A recent article in the New York Times revisits the generalized pandemonium in the 1970s over fears of a global population explosion, due in large part to Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 doomsday bestseller: The Population Bomb. The article inadvertently ties Ehrlich’s apocalyptic thesis—and the widespread willingness to believe it—to the current climate change hysteria that has swept a large part of the planet.
Ehrlich sold the world the idea that mankind stood on the brink of Armageddon because there was simply no way to feed the exponentially increasing world population. The opening line set the tone for the whole book: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.”
Being a well-credentialed scientist—as a biologist lecturing at Stanford University—Ehrlich’s trumpet call of the end times struck many as the plausible theory of an “expert.”
In the book, Ehrlich laid out the devastating future of the planet. He predicted that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s (and that 65 million of them would be Americans), that already-overpopulated India was doomed, and that odds were fair that “England will not exist in the year 2000.”
Ehrlich concludes that “sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come,” meaning “an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.”
It is fascinating to compare Ehrlich’s hyperbolic forecasts with those of the recent climate workshop sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Science.
“As early as 2100, there will be a non-negligible probability of irreversible and catastrophic climate impacts that may last over thousands of years, raising the existential question of whether civilization as we know it can be extended beyond this century,” the workshop concluded in its joint declaration.
The population has in fact doubled from when “The Population Bomb” was written, and yet here we are, including England and even India. People do still die of starvation in 2015, but as the Times rightly notes, shortages are often “more a function of government incompetence, corruption or civil strife than of an absolute lack of food.”
Chillingly, in his call for radical population control, Ehrlich said he would prefer “voluntary methods” but if people were unwilling to cooperate, he was ready to endorse “various forms of coercion.” To allow women have as many children as they wanted, he said, is like letting people “throw as much of their garbage into their neighbor’s backyard as they want.”
The simple fact is that the world figured out how to feed itself despite its rising numbers, and food production actually outpaced population growth. Could Ehrlich have predicted that Norman E. Borlaug, an American plant scientist, would have discovered how to breed high-yielding, disease-resistant crops that would significantly increase agricultural efficiency? Of course he couldn’t. But this may be an important lesson for today. Science, while quite good at documenting current natural phenomena, has proved completely incompetent when it comes to predicting the future—both of nature and of human ingenuity.
What would have happened had the world at large completely bought into Ehrlich’s hypothesis and altered its behavior accordingly?
China tried it by instituting a draconian one-child policy, which has now left it (through sex-selective abortions) with a horrific gender imbalance, with yearly births of some 120 boys born for every 100 girls. As a result, “30 million more men than women will reach adulthood and enter China’s mating market by 2020.”
Fortunately, The Times observes, some brave souls resisted the urge to jump on the population explosion bandwagon. One was economist Julian L. Simon, who later noted that “whatever the rate of population growth is, historically it has been that the food supply increases at least as fast, if not faster.”
Another population expert, Fred Pearce, has said that birthrates are now below long-term replacement levels nearly everywhere, a trend he analyzed in his 2010 book, “The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future.”
The New York Times observes that, as a consequence, “worrying about an overcrowded planet has fallen off the international agenda” and has now been replaced “by climate change and related concerns.”
What the Times fails to observe is the irony of its own reporting. By juxtaposing the thoroughly discredited population explosion theories of the 1970s with the (equally panicky) global warming predictions of our day, the article cannot help but make readers wonder whether a certain measure of caution is due before significantly altering human behavior to accommodate these forecasts.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome