03 September 2013

1974 Ehrlich and Holdren Senate Testimony

Motivated by my recent reading of The Bet, by Yale University's Paul Sabin, I tracked down the complete 1974 Senate testimony of Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren in hearings on the "Domestic Supply Information Act" held by the Committee on Commerce and Committee on Government Operations (Serial No. 93-107).

The testimony provides an eye-opening look into the depths of Malthusian froth of the time and also provides a great case study for thinking about the role of experts in policy making. I plan on using the testimony in future courses, so I am making it available here as a PDF.

Below are some excerpts and a starter-set of discussion questions.The whole testimony which is worth reading in full. First Ehrlich:
Ehrlich: I suspect you're aware, that the increased price of petroleum which is certainly related to the near depletion of petroleum resources-they're going to be gone by the end of the century . . .

I think that what is not realized, and it's going to be one of the hardest things to be accepted by the Americans in general, is that the onset of the age of scarcity essentially demolishes current models of economists. We are going to move to a no-growth [economy]. Now, whether we do it intelligently through the Government by planning as rapidly as possible, or whether we move there automatically-by the way, when I look at some of the figures these days, I think we're moving there much more rapidly than people realize--we're going to get there, obviously. And I think we'd do a lot better if we had some planning for the dislocations that will inevitably occur. . .

If bad weather continues in the Midwest this year, and if the monsoon should fail this year in India, as it might, then I think you're going to see the age of scarcity and many of the changes I'm talking about coming on next winter.'I mean that's when we're really going to start getting into it.  If we are "fortunate" for a few years, and have nothing but good weather, then it'll come on, you know, 5 or 10 years down the pike. But of course during that time populations will have increased. . . .

I think that the thing you can say with absolute assurance is, considering the magnitude of the changes, if we have 20 years-which I wouldn't put a nickel on-but if we have 20 years, we're already 10 years too late in starting to do something about it. We're not going to change the political and economic structure of the United States overnight. And for that reason, I think that any feeling of urgency that you can generate--one of the big problems is how do you generate a feeling of urgency . . .
Class discussion questions:
  • How did Ehrlich's warnings pan out?
  • Should policy makers have acted on his advice? Why? Why not? (and what would it have meant to "act"?)
  • What makes experts today more believable by policy makers than Ehrlich was then (both contemporaneously and with the advantage of hindsight)?
  • Should experts at the time have helped campaign to increase a sense of "urgency"?
Now some excerpts from Holdren's testimony:
Holdren: The. main point here is that, although there may be defects in any specific detailed model, the general conclusion is far more robust than any specific model. At the same time, one has to make a certain disclaimer, and that is that neither analysis nor computer models are adequate to the task of predicting exactly what disaster will follow from a continuation of present trends and exactly when such a disaster will take place.

Now, this problem puts those of us who tend to view with alarm in a somewhat curious position. We're calling upon society to make major changes, but we cannot prove exactly what will happen and exactly when, in the absence of those kinds of changes. This particular point is often used against us by people who are optimistic and believe that one way or another, technology will let us muddle through. I think a useful way to think about this particular dilemma is in terms of the burden of proof; that is, we should ask: Are we worse off if we believe the pessimists and they are wrong, or are we worse off if we believe the optimists and they are wrong?

I think the conclusion is clear. . .

In addition to the reliance on technological panaceas, per se. there is an enormious reliance on the part of optimists of various kinds of the price mechanism, on economic forces, to somehow bail us out of the kinds of difficulties that we're in for. This too has been one of the major criticisms of "Limits to Growth," tlat somehow they didn't adequately incorporate what the price mechanism would do for us in extricating us from this morass of problems.

In this context I think its very important to understand what economics is. Economics is the study of how to allocate resources that are fundamentally scarce in the most efficient way. It doesn't always even do that. But ideally, the idea behind economics is to allocate scarce resources. It does not make scarce resources less scarce. . .

