The Population Bomb

The Population Bomb by Paul Erhlich is a book that should be read by more Environmentalists today. The books thesis is straightforward, from the prologue:

“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 programmes embarked upon now”

Given such a strong position it might be thought that the author of such predictions that have been shown over the course of 40 years to be outright incorrect might cause the author to reflect and look at why the predictions were wrong and if trends could have been detected at the time that were contrary to what Ehrlich was saying. Instead Ehrlich says:

“When I wrote The Population Bomb in 1968, there were 3.5 billion people. Since then we’ve added another 2.8 billion — many more than the total population (2 billion) when I was born in 1932. If that’s not a population explosion, what is? My basic claims (and those of the many scientific colleagues who reviewed my work) were that population growth was a major problem. Fifty-eight academies of science said that same thing in 1994, as did the world scientists’ warning to humanity in the same year.”

But Ehrlich is being either disingenuous or self-deceptive. The claim that the population was increasing was not an issue, anyone who looked at the demographics of the world would have stated that such a rise was probable.  The claim that there would be mass starvation in the 1970s and 1980s across most of the world was controversial. It is that claim that is categorically wrong.

The book is divided into 6 parts:

  1. The Problem, where Malthusian collapse is presented
  2. The Ends of the Road where Ehrlich presents 3 different scenarios
  3. What is being Done where family planning and aid revision are considered
  4. What needs to be done, where Ehrlich’s advice is presented
  5. What can I do, where Ehrlich advises people what to do
  6. What if I’m Wrong : Where Ehrlich present’s a Pascal’s wager type argument about the possibility of him being wrong.

In the first section Ehrlich presents his view of the problem with the usual view of a Malthusian collapse. He presents how exponential growth works. He describes how crop yields are allegedly decreasing. It is interesting that he does not present trends or graphs to indicate how crop yields have changed. Perhaps the data was not available, but some surely was. The UN FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation) data is now available. The data for population increase did look different. Population growth shot up in the 1950s. But again, part of this would surely be a response to WWII. It’s a pity that the trend is not presented more fully.

In the second second Ehrlich presents 3 different scenarios, starvation, nuclear holocaust and a pandemic disease. Of these, two are reasonable. Nuclear holocaust hang over the heads of the world during the cold war. There really were plans for mass nuclear weapons exchanges. It wasn’t and indeed isn’t unreasonable to worry a huge amount about nuclear weapons. The possibility of a pandemic is also still relevant and quite real. However, it should be contrasted with the decrease in the number of people who are dying of infectious diseases and methods for their prevention that were extant at the time. The CDC was formed in 1946. The final scenario, that of mass starvation is the one most related to Ehrlich’s thesis in the book. That it has been shown to be completely wrong is significant.

Ehrlich goes on in the 3rd chapter to describe what is being done by then current US aid programs. He criticizes the way the US government handles pesticides and environmental agencies. He describes companies attempting to present themselves as Green as eco-pornography. It is interesting to see how the the term has become green washing.

In the section on what needs to be done Ehrlich describes how a new powerful government agency needs to be set up to regulate all the things required to stave of eco-catastrophe. The EPA as seen as too weak and presumably not following Ehrlich’s recommendations enough.

In the fifth section Ehrlich tells people what they should do to help avoid the arrival of the catastrophes that he has for seen.

In the final section Ehrlich presents the possibility of him being wrong as something like Pascal’s wager, suggesting that if his recommendations are taken seriously and followed it won’t do any serious harm. Here he is quite wrong. We live in a vastly richer world with billions more people in it living better than ever.

The book is an interesting read. It shows how old the environmental movement is and how the movement has been making predictions that have shown to be wrong and yet has become stronger. The Green movement does have similarities to a doomsday cult. The Green movement also presents it’s enemies in the same way today as it did in the past. It describes those it dislikes as selfish and not caring for the planet or the future. Those who regard the Green movement as a problem need to be aware of this and to make sure they point out that they also care about the environment and look at science, but they have substantial evidence that suggests that things have been and are continuing to get better rather than worse.

Ehrlich’s book is well worth reading. It’s worth looking at how the claims of environmentalists have held up in the past. It gives a perspective to the current claims of doom. It’s also worth reading to see what mistakes people have made. It is also worth reading to see that despite the failure of these predictions that the Green movement has strengthened in the last 40 years. Strong belief and strong calls to action are powerful tools for motivation.



One response to “The Population Bomb

  1. Pingback: A Blueprint for a safer Planet « ReviewSien

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