I am doing a book cull – liberating books that I am not likely to read again. I won’t call it a library, just several archive boxes of stuff that narrowly survived the last cull.
Trouble is, I spend time reading or at least glancing through books that I haven’t looked at in years. A bit like those old shoe boxes of family photos.
Yesterday I came across a yellowing paperback copy of Ehrlich’s Population Bomb. The Prologue opens with the chilling words “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death…”
The first chapter – The Problem – describes how Ehrlich came to understand it emotionally. He tells of a taxi ride in Delhi: the slums, the crowds, the smell, “people defecating and urinating”. The shock of a first visit to India is perfectly understandable, but is probably not a good basis for a book about a coming world crisis. Those who know India know that despite the chaos it works and in fact there was then and is now little starvation.
The book outlines three comic book scenarios: first, a thermonuclear war brought about because of the US’s use of a dangerous pesticide, second, a plague that kills 1.2 billion people and third a famine following the failure of the Green Revolution. The author summarises with “This last scenario has considerably more appeal, even though it presumes the death by starvation of as many as a billion people…” and he challenges the reader to create a scenario more optimistic than the last.
In discussing what is being done (not much) Ehrlich notes with approval that Japan has reduced its birth rate dramatically, largely through abortion. He does not say that the main reason for the high abortion rate was that the contraceptive pill was not available in Japan until 1999 and is still not greatly used. Abortions are very profitable to the medical profession, which has a lot of political power. Japan is now facing a pretty desperate situation with an ageing population, brought about by the low birth rate and a reluctance to allow immigration. I mention Japan because it shows how careless Ehrlich was with his facts and how poor his powers of foresight were.
The striking thing about the book is the almost complete lack of evidence for his doomsday predictions. He looks at population growth, and says it will continue at the same rate, and asserts that food production will not grow and the world will get more and more polluted. He throws around a few anecdotes – such as the one about his visit to Delhi – but that’s about all. There are 55 endnotes, citing sources such as Scientific American, Time, New York Times Magazine as well as books by other scare mongers and himself. Nothing resembling a peer reviewed paper or any other piece of scholarly research.
The final chapter is headed “What if I am wrong?”. Ehrlich notes this is highly unlikely and proposes an analogue to Pascal’s wager, which suggested that you should believe in God because if you were wrong no harm was done and if you are right you end up in heaven. So if, “after the famines”, the population stabilises at two billion and then it is decided that the world can support more, well, it’s easy enough to increase population again.
Before I re-read the book, I thought that it simply contained forecasts that turned out to be pessimistic and wrong. I now see what a poor and careless piece of work it was at the time. In just about any other field, someone writing stuff like this would fade from public sight when the predictions turned out to be nonsense. But Erhlich is still professor of population studies at Stanford and is still apparently being taken seriously. He says now the the Population Bomb was “way too optimistic”. He was on ABC Late Night Live some time ago.
Some say that Erhlich was right, he just got the timing wrong. The truth is that demographers (those who really study this stuff) don’t worry about overpopulation much these days. World population will top at around 2050 at about 9 billion (the UN estimate, which has always been on the high side) or around 8.5 billion (most demographers’ estimate). A lot of people, but within our power to feed. Demographers are more worried about ageing populations and skewed demographics in places like Japan. If you look look at conferences of bodies such as the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population, you will find no discussion of overpopulation. Even the UN Population Division, in the past one of the biggest worriers, is more interested in issues such as fertility, reproductive health, adoption and HIV/AIDS.
But if you want to do something about it, there is always the VHMET which suggests ” voluntary human extinction is unlikely, but it is the moral thing to do”. They even have T Shirts, bumperstickers and suggestions for tattoos.
Next up: Chris Gilbey – How to Survive the Y2K Crisis in Australia.