Why is a butterfly like a steel rivet?
Jasper Ridge, Stanford, Calif.
Until I met Paul Ehrlich I never could fathom why ecologists made such a fuss over environmental esoterica like the snail darter, the shiny pig-toed pearly mussel, and furbish lousewort.Skip to next paragraph
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i was never quite sure which of these endangered species with the jabberwocky names were animal and which vegetable (which is a confession, not a criticism). Furthermore, I couldn't comprehend why they were important enough to be stopping hydroelectric projects and the like.
Bald eagles, blue whales, timber wolves, and trumpeter swans were a whole different story, as far I was concerned. They were the stuff of presidential seals, fairy tales, and team mascots. But who could picture a squadron of pom-pom, girls on the 50-yard line cheering "Go Humpback Chubs! Go, fight, win!"?
Paul Ehrlich set me straight in an afternoon on Jasper Ridge, wandering among the Euphydryas editha.m More on that little creature in a minute. First, meet Professor Ehrlich.
One of the world's most renowned population biologists, he teaches at Stanford University. Much of his reputation rests on his series of best-selling books dealing with problems of population growth and diminishing resources: "The Population Bomb" (1968), "The End of Affluence" (1974), and "Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment" (1977).
He is a rail-thin man, armed with a quick wit and skeptical of easy answers. His beard has an angular, Abe Lincoln look, and his deep nasal voice resonates as if it's been recycled through a rain barrel. The day we met, Ehrlich was dressed in hiking boots, clip-on dark glasses, a blue work shirt with a pocketful of pens and a cloth army hat. The hat's brim was coming unstuck in back and gave it a coonskin-cap effect. The professor carried a butterfly net.
In the shade of an oak grove, he sat munching the contents of a sack lunch and sipping unfiltered apple juice. He was comfortable and had an audience. Not one to pass up an opportunity to preach his environmental gospel, Professor Ehrlich offered his own fable for out time, "The Jetliner and Its Rivets," before we hiked the ridge.
"Suppose you had to fly back East," he began. "So you go down to San Jose to catch a flight on Growthmania, that well-known airline whose profits increase every year forever until it fills the whole universe. But as you're walking out on the tarmac to Growthmania's 707, you see a guy up on a ladder, and he is prying rivets out of the wing. Naturally, you are curious, and you saunter over to ask:
"'Hey, buddy! What are you doing?'
"'Cant' you see?' he replies somewhat impatiently. 'I'm prying rivets out of the wing.'
"'That isn't too smart, is it?' you tell him.
"'Sure it is. Growthmania gives me two bucks for each rivet I take out and they sell them for three bucks. So everybody is happy.'
"'But that's likely to damage a wing, and sooner or later it will fall off.'
"'Are you kiddin'? I've taken hundreds of rivets out of this wing. Nothing has happened yet. There's a lot of redundancy built into these planes.'"
Ehrlich settles back, takes another guzzle of apple juice and continues.
"As the guy on the ladder is speaking, you think to yourself, 'Sure, this plane might fly another 10 years with 50 rivets missing. But it's also possible that an hour after takeoff we may hit a thunderstorm, pull six Gs and have the wing snap off.' You finally realize that no person in his right mind would get on that plane, so you walk into the terminal and ask the FAA to life Growthmania's license."
The professor's forehead furrows. He musters all the fire and brimstone necessary to drive home the moral of the story.