|Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email|
The Population Bomb (1968)
Intercollegiate Studies Institute Worst 50 Books of the Century
PROLOGUE (The Population Bomb)
of millions of people are going to 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, although
many lives could be saved through dramatic programs to "stretch" the carrying capacity of the earth
by increasing food production. But these programs will only provide a stay of execution unless they
are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control. Population control is
the conscious regulation of the numbers of human beings to meet the needs, not just of individual
families, but of society as a whole.
Nothing could be more misleading to our children
than our present affluent society. They will
Our position requires that we take immediate action
at home and promote effective action
Now I know you're expecting me to take the easy route on this one and just pummel the malevolent Dr. Ehrlich on the basis of how profoundly wrong his predictions in this best-selling polemic proved to be. Well, maybe this once I'll surprise you. I'm actually going to cut the good doctor a little bit of slack (a very little bit) because I think he merely represents a particularly notorious example of what is actually a pretty common defect of social planners in general--which means especially of the Left--that is that the contingencies which they plan for never actually had much chance of coming to fruition in the first place. The reason for this is quite simple; almost all predictions involving human behavior are wrong.
As a threshold issue, this is a pretty easy truth to comprehend; human free will makes it nearly impossible to forecast future behavior based on current trends. Sociology is simply not a science. Start a bowling ball rolling down a hill and physics tells you that it is likely to keep rolling down hill in a fairly direct fashion. Start a human walking down that same hill and who knows what pattern he will follow? Not even him. And what if you start hundreds of bowling balls and hundreds of humans? The bowling balls are all likely to keep following their predicted route, but it is entirely possible that no two humans will take the same path. But suppose for a moment that the first ten humans all walk straight down the hill. Are you willing to assume that the rest will? or even that most of the rest will? Probably not, and not just because of the idiosyncrasies of human behavior. There are also technological considerations--someone is going to find a way to make a sled and slide down the hill and as soon as they do, folks will be sledding not walking. There are spiritual considerations--some folks are going to prefer the top of the hill to the bottom, some the pretty pond halfway down, and they just aren't coming down that hill. There are philanthropic considerations--some young folks will carry old folks, parents will carry kids, and so on. There are political considerations--a leader emerges to convince people that it is their destiny to live at the top of the hill or even to level the hill. Etc., etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum... It is obviously foolish to try to predict human behavior given all of these variables.
Predictions like Ehrlich's are based on an especially specious methodology. He has taken a snapshot in time and projected it forward without trying to place it in context. Yes, world population has risen pretty rapidly in the industrial era, thanks to advances in medicine, food production, etc. But as countries have reached industrial plateaus, they have tended to experience a flattening or even a decline in population growth. Broaden your perspective a little and it seems obvious that he is focussed on a startling, but more than likely temporary rise in population. It's as if he's chosen one moment in a car ride from New York to California and tried to generalize from it about the whole trip. If he's chosen a moment when the car is at cruising speed and concluded that the car was generally traveling 55 miles per hour, he's not too far wrong. But if he's chosen a moment when the car was accelerating to get on the highway and concluded that the car just kept going faster and faster the whole trip, then he's obviously made a tremendous error. In this instance, Ehrlich seems to have complete tunnel vision; he can't see past this one moment of population acceleration. This lack of perspective alone is enough to delegitimize all of the conclusions that he draws.
In addition, those who make such predictions are not generally impartial observers. Rather, they are likely to have a vested interest in the scariness of their own prediction. I mean, is it more likely that a population specialist will come to the conclusion that there is a crisis which requires a massive response and loads of power, time and money or that he will conclude that population problems are pretty much self regulating and no response is required? We all know the answer to that; the next bureaucrat who says that the problem he's working on is solved, or that it is unresponsive to human intervention, will be the first. These institutional survival imperatives make it extraordinarily unlikely that the very folks who are employed to study a "problem" will ever find anything other than bad news.