This tendency is perhaps the most dangerous one we face, that somehow people want to wait until the evidence is absolutely overwhelming, that we're in for a catastrophe, before they take action. What worries me is that by the time the evidence is absolutely overwhelming, a good deal of the damage may in fact be irreversible. It's the same tendency toward oversimplification which leads people to think that one set of technological solutions will bail us out. As much as we need technology, we need a good many other things. And as you've already suggested this morning, one of them is social and institutional changes . . .
Class discussion questions:
  • How do you evaluate Holdren's view of technology?
  • How do you view Holdren's view of economics?
  • How much evidence should policy makers have before committing to a particular course of action?
  • In what ways are experts who call for social and institutional changes in society different than Holdren/Ehrlich in 1974? 

Over all, what advice should experts take from these cases for thinking about how their testimony in 2013 might be viewed from the perspective of 2053?


  1. What I don't believe is that somehow the government planners are smarter than market price signals in anticipating scarcity and thus dampening demand and increasing investments in supply/substitution.

    Why do we need to have government telling us to insulate our homes/businesses, drive more fuel efficient cars, etc... To me it just seems like a bunch of academics/bureaucrats looking for job security. Just let the market work. Price signals change behavior much more efficiently and more quickly than government mandates.

  2. Take away for experts:

    Experts should realize that the accuracy of their projections, advice and testimony need not have any positive correlation with the trajectory of their subsequent careers.

  3. Speaking of Holdren and Ehrlich:

    “ ‘Adding a sterilant to drinking water or staple foods is a suggestion that seems to horrify people more than most proposals for involuntary fertility control,’ wrote John Holdren (now President Obama’s science adviser) and Paul and Anne Ehrlich in 1977, but not to worry: ‘It has been concluded that compulsory population-control laws, even including laws requiring compulsory abortion, could be sustained under the existing Constitution if the population crisis became sufficiently severe to endanger the society.’ All right-thinking people agreed, as they so often do, that top-down government action was needed: people must be ordered or at least bribed to accept sterilisation and punished for refusing it.” - Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist, pg. 203, paperback edition, Harper-Collins, 2011

  4. Can someone tell me if this doom and gloom thing is particular to certain religious traditions or sivilisations?
    Malthus wasn't the first and McGibben will not be the last but are these prophesies common in Africa, India, China or Arabia?

  5. He got this part right:

    " We are going to move to a no-growth [economy]. "

  6. Instead of asking whether or not policy makers should have acted on Ehrlich's advice, I'd first ask whether or not they COULD have done so. Because if not, then the other question is rather moot.

    And behind that - which will answer the question quite adequately - is what you'll recognize as an 'iron law of energy policy'!

    Quite apart from the hindsight verdict of 'clearly the predictions were wrong' etc, the prescriptions [and similar things we hear today about 80% carbon emission reductions by 2050 etc etc] fail to appreciate the tiny range of options that elected officials have in liberal democracies.

  7. Roger -

    You missed a choice comment from Ehrlich. He claimed that meteorologists established the period from 1930 to 1960 as the "most extreme good weather in the last 1000 years". He was the very first to raise alarm over weather extremes - "good weather" extremes!

  8. "Economics is the study of how to allocate resources that are fundamentally scarce in the most efficient way"

    That is a stunning admission.

  9. Dr. Pielke -- I strolled down memory lane for a moment this morning -- and found "Fixing the Marcott Mess in Climate Science" --

    Can you update us on what became of this issue? Did Marcott et al and others ever correct the misrepresentation?

    Do you feel that the authors and press set the situation to rights?

    Thank you,

  10. Speaking of Ehrlich ... He's obviously a "never say die" guy (or more to the point, perhaps, an "always say die" guy!)

    A more recent Ehrlichian contribution to the annals of impending doom - and, of course, exhortations for "action now" - can be found in his co-authorship of a "scientists' consensus" which he and (at that time) evidently 500+ others had decided policy makers need to know in order to maintain "Humanity's Life Support Systems in the 21st Century". Pls. see:


  11. ===>>> What makes experts today more believable by policy makers than Ehrlich was then (both contemporaneously and with the advantage of hindsight)? <<<===

    The accuracy of Ehrlich's projections have no direct relevance to the projections scientists make today.

    Scientists of Ancient Greece, no doubt, made projections about future events also. Should we also use them as a basis of comparison for assessing the projections of today's scientists?

