A long fuse: 'The Population Bomb' is still ticking 50 years after its publication
Posted by admin on 10th July 2018
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“The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” Stanford biologist and ecologist Paul Erhlich declared on the first page of his 1968 best-seller, “The Population Bomb.” Because the “stork had passed the plow,” he predicted, “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.”

Ehrlich’s book identified dramatically accelerating world population growth as the central underlying cause of myriad problems, from a food crisis in India to the Vietnam War to smog and urban riots in the United States. It sold more than 2 million copies and went through 20 reprints by 1971. Ehrlich appeared more than 20 times on NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson”, and became the first president of Zero Population Growth, a Washington D.C.–based advocacy organization, while remaining a professor at Stanford.

“The Population Bomb” created more space to hold radical views on population matters, but its impact was fleeting, and maybe even harmful to the population movement. By the early 1970s, many critics were savaging Ehrlich and the larger goal of achieving zero population growth. And the politics of “morning in America” in the 1980s successfully marginalized Erhlich as a doomsdayer.

However, as a historian who has studied debates about population growth throughout U.S. history, I believe that Ehrlich’s warnings deserve a new and less hysterical hearing. While Ehrlich has acknowledged significant errors, he was correct that lowering birth rates was – and remains – a crucial plank in addressing global environmental crises.

Paul Ehrlich in 2010.
Paul R. Ehrlich, CC BY

A Malthusian warning

Ehrlich drew on nearly 200 years of thinking inspired by British pastor and political economist Robert Thomas Malthus. In his 1798 study, “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” Malthus famously predicted that “geometric” population growth would overwhelm “arithmetic” gains in agricultural production, leading to wars, famines and societal collapse.

Fears of the potentially dangerous social and ecological effects of population growth intensified after World War II. Global population surged as public health improved greatly in developing nations, increasing life expectancy. At the same time, the new science of ecology demonstrated the fragility of Earth’s interconnected systems. And the Cold War promoted worries that population-induced poverty would breed communism.

Mainstream advocates of arresting population growth emphasized better access to family planning and education, but Ehrlich had no use for such baby steps. “Well-spaced children will starve, vaporize in thermonuclear war, or die of plague just as well as unplanned children,” he wrote.

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