Further prejudicing their findings is the fact that such studies are typically generated by people or entities with a particular political agenda and, thus, their own vested interest in the outcome. Let's face it, it's not like money magically appears to fund population studies (or environmental studies or whatever). The mandate and the money for such work probably comes from a political body or an individual with preexisting concerns about the issue and you don't have to be as cynical as I am to assume that researchers will tend to find results that confirm the beliefs of their sponsors.
The forgoing reasons for being dubious about this kind of crisis prediction are fairly benign and understandable, if still troubling, but there are also less charitable reasons to harbor suspicion. These types of predictions all share one important and disturbing characteristic; they all assume that the pending disaster can only be averted if bureaucratic elites are given the power to make decisions, often life or death decisions, for the rest of us. In this case, Ehrlich wants to decide quite literally who will live and who will die. But consider a less extreme case, the Clinton Health Care Plan. There we were assured by the Media, Democrats and political activist organizations that America--which by the way spends a staggering 14% of the world's largest GDP on health care--faced an imminent crisis which would see medical care become increasingly inaccessible. The solution?--turn the entire industry over to government bureaucrats, headed by Hilary Clinton, who would regulate the industry for us and apportion care according to their own lights. Well, thankfully that was averted, but it helps illustrate the central point, that a significant motive of these central planning types is their belief that they are just smarter than the rest of us and should therefore be given power over our lives.
Here lies the great misunderstanding at the core of politics--liberals, who are understood to care about the masses, actually loathe them and think people incapable of running their own lives. Conservatives, who believe in the individual and his ability to succeed on his own, are, therefore, understood to be unsympathetic towards people. There's much discussion these days of the "magic of the free market" and much critical comment on conservatives faith in markets. But conservatives beliefs are based on one humble realization; they aren't any better at predicting behavior than the liberals are. Adoption of free market principles represents an admission that no one can plan for the future with any great efficacy. Therefore, it is better to utilize the most fluid system possible and to allow human ingenuity to lead where it will. Every attempt to intervene in the free market is essentially a product of someone's belief that they know better than the rest of us. History, it seems to me, has proven them wrong over and over and over again.
Believe it or not though, I'm willing to give the Hilary Clintons of the world the benefit of the doubt. I think she's probably just prey to hubris when she tells us that she should decide how we live. But Ehrlich, like many of the deep environmentalists to whom he is a secular icon, seems to me to go beyond mere arrogance and to be motivated by actual hatred of humankind. He gives away the game when he compares us to cancer:
A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells;
the population explosion is an uncontrolled
This invidious comparison is of a type with the objectification that serial killers and mass murderers engage in. Here's a handy rule to follow: when someone starts referring to human beings in non-human terms, like calling them cancer cells, he probably doesn't really have our best interests at heart; he just wants to kill people.
Okay, so by now you're saying to yourself that I'm beating a long dead horse. Who, at this late date, could possible see any relevance in the complete quackery of someone like Ehrlich, whose predictions have proven almost comically inept? Surely this book and its author are just amusing anachronisms, consigned to the ash heap of history. But it's an amazing thing about these Left-wing catastrophists, like vampires, they are unkillable. In 1932 Literary Digest predicted that Hoover would beat Roosevelt. Within a couple of years the magazine ceased to exist. But not only does Paul Ehrlich's book remain in print to this day, in addition, he has received numerous awards and a $345,000 MacArthur Foundation grant. His blurbs still show up on the dust jackets of serious books. (In fact, I picked this book up after seeing his name, to my own disbelief, on the cover of Jared Diamond's recent Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel [see Orrin's review]). And in looking for links for this review, I found this quote in E Magazine:
The Ehrlichs have their critics, who point out that
the worst of their doomsday predictions haven't
Yes, despite the fact that he has proven spectacularly wrong, he and his ideas have, for ideological reasons, remained politically relevant. This poison still courses through the lifeblood of our public discourse.
Here are just a few of the objections that I'd like to see Ehrlich and his stubborn adherents answer:
*Why is it that the period of rapid population expansion
has also seen the greatest increases in living
*Why is it that those nations (Western Europe and
Japan) which have actually tipped over into negative
*Has there ever been a country that had both a declining population and a growing economy?