    Perhaps you should judge the projections of today's scientists on the merit of their analysis? If you have an argument to make about the analysis underlying the projections of today's scientists, make it. Why bother dancing around with fallacious arguments?

  12. Holdren said, "[Economics] does not make scarce resources less scarce." This is exactly wrong - that is exactly what market forces do.

    Holdren is, I think, conflating scarcity with some sort of absolute accounting of the quantity of resources (i.e., how much stuff there is). The price mechanism spurs innovation and capital investment, and these two things make hard-to-reach resources more readily available. And so scarcity should be thought of as: how much stuff there is + how easy it is to reach. In this vein scarcity is clearly reduced by technology, which is I think the key point that Holdren and Ehrlich overlooked.

  13. Joshua - you are suggesting we should judge current projections.

    Think about it.

  14. Perhaps you should judge the projections of today's scientists on the merit of their analysis?

    Indeed. Ehrlich's analysis sucks. Happy?

    You don't have to search far to find many people prepared to take Ehrlich's "projections" on their face value and rubbish them. That is, after all, the origin of "The Bet".

    The point about Ancient Greek scientists is off the mark BTW, since the ancient Greeks didn't use a scientific method in any real sense. They tended to spout from a pre-ordained philosophy about what should be true. Rather like Ehrlich, as it happens.

    In the real world any branch of science that continues to make false predictions is sidelined pretty quickly. I don't examine any prediction made by an astrologer, numerologist or psychic, more or less on that basis alone. Once those "sciences" have a track record of successful predictions, I will give them some attention. Likewise the Malthusians, whose terrible track record inspires zero confidence that it is anything more than ploy by intellectually weak to sound dreadfully important.

  15. Joshua - The reason that what Ehrlich and Holdren said is relevant is that the AGW alarm feels, smells, and tastes like the one that they tried to foist on the world. If you disagreed with them you were "not scientific"; the only hope for the world was to cede power to some sort of world government run by - Surprise! - scientists! The same gross ignorance of economics; the same international organization (Club of Rome cf IPCC) that met periodically to produce updates on the timetable of doom.

    I lived through all of it. I recognize it. My God, it's the very same people, since Ehrlich and Holdren are involved in AGW scaremongering. I got fooled then, won't get fooled again.

  16. Tom C - I understand your point very well, and it is striking (to a British observer, at least) that Holdren now has the ear of the President of the United States (as a 'science' czar..) which some may feel is reminiscent of Wormtongue's role in 'Lord of the Rings'.

    But isn't Roger's broader question "why should ANY so-called expert be given such credence?" Plenty of examples can be found of similarly overly-believed experts prognosticating about the future from the opposite side of the political spectrum.

    Dan Gardner's 'Future Babble' is an entertaining exploration of how we all too often credit experts with an ability to predict the future that turns out to be no better than that of an inebriated invertebrate.

    I do think we're most credulous when we hear people proclaiming impending doom - and it's unfortunate, because they're wrong more than anybody else. And I agree that it's chilling that the proposed 'solution' to the doom-of-the-day is exactly the same as that proposed for the dooms of the past - which have mysteriously evaporated, as if they never existed. Fear generates an incredible sense of certainty, quite apart from a strange need to spread it to others.

    Appropriately for this blog (and topic) I recently watched a video of Holdren - in his capacity as science czar - claiming a whole range of extreme weather events were caused by man's burning of fossil fuels. Claims that are unsupported by anything other than fear and negative imaginings.

  17. Roger;
    I hope CO offers Senior-discount reciprocity, for on-line courses: sign me up.
    A bit of cultural back-ground:
    the Smothers brother who couldn't find the chord;
    A. Guthrie's Alice's Rest. . . 'I mean,.... I mean,.... if one...'
    MacArthur Park ... cake melting in the rain...
    We stumbled out of late 60s/early 70's, daily dining at one of the Big Three kiosks: Cronkite/Brinkley's sifting through billions of events, daily, editing for brain-washing impact. We should not be too severe with these useful idiots: there was a market, and Team-Erlich fed us the party line.

  18. Steve F. sends this by email for posting:

    "Tom C,
    Yes. I lived through it as well.

    Joshua, you seem to be very young.

