You are here

The Real Population Bomb

Op-Eds & Articles


The Real Population Bomb

Milloy column on

It's been 40 years since Stanford University population biologist
Paul Ehrlich warned of imminent global catastrophe in his book "The
Population Bomb." As it turns out, the book was aptly, though
ironically, named.

Ehrlich predicted that, "In the 1970's, the world will undergo
famines hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.

"At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate …”

Forty years later, no such mass starvation has come to pass. While
there have been tragic famines resulting in millions of deaths since
1968, none occurred because global food production failed to keep pace
with population growth the core of Ehrlich’s hypothesis. Per capita
global food production has, instead, increased by 26.5 percent between
1968 and 2005, according to the World Resources Institute. The number
of people who starve to death daily declined from 41,000 in 1977 to
24,000 today, according to The Hunger Project, an organization
combating global hunger.

The roots of recent hunger generally lie in a combination of
transient localized crop failures, political instability, and
ill-conceived government policies. The U.N. attributes the current
world food “crisis,” for example, to recent reduced harvests and crop
failures in Europe and Australia, respectively; rapidly growing demand
for subsidized grain-based biofuels; and lower surplus crop inventories
due to reduced subsidies.

Ehrlich also fretted in "The Population Bomb" that we were depleting
the world oxygen supply by paving terrestrial areas, burning fossil
fuels and clearing tropical forests. Green party campaigner Peter
Tatchell recently reasserted this claim in the U.K. newspaper, The
Guardian. “Compared to prehistoric times, the level of oxygen in the
earth’s atmosphere has declined by over a third and in polluted cities
the decline may be more than 50 percent,” Tatchell wrote.

But as physicist Luboš Motl points out in his blog, the oxygen scare
is nonsense. Atmospheric oxygen has been at 20.94 percent or 20.95
percent for thousands of years, amounting to about 150,000 tons of
oxygen per capita. Motl estimates that, at most, any atmospheric oxygen
drop due to the combustion of fossil fuels might — at most — be 0.02
percent, a loss that could easily be offset by natural oxygen-producing

Ehrlich also warned in "The Population Bomb" that manmade emissions
of carbon dioxide would cause catastrophic global warming. He suggested
that a few degrees of heating could melt the polar ice caps and raise
sea level by 250 feet, even out fear-mongering Al ’20-foot tidal wave’
Gore on his best worst day.

“Gondola to the Empire State Building, anyone?” Ehrlich asked.

But average sea level rise between 1961 and 2003 was only about
0.007 inches per year, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change and no one can offer more than mere speculation as to
the cause of that barely noticeable increase.

Ehrlich’s proposal to avert global catastrophe was to limit or stop
population growth. The most efficient way of doing this, he suggested,
was for the government to add chemicals to the water or to food to
temporarily sterilize people.

“Those of you who are appalled at such a suggestion can rest easy,”
he wrote, “the option isn’t even open to us, thanks to the criminal
inadequacy of biomedical research in this area.”

So, instead, he proposed a Department of Population and Environment to implement population control laws.

Ehrlich’s goal was to maintain world population at “one or even two
billion,” which he suggested “could be sustained in reasonable comfort
for 1,000 years if resources were husbanded carefully.” He did
acknowledge that we might “still have a chance” if the population
stabilizes at four or five billion, but “of course, mankind’s options
will be fewer and people’s lives almost certainly less pleasant than if
the lower figure is attained.”

But world population in 1968 exceeded 3.5 billion already way over
Ehrlich’s goal. Today, world population exceeds 6.6 billion almost
double what it was in 1968 and past the point of even having a “chance”
of survival, according to Ehrlich.

Have we run out of food? Has population become unsustainable?
According to U.N. statistics, the number of people in the developing
world who were considered to be undernourished in 1968 was estimated at
about 900 million. That estimate is on track to be reduced by more than
50 percent by 2015, according to the U.N. So while world population has
just about doubled, global hunger will just about have been cut in
half. Tremendous worldwide economic growth and technological advances
ignored or not foreseen by Ehrlich have made this achievement possible.

Given how Ehrlich’s predictions turned out, you might think that he
vanished into the dustbin of Chicken Little history or at least revised
his ideas, right?

Wrong. The Stanford professor is a member of the prestigious
National Academy of Sciences and has been honored by the United
Nations, MacArthur Foundation, Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund,
Ecological Society of America and the American Institute of Biological
Sciences to name a few. Worse, he’s still at it.

In 1968, Ehrlich helped form the group Zero Population Growth (ZPG),
which was euphemistically renamed “Population Connection” in 2002. In
the 40th anniversary issue of the official publication of Population
Connection, Ehrlich warns that “ZPG’s 1968 message that [global
population] must stop growing is now more urgent than ever.”

“Each additional person in the population puts disproportionate
stress on our life support systems … And Americans have the heaviest
resource and environmental ‘footprints’ of all,” he claims.

Contrary to Ehrlich-think, however, more people have been a boom,
not a bomb. They’ve led to an economic boom rather than a bust. In any
event, who should decide who is to be born free-willed individuals or
Ehrlich’s population police?

Steven Milloy publishes and He
is a junk science expert, and advocate of free enterprise and an
adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.