The main focus of Ben’s recent research is the origin and evolution of planetary systems. In addition to his many published research papers, Ben has co-authored and co-edited several books that reflect his eclectic interests and concerns: Extraterrestrials: Where Are They? (with Michael H. Hart), The Origin and Evolution of the Universe (with Matthew A. Malkan) and Human Population and the Environmental Crisis (with David Jefferson). Ben also initiated and organized various colloquia and symposia for UCLA’s Institute of the Environment.
A committed conservationist, Ben served terms on the national boards of directors of the Sierra Club and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (dedicated to protecting marine life, especially the great whales). He also served on the Board of Advisors of the Wildlife Waystation.
Ben served in the trenches of the internecine warfare that erupted within the Sierra Club over the approach that the venerable but divided and compromised organization should adopt with regard to immigration, population growth and the environment.
Ben practices what he preaches. He opted not to father his own children because of his concerns about overpopulation. The electricity for his home and fully electric car are furnished by solar photovoltaic panels that were installed in 2002 on the roof of his home near the UCLA campus. The initiative for the panels actually came from Ben’s (late) wife Elizabeth Schwartz, who pointed out that, since Ben had recently been elected as a Director of the Sierra Club, it was important that Ben and Liz walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
A devotee of the deserts and wilderness of the American Southwest, Ben has spent many decades hiking, backpacking, camping, rafting and exploring the nooks and crannies of this austere, arid region, making countless excursions with Elizabeth.
Ben’s long-time friend and fellow population / environment warrior Leon Kolankiewicz interviewed him for this article. Leon is an environmental scientist and wildlife biologist, and is an advisory board member with Progressives for Immigration Reform.
LK: Ben, tell us something about your background and upbringing. Where did you grow up and when did you first get interested in the outdoors, nature, the environment, wildlife and conservation? Did it have anything to do with your interest in astronomy?
BZ: I spent the first 15 years of my life in New York City before I left for college at MIT in Boston. Nature for me was going across Central Park West into Central Park during most of the year and during the summer to camps in rural areas. For many years I thought that my parents sent my sister Ellen and me to these camps so that we could experience the outdoors and independence from them. But eventually Ellen educated me to the fact that our parents also sent us away so that they could have some time for themselves. Maybe it was because New York City is so densely populated that, in my teens in the 1950s, I had already become concerned about overpopulation and worried about very high fertility rates in America.
LK: Today you are an avid and experienced hiker, especially in the desert wilderness areas of the American Southwest. When and where did you first get into hiking?
BZ: When I was in school in Boston I saw some picture books of the mountains and desert lands and canyons of the West and found them really beautiful. So soon after I received a Ph.D., my first wife, Phyllis, and I started to explore those places. This was in the 1970s. My favorite place on Earth is the north rim of the Grand Canyon. My first trip to the Canyon was in 1969, and my most recent trip was in 2017. I’ve made 20 or so rim-to-river backpacks in numerous remote places in the Canyon. I’ve developed a presentation in which I describe some of these adventures.
LK: Did you participate in the first Earth Day in 1970? How big a part of that first Earth Day was concern about overpopulation?
BZ: When I was in school, the big issues were the war in Vietnam and civil rights. One of the outstanding memories I retain from my youth was in 1959 when I was a 15-year-old high school senior and participated with some of my classmates in the second-ever civil rights march on Washington. It was four years before the famous “I have a dream” speech of Dr. King. While my friends and I were marching down some big avenue, an old black man (who was probably younger than I am now!) called us over to him and told us that this was the happiest day of his life. I still get tears in my eyes when I recall this incident. The really courageous member of my family was Ellen – she was a Freedom Rider and marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with Dr. King and others in 1965.
Because of the focus on those issues, my serious interest in the environment did not begin until 1969 when I joined the Sierra Club. I did not participate in Earth Day 1970 and remember nothing of it. Many years later, in 2002, when I was elected to the Sierra Club’s National Board, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, “the Father of Earth Day,” very kindly endorsed my candidacy.
LK: As you know, there is a longstanding discussion among environmental scientists and environmentalists about whether over-consumption or overpopulation is a bigger threat to the environment. Give us your own thoughts about this.
BZ: I have a presentation entitled population/consumption/overshoot in which the time is divided about equally between overpopulation and overconsumption. They both must be addressed in order for us to live sustainably.