    Baseball manager to major league player Holdren: "Son, I'm sorry, but I have to send you down to the minors."

    Holdren: "But why!?!"

    Manager: "Well, for one thing, you're batting 0.151 for the season, for another you've just gone 0 for 29, and for another, you made 8 errors in the last 5 games."

    Holdren: "But you know my background; I come from one of the finest baseball schools in the nation."

    Manager: "What difference does that make? Right now, you are stinking the place up, and losing games for us; I can't afford to keep you around."

    Holdren: "I swear I have it all figured out, and I'm sure I am right... I will bat between 350 and 400 for the rest of the season."

    Manager: "You have it all figured out, but have just gone 0 for 29? You've never batted over 260 in your life, but now you're going to bat 400?! Your're not just in a slump Holdern, you're nuts. So, listen, what I said about the minors, forget about that. Just clean out your locker and try to find another team."

    Holdern: "You're cutting me? That's not fair!"

    Manager: "Not fair? Holdren, I can afford to have a player in the organization who is in a terrible slump; he might actually pull out of it if he works with the coaches. But I sure as hell can't afford to have one who is delusional. So just gather up your stuff and get out of here.""

  19. Joshua:

    Ehrlich continues make essentially the same predictions today, that he made in 1974, albeit on the back of a warming, rather than cooling, cycle. He has simply joined the alarmist prognosticators that ride the coattails of the CAGW meme.

    The larger point is that "experts", whether self-declared or recognized through consensus, have little skill in their ability to predict the future, particularly when that prediction revolves around a chaotic system such as climate. They do not know what the outcome will be. Indeed, when pushed, they try to claim that they aren't making "predictions" at all (though the press releases and popular media coverage belie that), but that the model outputs (and their interpretation of the likely effects) are "projections" based on "scenarios". The models are not initialized to the current state and do not reflect all of the principal (to say nothing of the minor) inputs. They are not able to replicate the 20th C, except through tuning based on factors such as aerosols (factors which are not standardized across the models, but which vary depending on what is needed to approximate the "fit" to recorded temperatures).

    On that basis, I don't see why Holdern's dire forecasts in 2013 should be taken any more seriously than Ehrlich's in 1974.

  20. ===]]] My God, it's the very same people, [[[===

    To the extent that it is the same people, I think that it does become more relevant.

    But when someone overextends that point, to assign guilt-by-association, rather than judging the analysis of an individual on individual merit, then in my book the argument loses that relevance.

    ===]]] But isn't Roger's broader question "why should ANY so-called expert be given such credence?" Plenty of examples can be found of similarly overly-believed experts prognosticating about the future from the opposite side of the political spectrum. [[[===

    I'm not entirely sure that is Roger's actual question - but IMO, the problem is that his argumentation predictably elicits that kind of thinking - which is the kind of binary thinking that my comment was addressing: That because some "so-called" experts have been wrong in their projections in the past, we could validly generalize to all projections by any "so-called" experts (or to the projections of other "so-called" experts whose analysis has no direct relationship).

    The evaluation of whether the projections of experts should be given any credence should be made in the merits of the arguments offered in support, not a fallacious binary thinking.

    But the problem that we see actually gets even worse. What we see is actually worse than just arguing in a binary manner that because some "so-called" experts in the past were wrong, therefore, all "so-called" experts are necessarily wrong in their predictions.

    Actually, what we see so pervasive in the climate wars and other similar proxies for ideological battles, is that people only selectively apply that reasoning. What we see is that blanket distrust (or trust) of "so-called" experts is rooted in reverse engineering that starts with a partisan perspective. Experts are deemed reliable or not, primarily, on the basis of how we align with their conclusions.

    This is where "skeptics" throw out a justifiable claim of skepticism, and indeed, the value of due skeptical diligence, and reveal "skepticism" instead.

    So, again:

    ===]]] But isn't Roger's broader question "why should ANY so-called expert be given such credence?" Plenty of examples can be found of similarly overly-believed experts prognosticating about the future from the opposite side of the political spectrum. [[[===

    No "so-called" expert should be given blind trust. But even if we agree that bestowal of blind trust happens in these debates to some extent, when we look more deeply we see an accompanying (and pervasive) bias in how "expertise" is selectively trusted or rejected.

