Been there, done that: never-ending doomsday predictions about overpopulation

countdownThere is no shortage of doom and gloom books that look at world demographic trends, but what is surprising is how many get the story wrong. While many countries are trying to figure out how to restore fiscal sanity following out-of-whack budgets that fund a welfare state predicated on population growth and having a critical mass of workers to pay for dependents (especially seniors), most books on population insist that there are too many people inhabiting the planet. Malthusianism is practically a cottage industry, began in the 1960s ecological (environmental) movements when some scientists convinced foundations, national governments, the United Nations, the media, and the public that there were too many people and that over-consumption would lead to overuse of the land, destruction of the environment, and ultimately famine that would wipe out hundreds of millions of people. Alas, the predictions were proven false.

The most famous failure of prognostication is Paul Ehrlich, the butterfly expert who wrote the 1968 bestselling The Population Bomb. He predicted famines within a decade due to overpopulation. He became an intellectual celebrity and he became wealthy claiming catastrophe was just around the corner, perhaps even wars over an ever-shrinking pie of natural resources.

Julian Simon was an economist at the University of Illinois and, while he began his career in the 1960s sharing Ehrlich’s pessimistic view of humanity’s future with uncontrolled population growth bumping up against the Earth’s capacity to supply mankind’s needs, he eventually changed his mind when he looked at the evidence. He found economic growth and population growth grew together and correctly surmised that wealthy societies found ways to cope, often through innovation. More people meant not only more mouths to feed, but “more hands to work and brains to think.”

He also discovered that the major driver of population growth was not too many babies being born but an increasing number of them surviving childhood and people living longer in general. These, he thought, were positives not negatives.

Famously, Simon offered Ehrlich a bet to determine who was correct. He said Ehrlich could pick any five commodities and if their inflation-adjusted prices increased over the next decade (which they would if population growth resulted in shortages of natural resources), Simon would pay Ehrlich the difference between $1000 worth of the resources picked in 1980 and their value in 1990; if they decreased, Ehrlich would owe Simon.

Simon won the bet, his faith in markets and humanity – the latter he described as the world’s greatest resource – rewarded and vindicated.

Yale University historian Paul Sabin has written a marvelous book about Ehrlich and Simon, The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future (Yale University Press, $31, 320 pages). This thin volume (227 pages before the copious footnotes) explains the background of the two men, the bet, and its ramifications, in a riveting story.The best detail is that Ehrlich sent a cheque to Simon for $576 – just the cheque, no note.

Sabin traces the intellectual development of the protagonists, describes the growing personal animosity (painting Simon as jealous of Erhlich’s fame and wealth), explains the details of the bet, and – where he is weakest – argues that the bet had a long-term deleterious effect on public debate on environmental issues in a way that makes it difficult to address the problems doomsayers predict.

For the most part, Sabin tries to be scrupulously fair even if at times he seems to side with Ehrlich. He correctly notes that given the vitality of commodity markets, and a different start and end date, it is possible that Simon could have lost the bet, but also shows how overall the long-term trend on commodity prices are downward.

Just because Ehrlich lost his bet and his views have been thoroughly rebuked by what has happened in the four decades since his predicted a catastrophic end for much of humanity, it does not mean that he and his ilk have been marginalized in debates about population and the environment. Despite losing the bet, Ehrlich went on to pen another bestseller, The Population Explosion. He maintained that while he was off with his previous predictions of a population-reducing famine, he was only wrong about the timeframe and that his theory was still fundamentally sound.

Indeed, those preaching the end is nigh environmentally seem to be as popular as ever, proving John Stuart Mill a prescient observer. Mill wrote in 1828, “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” Ehrlich fear-mongering is still taken seriously, as are the other nattering nabobs of negativism.

Another giant among the current doomsayers is journalist Alan Weisman (New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair). In 2007, his The World Without Us was a bestseller that imagined that nature would overcome everything man created in short order if humanity were eliminated by a calamity. In Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? (Little, Brown and Company, $31, 528 pages) Weisman takes the opposite approach, imagining the world if it were overrun by people, reaching Earth’s hypothetical capacity. Perhaps surprisingly, Weisman sees the same outcome: nature overtaking the planet following the inevitable famine and ecological disaster that population pessimists like the author are incessantly predicting. He says, “in the entire history of biology, every species that outgrows its resource base suffers a population crash – a crash sometimes fatal to the entire species.”

Weisman’s book has the whiff of science because he interviewed numerous experts from around the world, and reports their views and findings. Weisman asked them four questions: what is the planet’s population capacity, is there is a non-violent and acceptable way to get people to limit their family size below replacement level, what are the minimal ecosystem requirements to maintain human life (for example, water levels), and how to best design an economy for a shrinking population.

Most of those interviewed have trouble answering these mostly unanswerable questions because they are hypothetical and science can’t test the untestable hypotheses. This does not prevent Weisman from making some frightening conclusions.

Although Weisman appears moderate by supporting Iran’s post-Islamic revolution (1979) programs of educating women and funding birth control over, for example, China’s one-child policy that includes coerced abortion, he favourably quotes Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s advocacy of “compulsory control of family size.”

The dire future imagined by his experts and the recurring message of population control leads to the assumption the book’s purpose is less an honest exploration of the issues and more about calling for less human activity that impacts the planet’s supposedly fragile ecology and, more importantly, a call for fewer human beings. The overall message is that people must not procreate.

Similarly, Stephen Emmott, a computer scientist and author of Ten Billion (Penguin, $17, 224 pages) predicts doom when the Earth’s population hits 10 billion by 2050. He says in his book, “we urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don’t think we will.” In another sound-bite, Emmott proclaims “every which way you look at it, a planet of ten billion looks like a nightmare.”

The book is hardly a sustained argument or even a real book, resembling more a PowerPoint presentation of short, neo-Malthusian, fear-mongering sentences to accompany pictures of despair such overcrowded cities or overfilling landfills.

Contrary to the worries of Ehrlich, Weisman, and Emmott, population growth has slowed in almost every country, and fully half of all countries, including almost every western nation, have fertility rates well below replacement level. Many demographers think that the world population could decrease before or shortly after reaching 10 billion people. Predicting demographic trends can be difficult, with various United Nations organizations providing a wide array of estimates, which are constantly being updated (and often downgraded) because small shifts in the short term can have major long-term effects.

If Julian Simon was right – and history has proved him to be so far – humanity has the capacity to meet its most urgent and dire challenges. Ehrlich was wrong about widespread famine wiping out large swathes of humanity because he wrote his book at precisely the time Norman Borlaug’s agricultural revolution took off, feeding hundreds of millions of poor people in the developed world. There is every reason to think that another Borlaug is around the corner (or already working in a laboratory somewhere) developing solutions to tomorrow’s problems. The great irony is that if we follow the advice of the doomsayers and depend on birth control and abortion to solve the so-called population problem, we risk eliminating the problem-solvers of tomorrow today.

 Paul Tuns is editor of The Interim.


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