A few years ago when I first wrote about Paul Ehrlich in our book, Tropical Conservation Biology, I quickly became impressed. His track record is, without any exaggeration, truly awe-inspiring. With over 1000 articles published and almost 50 books, the man has been a scientific writing machine for his entire career. He’s also highly influential in the socio-political sphere, and counts among his close friends some of the most politically and scientifically powerful people on the planet. In a word, he’s easily among the world’s greatest living scientists.
Remember, this was my opinion all before I actually met the man. Travelling through central California last year, I was lucky enough to be invited by Paul’s close colleague, Gretchen Daily, to give a talk at their Stanford University lab. It was fortunate that Paul was about at the time and not off promoting his new book or traipsing through the mountains of Colorado chasing butterflies.
We hit it off immediately and it seemed became mates within the space of a few hours. I learnt then that he and his equally famous wife, Anne, were regular visitors to Australia and that he had a particular love affair going with many Australian wines. I invited him to come to Adelaide the following year, he agreed (and importantly, so did the director of the Environment Institute, Mike Young), and it came to pass.
Well, Paul and Anne have just left Adelaide for Sydney to attend the memorial service of one of Australia’s greatest scientists, Professor Charles Birch, who died tragically last year. They spent two weeks here engaging me, the University of Adelaide and the South Australian public in lectures, interviews and chats over glasses of great SA wine on where we stand in terms of humanity’s long-term persistence, health, happiness and prosperity. It’s not a pretty picture.
I won’t dwell here too much on the details of these discussions – you can pick up any of Paul’s engaging books (including the new one, Humanity on a Tightrope: Thoughts on Empathy, Family, and Big Changes for a Viable Future, which I have yet to finish reading) or listen to the podcasts of his lectures (see below) for some insights; what I want to do instead is make a comment about the incredible humanity of the man.
I tell no lies when I say I’m exhausted after spending two weeks with Paul. Who would have expected that a man of some 78 years could run a man half his age into the ground? His vitality, lust for life, wicked sense of humour, passion for change and concern for the world in which he lives is atypical for most people, let alone a near-octogenarian. I now understand how he had the energy to be as productive (with no signs of slowing down, mind) over the last 60 or so years of his career.
His detractors, those right-wing, denialist, money-addicted auto-sodomists, often accuse him of being a misanthrope, an anti-humanist. Not only is this ridiculous and hypocritical (and the best case I’ve ever come across of Mein Kampfism – the bigger the lie…), but it is fundamentally untrue in every way imaginable. Paul Ehrlich has a passion for people and human society that makes Mother Theresa look like a nihilist. Well, ok, that might be a little over-the-top ;-) – the point is, ‘misanthropist’ he most definitely is not.
On a professional note, I’ve started putting together the beginnings of a book to be co-authored with Paul about the future of Australia with respect to its choices on environmental policy. Given he has been coming here regularly since the 1960s when he first started his post-doc with Charles Birch, the man has both an insider’s and outsider’s understanding of Australia, its politics and how much it has changed over the past half century. I am truly looking forward to this opportunity over the next year or so.
For those of you who missed him while in Adelaide, we podcasted all of his lectures so that you can enjoy them at your leisure.
Lecture 1: Darwin’s Mistake: Creationism, Cultural Evolution and Conservation
Lecture 2: Population, Resources and the Environment: Where We Stand Now
Lecture 3: The Tightrope: A Millennium Assessment of Human Behaviour
And to the idiot P-plater who rear-ended us last week on Main North Road, I’m so very happy that your stupid lust for speed didn’t prematurely end the life of one of the world’s greatest scientists. Fortunately, you only ended the life of my little car’s bumper.