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The Population Bomb ()

Intercollegiate Studies Institute Worst 50 Books of the Century

PROLOGUE (The Population Bomb)

    The battle to feed all of humanity is over.  In the 1970's the world will undergo famines--hundreds
    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
    inherit a totally different world, a world in which the standards, politics, and economics of the
    1960's are dead.  As the most powerful nation in the world today, and its largest consumer, the
    United States cannot stand isolated.  We are today involved in the events leading to famine;
    tomorrow we may be destroyed by its consequences.

    Our position requires that we take immediate action at home and promote effective action
    worldwide.  We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and
    penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.  We must use our political power to push
    other countries into programs which combine agricultural development and population control.  And
    while this is being done we must take action to reverse the deterioration of our environment before
    population pressure permanently ruins our planet.  The birth rate must be brought into balance with
    the death rate or mankind will breed itself into oblivion.  We can no longer afford merely to treat
    the symptoms of the cancer of population growth; the cancer itself must be cut out.  Population
    control is the only answer.
           -Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (1968)

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
    multiplication of people. Treating only the symptoms of cancer may make the victim more comfortable
    at first, but eventually he dies -- often horribly. A similar fate awaits a world with a population
    explosion if only the symptoms are treated. We must shift our efforts from treatment of the symptoms
    to the cutting out of the cancer. The operation will demand many apparently brutal and heartless
    decisions. The pain may be intense. But the disease is so far advanced that only with radical surgery
    does the patient have a chance of survival

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
    come to pass, but the weight of scientific evidence clearly supports their point of view--that humanity
    has only briefly postponed a catastrophic collision with the consequences of runaway population

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
    standards and life spans in human history?

    *Why is it that those nations (Western Europe and Japan) which have actually tipped over into negative
    population growth are experiencing economic stagnation or decline?

    *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
    shortages were almost always tied to bad political decision making rather than to some inherent
    limitations on capacity.  Ethiopians starved because they were Marxists, not because they were too

    *If supplies of natural resources are limited, why do they keep getting cheaper?  Be sure to read the
    hilarious accounts of the wager that Julian Simon made with Ehrlich, betting him that any bushel of
    commodities would decline in price over the course of time, rather than increase.

    *Given that Tokyo and Manhattan are two of the most densely populated areas on Earth and two of the
    greatest concentrations of wealth, how is it possible to conclude that population density is problematic?

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.


Grade: (F)


Paul Ehrlich Links:

    -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,
    -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)

    -ESSAY:  Population and the Wealth of Nations  (William McGurn, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of THE VISION OF THE ANOINTED Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy. By Thomas Sowell (Richard Epstein, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of PROGRESS AND PRIVILEGE America in the Age of Environmentalism. By William Tucker (Samuel C. Florman, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Amartya Sen: Population: Delusion and Reality
    -ESSAY: Earth Day, Then and Now: The planet's future has never looked better. Here's why.
(Ronald Bailey, Reason)
    -REVIEW: of THE IDEA OF BIODIVERSITY Philosophies of Paradise. By David Takacs (John Horgan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Bill McKibben: Reaching the Limit, NY Review of Books
        How Many People Can the Earth Support? by Joel E. Cohen
        The Carrying Capacity Briefing Book by the Carrying Capacity
        Network (2000 P Street NW, Suite 240, Washington, D.C. 20036)
    -REVIEW: Vaclav Smil: Is There Enough Chinese Food?
        Who Will Feed China? Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet by Lester R.
    -REVIEW: Jonathan Lieberson: Too Many People?
        Are World Population Trends A Problem? edited, with an introduction
        by Ben Wattenberg and Karl Zinsmeister
    -ESSAY: Piercing the Gloom and Doom (Herbert I. London, American Outlook)
    -ESSAY: How Many is too Many?: Biologists have argued for a century that an ever-growing population will bring the apocalypse. Economists argue that man and markets will cope -- so far none of the predicted apocalypses have arrived. The near-term questions, though, are political, and they are overlooked in the fierce battles. (Charles C. Mann, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW : of The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World by Bjørn Lomborg (Matt Ridley, booksonline)
    -ESSAY : The truth about the environment : Environmentalists tend to believe that, ecologically speaking, things are getting worse and worse. Bjorn Lomborg, once deep green himself, argues that they are wrong in almost every particular (The Economist, Aug 2nd 2001)
   -ESSAY : Rage Against the Machines : Witnessing the birth of the neo-Luddite movement  (Ronald Bailey, Reason)
    -ESSAY : UN Shocks Neo-Luddites! :  A new report concludes that biotech is the best hope for many of the world's poorest. (Ronald Bailey, July 2001, Reason)
    -ESSAY: Overpopulation: An Ancient Myth Refuted (Aidan Grogan, July 10, 2024, AIER)