Book Review: The Long Run

New and Notable

July 2023

Reading time min

Life: A Journey Through Science and Politics book cover

In 1968, Stanford biology professor Paul Ehrlich exploded into international consciousness with The Population Bomb, a slim book warning about the catastrophes facing an ever more crowded world. Its message was bleak, but its urgency sold millions of copies, inspired the movement for zero population growth, and catapulted Ehrlich to unlikely fame. In the first three months of 1969, he appeared three times on The Tonight Show with host Johnny Carson, a vaunted perch he would return to more than 20 times. It’s a detail that exemplifies an irony running through Ehrlich’s new memoir, Life: A Journey Through Science and Politics (Yale U. Press). For a noted prophet of doom, Ehrlich sure seems to have had a lot of fun. 

Ehrlich discovered his life’s passion chasing butterflies as a boy at summer camp, and he was never far from the field for the next seven decades. Life follows Ehrlich’s adventures across the globe, from fleeing a polar bear in the Canadian Arctic, to transporting a decomposing chimpanzee corpse across Tanzania for an autopsy, to reef diving in Australia, the place on Earth that consistently left him most astounded. He was typically in the company of his wife and collaborator, Anne, the uncredited co-author of The Population Bomb. And often with scientist friends and good wine.

Paul Ehrlich holding binoculars

Nothing is more impractical for humanity than developing a massive and clever response and instead plunging on to experience a ghastly future. 

—Paul R. Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies, Emeritus, in Life: A Journey Through Science and Politics, Yale U. Press

That’s not to say Ehrlich’s life has been a lark. He wrote some 50 books, contributed to 1,200 articles and scientific papers, and regularly clocked 80-hour workweeks. “I have literally never seen him putter around,” his daughter, Lisa, writes in the foreword. His observations of the entwined relationship between cabbage butterflies and cabbage plants resulted in a landmark paper that established the field of coevolution. And his legacy will likely be enshrined at Stanford so long as it exists. Besides co-founding the human biology program for undergraduates, Ehrlich was instrumental in protecting what is now Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, “probably the best on-campus field site in the world,” he writes. 

Still, Ehrlich remains most associated with the book that made him famous. The Population Bomb is filled with dire and unfulfilled predictions. What to make of it more than a half-century later? Ehrlich expresses some regrets, but he stands on the ultimate point: Either address humanity’s burden on the Earth through lowering the birth rate or suffer an inevitable rise in the death rate from environmental, agricultural, and societal failings. Now in his 90s, still writing and researching alongside Anne, he is philosophical about his own death, which he views as a return to the agreeable nothingness from which he came: “I experienced it for at least 14 billion years before I was born, and it didn’t seem so bad—I had neither nightmares nor the need to stumble out of bed to pee.” 

Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at

Photo: Gerardo Ceballos/Yale University Press

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