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Paul Ehrlich’s invitation

by on September 4, 2009

Dear Friends,

There is growing consensus among environmental scientists that the scholarly community has adequately detailed how to deal with the major issues of the human predicament caused by our success as a species – climate disruption, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, toxification of the planet, the deterioration of the epidemiological environment, the potential impacts of nuclear war, racism, sexism, economic inequity, and on and on. I and my colleagues believe humanity must take rapid steps to ameliorate them. But, in essence, nothing serious is being done – as exemplified by the “much talk and no action” on climate change. The central problem is clearly not a need for more natural science (although in many areas it would be very helpful) but rather a need for better understanding of human behaviors and how they can be altered to direct humanity toward a sustainable society before it is to late.

That’s why a group of natural scientists, social scientists, and scholars from the humanities decided to inaugurate a Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior (MAHB — pronounced “mob”). It was so named to emphasize that it is human behavior, toward one another and toward the planet that sustains all of us, that requires rapid modification. The idea is that the MAHB might become a basic mechanism to expose society to the full range of population-environment-resource-ethics-equity-power

issues, and to sponsor broad global discussion involving the greatest possible diversity of people. It would, I hope, serve as a major tool for promoting conscious cultural evolution.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

(IPCC) serves as a partial model for the MAHB.

The IPCC involves hundreds of scientists from nearly every nation representing diverse disciplines, from atmospheric physics, chemistry, and ecology to economics and other social sciences. A major role of the IPCC is to sort out the scientific validity of claims and counterclaims of competing interests. It also puts a strong emphasis on finding equitable solutions. The sessions are open and transparent, and representatives of various governments, interested industries, and environmental organizations also participate as observers. An endeavor that might serve as another partial model for the MAHB is the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which was developed by environmental and social scientists to assess the condition of Earth’s life-support systems. Hundreds of ecologists and earth scientists all over the world gathered information to feed into a major report that was released in 2005. It included not only an assessment of the state of the world’s ecosystems but also projections of alternative future trends and consideration of related policy choices. What both lacked however, were broad open forums where people from different societies and with different viewpoints could discuss what humanity is and should be all about.

Plans are for the MAHB to be kicked off with a world megaconference, more of less like the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The purpose of the first MAHB conference, which we hope to hold in 2011, would be to initiate a continuing process; the MAHB will be created as a semi-permanent institution. The MAHB is now at a very preliminary stage – although interest seems to be building rapidly. Our nascent web site has just been opened to the public. If you are interested in learning more or being involved go to:

As you will see it is a work in progress, but there you will find our preliminary mission statement, sign up to get the newsletter when it is produced (click on “for more information”), read some of MAHB-pertinent articles (they will change over time), and/or leave a comment on a blog. And that means you can help us shape the entire program from the foundation up. Join us in trying to get humanity to do what is obviously required but thought to be impractical. Become a MAHB Pollyanna, tilt at windmills, spread the word, help develop a view of a decent future, and give humanity a little push toward a sustainable society. We’re not even asking you to help us get money (yet!).

A global consensus on the most crucial behavioral issues is unlikely to emerge promptly from the MAHB–or any other international forum. But, since the MAHB is envisioned as an ongoing,large-scale global effort, not all the goals would need to be reached immediately. And if the scientific diagnosis of humanity’s collision with the natural world is accurate (and Anne and I believe it is), what alternative is there to trying?

Thanks for listening. If you can, please call our start-up effort to the attention of as many friends and colleagues as you can. Spread the word!

Best regards,



From → Uncategorized

  1. ronmichael permalink

    Dear Paul,

    I applaud your team’s efforts. Action, if I may add, can begin when we first look at our own carbon footprint and do something about it. Then help our friends and neigbhors understand. Too often we look toward leadership in others instead of ourselves. If we can do that for each of our friends and associates, then that is a non-linear geometric change in all of us. I’m so proud to hear the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warn the world from his position. That voice is growing, and now, we need to do something about our own carbon footprint. Let’s not blame others or other countries. No need to point out a splinter in someone’s eye and a have a wooden beam in our own so to speak. We can start with ourselves, It can begin as simply buying renewable energy, buying an electric car, or ride mass transit, supporting local grown foods, get involved financially or joining the efforts, sending letters, whatever you can think of. I leave that to you to decide what is important and how best to help solve this problem.

