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.