Why I am not a population bomber

In 1968 I read a book entitled The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich which began as follows:

The_Population_BombThe 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…

via Wikipedia.

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.

UN world population forecasts

UN world population forecasts

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.

A forecast not a fact

Another forecast – a possibility, not a fact

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.

time.populationexplosion0022When I was in high school, I read a book entitled Road to Survival (1948) by William Vogt [1].   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) [1].  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 [1], 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.

[1]  I no longer have a copy of this book and am quoting from memory.

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8 Responses to “Why I am not a population bomber”

  1. Hank Stone Says:


    Good people can disagree on this, but I for one AM a population bomber.

    For sure Ehrlich, like Malthus, blew his predictions big time, and set bomberhood way back.

    Still, anyone who thinks climate change is real and is caused in part by human activity, will see the population connection.

    One key thing about the demographic transition is that though as wealth and education of women go up, fertility goes down, but the carbon footprint goes up. Once a child is born, it seems impossible to argue that we rich people can live heavily on the land, but you formerly poor have to STAY poor.

    ALL the population groups I support call for non-coercive and non-punitive ways to reduce fertility. Everyone seems to like educating women, giving them career paths besides motherhood, and human rights. No one in the bomber business talks about (or secretly yearns for) “culling the herd.”

    If maximizing the number of “souls” were the objective, we should start by all becoming vegans, because for the same amount of arable land, you can feed a whole lot more people with a plant-based diet than plants-plus-meat. But by that criterion, we should be raising fertilized human eggs in vats, to get the largest numbers of souls. When they die, being innocents, they go straight to heaven.

    I would rather see intentional fertility, loved children, wilderness protected, the human future protected, the climate protected, and world population intentionally kept in balance with non-coercive incentives and disincentives.

    Let our descendants millions of years in the future honor us for giving them a chance to be born, and have a good life!


    Hank Stone


    • philebersole Says:


      I agree with you more than I disagree.

      I applaud humanitarian aid workers in Africa and other countries who disseminate information about birth control, and I deplore efforts by the George W. Bush administration and others to prevent this from being done.

      But if demographic transition theory is correct, and the evidence suggests that it is, then this is not going to be effective unless contraception is part of a package that includes access to clean water, a good diet, modern medicine, education and rights for women.

      Concern about the carbon footprint should be directed at people like you and me, not poor people in rural Africa.

      Here’s a link to information on what nations have the largest carbon footprint.


      Here’s a link to a follow-up article on overpopulation and the demographic transition.



      Phil Ebersole


      • Hank Stone Says:


        My point on carbon footprint is that in the fullness of time, there is no honorable way to tell children born in poor countries not to aspire to “the good life,” including the practices of first world people. I agree that we relatively rich represent the big consumption problem, for now.

        Zero population growth is NOT ENOUGH in a world overrun with human beings (and our exploitative ways). People who think deeply about this stuff believe that at a European resource consumption rate (half that of the US), the world can sustainably support between 1 and 2 billion people. It’s possible to imagine an all-renewable-energy-and-resource-sipping way of life that could support more humans sustainably, but I’d like to see that restraint demonstrated FIRST, before crowding the world further with humans.

        It all comes together if we think about what a sustainable long-term human future might look like. If instead we talk only about what’s practical in THIS moment, we find it’s “unrealistic” to try to prevent climate change, stop wars, alleviate poverty, or have honest government.



      • philebersole Says:


        On second thought, I guess I disagree with you more than I agree with you.

        My dream for the world is a world in which every human being has the means to sustain life, the possibility of enjoying the benefits of culture and community and freedom from tyranny and oppression.

        I don’t think this is impossible. You don’t have to live at an American or Europeab level of resource consumption to have these things.

        What you say implies that the world’s richest people should abandon the rest of the world to starvation and disease because we have determined in our wisdom that there are too many of them.

        “Let them eat condoms?”

        If the world really does have more people than it can support, then the culling of the herd should begin with the people who deplete the world’s resources the fastest—namely, people like you and me.


      • Hank Stone Says:

        Your idea of “culling the herd” seems to me completely unhelpful. The whole point of non-coercive incentives and disincentives around fertility is to AVOID culling.


      • philebersole Says:


        Maybe I misinterpret what you’re saying. If so, please set me straight.

        I argue against the people I call “population bombers” who say the world is so hopelessly overpopulated that we in the rich nations might as well let the people in the poor nations die of starvation and disease.

        My argument is that experience has shown that population increase levels off when people are offered hope for a better life, they stop thinking they need to have as many children as possible.

        What you say, as I understand it, is that we in the rich nations should offer people in the poor nations contraception, but nothing else because raising their material standard of living would mean a larger carbon footprint (contributing to global warming) and greater use of the world’s non-renewable resources.

        You write about “crowding the world with more humans” as if that were something that you and I have any control over. The only thing you and I get to decide is our attitude toward the people who are already in the world.

        We as citizens of rich nations contribute much more than our share of greenhouse gas emissions and burn up much more than our share of non-renewable resources.

        We don’t have any moral standing to tell people in poor nations that they must endure hunger and disease because we think there are too many of them.

        I don’t really believe this is what you want, but I do think you haven’t thought out the implications of what you say.


        Phil Ebersole


      • Hank Stone Says:

        I took “population bombers” to refer to people who believe the world’s population is exploding like a bomb, with devastating effects coming. I believe that’s our situation. No culling involved, except as performed by Mother Nature, who can be a bitch!

        My mother, a Quaker, thought the Pope was “the most evil man alive” for promoting fertility with no consideration of poverty, disease, famine, and death that might result.

        “We” who can potentially be heard far and wide (through blogs, for example) have some responsibility for the STORIES on world subjects that we tell. We may potentially affect the views of others, for example, on war and peace, corporate government, climate change, and population.



      • philebersole Says:

        The story that I once believed, but now reject, is the story of the checkerboard, on which the sultan agreed to place twice as many grains of white as on the preceding square.

        Or the pond in which there are twice as many lilypads each day as there were the day before.

        These stories lead us to believe that human population is increasing at an exponential rate, and that this constitutes a dire emergency.

        The fact is that population is not exploding like a bomb. The birth rate is below replacement rate in much of the world, and the birth rate is falling in most of the world.


        Population growth is an important long-range problem, but it is not a dire emergency that requires setting aside all considerations of justice and humanity.

        That is the logical conclusion of the population bomb story, although I believe you are too decent a human being to follow the story to this conclusion—no more than I was when I believed the story.

        I agree with you, as I have said, on offering people the knowledge and the means of birth control, but I don’t think many people will be receptive to this unless it is part of a transition to a better life.

        The story I would like to substitute is the story of a world in which everyone has the necessities of a decent life (not necessarily the American consumer society), women have control over reproduction, and parents don’t think they have to have as many children as possible to have a secure old age.


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