MediaWatch: June 1989

Vol. Three No. 6

Today's Earth Watch

For the NBC Today show's recent three-part "Earth Watch" series on the environment, producers went beyond their regular stable of correspondents to "put the world's environmental crisis in perspective." Whose perspective? Introducing the series, Jane Pauley explained "Our guide is Paul Ehrlich, the distinguished Stanford University biologist." Today gave Ehrlich a production and travel budget as well as free air time on three consecutive mornings starting May 3 to present his unique diagnosis of the world's problems.

Ehrlich's claim to fame is his 1968 book The Population Bomb, which began: "The battle to feed all humanity is over. In the 1970's 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."

Ehrlich saw widespread famine as part of the solution to his theories of overpopulation. In what he called a "cheerful scenario," the U.S. government would decide in 1974 it would no longer send food to countries considered "beyond hope." Famine and food riots would ensue until 1985, "when it is calculated the major die-back will be over," that is, when enough millions have died to reduce Earth's population to some arbitrarily acceptable level, like 1.5 billion people.

The Today reports were about as "cheerful," and Ehrlich's predictions as pessimistic about the coming decade. "We're going to see massive extinction," he warned, not to mention drought, erosion, and famine. Global warming is going to melt the polar ice caps, causing a flood in which "we could expect to lose all of Florida, Washington D.C., and the Los Angeles basin...we'll be in rising waters with no ark in sight." Thus, industrial nations will have to abandon their wasteful lifestyles using gas and electricity or risk global cataclysm. "Perhaps the most explosive social problem of the next 50 years will be that the ecosystems of the world cannot support the spread of the American lifestyle to the Third World or even to the next generation of Americans."

Ehrlich's sorry record of failed predictions and dire prescriptions was challenged by economist Julian Simon's 1981 book, The Ultimate Resource. Simon argued that resources are getting less scarce, that pollution and famine are decreasing as the food supply increases, and that population growth has long- term benefits. But Simon, who teaches economics at the University of Maryland at College Park, just a few miles from the studios and cameras of NBC's Washing-ton bureau, was never contacted by the network.