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.