“Pop” goes the “Population Bomb”

Feb. 28, 2011

Forty years ago I was teaching high school science in Wisconsin (I am getting really shamefully old). When it came to most big science and society issues I taught the conventional wisdom. My students learned, for instance, that overpopulation was without question the most serious problem the world faced.

In those days my wife and I would sometimes watch Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show after getting the kids to bed. One of the more frequent guests was the biologist Paul Ehrlich. He was one of the most famous gurus of the day, basking in the popularity of his recent best-selling book in 1968, The Population Bomb. His first sentence set the stage and the tone. “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.”

He went on to claim that India was a basket case. It could never feed its growing population. Starvation was the only answer. There was nothing we could do, except triage‑—watch them die. In one of the later chapters he speculated that if we want to avoid that fate in this country, one solution might be “compulsory birth regulation … (through) the addition of temporary sterilants to water supplies or staple food. Doses of the antidote would be carefully rationed by the government to produce the desired family size.”

In 1973 Ehrlich doubled down on his predictions, in an article in Progressive Magazine, predicting that 65 million people would die of starvation in the United States by 1990. His math was close. As it turned out, about 65 million people in the U.S. were on diets by then.

Ehrlich was not alone. The late David Brower, the Sierra Club’s first executive director, said that childbearing should be a “punishable crime against society.” Prince Philip, past president of the World Wildlife Fund, said, “If I were to be reincarnated, I would wish to be returned to the earth as a killer virus, to lower human population levels.” John Holdren, present science advisor to President Obama, suggested reducing population by “compulsory population-control laws, even including laws requiring compulsory abortion.”

On a related issue, Ehrlich also predicted on the first Earth Day in 1970, that, “In ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish.”

In other words the conventional wisdom was that the “overwhelming majority of scientists” saw overpopulation as an “unimaginable catastrophe” for the human species (and the rest of the living world as well).

Ehrlich (by training an entomologist, not a population studies expert) and his friend, John Holdren (Obama’s science czar today, whose specialty is plasma physics and aeronautics, not ecology), invented a special equation in honor of that first Earth Day.

Their equation was simple. I = PAT. “I” stood for environmental impact. “P” for Population. “A” for Affluence and “T” for Technology. In other words as people get more numerous, get wealthier and use more technology, the earth suffers. We should strive to have fewer people, less affluence and less technology. That would seem to me to be a call for less prosperity and more poverty.

Their alarm (and sad to say, my teaching in those days) had consequences. One of my former students on her wedding day told me that she did not plan to have any children. I politely asked why not? She said, “Oh gee, the world is so full of people and pollution, I don’t see why I should add to the mess.”

Today most experts in population studies have changed their mind. The population bomb has gone “pop” and, if anything, we have the opposite problem, too many elders and not enough youngsters. In developing countries populations are still growing but the rate of growth has drastically slowed and the confident expectation is that once they reach a decent living standard, the rate will decrease still further as it has done in all industrialized countries.

In Europe, Japan and North America the problem is too many old people and not enough young workers. In many ways that is the harsh demographic reality giving fits to some of our current problems.

Protests in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana are prime examples. Sounds great to retire in your fifties with a generous pension and wonderful health care. But it also means more young people will have to work that much harder (or more efficiently) to support you for the next thirty to forty years. Demonstrations against raising the retirement age, some of them violent, in the UK, France and Germany are ongoing.

As I have emphasized before, resources and wealth are not like a large pie where if one gets more, others will have to make do with less. In a win-win free-market economy, all can be winners—all can gain wealth. But not without working for it. And not all at once. Children, the disabled, retirees can all be supported in our affluent society, but not always at the level they want. The present protests remind me of a Lincoln story.

After hearing he had won the election to be president of the United States, he walked to his Springfield home, trying to keep peace between his two boys, Willie and Tad. His neighbor heard what she later described as a “terrible row.” She put her head out the window and shouted, “Why, Mr. Lincoln, whatever is the matter?” Lincoln answered, “Just what’s the matter with the world, Mrs. Browning, I’ve got three walnuts, and they both want two.”

Today, of course, the major “world worry” of the same “overwhelming majority of scientists” has shifted from overpopulation to the possibility of catastrophic climate change. I admit the problems are different. But not that much different. Back in the 1970s you would have had a hard time finding “scientists” (or literate citizens) who would disagree with Ehrlich, Holdren, Brower or Prince Philip. Today the common belief is that “the overwhelming majority of scientists” think that global warming is on the way and that, like the population bomb, it will be unimaginably catastrophic.

I have my doubts. So do a respectable number of climatologists, meteorologists and Nobel Prize winning scientists. I haven’t checked the numbers out, but I am willing to bet a higher percentage of “scientists” today are skeptical about global warming, than “scientists” in the 1970s were skeptical about population bombs. Polls show that a majority of literate citizens are indeed more skeptical today about global warming than they were in my day about overpopulation.

What bothers me is that too many young people today will listen to the conventional wisdom, just as my students listened to me. Ideas have consequences, and they are often not what you expect.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. For more detail see our newest program, Resources, Populations and Climate Change. You can find it on www.hawkhill.com or on amazon.com.

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