Mouldy Old Books (1)

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.

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33 Responses to Mouldy Old Books (1)

  1. daddy dave says:

    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.

    The Population Bomb is a case study in the danger of linear extrapolation from short run trends. However, this is a powerful heuristic that people keep doing time and time again.
    One could argue that AGW, the rise of China, the decline of America, and the continued prosperity of the Australian property market are all examples of the same fallacy.

  2. ken n says:

    That’s part of it, dd, but reading the book now I don’t think I’d even credit Ehrlich with falling into that trap.
    I believe he set out to write a scare book and did not bother too much with the subtleties of evidence. It’s propaganda, not scientific exploration.

  3. Fleeced says:

    His work with Sagan on nuclear winters was also pretty baseless – and just another scare campaign. There’s an interesting article by Chricton on that issue.

  4. daddy dave says:

    did not bother too much with the subtleties of evidence.

    That’s what I don’t understand. Does he simply believe these apocalyptic scenarios as a sort of intuitive, faith-based thing?
    Perhaps it’s possible to be so convinced of something that you don’t need evidence.

  5. The Population Bomb is a case study in the danger of linear extrapolation from short run trends. However, this is a powerful heuristic that people keep doing time and time again.

    Especially climate skeptics. They are the real experts at cherry picking short term falls or flattening in temperature (or sea level) when the longer graphs show the true long trend.

    That you don’t see that is remarkable.

  6. PSC says:

    Perhaps it’s possible to be so convinced of something that you don’t need evidence.

    c.f. Austrian Economics

  7. C.L. says:

    They are the real experts at cherry picking…

    One thinks, for example, of Al Gore’s and Bob Brown’s comments on the Queensland floods.

  8. Gab says:

    That you don’t see that is remarkable

    Yeah, like dumped raw data. Remarkable.

  9. Ev630 says:

    Exactly my thoughts, CL.

  10. ken n says:

    “That’s what I don’t understand. Does he simply believe these apocalyptic scenarios as a sort of intuitive, faith-based thing?”

    As I see it, he was writing a book to sell and also establishing a new career. E was an entomologist and his field was butterflies. Remember the times – the late 60s revolution and fear stalked the streets. The Club of Rome had been set up and Limits to Growth was written a few years later.
    There was a good market for this kind of thing.
    As there was during the late 90s for Y2K frighteners.

  11. hc says:

    I think “The Population Bomb” was essentially a continuation of thinking that began a long time before Malthus. Is suggests resource constraints limit the sorts of gains you get from specialisation and from technological progress.

    Its been a fashionable view throughout history but one that often gives way to the equally extreme free market ethos that fixed factors such as land have more value to their owners when population is bigger.

    One view suggests population increase is a disaster ther other than it creates prosperity for asset owners so, if those being added to the population don’t seek to suicide, the world is a better place.

    A twist is the mercantilist theory that increased population signifies a more successful society.

    Each of these views gains ascendency over the other from decade to decade and of course in blog posting from week to week.

  12. . says:

    “Its been a fashionable view throughout history but one that often gives way to the equally extreme free market ethos that fixed factors such as land have more value to their owners when population is bigger.”

    Doesn’t it, if the others are held constant?

  13. ken n says:

    More interesting is what happens when population declines.
    All forecasts show world population topping out around 2050. The forecasts then stop or assume flattening due to a return to replacement level fertility rates.
    But this is most likely wrong. What will make people have more kids after family sizes have been dropping for 50 or 60 years?
    Japan’s fertility rate has been dropping for 40 years and is now around 1.37. A Japanese friend of mine calculated when the last Japanese will die, at this rate.
    So it is difficult to see a scenario under which world population does anything but drop.
    For a while, there is a demographic dividend from that, as the dependency ratio improves but then it becomes a penalty. Japan is entering that zone now.
    So if you wanted to write a population doomsday book now, it world be about a world with declining population.

  14. John H. says:

    Ken,

    There was a recent survey, done since the 60’s, which claimed that Japanese young adults are losing interest in sex! Weird.

  15. daddy dave says:

    More interesting is what happens when population declines.

    That is a very interesting question indeed.

