Transcript: Paul Ehrlich, "The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment". 29 July 2008

Thom talks with Paul Ehrlich about the book he wrote with his wife Ann, "The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment".


Thom Hartmann interviews Paul Ehrlich, 29 July 2008


[Thom Hartmann]: I remember back in the day, it's been a couple of decades as I recall since "The Population Bomb" was first published by Paul Ehrlich, a book that certainly caught my attention and in some ways changed my life, I think true of many of us. And Paul and his wife Ann have a new book out, "The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment" that brings together just a whole collection of things. Paul Ehrlich on the line with us. Paul, welcome. or Doctor Ehrlich, welcome to the program.

[Paul Ehrlich]: Paul is just fine. Great to be here.


[Thom Hartmann]: Thank you so much for joining us. Human evolution in the environment; it's interesting in this book how you broadly submit the hypothesis that where we're at in a certain way is a function more of our genes than anything else.

[Paul Ehrlich]: Well, we have a long evolutionary history which gave us the capability to develop culture, and culture is of course what's made us the dominant animal on the planet. And the sad thing is that our very triumph, our power, is now basically cutting off the branch we're sitting on. We are faced, for the first time in human history, with the collapse of a global civilization. We've lost lots of civilizations in the past but they were local or regional. Now we're facing the Big Bang and we're having a presidential election where most of the critical issues aren't even being discussed.

[Thom Hartmann]: Right. You point out in the book that really the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet for human biomass, for human beings, is probably under two billion.

[Paul Ehrlich]: If you want to have a decent life. I mean, we might squeeze 8, 10 or even 12 billion on if you want to have a battery chicken kind of planet in which every human being has the absolute minimum food, space, education and so on, but I don't think many of us want to go that direction.

[Thom Hartmann]: Right, and, you know, people say, 'what, two billion? There's six point something right now, on our way to seven'. But there were two billion people, I mean, that was the total population of the planet the year that Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in as president of the United States. the world was lightly populated.

[Paul Ehrlich]: That's right. That was when I was born and we had enough people to have gigantic cities with opera and good restaurants and we also had enough room so that you could live like a hermit if you wanted to. And we weren't, for example, altering the climate in ways that may very well make us all very hungry in the not too distant future.

[Thom Hartmann]: Right. That all began, really, when we crossed about the four billion threshold in '74.


[Paul Ehrlich]: Right, somewhere around in there.


[Thom Hartmann]: We're talking with Paul Ehrlich, he and Ann Ehrlich have written a new book. "The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment". Paul, it seems to me, and I'd love to get your take on this, I have such respect for your perspective on these issues, and it seems to me that some of the things that are built into our culture arguably, setting aside morality, arguably at some point in the past would have been useful for culture. For example, we know that in cultures where women are the property of men, basically, that population explodes, and that in cultures were women are relatively empowered relative to men, have relatively equal power, population will stabilize.

[Paul Ehrlich]: Yeah, which is one of the reasons that we ought to give women more power, because we need to get the population actually declining.

[Thom Hartmann]: Yeah exactly. And my point is that, you know, 7,000 years ago when our culture, you know, the first remnant, the first vestiges of our culture were emerging, those memes that became things like, you know, in the new testament Paul saying a woman should shut up and sit in the back of the Church and, you know, the separation of genders in most of the major religions of the world, and things like that that perpetuated the disempowerment of women and the view of women as the property of men, those arguably from a purely socio-, as I said, setting aside morality, from purely evolutionary point of view or whatever, you know, the tribe that had the largest army was the tribe that won, and there is a lot of cultures that just went extinct because their people got wiped out. And I mean there's even stories about it in the book of Joshua. And those are stories, those are cultural memes that we now need to leave behind in a really rapid and really radical way.


You're talking in this book about transforming a culture after 7,000 years of setup when we've still got, and you talk about how the Pat Buchanans of the world, I don't think that you name him, but the folks who are out there being hysterical about 'oh, you know, we've got negative population, brother, this is a terrible thing'. My recollection is that even after the black plague what emerged was a middle class and a renaissance, that reducing population is actually a positive thing and using a positive means to do it, that is a change of culture rather than a negative means to do it, like SARS or the bird flu, is probably the best way to go.

[Paul Ehrlich]: Well, absolutely. I mean, there's all this nonsense about the problem with population shrinkage in Europe. Europe and the United States and the other rich countries should be shrinking; we're the gigantic consumers, we're the ones who are wrecking our life support systems much more than the poor people of the planet. And just on a plain ethical basis we want to give the poor people of the planet a decent life and so the whole idea that it's bad to have have population shrinkages, that's nonsensical.