*Where is the evidence that we can not feed increasing
populations? During the past century, food
*If supplies of natural resources are limited, why
do they keep getting cheaper? Be sure to read the
*Given that Tokyo and Manhattan are two of the most
densely populated areas on Earth and two of the
The list goes on and on, but the essential point is that if you look at the issue from a scientific perspective--that is, look at the actual evidence and try to determine its effects--rather than an ideological one, population growth appears to be an essential component of a healthy and growing economy. Obviously too rapid growth could create problems, but even they are likely to be self-correcting--if there are too many Mexicans they will come here and take the jobs that currently go begging for applicants. On the other hand, the effects on the environment may indeed be unhealthy and undesirable, but aren't there measures that can be taken to alleviate these effects, short of draconian population controls? In fact, the population of the United States continues to grow--because of immigration, not of native birthrates--but at the same time the environmental picture is improving. There does not appear to be a necessary correlation between population growth and environmental degradation.
But, of course, none of this matters. The book continues to be read, its ideas taken seriously, because it is essentially a religious tract. Ehrlich's thesis, like creationism, is impervious to scientific evidence because it is based not on science, but on faith. He and many on the Left simply prefer the environment to man and want there to be less people; I believe one billion is the number of humans that Ehrlich says he would find acceptable. Here's one interesting final thought for you: these depopulation activists obviously think that they should be included in that one billion. Ideas have consequences. It does not suffice to mouth the words unless you are willing to follow their logic. The fact that Paul Ehrlich is still alive and still depleting resources suggests that he is fundamentally unserious about his own arguments. He is not alone; no intelligent and impartial reader will fail to find his book idiotic.
-ESSAY: The Population Implosion: Be careful what you wish for. After decades of struggling to contain the global population explosion that emerged from the healthcare revolution of the 20th century, the world confronts an unfamiliar crisis: rapidly decreasing birthrates and declining life spans that might set back the progress of human development. (Nicholas Eberstadt, March/April 2001, Foreign Policy)
-ESSAY: Population Implosion Worries a Graying Europe (MICHAEL SPECTER, July 10, 1998, New York Times)
-Remembering Julian Simon (Heartland Institute)
-Malthus, Watch Out (Ben Wattenberg, February 11, 1998, Wall St. Journal)
The Doomslayer: The environment is going to hell, and human life is doomed to only get worse, right? Wrong. Conventional wisdom, meet Julian Simon, the Doomslayer. (Ed Regis, Wired)
Book-related and General Links:
-AWARD: 1998 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement awarded to Anne and Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University
-INTERVIEW: Conversations: Paul and Anne Ehrlich Interviewed by Jim Motavalli (E The Environmental Magazine)
-INTERVIEW: EcoCompass /Riverfront Times Interview with Paul Ehrlich (Chris mKing)
-ETEXT?: THE POPULATION EXPLOSION by Paul and Anne Ehrlich
-SPEECH: RECENT DEVELOPMENTS IN ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES (Paul R. Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies and President, Center for Conservation Biology Stanford University
-ESSAY: Reason vs Faith: Julian Simon vs Paul Ehrlich (Joseph Kellard, Capitalism Magazine)
-Julian Simon's bet with Paul Ehrlich (Brian Carnell, Overpopulation.Com)
-ESSAY: Doomsayer Paul Ehrlich Strikes Out Again (Michael Fumento, Investor's Business Daily)
-Paul Ehrlich and the Population Bomb (PBS)
-PROFILE: Paul Ehrlich (Brian Carnell, Overpopulation.com)
-ESSAY: Paul Ehrlich gets Stanford "Reviewed" (Mike Toth, Stanford Review)
-REVIEW : of Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect by Paul R. Ehrlich (Francis Fukuyama, Commentary)
-REVIEW : of Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect by Paul R. Ehrlich. (Bobbi S. Low, American Scientist)
-REVIEW: of HEALING THE PLANET Strategies for Resolving the Environmental Crisis. By Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich (Robert Bazell, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: Bill McKibben: Some Versions of Pastoral, NY Review of Books
Dream Reaper: The Story of an Old-fashioned Inventor in the
