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Whatever Happened to the Population Bomb?

Biology Professor Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book, "The Population Bomb," took America and the world by storm. The apocalyptic vision based of population outgrowing its resources appeared to make inherent sense.
June 3, 2015, 5am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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James Cridland

New York Times' columnist Clyde Haberman looks at the Ehrlich's forecasts of global doom as well as the population movement, described by some followers as a Zeitgeist in the late 1960s, begun by Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich for this issue of "Retro Report: Essays and documentary videos that re-examine the leading stories of decades past."

After writing The Population Bomb, Ehrlich "later went on to forecast that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s, that 65 million of them would be Americans, that crowded India was essentially doomed, that odds were fair 'England will not exist in the year 2000,'" writes Haberman.

Dr. Ehrlich was so sure of himself that he warned in 1970 that “sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come.” By “the end,” he meant “an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.”

Ehrlich hasn't mellowed with age. "Allowing women to have as many babies as they wanted, he said, is akin to letting everyone 'throw as much of their garbage into their neighbor’s backyard as they want'," he states in the accompanying video.

The video offers an additional look at the movement begun by Ehrlich. Insightful observations are made by once disciple, Stewart Brand, who went on to form Whole Earth Catalog. He notes that "Ehrlich was frightened by the density of people that he saw." In fact, Ehrlich's inspiration for The Population Bomb was "after visiting the crowded streets of Delhi," notes the video.

"The population bomb was defused by urbanization, by people getting out of poverty all over the world," observes Brand in the video.

There's a clip of President Nixon warning of unlivable cities by 2000 due to being "choked with people, traffic, crime and pollution." Some of the more dramatic photos show Indian women lined-up for forced sterilizations.

"The concerns about population became misanthropic," notes Brand.

"There's a tendency to apply to human beings the same sort of models that may apply for the insect world," says Gita Sen, Development Economist, Centre for Public Policy, Indian Institute for Management Bangalore. "The difference, of course, is that human beings are conscious beings...and we can change our destiny"

Haberman goes on to look at forecasts for global population growth. "The trickiness of numbers is underscored by a look at population density," he writes.

It is generally assumed that having too many people crammed into a small territory is a recipe for poverty and other social ills. Yet according to the United Nations, the three places with the highest density are Monaco, Macao and Singapore. Not one of them remotely qualifies as a desperate case."

In fact, in a recent study posted here it was noted that the environmental benefits of dense urban habitats are canceled out by low density suburbs.

 of Bloomberg View reviews Haberman's Retro Report, which he calls a "mini documentary." He also analyzes Ehrlich's predictions and what he missed, though you wouldn't know it from Ehrlich's assertions. He offers one optimistic scenario to global population forecasts:

The idea, then, is that the spread of affluence will solve the world’s population dilemma. Instead of coercion, we can rely on college tuition and expensive urban real estate to keep fertility rates in check. This is a ton more attractive than Paul Ehrlich’s prediction of either chaos or government-imposed population control. 

In PowerLine, Stephen Hayward reviews the Retro Report and fills in one important omission:

The story goes on to give a strong shout out to the late Julian Simon, though the story omits to recount Simon’s famous bet with Ehrlich that Simon won (told well in a recent book, The Bet, by Yale historian Paul Sabin). The story also covers the view that the real population problem in the second half of this century will be too few people because of plummeting birthrates.

Correspondent's note: The video is outstanding. It contains interviews not found in Haberman's column and snapshots of news broadcasts that made Ehrlich's message compelling to a generation of environmentalists, as well as critiquing Ehrlich's predictions.

Full Story:
Published on Sunday, May 31, 2015 in The New York Times - Retro Report
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