The population bomb that fizzled

When I feel most pessimistic about the state of the nation, I remind myself of all the things I worried about in the past that never came to pass.

In the 1960s, I read books such as Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and William and Paul Paddock’s Famine – 1975! warning of imminent mass starvation because of world population growth. These two books weren’t unique; they are the ones I remember most vividly.  Ehrlich described very graphically the horrors that lay ahead, and warned of the futility of trying feed the teeming masses, because they would only reproduce and create a larger starving population. I recall the expression “dieback” to describe how nature would bring population and resources into balance.

Later on there was something called “liferaft ethics,” which said that the Earth is like a liferaft that can carry only a limited number of people, and that if you are on the liferaft (i.e., a citizen of a fortune country such as the United States), you are justified in pushing away someone drowning in the water to save yourself. Norman Borlaug’s efforts to introduce high-yield crops in India and elsewhere met with active hostility from the population warriors.

Now nations such as China and India, which were thought to be doomed, are successfully raising their material standard of living. If their populations are poor by American standards, they aren’t starving. Where starvation still exists, as in North Korea, it is the result of oppressive government and a failed economic system, not overpopulation.

Now people such as Ehrlich were not wholly wrong.  Simply because the world can feed more people than once was thought possible does not mean it can feed an unlimited number. But there are other ways to limit population than the Malthusian means, starvation and war.  When families realize that they can have more economic security by having a few well-educated prosperous children than by having a lot of poor children, when women are emancipated and enjoy reproductive rights, the experience of many countries is that the population levels off. There are many countries in which the birth rate is below the replacement rate (even though their populations may temporarily be increasing).

When I did my military service in the late 1950s, my First Sergeant was in the habit of saying,”Ebersole, I’m going to see to it personally that they ship your [body part] to Korea.” In those days South Korea was seen as a nightmare of poverty and filth. Soldiers back from Korea complained of the nauseating smells wafting into the mess halls from the human excrement used to fertilize the rice fields. Now South Korea is a leader in high technology, with world-class companies such as Samsung, and its population enjoys a standard of living closer to that of the United States than the Korea of 50 and 60 years ago.  I never would have dreamed that was possible.

Life is such that the solution to any problem is likely to generate a new problem. We Americans now have the problem of not letting ourselves fall behind emerging nations such as South Korea. But that is a good problem to have, compared with the problem of being an island of precarious prosperity in a sea of starvation.

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2 Responses to “The population bomb that fizzled”

  1. Anne Tanner Says:

    It’s interesting that African countries didn’t come up in this post, Phil. Take Swaziland, surrounded by South Africa and in part mountainous, so that agriculture doesn’t flourish. I can’t recall the exact percentages, but AIDS inflicts at least half the population and there are numerous families headed by 11- and 12-year-olds because both parents have died and Grandma is already tending 10 orphans of another family member. NGOs try to teach the kids to farm, so that part of the year, anyway, they might have enough food, but that’s only part of the year, in some countries, in some portions of countries. I don’t pretend to have any answers, nor do I accept Ehrlich’s views. I just wonder why we never even remember Africa …


  2. philebersole Says:

    Hi, Anne: –

    You make a good point about not forgetting Africa, which it is easy to do.

    Obviously Africa has a lot of problems, of which I have no expertise and no first-hand knowledge. But I don’t think they can be written off as being due to (1) too many Africans or (2) something intrinsic in Africans that dooms them to perpetual misery and failure. I know these are not your views, but they are silent assumptions that underlie much commentary on Africa.

    I have met a number of very smart, very enterprising immigrants from Africa over the course of my career, as I know you have. I can’t imagine such people being held down forever.

    The Nation ran an article in its June 21 issue about a study indicating that overall conditions in Africa are actually getting better (or at least less bad). Here is a link to that article.

    One anecdote in the article is about a Westerner whose car broke down in the boondocks of Uganda. A roadside vendor offered him (1) the use of her cell phone, for a price, and (2) a cold Coca-Cola from her private refrigerator. I don’t think that “backward” Africans are destined to stay backward, any more than “backward” Chinese or subcontinental Indians were.


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