High-Tech, High-Stakes World of Modern Agriculture by Craig Canine
Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea by Victor Davis
Another Turn of the Crank by Wendell Berry
The Stork and the Plow: The Equity Answer to the Human Dilemma by
Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich, and Gretchen C. Daily
-REVIEW: George Plimpton: Death in the Family
Birds in Jeopardy: The Imperiled and Extinct Birds of the United States
and Canada, Including Hawaii and Puerto Rico by Paul R. Ehrlich,
David S. Dobkin, Darryl Wheye, and illustrations by Darryl Wheye
A Shadow and a Song by Mark Jerome Walters
Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of
Species by Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich
Where Have All the Birds Gone? Essays on the Biology and
Conservation of Birds That Migrate to the American Tropics by John
Federal and State Endangered Species Expenditures: Fiscal Year 1990
compiled by the US Fish and Wildlife Service
-REVIEW: Robert L. Heilbroner: Ecological Armageddon
Population, Resources, Environment by Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich
-REVIEW: of Paul Ehrlich & Anne Ehrlich The Population Explosion (Honest Intellectual Inquiry)
i read dr. paul erlichs's book as an undergrad econ. student. He had it right. There were too many variables to accurately predict such things as the price of metals in the 80's. You completely fail to note his main point. Namely, greenhouse gasses. Global warming anyone? God bless Dr. Paul Erlich. Try reading the book again, only this time slower.
- Feb-12-2008, 23:37
"almost all predictions involving human behavior are wrong" ------
Your review rightly focuses on Ehrlich's biggest mistake, although I would clarify your statement slightly: "almost all predictions involving MASS human behavior will be wrong."
It is possible to predict individual and small group behaviors over very brief periods of time, but expanding the study group beyond a dozen or so and increasing the length of time included in the prediction beyond a few seconds will quickly deteriorate the accuracy of the predictions.
"[W]e ... overgeneralize ... and narrowly extrapolate from the moment, basing our predictions of the future on those aspects of the present that bother or delight us the most." --The Logic of Failure: Why Things Go Wrong and What We Can Do to Make Them Right, by Dietrich Dorner
"We conclude that there are strategic situations in which it is impossible in principle for perfectly rational agents to learn to predict the future behavior of other perfectly rational agents based solely on their observed actions." --DP Foster and HP Young, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, "On the impossibility of predicting the behavior of rational agents."
From Karl Popper's, The Poverty of Historicism (predictions based on history):
"The course of human history is strongly influenced by the growth of human knowledge.
We cannot predict, by rational or scientific methods, the future growth of our scientific knowledge.
We cannot, therefore, predict the future course of human history.
This means that we must reject the possibility of a theoretical history; that is to say, of a historical social science that would correspond to theoretical physics. There can be no scientific theory of historical development serving as a basis for historical prediction.
The fundamental aim of historicist methods is therefore misconceived, and historicism collapses."
- Dec-01-2005, 22:20
Your question, "Given that Tokyo and Manhattan...how is it possible to conclude that population density is problematic?", can be answered quite simply. In densely populated regions diseases spread exponentially faster than in non-urban areas.
Additionally I find your account of liberals to be totally off base and could not be further from the truth. Your entire article is driven politically which is shameful when presenting only one side as the purely good side (this is also known as propoganda.)
- Mar-10-2003, 22:44
In response to one of the questions you posed "Has there ever been a country that has expanded economically while declining in population?", I would give you the modern day example of France. France's GNP is currently growing at a rate of 1% while its population is in the decline. Furthermore, I offer the example of the United States as a country stagnant population-wise and yet it's GNP continues to grow at a rate of 3%. I have encountered numerous other fallacies in your writing, too many to mention in fact, so suffice it should be to say: check your facts and figures before you go ahead and publicize erroneous data.
- Mar-10-2003, 22:37