Hope on Earth: A Conversation

  • By Paul R. Ehrlich and Michael Charles Tobias
  • University of Chicago Press
  • 188 pp.
  • Reviewed by Howard S. Schiffman
  • May 29, 2014

A fresh, albeit pessimistic, look at the serious environmental issues that plague us.

Hope on Earth: A Conversation

Is our growing population stressing our ecological systems to a breaking point? According to Hope on Earth, it is. This book’s message is not only easy to understand but also serves as a wake-up call to us all: we must change our behavior to save ourselves from ourselves. Most notably, this means having fewer children, consuming less, and giving the components of nature the time and space to do their thing.

Hope on Earth is essentially the transcript of a heartfelt conversation between Paul Ehrlich and Michael Tobias, two luminaries of ecological conservation. Both men have devoted their careers to the study of life systems and documenting the man-made threats to them. Ehrlich is a biologist best known for his book The Population Bomb. Tobias is an ecologist and filmmaker best known for his book and television movie Voice of the Planet. Both Ehrlich and Tobias have studied the effects of the burgeoning human population on the Earth’s systems, including our atmosphere, oceans, and forests as well as the realm of butterflies and other insects, plants, and animals. Human life depends on these ecological systems, which are all around us.

The dire warnings and the calls for earnest human response are hardly new in environmental literature. One need only read Rachel Carson’s classic work Silent Spring or Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance to receive a similar warning of environment harm resulting from human activity. Even so, the intelligent exchanges between Ehrlich and Tobias illuminate our environmental predicament in a clear-headed and thoughtful manner. The points are fully explained for the reader. Ehrlich and Tobias acknowledge that a call for smaller families is controversial in many cultures and in various parts of the world. They also do not agree in all respects on what it will take to lift us out of our present path to ruin. They have fundamental differences, for example, on animal ethics (Tobias is a vegetarian and Ehrlich isn’t) and circumcision (Ehrlich views it as torture of male infants while Tobias is more open to it). Despite some differences, the discussants share a deep concern for the fate of the human race unless we change our behavior immediately.

Ehrlich and Tobias pull no punches. Both men have achieved far too much to feel constrained in their opinions. In fact, they draw upon their vast experiences to illustrate their points and bring context to our environmental quagmire. They share engaging stories of their observations in the animal kingdom that illuminate death and violence among non-human species: wasps killing tarantulas, lions killing warthogs, and researchers killing butterflies in the name of science. When is it ethical to kill? Many would say killing for food is ethical but what about when reasonable alternatives exist? What about the large scale death of animals as an indirect result of human behavior such as the burning of fossil fuels? Unless we make significant changes to the way we live, large-scale extinctions are possible, if not probable. Surely even the possibility of losing entire species so humans can over-consume should make us think twice.

Ehrlich and Tobias are later joined by Dr. John Harte, whose research empirically testing the effects of global warming on living organisms found in plots of land adds a new dimension to their environmental warnings. Beginning in 1988 Harte artificially heated some plots and left others unheated as an experimental control. The effects, which were striking, included significant loss of CO2 from the soil. This loss indicates the CO2 was released back into the atmosphere, thereby accelerating global warming. Harte also observed the loss of flowering plants, which cattle like to eat, and its replacement with sagebrush, which the cattle do not eat. Perhaps the scariest conclusion was that the unheated control plots began to resemble the heated ones over time. This indicates the changing climate is already producing the negative effects Harte artificially created.

While Ehrlich and Tobias acknowledge the controversy inherent in the call for population control, the discussion takes an even more dramatic turn into political rhetoric. Ehrlich states that “in the United States legislators are largely owned by industries. (Murder Incorporated units such as arms and cigarette industries are excellent examples.)” Such a strident statement, however, will not endear the very legislators necessary to help address the environmental crises.

The book misses another opportunity to impact its readers by waiting until the Afterword to introduce eight prescriptions that could improve our chances to survive the environmental crisis. The prescriptions are obvious extensions of the discussion and include: 1) “Have no more than one child, or none at all” and 2) “Try to reduce your consumption, one item and one day at a time.” It would have been a grander achievement for Ehrlich and Tobias to address why many people find such changes difficult and explore solutions with this in mind. While the problem is clearly stated, the book leaves the reader begging for more engagement on a practical level as to how to find workable steps toward improvement.

Despite these critical points, Hope on Earth offers a fresh look at the serious environmental challenges we face. Unlike other environmental texts, this book emphasizes the severity of the situation in an open and honest exchange between two knowledgeable thinkers. Their conversation is earthy (forgive the pun!) and even raw at times. Attractive photographs, many taken by Ehrlich and Tobias, also adorn the pages and help to illustrate their points. Even though the easy-to-read conversation style makes the environmental issues discussed eminently digestible by a general audience, those who would benefit from it most, such as climate change skeptics, are not likely to read it. But for those who do read it, Hope on Earth leaves little doubt how much worse our environmental problems will become unless we are moved to action, and soon.

Howard S. Schiffman, J.D., LL.M., Ph.D., teaches International Environmental Governance at NYU. He is general editor of the book Green Issues and Debates: An A-to-Z Guide (Sage, 2011).

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