LK: Thinking in terms of population and consumption as the two drivers of environmental degradation, what choices and actions have you taken in your own life to reduce your own personal environmental impact?
BZ: I have no children. I have had solar panels on the roof of my home since 2002 (my beloved wife Elizabeth first suggested that we install them). The next year we purchased one of the very first second generation Toyota Prius hybrids sold in the U.S. Because of its distinctive shape, many people came up to Liz and me at gas stations and asked us if we liked the car. Subsequently we purchased a Nissan LEAF EV as soon as they were available in the U.S. Now I have a Chevy Bolt EV. The car and house are powered by the solar panels. I’ve become a vegetarian. When in the office I turn off lights in common areas where I can see that no one is present.
Ben Zuckerman with wife Liz, Grand Canyon, late 2000
LK: Did living in California – the most populous state in the country – have anything to do with the development of your views on overpopulation?
BZ: I was already aware of the problems of overpopulation when I was in my teens. The main educational aspect of life in California is experiencing the negative effects of endless population growth. For example, traffic in Los Angeles now is so much worse than when I first lived here in 1971. This is entirely due to the 1,000,000 additional Angelenos added since 1971. In both L.A. and Florida, where my mother lived during the last years of her life, I witnessed the disappearance of much open space to accommodate more and more people. Most young people don’t relate to population growth because they have not lived long enough to experience its negative effects.
LK: In your experience as a professor at UCLA, were you able to bring discussion of population into the classroom, and if so, how was it received? You have been attacked in the pages of the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s campus newspaper. What was that like? On the UCLA campus, did you ever feel like you were behind “enemy lines?” I recall that some years ago, protestors even barged in on a class you were trying to teach.
BZ: Population generally does not enter into astronomy classes, but there are exceptions. In a Life in the Universe course I developed at UCLA (and at my previous university), I do give one lecture about exponential population growth. In my development of symposia for UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and in a team-taught honors course I developed on ethics and the environment, I did try to include a population component when appropriate.
In 1998 the Los Angeles Times published an opinion piece I wrote on immigration. A few students did not approve of my position and attacked me in various ways. I was supported by every level of UCLA personnel, for which I am thankful. Much more recently (a few years ago) I was again attacked, this time in two opinion pieces (published a few months apart) in UCLA’s student newspaper. Thankfully the editors gave me an opportunity to respond to both attacks. Although it was painful at the time, in retrospect the attacks gave me a chance to present my views on immigration; this never would have happened otherwise given how shutdown honest, open debate can be on college campuses now.
LK: What level of immigration would you like to see for the United States in view of what you believe our population goals as a nation should be?
BZ: Various developed countries are currently, or will soon, experience population declines. Given our high per capita consumption levels, the U.S. is already overpopulated. For example, the population density (people per square mile) is larger in California than it is in the continent of Europe, plus the population growth rate is larger in California. The population of the U.S. has more than doubled during my lifetime. Immigration and fertility should be at levels that enable U.S. population stabilization and then a gradual decline.
LK: Would you describe yourself as an optimist or a pessimist on population, immigration, the environment and sustainability, or is this not even the proper way to frame your position on these interconnected issues?
BZ: Unfortunately, our species is largely out of control. During my lifetime world population has more than tripled. When measured by the total number of people added to the planet each year, this growth has shown no indication of slowing down. Population and consumption keep growing at the expense of the environment in general and biodiversity in particular. I fear that rational actions will not be taken and that only catastrophe, probably more than one, will end the carnage to the biosphere. I never suspected that worldwide catastrophes would happen during my lifetime. But we already have the effects of climate change kicking in faster than envisioned by many climate scientists, plus a global COVID-19 pandemic. Sadly, I expect that even together these catastrophes will not be sufficient to induce humanity to end its excessive ways.
LK: Ben, back in 1998 or thereabouts you sent me a signed copy of the book you had co-edited on whether intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe: Extraterrestrials: Where Are They? Inside the front cover, you wrote: “Leon, I love you man, and we’ve never even met!” Well, we did meet for the first time not long after that, and I just wanted to reiterate that the feeling is mutual. I have always been inspired by your intellect, bravery, passion and commitment, and it has been an honor to know and collaborate with you all these years on the most important challenge facing humanity: treating the one planet (including its many non-human inhabitants) in the cosmos that we know for a fact does support life as a home rather than exploiting it as a mere source of resources and a dumping ground for our wastes.