After all, if we ever need them, people can be produced by unskilled labor that really love their work. So, I'm not at all worried about that. It would take, you know, maybe a hundred years to get down towards two billion and if we found that was going to be too few, we could change our course any time. But as you indicate, what we need is a gigantic change of norms. We are basically a small group animal for the first time that's trying to live in gigantic groups. And if you look around and look at the newspapers, you can see we're not doing too well at it.

[Thom Hartmann]: Right, that we're biologically wired apparently. Now, well, actually this raises a really interesting question. Is our culture the aberrant culture? Because when you look at most indigenous cultures that have had 10,000 years of trial and error to work this out, many of them came and went and, you know, there's a lot of evidence of cultures that grew, built big cities and then collapsed and then vanished for whatever reason, a whole variety of possible reasons. But many of them ended up living in balance with their environment. You know, the idea that sustainability is where somebody, all waste is something else's food, you know, and so they would, you know, live, hunting gathering people, you know, would live in one particular area for five or six years and then move, you know, 20 miles away and move in that area so that that first area recovered, and there would just be this kind of circular pattern, and it was entirely sustainable. We're living in a way that's entirely unsustainable. It's a linear culture, as it were.

[Paul Ehrlich]: That's right. We are, what we're doing is using up our natural capital.

[Thom Hartmann]: Right. So how do we incorporate the lessons of those older cultures into our modern younger culture?

[Paul Ehrlich]: Well, the issue is, do we educate people right? In other words, one of the reasons that Ann and I wrote the book is that I get so tired of being at the best university in the world and realizing that the vast majority of our graduates could not discuss the critical issues of the day. They did not know anything about human evolution, they could not really describe why the climate is changing and what the likely consequences are and so on. And so I started offering a course in human evolution and the environment, and the book grew out of the course, because we can't continue to not educate our population to have have politicians, I mean, here we are, talk about cultural problems, we have probably the worst president in the history of the United States. How did we manage to get him at a time that's so crucial for society, when the climate is being changed, threatening our food supply, our cities, the possibilities of warfare, and so on. And we have had a government that has fought against doing anything at all about climate change. But that said, we need to change our entire culture and that's a gigantic job, but it could be done.

[Thom Hartmann]: So how, where we start? It can't just be education.

[Paul Ehrlich]: Well the first place to start, yeah, I think the first place we start, of course, is by changing the government in the United States. The US is still looked to by much of the world, and if we changed our behavior, if we said we've spent a hundred years, almost a hundred years designing our country around the automobile, now we want to change it and design it around people, this is what we want in the United States. If we had a population policy in the United States, if we said, 'yeah we consume too much', the whole idea, the way to fix the economy when it's shaking is not by telling everybody to go out and buy another SUV and another refrigerator.

[Thom Hartmann]: Which is what George Bush said.


[Paul Ehrlich]: We have, fortunately economists are beginning to look at these problems.

[Thom Hartmann]: Yeah, yeah, and it seems to me that at a certain level the core of culture is very often embodied in religion, the stories that we tell ourselves. Do you call for a change in our religious perspectives?

[Paul Ehrlich]: Well I would, let's put it this way, I wouldn't call for a change in our basic religious perspective, which is, fundamentally, good people treat other people the way they wanted to be treated. But of course, you may have noticed that we don't follow the perspectives of the great religion and all to often they are used as simply ways of applying power over people, trying to tell them what to do. Telling them, for instance, when we have unnaturally greatly reduced our death rate, which I think is a wonderful thing, we've extended our lives, then telling us it's evil to unnaturally introduce contraception which will lower your birth rate and, you know, give your children a chance for a decent life. That's the kind of stuff that you don't want from religion, you want people treating each other and learning to treat each other the way they would like to be treated. We don't manage that, we're in deep trouble.

[Thom Hartmann]: Yeah. Yeah. And it all comes to culture.


[Paul Ehrlich]: That's right.


[Thom Hartmann]: It's the culture, stupid! "The Dominant Animal"" is the book, "Human Evolution and the Environment", Paul Ehrlich and Ann Ehrlich. And Paul, thanks so much for coming.


[Paul Ehrlich]: That's my pleasure.


[Thom Hartmann]: Great talking with you. Thank you.

Transcribed by Sue Nethercott.

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