SUCKERS ARE indeed born every minute, and no one knows it better than Paul Ehrlich. The nation's most shameless fearmonger, author of The Population Bomb and a slew of other books warning that hundreds of millions of us are going to die any minute now, Ehrlich has once again been richly rewarded for his almost perfect record of getting things wrong. This sour misanthrope, who in 1989 described "the birth of an average American baby" as a "disaster for earth's life-support systems," has just won a Heinz Award (cash prize: $250,000) for what benefactress Teresa Heinz calls his "provocative, creative, and humane" ideas.
The Heinz is merely Ehrlich's latest score. In 1990 he was a co-winner of Sweden's Crafoord Prize ($240,000); that year he also won a MacArthur "genius" grant ($345,000). His books have been best-sellers. He was a fixture on Johnny Carson's show. And all for a string of doomsday predictions and grim end-of-the-world forecasts so completely and consistently false they make Jeane Dixon seem infallible by comparison. He is one of the great hysterics of our time, and it's made him rich and famous.
Ehrlich is a biologist whose specialization is butterflies. But for 27 years he has promoted himself an expert on ecology and human population. And what are his feelings about human population? He loathes it. The opening page of The Population Bomb (1968) made that memorably clear:
"The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people."
All those yucky people, deplored Ehrlich in The Population Bomb, have ruined the world. Result? Apocalypse now:
"The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines -- hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate."
A year later Ehrlich claimed that "most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born." By 1975, he expected, "food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions." He amended his prediction in 1978, perhaps noticing that he and his neighbors were still alive. Those hundreds of millions of people would be starving to death in the 1980s, not the 1970s, he said. Sorry for the delay.
Meanwhile, as Ehrlich awaited -- awaits -- what he called "the Great Die-Off," people's lives kept improving. The world death rate in 1965, measured in deaths per thousand, was approximately 16.4. By 1990 it had dropped to 10. The steepest declines were in Africa, South America and Asia, the regions Ehrlich had predicted would suffer most.
Worldwide, infant mortality keeps declining. Life expectancy keeps stretching. The average human being is better nourished today than at any time in history. Famine due to natural causes (i.e., not caused by civil war or dictatorships) has almost been eradicated. The number of people affected by starvation has been falling for decades. It is one-10th what it was a century ago, even though the world's population has quadrupled.
To convey the full scope of Ehrlich's false predictions would consume this whole page. But here's a small sample. Ehrlich forecast:
- The "extinction" of Lakes Erie and Michigan. (They thrive.)
- "A genuine age of scarcity" no later than 1985, with "supplies of many key minerals . . . nearing depletion." (They're more abundant than ever.)
- "Los Angeles killer smogs" that would wipe out tens of thousands of Angelenos. (No such luck.)
- Global warming severe enough to melt the "West Antarctic ice sheet . . ., raising the level of the sea by 20 feet." (The ice sheet is expanding.)
- Nuclear winter severe enough to plunge the Northern Hemisphere into subzero temperatures. (Been outside lately?)
The list goes on and on and on, lengthening with each book. Ehrlich rarely admits that his prophecies have failed. He just replaces them with new ones. Ehrlich's 1990 book "The Population Explosion," co-authored with his wife Anne, offers this vision:
"One thing seems safe to predict: Starvation and epidemic disease will raise the death rates over most of the planet . . . enormous rise in the death rates . . . deaths of many hundreds of millions of people in famines . . . nuclear terrorism . . . epidemics, water shortages . . . local disasters . . . food riots or epidemics leading to a breakdown of transport systems . . . collapse of civilization."
Imagine being told by a doctor that you had incurable cancer and would be dead in a few months. Imagine being told you would suffer horrible symptoms, which never materialized. Imagine being told this for 27 years, even as your health grew steadily better.
Now imagine Teresa Heinz bestowing $250,000 upon this doctor, hailing his "provocative, creative and humane" methods. Question: Which would you call the more ludicrous -- the doctor or the award?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)