a whole, it’s like trying to bail out the ocean with a thimble. Much the same can be said about many examples of positive trends. All too often they are too little and already too late.
MT: But, of course, that whole concept of micro-financing—for which the Grameen Bank was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and particularly in cultures where women have been held back for so long, as in Muhammad Yunus’s Bangladesh—is brilliant.
PE: No question about it. It’s just—you know I’d be cheery if we had another thousand years instead of maybe a decade, if we’re lucky. Many small-scale successes; nowhere near enough large-scale ones. That’s why society needs rescaling – we’ve got to reduce the size of the entire human enterprise.
MT: Well, if we only have a decade if we’re lucky, why are we sitting here?
PE: One reason is that it’s tough to know what to do. I’ll tell you one thing: it’s clear that Congress is doing absolutely nothing to solve the big problems. Politicians so far have been hopeless. The most overpopulated nation in the world had a presidential election in 2012 in which not a single serious issue was debated—and certainly not population control. The debt “crisis,” for example, is completely solvable by negotiations among people. It would be tough and involve some redistribution of wealth, but all it would require is the will to do it. In contrast, you can’t negotiate with nature. You can’t say, “Nature, we are going to bust through the two-degree temperature rise ‘safe’ limit, so you’ll have to let us grow enough food after a five-degree rise.” Look at what was debated. That “gay rights” and the right of a woman to control her own reproduction are still debated shows that the United States is still in the grip of religious-based prejudice—that the ghosts of Dred Scott and Roger Taney still haunt us.
Another reason I just sit here now is that I believe ethically you owe something to yourself and your friends. Anne and I fight the good fight all year long, but being able to fight it from here for a month or so makes a big difference. Among other things, it reminds me of how much beauty remains in the “wild” world despite the efforts of Wall Street and the fossil fuel industries to destroy it.
MT: So structurally, the key issues from your perspective are population and consumption. If we don’t get those two under control, we’re finished. All right, if that’s the case, then the consideration of ethics and the wide expression of it in so many avenues of thought and investigation are, in many ways, irrelevant?
Excerpted from Hope on Earth: A Conversation by Paul Ehrlich and Michael Tobias. Copyright © 2014 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
Paul R. Ehrlich lives in California, where he is the Bing Professor of Population Studies and the president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University. He is the author or coauthor of many books, including, The Population Bomb, The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment, and Humanity on a Tightrope: Thoughts on Empathy, Family, and Big Changes for a Viable Future.
Michael Charles Tobias is an ecologist, author, filmmaker, and president of the Dancing Star Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in California and focused on international biodiversity conservation, global environmental education, and animal protection. His works include World War III: Population and the Biosphere at the End of the Millennium, Sanctuary: Global Oases of Innocence, and the recent feature film trilogy No Vacancy, Mad Cowboy, and Hotspots.
Chatting with Paul Ehrlich about the chances of societal collapse
Paul Ehrlich – Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?
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