    There is nothing mutually exclusive with skepticism towards the analysis of "so-called" experts and the viewpoint that "so-called" expertise should neither be extended blind trust *nor given blanket rejection.*

    I'd say that probably none of us live our lives with such a consistent and uniform rejection or acceptance of "so-called" expertise. None of us have blind trust in all "so-called" experts or extend a blanket rejection to "so-called" experts.

  21. -18 Joshua-

    I think you're on to something with the phrasing of "so-called experts." The relevant question is what the so-called expert is really expert in.

    With respect to modern climate science, these people are relative experts in the nuts and bolts of climate, meaning that they have studied the details more in depth than others. But this does not translate to being actual experts on predicting this incredibly huge and dynamic system that they study.

    So I would say that their predictions are interesting in that they display our apparent best attempt at predicting climate, they have yet to earn anything that can reasonably called expert, IMHO.

    I think that the same critique applies to Ehrlich, et.al.

  22. MattL -

    "...what the so-called expert really is".

    This gets at the heart of the Population Bomb fiasco. Persons who study issues of scarcity, allocation, famines, etc are called economists. Ehrlich studied insects, Holdren was a physicist. Their Club of Rome colleagues were of similar varied and completely irrelevant backgrounds. But the media transformed them into experts. In fact, they knew nothing about what they were pontificating about.

    And let's not overlook that they were not just "wrong". If the answer to a math problem is 23 and you get 24, you are wrong, but at least close. The Pop Bomb predictions were wildly in the opposite direction of what actually happened. The world not only didn't collapse, it thrived and went through a period of unparalleled prosperity.

    And even as that occurred, throughout the 80s and early 90s, we were still treated to the doom talk, even though it was wildly incongruent with the facts. And many still believed it was happening. I learned at this point the power of a narrative enforced by a dominant media. Much the same explains how AGW scaremongering lives on now.

  23. If I look at who Ehrlich and Holdren were in 1974, I have to dispute either was an expert in the area in which he was testifying. Holdren had a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, and was trying to move into science policy. He wrote a perfectly awful little article in Scientific American proposing something he called 'thermal pollution'; that is, humans are warming the earth, not indirectly via the greenhouse effect, but directly, by producing heat. Anyone with rudimentary math and physics skills can prove to themselves over a cup of coffee that humans produce orders of magnitude too little heat to make the slightest difference. But what this says to me about Holdren is that he was working backwards; rather than identifying a problem and looking for a solution, he had a solution (restricting human production of energy) and was desperately trying to find an excuse to use it.

    Ehrlich is a biologist. His expertise in the economics or geology of petroleum production was about zero.

    What Ehrlich and Holdren had in common was a desire to limit human population growth. Why they wanted to do this is best left to psychologists. But it dated to well before 1974, and I would submit it was the underlying goal behind their testimony.

  24. Let's compare definitions and applications of "expertise."

    How would you apply your standards to Roger's work, where he uses models (indeed, we all use models to conceptualize the world, to understand any type of cause-and-effect), discusses his projections of economic outcomes of policy implementation, of the impact of the influence of advocates, of the financial impact of extreme weather, of the likely implications of ACO2 on weather and climate, etc.

    Should we disregard Roger's projections because of how we determine his areas of expertise? Should we disregard them because, indeed, any expert is "so-called," and experts have been wrong in the past?

    Or should we take the time to make careful and well-qualified arguments to distinguish where we agree and/or disagree with his specific arguments? Should we determine he is guilty-by-association because some Greeks considered seers as "experts" in making predictions?

  25. -24 Joshua-

    My impression is that Roger doesn't make a lot of projections of his own. He relies on others' projections, and as far as climate related stuff, I don't trust them any more because Roger has endorsed them.

    His most important and interesting work, IMHO, is his analysis of history, which could be seem more as validating (or in most cases, not!) existing projections.

    He engages critics and defends his work. I don't always agree with him, but in his major research regarding extreme weather and damages, I haven't seen or read anything that says he's wrong.

    Are there some other projections of his that I've forgotten?