    Ron Michael

  2. Hi Paul,

    Quite a techno-cultural challenge there, within the battleground of ideas. No doubt there will be many opinions offered, along with re-inventions of existing wheels, so here is one of many likely to follow ; )

    Between affluenza’s apathy, a mass-proclivity to maintain an optimistic vision of the future, and the cold-war economic legacy of hyper-consumption (aka, the throw-away-society), US enviros have been up against some pretty enormous & insurmountable cultural obstacles.

    The challenge, and this reflects Agenda 21’s Chapter 40, Information for Decision-Makers, is not necessarily presuming to have a solution for anyone else, but instead organizing locally relevant essential information, so that decision-makers (from the individual on up), can figure it out for themselves, if & when they decide to.

    When considering the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, as an analogy to your initiative, it is important to consider its origins, along with observable lessons from other similar & parallel efforts. Prior to WRIs MEA & the inter-governmental GEOSS — the likely data framework host for the national/global weather services — (along with the people’s google earth), was the mid 1990s EarthMap Feasibility Study.

    The EarthMap feasibility design study, led by the US Department of State, drew upon prior efforts, and many experts, including WRIs Africa Data Sampler, which distributed the DMA’a Digital Chart of the World with other data layers, as well as seminal prior efforts by UNEP GRID.

    Despite many successes, the failure, to date, of most of these efforts, resides in not making locally accessible such resource related information, for citizens and in the field decision-makers… and letting them validate, sort out and best apply the info, into practical knowledge & practices.

    A similar eco-info dissemination failure can be identified when one looks at how environmental information & news has been organized, in piece-meal form, largely by media, governmental and environmental organizations. Haphazd distribution & availability makes efficient access & timely usage tough.

    For folks to apply Gary Snyder’s BDay admonition to “dig in & fight from where you are“ a critical outstanding component remains accessibility to place based relevant news & information. Think of the GPS maps, that largely describe where to buy things & stay, rather than what the local eco-news has been, and what the parameters of local issues are.

    Quite simply, accessibility to both types of information, ongoing news/info and geo-spatial resource information, along with forecasts, needs to be combined, and well organized. When considering varying technical capacities, esp. for developing nations, such information also needs to be made available in whatever form & format is most apt for local decision-makers, rather than those who think like missionaries.

    Fostering grassroots consciousness, without usurping or undermining the autonomy of individual & local decision-making processes, would seem to be the crux of sustainability.

    Look forward to reading of & observing progress related to this important culture of change initiative.

    gards, Shaw

  3. In general, I think this sounds like a worthwhile and overdue initiative. Reading this letter and the mission statement, though, has left me somewhat unsure of exactly what is being proposed. Is it just focused on behavior or will there be an effort to try to work out the deeper underlying problems? I also think that there is an important role for environmental communication scholars to play in this. I have set some of this out in more detail in a post on the Indications blog. Cheers!

  4. Stuart Hurlbert permalink

    Dear Paul et al.,

    Here are my initial reactions to the MAHB proposal, based on 48 years of thinking, writing and doing things on these issues (My first “publication” on the overpopulation problem was a letter to the Saturday Review of Literature in 1961) — and on an experience-derived understanding of how academics function and dysfunction.

    1) I agree that scientists and others have pointed out how to deal with “the major issues of the human predicament caused by our success of a species”. For this purpose, we do not need more natural science. That has been true for a long time.

    But, unlike you, I also believe we ALREADY have sufficient “understanding of human behaviors” to know why science has not and will not be sufficient and to have a sense of what needs to be done and how to avoid more spinning of wheels, by academics in particular. I think many behavioral scientists would agree with me.

    2) The agenda of MAHB — “to expose society to the full range of
    issues, and to sponsor broad global discussion involving the greatest possible diversity of people” — seems utopian, way too ambitious.

    I see no parallel with the IPCC which was more focused and dealt with far simpler issues — by perhaps two orders of magnitude. It is not a realistic model.

    “Global discussion” is not possible. What usually passes for such is merely banter between a few dozen over-educated folks at elite institutions in a few countries.

    3) What is needed for dealing with these issues is simply LEADERSHIP, both political and scientific, not “megaconferences” and “global discussion”. The presumption seems to be that the MAHB effort would be led primarily by scientists and other academics, with perhaps input from governmental policy makers and environmental NGOs.

    Our problems exist and have been exacerbated, however, because of the near absence of wise leadership in the academic and NGO communities. THIS IS THE SINGLE BIGGEST PROBLEM. Academics are the biggest offenders, those who have the weakest excuses for not having done more.