  16. hc says:

    Keynes himself said that declines in population growth by reducing investment in housing investment caused the business cycle. Some now define the business cycle as the housing cycle which can be linked to trends in population.

  17. Ken n says:

    Hard to see hc. Population trends do not change frequently.

  18. Jc says:

    I don’t think the welfare state can with stand a sustained fall in the population while the lifespans rise.

    Europe ex Ireland and Japan are good examples. Japan will implode at some stage and Europe is too.

    social welfare takes sucks money away from investment directing it to consumption. The worst effects are disguised when the population is growing. This obviously has an effect on productivity which would be the only thing that could save a welfare state.

    The dymanics turn viciously and you invaribly end up with a load of debt and default.

  19. hc says:

    Ken, they do when immigration policies change. After WW1 restrictions were imposed and, yes, the Great Depression occurred in 1930s. The economic historian Brinley Thomas analyzed these factors for Atlantic economy.

    Housing investment is a huge part of total investment.

    An interesting effect will arise in China when the one child family policy bites and population actually starts to fall with a much older population. My guess is a huge medium term deflationary effect from an excess housing stock.

  20. Ken n says:

    Ah OK hc. Yes, I’m not sure how close China is to pop decline. I’ll try to look it up. Twill be interesting to watch.

  21. Jc says:

    Scott Sumner has an interesting take on his blog. He thinks Brad De Long is suggesting the US has had a housing shortage could be fair dinkum and open to this theory. He argues that people there are just bunched up in housing.

    This is one area where De Short’s thesis ought to be investigated as it’s not politcized and therefore may (operative word) have merit.

  22. Peter Patton says:

    I’d wager that the one child policy will be abandoned pretty soon. The risk of a brain drain is too great.

  23. Jc says:

    Too late for this century. China is fucked mid century, if not sooner. They’re goners.

    Anyone who this this century doesn’t belong to the US is dreaming. By 2100 they will have a population of 500 very rich people.

    IF we play our cards right we could be the richest nation on earth by 2100. That of course means very limited labor governments like this one being elected for short periods so they do very little damage.

  24. Ken n says:

    Yes I think JC is right about China. Too late to drop one-child before it causes serious damage.
    I find Japan the most interesting. I know it fairly well (as a gaijin) and it is at the bleeding edge of the population decline. The Japan pop has been declining for some years now. And as life expectancy is increasing, the dependency ratio is trending real bad.
    But I can’t see much immigration.

  25. Michael Fisk says:

    IF we play our cards right we could be the richest nation on earth by 2100. That of course means very limited labor governments like this one being elected for short periods so they do very little damage.

    Labor will destroy this country before that ever comes to pass. Only an accelerated program of IQ-raising and public-sector culling will give us a fighting chance.

  26. daddy dave says:

    From what I understand about Japan, the big problem (in terms of turning it around) is that the people don’t think they have a problem.

  27. Peter Patton says:

    I think Australia is the only country in the world whose immigrant population outperforms the locals academically. That can only improve our relative position. Thank you John Howard.

  28. Ev630 says:

    Only an accelerated program of IQ-raising and public-sector culling will give us a fighting chance.

    And if that doesn’t work, strong men and young women who can bear children must board the generation starship to planet Catallaxy, right?

  29. ken n says:

    dd – Japan does recognise it has a problem. There have been government reports and all.
    But without coercion people ain’t going to co-operate.
    And there is almost no support for immigration. There is an expression “ware ware nihonjin” – “we japanese..” that is the start and end of such discussions.

  30. . says:

    Demographics play a part but they are bigger than housing. The role they have on credit markets is bigger and more important.

    Japan simply cannot save. How do you force an ageing population to save?

  31. Ken Nielsen says:

    Yes, the big drop in the Japanese savings rate – which was always attributed to culture – is hard to explain.
    It happened so suddenly that more than an aging population must be involved. With deflation or threat thereof, you would expect savings to increase.

  32. Ken Nielsen says:

    Though I have spent more time in Japan than China, I felt that I came closer to understanding the Chinese than the Japanese.
    By “understand” I mean they are less likely to surprise.

  33. Jacques Chester says:

    At least Limits to Growth had a reproducible model backing it up. One that could be sensibly critiqued and analysed.

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