    Is there a careful and well-qualified argument to make the case that any climate projection should be raised to the level of "expert?" I guess the Ehrlich/Holdren example is a cautionary tale that doesn't relate directly to modern climate scientists, and if anything should make us raise the bar for accepting advice in expert clothing.

  26. Joshua #24,

    "Should we disregard Roger's projections because of how we determine his areas of expertise? Should we disregard them because, indeed, any expert is "so-called," and experts have been wrong in the past?"
    No, in this case, we should doubt the validity of anything Holdren and Ehrlich say TODAY based on their record of very poor past analysis and poor projections. Anyone who could be that wrong, and simultaneously completely and vocally certain they were right, is someone who has very poor scientific judgement. I am appalled that Holden, of all people, would be selected to be an adviser to President Obama; that selection casts doubt on Mr. Obama's judgement as well.

    But beyond that, the "Population Bomb" and Club of Rome fiascoes (among others) should make all of us very skeptical of the validity of any projection of doom... of which there appears to be an almost unlimited supply. Catastrophic projections usually have some things in common: a naive projection of a short term trend, discounting any data which conflicts with the doomsday projections, an unwillingness to consider that technology and human ingenuity always advance, and most of all, an unwillingness to listen to anyone who disagrees with the catastrophic projections.

    In the case of climate change catastrophes, there seem to me to be many of the same characteristics as in long-debunked catastrophe scenarios of the past, especially the reluctance to listen to anyone who disagrees with catastrophic warming projections. Yes, rising GHG's will for certain cause some continued warming, but how much, and more importantly, the consequences of that warming, are uncertain, but unlikely to lead to catastrophes. Rising GHG's do require careful consideration, just as do a host of other challenges humanity faces, like a billion-plus poor people who have no access to clean water, health care, or electricity, and who live on a dollar per day or less.

    What GHG's do not require is hysteria and foolish public policy motivated by today's 'doom du jour'. Please consider for a moment the public policies that would have been adopted if governments had acted on Ehrlich's suggestions for forced (and enforced) population control... and keep in mind Ehrlich's absolute certainty in the 1960's of inevitable doom due to uncontrolled population growth. From his book: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will 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.."

    According to Wikipedia: "Ehrlich further states that he stands behind the central thesis of the book, and that its message is as apt today as it was in 1968." It is clear that no amount of contrary data will ever change change the mind of a true believer (AKA a fool).

  27. "Over all, what advice should experts take from these cases for thinking about how their testimony in 2013 might be viewed from the perspective of 2053?"

    Ehrlich made highly exaggerated claims, that turned out to be false. Yet he is still admired by many people. Well if I were a self-interested academic and wanted world-wide acclaim, I would not give two hoots about some adverse criticism in 40 years time.
    What is more important, is how we should react to current self-proclaimed experts who are able to save us from some prophesied doom. We could use the same principles that we would use in calling on any expertise. In getting a financial advisor or architect, I would want to see a proven track-record within the established discipline. But with a future predicted global cataclysm it is much more difficult to look for these standards. But an ability to relate theories to existing patterns, and to show superior understanding to, yet building upon the work of, established experts is one benchmark. Another is pattern of success in short-term predictions of events that are pointers to the future cataclysm. A third is improving the quality of the forecasts in such a way as to making the short-term predictions increasingly vulnerable to being contradicted.
    A way to tell a phony expert is when they proclaim some discontinuity or tipping point which only those with special insight can detect. A second is their having a single solution ready laid out that is reliant on experts to enact, rather than showing the to need to develop solutions.

  28. Paul's on Twitter. He's often hilarious and worth a follow https://twitter.com/PaulREhrlich

    Einstein thought the state planning of the economy was optimal for society.


    Really smart people often have really dumb ideas. Which in my opinion is extremely fascinating and worthy of study.

  29. Ehlich and Holdren look at civilization as a game of musical chairs where a smaller pie is divided among more demands. The only rational I can see for having Holdren in such a high government position is that politicians want to be the gatekeeper for the pie.
    I will say this, history has answered Holdren's question quite clearly. "Are we worse off if we believe the pessimists and they are wrong, or are we worse off if we believe the optimists and they are wrong?" The world would be much worse off following Holdren's and Ehrlich's advice either way.