Population Connection Member Profile: Eric Hirst

Eric Hirst, his late wife, Susan, and their children and grandchildren, in November 2016

Eric Hirst has been a supporter of ZPG/Population Connection since 1979, and he’s also a member of our President’s Circle and ZPG Society. Eric has had an interesting life—and an especially peripatetic one. He lived in New York City, upstate New York, Alabama, Tennessee, and the Bay Area before finally landing in the Seattle area.

Eric’s story starts in 1943, in New York City, where he was born to Jewish parents who had fled Germany during World War II. After finishing high school, he moved upstate to Troy, New York, to major in engineering at Rensselaer Poly Tech (RPI). From there, he “was lucky enough to get a free ride from the federal government” to study at Stanford University for a graduate degree in mechanical engineering.

Eric met his wife, Susan, while he was at Stanford, and they married just a few months before he earned his PhD in engineering. Soon after he graduated, he and Susan embarked on their travels, moving nearly 2,400 miles from Palo Alto, California, to Tuskegee, Alabama. Eric had signed up to teach in the Mechanical Engineering department of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), which has a highly rated engineering department. Tuskegee is an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and is home to the Tuskegee Airmen.

We can imagine what a change this would have been for the young couple—moving to the South, to a rural, predominantly Black, town. For Eric and Susan, Alabama was a world away from California’s Bay Area. Eric recounted that living in Tuskegee “was really interesting, going from Stanford, near San Francisco and a very wealthy area.” At the time, the Bay Area was in the early stages of becoming a high-tech stronghold, and “here we are, moving to rural Alabama.”

After their two-year stint at Tuskegee ended, Eric and Susan moved to the small city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where Eric took a position at Oak Ridge National Labs (ORNL). ORNL was established in 1942 by the Army Corp of Engineers to house the Manhattan Project. It is currently the largest lab of its kind in the U.S. Eric worked there for 30 years, mainly on energy efficiency and electrical utility programs. He was fortunate to have several sabbaticals, when he worked for the federal government in Washington, DC; at an electrical utility near Seattle; at a Minnesota state government agency; and at an environmental organization in Colorado.

Before his retirement in 2004, Eric was a consultant in his area of expertise. After that, he and Susan decided “to be active grandparents” and “followed [their] two kids and grandkids” to the Seattle area. They spent a lot of quality time with the grandchildren before kindergarten and first grade beckoned.

Sadly, Susan died four years ago, at the age of 74. She and Eric were together for 50 years, and he of course misses her terribly. But, he said, “I can look back and know that Susan’s last 14 years … were about as perfect as can be. She really had a great life.”

Fortunately for him, Eric doesn’t lack for companionship; he started dating Lorrie 18 months after Susan died. Lorrie was a friend of Susan’s and “has the same wonderful qualities that Susan had.” He humbly quipped, “I feel really lucky that I somehow tricked two different women to go out with me.”

When we asked Eric how he discovered Population Connection, he explained, “When I moved from New York to California, I really got into the outdoors … We did a lot of biking, hiking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite, and Sequoia National Park. And I became an environmentalist. Initially, like a lot of people, I was interested in preserving wilderness areas.”

In the ’60s, along with other Americans interested in politics, environmentalism, and activism, Eric heard about Dr. Paul Ehrlich, who was bringing the issue of overpopulation to the public. Eric said, “For me, it started in the mid- to late-1960s, listening to Paul Ehrlich and reading his book The Population Bomb and joining Zero Population Growth.” He actually saw Prof. Ehrlich talk about the population issue a couple of times and learned “how population growth was hurting the planet.”

Eric told us that he “began to believe that most of our environmental problems begin with population growth … And I still believe that.” He said, “If we don’t address population growth, we’ll never be able to solve lots of other problems, like hunger, poverty, water shortages, climate change, you name it. They are all rooted in population growth.”

“Paul Ehrlich was right about the fundamental problems resulting from rapid population growth. We’re certainly seeing that in climate change. Climate change is not something that’s going to happen—we’re already seeing it. Wildfires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, rising sea levels, and all the rest. The fundamental origin of climate change is, in my view, population growth.”

What has motivated Eric to stay involved with Population Connection’s mission for all these years? “Population Connection is the only environmental organization that has the courage to tackle population issues. The major environmental organizations all do very good work, and I support them as well. But not one of them is willing to tackle this underlying problem … I’m really glad Population Connection is in there and trying to do something about these issues.”

Eric told us that in the future he’d like “Population Connection to get the entire country, including the politicians, to at least talk about population, even if we don’t know what we will do about it. I would like the U.S. to at least recognize the importance of the issue.”

And, finally, we asked Eric what inspired him to include Population Connection in his will. “I think I led a charmed life, and I had lots and lots of good luck. Susan and I lived very modestly. We were healthy, my kids are healthy, and they all have good jobs. I feel a real obligation to give back.”

Eric was interviewed by Jennifer Lynaugh, Director of Individual Giving, for this piece.

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