Whatever Happened to the “Population Bomb”?

That’s the question the New York Times asks in its latest “Retro Report,” a series that looks back and updates prominent stories from the past.  “The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion” is fairly devastating to the leading figure of that famous apocalypse, Paul Ehrlich, author of the monster best-selling book The Population Bomb:

No one was more influential — or more terrifying, some would say — than Paul R. Ehrlich, a Stanford University biologist. His 1968 book, “The Population Bomb,” sold in the millions with a jeremiad that humankind stood on the brink of apocalypse because there were simply too many of us. Dr. Ehrlich’s opening statement was the verbal equivalent of a punch to the gut: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” He later went on to forecast that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s, that 65 million of them would be Americans, that crowded India was essentially doomed, that odds were fair “England will not exist in the year 2000.” Dr. Ehrlich was so sure of himself that he warned in 1970 that “sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come.” By “the end,” he meant “an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.”

As you may have noticed, England is still with us. So is India. Hundreds of millions did not die of starvation in the ’70s. Humanity has managed to hang on, even though the planet’s population now exceeds seven billion, double what it was when “The Population Bomb” became a best-seller and its author a frequent guest of Johnny Carson’s on “The Tonight Show.” . . After the passage of 47 years, Dr. Ehrlich offers little in the way of a mea culpa.

The story goes on to give a strong shout out to the late Julian Simon, though the story omits to recount Simon’s famous bet with Ehrlich that Simon won (told well in a recent book, The Bet, by Yale historian Paul Sabin).* The story also covers the view that the real population problem in the second half of this century will be too few people because of plummeting birthrates.

The Times also produced the 12-minute video below, which is worth taking in—especially the bit where Stewart Brand (whom I’ve met a few times and who is one of the co-authors of the recent Eco-Modernist Manifesto) says that after a while when doomsday doesn’t come you have to begin wondering whether the underlying theory is simply wrong.

Another gem of this video is the clip of President Nixon jumping on the population bomb bandwagon. Fun footnote to this: At the urging of the Rockefeller clan, Nixon established a special commission on population growth, with an eye to proposing a population control policy for the U.S.  But at one early meeting, someone made the obvious point that any policy that targeted the birthrate would disproportionately affect blacks and other minorities who had the highest birthrates in the U.S. The commission was never heard from again.

Prediction: In about 20 years or so, the Retro Report will be doing a big story on “The Unrealized Horrors of Climate Change.” (That’s if the New York Times is still around in 20 years. Heh.)

* P.S. Oh, why not? Here’s a copy of the check Ehrlich sent to Julian Simon, without any note, to settle their bet in 1990 (I got a copy from Julian a long time ago):

Ehrlich check