    Most environmental scientists in particular lack courage to speak out on controversial matters EVEN IN THEIR OWN SUBCULTURE and seem to view population-driven environmental degradation simply as a source of more grants, contracts and consulting fees.

    Moreover, when it comes to any of the controversial aspects of population-environment issues, the more outspoken scientists tend to be more ideological than pragmatic — i.e. for whatever reason, they have thin skins, utopian world views, excessive concern over acceptance by peers, and are overfond of theory.

    This leads them in some situations to function more as censors and de facto lackeys of the establisment than as seekers of truth and solutions.

    This is not hypothetical. I personally can document three recent situations in which sledgehammer, ideologically-driven censorship was imposed, in official contexts, on population-environment information by groups of individually respectable scientists. One case involved the Columbia River Basin Independent Scientific Advisory Board, another the directorate of the North American Lake Management Society, and the third the editors of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment and the Governing Board of the Ecological Society of America. Details in every case are widely known.

    The world as a whole has good reason to distrust most academics in matters non-academic. They are, as I say, too often more ideologues than pragmatists and solution finders. Of course, there are also plenty of ideologues on the right who are just as non-pragmatic in their denial of overpopulation as a problem.

    4) This raises the question of who will run MAHB, how will they be selected, and whether ideology will dominate pragmatism, as it does in most scientific societies and most environmental organizations in the U.S. and the West generally, at least when issues of population come up.

    For example, will the ideas of Garrett Hardin be allowed as much prominence as those of Paul Ehrlich? Those of the Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization be given as much prominence as those of the Sierra Club? Will the ideas of the internationalists who emphasize that individual nations have primary responsibility for development of their own environmental and population policies (albeit often with the help of neighbors and international organizations) set the agenda, or will the ideas of the globalists who want more authority on both global AND NATIONAL issues to be transferred to supranational bodies?.

    5) If the pragmatists and internationalists are to be allowed a voice in MAHB, then one way to signal that would be to put the following key articles prominently in the MAHB online library. The articles by Hardin and by Beck & Kolankiewicz are the only ones listed that address the globalist vs internationalist conflict directly, while the others merely provide information and perspectives bearing on it. There is some literature reflecting the internationalist perspective from authors in other countries as well, of course.

    – G. Hardin, 1989, There is no global population problem. The Humanist, July/August 1989, pp.11-13, 32.

    – M.G. Hanauer, 1998, Overpopulation and overconsumption: where should we focus? NPG Forum, March 1998.

    – F.J. Mata, L.J. Onisto and J.R. Vallentyne. 1994, Consumption: the other side of population for development. Paper prepared for the International Conference on Population and Development, 1994.

    – J. Martin and S. Fogel, 2006. Projecting the U.S. population to 2050: four immigration scenarios. Federation for American Immigration Reform, Washington, DC.

    – R. Beck and L. Kolankiewicz, 1996, The environmental movement’s retreat from advocating U.S. population stabilization (1970 – 1998): a first draft of history. Journal of Policy History 12:123-156.

    6) Finally, it seems apparent that religious differences are not going away soon and are a major obstacle to useful “global discussions”, let alone development of consensus positions on population matters.

    Those religious differences are a big enough obstacle within nations, most of which have ongoing religious strife, in part because very few have complete separation of church and state — or even a majority of people who want it. So what can be hoped for in terms of getting nations dominated by different religions to all become pragmatic and give up some of their most cherished doctrines, practices and mythologies?

    That certainly is true of the U.S.

    Let’s face it even a wise old silverback from Stanford with 100 buddies could not get the people
    and politicians in the San Francisco-Palo Alto-San Jose “axis of overpopulation” to start agreeing on “the full range of population-environment-resource-ethics-equity-power issues” in ten years!

    So a “worldwide” agenda seems unfocused and premature.

    7) Here is an approach with greater promise.

    Talk to Paul Ehrlich and a few of his scientist colleagues who know personally many of the principal scientific advisors in the Obama administration. Many of these advisors are smart and environmentally aware. Arrange a meeting with them.

    Ask them to suggest Obama create a new Office of U.S. Population and Sustainability. Ask him to show leadership by laying out a framework, in a major speech, for moving toward U.S. population stabilization, a move of obvious value to both the U.S. and the world. Ask him to encourage all other nations to do the same as almost all already have populations way too high but state that — a la Hardin — it is up to each nation to have its own national discussion and make its own national decisions in this area — and to bear the consequences of those decisions. That does not preclude large amounts of help from the developed countries, nor does it minimize the complexities posed by economic globalization.

