In 1968 I read a book entitled The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich which began as follows:
The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s 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…
Ehrlich argued that the world’s fundamental problem was that there were too many people in the world, and that the only solution was by means of birth control if possible, but not by relief of poverty or increase of food supply.
At the time he wrote, there were 3.5 billion people in the world. Now there are 7.2 billion, but there is less hunger and starvation in the world than there is today.
Nowadays Ehrlich admits he exaggerated for dramatic effect, but he says it was for a good purpose, which was to alert people to the danger of overpopulation.
I don’t agree it served a good purpose. I think Ehrlich put obstacles in the way of people such as Norman Borlaug who sought to increase food production and relieve famine. What good was it, people asked, if it results in more people being born who eventually would starve to death anyway?
Mathusianism has long been used as an excuse to let people starve. The British government used this excuse for failing to relieve famine in Ireland in the 1840s and in India in the 1940s. It is still used as an excuse for failing to relieve famine in Africa.
The great economist, Amartya Sen, has pointed out that there never has been a famine in a democracy, because in a democracy, public opinion will not permit allowing a large percentage of the population to starve.
In modern times, the problem has never been that there was not enough food to go around, he wrote. The problem was people who were too poor to buy the food that was available.
Yet Ehrlich’s ideas still have wider circulation than Sen’s, at least among people I hang out with. I still hear people say, when we’re talking about some social problem, that the basic underlying problem is that there are too many people in the world.
And sometimes this is followed—and this makes my blood run cold—by the remark, “We’ve got to thin the herd.”
The best thing I can say for people who talk like this is that they don’t realize the genocidal implications of what they’re saying.
I agree that at some point the world’s population may become greater than the world can support. Or that there may be some breakdown in civilization that causes massive famine.
I agree that the world might be better off if there were only 3.5 billion people in the world. Or 720 million. Or 72 million.
But this seems to be a problem that is in the process of being solved. The birth rate in many nations, including most of North America, Europe, Russia, China and Japan, is below the replacement rate.
Demographers say this is because of what they call the “demographic transition.” It makes sense for poor people to have a lot of children, because that will ensure that some of them will live to maturity and to be able to take care of their parents in their old age.
When women are liberated, gain access to birth control and have a choice as to whether they become pregnant or not, and when they can be sure that most of their children will live to become adults, then it makes sense to have a few children who are well-educated and launched in successful careers.
What we have now in this period of transition is a population imbalance. The population of some parts of the world is growing faster than in some other parts. That means the population of India could become larger than the population of China, and the population of Africa could become larger than the population of Asia—which would mean a big change in the world balance of power.
This is a problem. It is not a problem whose solution requires millions of people to die.
I can’t criticize my population bomber friends too harshly because, for many years, I thought as they did. Like them, I engaged in a kind of benign double-think which prevented me from taking my ideas to their logical genocidal conclusion.
When I was in high school, I read a book entitled Road to Survival (1948) by William Vogt . He attributed the Second World War to overpopulation. Neither Germany nor Japan had enough land to feed their populations, and so they launched wars of aggression in a vain quest for living room. Unfortunately, he wrote, the problem remained.
He predicted that neither Europe nor Asia would recover from the devastation of the war, and said it would be better if the grain-surplus nations – chiefly the USA, Canada, Australia and Argentina – refrained from trying to feed the hungry, because it would only result in more people surviving to reproduce leading to more starvation later on.
When I was in college, I read what I think is the best of the population-bomb type books, The Challenge of Man’s Future (1954) by Harrison Brown. He did not predict imminent doom and, in fact, suggested ways in which food and energy resources could be increased. But eventually, he wrote, growth in population will exceed the world’s carrying capacity, and this will bring down industrial civilization—if global war doesn’t do the job first.
Brown’s great insight was that industrial civilization was made possible by easy-to-get metal ores and fossil fuels and, as time goes on, these resources become harder-and-harder to get. In fact, they become impossible to get without industrial technology. Therefore, if our industrial civilization collapses, there will never be another one, because the initial conditions no longer exist.
He saw three possible futures for humankind. The most likely was a collapse of industrial civilization and a reversion to conditions that existed in the ancient world. The most practical way to avoid collapse was a global totalitarian state that most people would find intolerable. Brown thought that a sustainable, human-scale society was in principle possible, but he didn’t see a path to it.
The next important book I read in this genre was Famine 1975! by William and Paul Paddock (1967) . These two brothers said flatly that mass starvation was inevitable. The United States should perform international triage, they said; it should give famine relief only to nations that were salvageable (such as Pakistan) and abandon those were doomed (such as India).
Paul Ehrlich wrote an enthusiastic introduction to the Paddocks’ book. His own book, The Population Bomb , came out the following year.
Then there was Garrett Hardin and Nature and Man’s Fate (1959), which I didn’t get around to reading until the 1970s. Hardin likened the situation of people in rich and poor countries to people in a lifeboat to people drowning in the ocean. It doesn’t make sense for people in the lifeboat to try to help the people who are drowning. he wrote; all that would happen is that the lifeboat would become overloaded and sink.
There was no mass starvation in the 1970s and 1980s, but there would have been if people had acted on the advice of the Paddocks, Ehrlich and Hardin.
Again, I don’t deny that population increase is a long-range problem. I deny that it requires a murderous apocalypse as a solution.
I recommend Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom and the TED talks of Hans Rosling for a different perspective.
In “defense” of Paul Ehrlich by Razib Khan for the Unz Review. [added 6/5/2015]
The Unrealized Horrors of the Population Explosion by Clyde Haberman for the New York Times [added 6/5/2015]
William Vogt and Malthusian Conservation by Michael Barker for Swans Commentary.
Review of a ‘Mixed Signal’ – Harrison Brown’s Classic Text in Future Studies – The Challenge of Man’s Future by Dennis Morgan for Academia.edu.
The nation-killing famine that never was by Dan Gardner for Canada’s National Post.
The end is not near by Dan Gardner for the Otttawa Citizen.
Paul Ehrlich still prophesying doom and still wrong by Tom Chivers for Britain’s The Telegraph.
Deconstructing the Population Bomb by Pierre Derochers of the University of Toronto.
Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor by Garrett Hardin for Psychology Today (1974)
Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity by Gregg Easterbrook for The Atlantic. About Norman Borlaug.
Does Democracy Avert Famine? by Michael Massing in the New York Times. About Amartya Sen.
Let my dataset change your mindset by Hans Rosling in a TED talk.
New insights on poverty by Hans Rosling in a TED talk.
 I no longer have a copy of this book and am quoting from memory.