The royal character from classical Greek drama is misperceived today as the archetypal false prophet. But in Agamemnon, the playwright Aeschylus casts Cassandra as a tragic heroine; her accurate warnings of doom are ridiculed as the ravings of a madwoman.
Paul Ehrlich, who spoke to a packed house at the University of Vermont on Tuesday, might be seen as a contemporary Cassandra.
A biologist and professor at Stanford University, Ehrlich has been forecasting global doom for the past 45 years. He's the author of a 1968 best-seller, The Population Bomb, which helped initiate worldwide debate on issues of sustainability.
Ehrlich's enemies — and they are legion — are quick to cite this passage from the best known of his 40 books: "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."
Was that prophecy false in its essence, or only in its time frame?
Ehrlich's answer is obvious, because there he was Tuesday, pacing lion-like across the stage of the Grand Maple Ballroom in UVM's Davis Center and telling close to 500 rapt listeners that they live in "a global society that's about to collapse."
The primary cause of the coming collapse remains the same for Ehrlich in 2013 as in 1968: Humanity will prove unable to feed itself. Technology won't be able to offset environmental destruction as food systems falter in a futile effort to feed too many mouths.
But Ehrlich is no longer specifying the date of doomsday. It's coming soon, he implies, but, he adds reassuringly, "We have a 10 percent chance of preventing the collapse of civilization."
What'll it take to win against those odds?
Ehrlich prescribes a gradual but radical reduction in population. Today's 7 billion humans are forecast to add 2.5 billion to their number in the coming decades, but in Ehrlich's save-the-species scenario, growth has to be limited to 1.5 billion before beginning a decline to a total well below the current population. The United States, for example, should include no more than 125 million inhabitants, as opposed to the 310 million who live here now, he advises. The U.S. is, after all, "the world's most overpopulated nation," Ehrlich says, because it consumes a far greater share of the planet's resources than do either India or China.
Population decline will only be possible, he notes, when the world's women have the same rights and freedoms as the world's men. Opponents of abortion, Ehrlich declares, are actually advocates of "killing women."
And don't get him started on climate-change denial.
Propagandists masquerading as journalists on Rupert Murdoch's "False News" network are "paid prostitutes," Ehrlich told his UVM audience, "and Rupert is their pimp."
The tall, slim and bearded 80-year-old walks with only a slight stoop. It's clear to those who watch him that this much-maligned prophet remains unbowed.