    Obama is smart enough to see the wisdom in that and articulate enough to explain it well to both the U.S. citizenry and the world. But in the U.S. and elsewhere he would take a lot of flak from both the radical left and the radical right if he did.

    So one political calculation he would have to make is whether there would be enough courageous centrists in the normally courage-free, ideologically hidebound academic, scientific and environmental communities who would step forward to help counter the mean-spirited and uninformed critics who would go after him.

    All this could be done quickly, involve few people, and cost little.

    In a nutshell, if an Obama-Ehrlich-Holdren-Lubchenco-Varmus-Browner & Co. cabal can’t bring about such a micro-agenda, then what are the grounds for believing that a “global discussion” of the MAHB macro-agenda has a chance of accomplishing anything soon or anything useful?

    Of course for an all expenses paid, week long trip to a megaconference in Rio or anywhere else, I am willing to change sides and become an “optimistic globalist utopian” — and can have my bags packed in about ten minutes!

    Stu Hurlbert

  5. Ron Horgan permalink

    Stuart, I am heartened that you see the need to break out of the” business as usual “mould.
    Your Obama route is one such approach, and should be attempted, but Obama must be fraught with political constraints.
    My suggestion is in the other direction,take the problem to the masses.
    How do we get the issue of survival onto Twitter?
    Who has the ability to design and promote a Global Survival Strategy Game
    that the kids in the arcades will want to play?
    They solve the problems that they have to live with.
    Harness the millions of bright young brains.
    Oprah and Bill Gates and the PR experts are the way to get the very simple message across.
    Can Gates be persuaded to fund some such survival initative?
    This is no longer a scientific issue.
    It’s the politics of survival and all of our values and assumptions that have led us into this mess must be changed.
    Once the people want survival the politicians will follow.
    Sarkozy now talks about measuring national success by national happiness. We have to break the economists absurd view of reality and replace it with a philosophy of long term survival.
    I know how daunting this looks, but the only guarantee on offer is that if we do nothing we are
    People will rise to amazing challenges and if its Utopia or bust lets go for Utopia.
    Let’s discuss this.
    Best Wishes Ron Horgan

  6. Hello, Paul, et. al.:

    [Paul, we briefly met in Madison as you were scurrying out of your panel discussion on population and I handed you a “Divine Primates” postcard.]

    I particularly liked the posts by Stu and Ron, above, althought they were all worthy. I am very impressed with the MAHB initiative because we need an intelligent dialogue that includes insight into human behavior in order to make the large kinds of shifts needed to change course towards a more sustainable direction.

    My own recommendations would support focusing on human behavior as the key factor that has been left out of the sustainability equation to date. My own approach would be to create a new system’s thinking approach in which we finally acknowledge that humans are not objective observers of science or ecosystems, but rather are inevitably prone to oversimplification, distortion and error. All of us.

    As primates (and I would defer to Dr. Frans de Waal on this score) we simply strut our science around like a monkey wearing a makeshift hat. Then, we employ ideologies and allusions to our dysfunctional culture to leverage our particular points of view. And we wonder why our suggestions are seen as arrogant or divisive.

    Some education is needed here; some basic education about human nature and our capacities for wise action. Some education is needed to reveal that economic theories, theological constructs, political ideologies and scientific “truth” are dysfunctional without a deep understanding, and love, for our quirky species and how it thinks and makes decisions. Hint: It ain’t through rational thought!

    In this process, I believe that we need to develop a new consensus on the roles of theology and ideology as disastrous distractions rather than clarifications and models for effective action and collaboration. Just as population issues are swept aside for the sake of ecumenical harmony, sustainability is swept aside because looking at our underlying human nature will likewise lead people to conclude that dogmatic, fundamentalist religions are dysfunctional in an educated society trying to construct reasonable approaches to living more sustainably.

    Well, I’ve obviously got plenty to say on this topic, and would like to engage in some thoughtful discussion. If anyone is interested, please feel free to contact me at or visit my website at, etc.

    Again, congratulations and best wishes on bringing the key puzzle piece of human behavior into the sustainability debate! Until we redirect the debate away from hand-wringing and incrementalism and towards a reconceptualization of human nature and our role on this planet, I do not believe that we will turn this situation around.


    Earon Davis, J.D., M.P.H., L.C.M.T.
    I’ll note that, as a lawyer, public health advocate and social scientist, I assembled much of my perspective. However, it was as a massage therapist that I finally learned enough about our human species, and our primate nature, to put things together.

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