Fifty Years on from Paul Ehrlich’s ‘The Population Bomb’: So How Come We’re Not All Dead, Yet?

NEW YORK - DECEMBER 19: Commuters pass through Grand Central Terminal during morning rush hour December 19, 2005 in New York City. Transit workers continue to negotiate a contract with the Metropolitan Transit Authority while saying a system-wide strike will occur if an agreement is not reached by 12:01 a.m. …
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This year marks the 50th anniversary of Paul Ehrlich’s eco-doom bestseller The Population Bomb. Maybe we should all stage a mass die-in to spare the distinguished Stanford biology professor his embarrassment.

Well if Ehrlich is not embarrassed, he should be. His book sold over three million copies – presumably making him a very decent amount of money. It turned him into an academic rock star, helped win him numerous prizes (often with large sums of money attached) and may well have been responsible for winning him the post he still occupies aged 85 as Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University…

…And all for writing a book which is essentially junk. Not just junk but dangerous junk. It’s bad enough that it got its predictions – about a disastrous population collapse due to resource depletion – wrong. But far worse was the damage it did to public and political consciousness, doing much to generate the environmental hysteria we see gripping the world today.

In fact, The Population Bomb did the one thing which science books aren’t supposed to do: it actually made the people who read it more stupid.

You see its malign influence today everywhere from the whispery prognostications of gorilla-hugging Malthusian David Attenborough to all those people who say they agree with me on climate change but then go on to tell me with a knowing, conspiratorial tap of the side of their noses that “Of course, the real elephant in the room is overpopulation.”

No, overpopulation is not the elephant in the room. If it were the elephant in the room it would mean that Paul Ehrlich’s book was right and he thoroughly deserved all that money and that tenure at Stanford – and I wouldn’t be writing this piece, would I?

My point, just to be clear, is that Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb was not only wrong but demonstrably wrong.

The ‘demonstrable’ part is that he made the fatal mistake of putting a date on his doomsday predictions.

His book claimed:

The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.

Remember all those hundreds of millions of people who starved to death between the release of Led Zep III and Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever? Nope, me neither. That’ll be because like most of the things predicted by the future Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, it didn’t actually transpire.

Nor – another of Ehrlich’s predictions – did the average age of death in the U.S. by 1980 fall to 42 years old.

Nor – yet – have ocean levels risen by 250 feet, despite Ehrlich’s warning that this was a distinct possibility if the polar icecaps started to melt.

Nor yet – though he might be closer to the mark here, showing how important it is to hedge your bets when predicting climate – are we in the midst of a ‘new ice age.’

As Nicholas Vardy notes in this essay for the Oxford Club, Ehrlich’s ‘population bomb’ theory was a fail for the same reasons Thomas Malthus’s 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population was a fail:

Human ingenuity has always been successful in overcoming crises that once seemed inevitable.

Ehrlich’s promised mass-starvation in “overpopulated” countries like India, for example, was foiled by the Green Revolution of the great American agronomist Norman Borlaug. Borlaug’s experiments with crop mutations dramatically increased productivity, enabling India and its neighbors to feed a population which Ehrlich had predicted would starve.

But the ingenuity rule doesn’t just apply to food.

As Vardy says:

The verdict from history is clear.

Charles Maurice and Charles W. Smithson at Texas A&M University studied the history of natural resources over 10,000 years.

They found that temporary scarcities in natural resources are the norm.

They also found that same temporary scarcity always led to an improved substitute.

The Greeks’ transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age 3,000 years ago was forced by a shortage of tin.

The rise of coal followed timber shortages in 16th-century Britain.

The shortage of whale oil in 1850 led directly to the first oil well in 1859.

If you still don’t believe overpopulation is not a problem – and never will be a problem – you’ll find more details either in my book Watermelons or in Matt Ridley’s superb (and very cheering) The Rational Optimist.

On this occasion, I’d just like to leave you with two take home points.

Environmentalism is evil.

Maybe not in its intentions but too often in its consequences. Dominic Lawson wrote a very good essay on this recently in the Sunday Times:

Ehrlich remains a patron of the British charity Population Matters, formerly the Optimum Population Trust. Sir David Attenborough is a fellow patron. The much-loved broadcaster has declared that humans are “a plague on the Earth” and that it was “barmy” to have sent food aid Ethiopia, since the famines in that African country were entirely down to its having “too many people for too little piece of land.”

Leave aside the chilly callousness, this was an ignorant and superficial analysis. The Ethiopian famines of the late 20th century were the direct consequence of civil war and, in the 1983-5 disaster, of the ‘social transformation’ policies imposed by Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Marxist junta. Overpopulation was no more the reason for that mass starvation than it was for the Ukraine famine of the 1930s or the Chinese famine of 1959-61.

The consequences of this misunderstanding of the truth, Lawson goes on to argue, can be very unpleasant: in India it led to Mrs Gandhi’s mass sterilisation program; in 1840s Ireland, it led to the British official attitude that there was no point sending food relief to the starving Irish during the potato famine because clearly Ireland had an overpopulation problem…

If you’re an environmentalist, there are no penalties for failure

Being so totally, comprehensively, embarrassingly wrong has never stopped Professor Paul Ehrlich being cited by the liberal media as a guru on environmental issues. He has never had to give back the millions of dollars he made peddling that enviro-doom snake oil in The Population Bomb.

Same goes to all those of his colleagues in academe who’ve been peddling similar nonsense about climate change, sea level rises, ocean acidification, species extinction and extreme weather.

Those few of us who insist on writing the truth about the environment: we’re in the wrong business, aren’t we?



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