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The Book That Incited a Worldwide Fear of Overpopulation

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As 1968 began, Paul Ehrlich was an entomologist at Stanford University, known to his peers for his groundbreaking studies of the co-evolution of flowering plants and butterflies but almost unknown to the average person. That was about to change. In May, Ehrlich released a quickly written, cheaply bound paperback, The Population Bomb. Initially it was ignored. But over time Ehrlich’s tract would sell millions of copies and turn its author into a celebrity. It would become one of the most influential books of the 20th century—and one of the most heatedly attacked.

The first sentence set the tone: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” And humanity had lost. In the 1970s, the book promised, “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” No matter what people do, “nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”

Published at a time of tremendous conflict and social upheaval, Ehrlich’s book argued that many of the day’s most alarming events had a single, underlying cause: Too many people, packed into too-tight spaces, taking too much from the earth. Unless humanity cut down its numbers—soon—all of us would face “mass starvation” on “a dying planet.”

Ehrlich, now 85, told me recently that the book’s main contribution was to make population control “acceptable” as “a topic to debate.” But the book did far more than that. It gave a huge jolt to the nascent environmental movement and fueled an anti-population-growth crusade that led to human rights abuses around the world.

Born in 1932, Ehrlich was raised in a leafy New Jersey town. His childhood love of nature morphed into a fascination for collecting insects, especially butterflies. Something of a loner, as precocious as he was assertive, Ehrlich was publishing articles in local entomological journals in his teens. Even then he was dismayed by environmental degradation. The insecticide DDT was killing his beloved butterflies, and rapid suburban development was destroying their habitat.

When Ehrlich entered the University of Pennsylvania he befriended some upperclassmen who were impressed by his refusal to wear the freshman beanie, then a demeaning tradition. Not wanting to join a fraternity—another university custom—Ehr­lich rented a house with his friends. They passed around books of interest, including Road to Survival, by William Vogt. Published in 1948, it was an early warning of the dangers of overpopulation. We are subject to the same biological laws as any species, Vogt said. If a species exhausts its resources, it crashes. Homo sapiens is a species rapidly approaching that terrible fate. Together with his own observations, Vogt’s book shaped Ehrlich’s ideas about ecology and population studies.

Ehrlich got his PhD at the University of Kansas in 1957, writing his dissertation on “The Morphology, Phylogeny and Higher Classification of the Butterflies.” Soon he was hired by Stanford University’s biology department, and in his classes he presented his ideas about population and the environment. Students, attracted by his charisma, mentioned Ehrlich to their parents. He was invited to speak to alumni groups, which put him in front of larger audiences, and then on local radio shows. David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, asked him to write a book in a hurry, hoping—“naively,” Ehr­lich says—to influence the 1968 presidential election. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne, who would co-write many of his 40-plus books, produced the first draft of The Population Bomb in about three weeks, basing it on his lecture notes. Only his name was on the cover, Ehr­lich told me, because his publisher said “single-authored books gets much more attention than dual-authored books…and I was at the time stupid enough to go along with it.”

Though Brower thought the book was “a first-rate battle tract,” no major newspaper reviewed it for four months. The New York Times gave it a one-paragraph notice almost a year after its release. Yet Ehrlich promoted it relentlessly, promulgating his message at scores or even hundreds of events.

In February 1970, Ehrlich’s work finally paid off: He was invited onto NBC’s “Tonight Show.” Johnny Carson, the comedian-host, was leery of serious guests like university professors because he feared they would be pompous, dull and opaque. Ehrlich proved to be affable, witty and blunt. Thousands of letters poured in after his appearance, astonishing the network. The Population Bomb shot up the best-seller lists. Carson invited Ehrlich back in April, just before the first Earth Day. For more than an hour he spoke about population and ecology, about birth control and sterilization, to an audience of tens of millions. After that, Ehr­lich returned to the show many times.

Ehrlich said that he and Anne had “wanted to call the book Population, Resources, and Environment, because it’s not just population.” But their publisher and Brower thought this was too ponderous, and asked Hugh Moore, a businessman-activist who had written a pamphlet called “The Population Bomb,” if they could borrow his title. Ehrlich reluctantly agreed. “We hated the title,” he says now. It “hung me with being the population bomber.” Still, he acknowledges the title “worked,” in that it attracted attention.

The book received furious denunciations, many focused on Ehrlich’s seeming decision—emphasized by the title—to focus on human numbers as the cause of environmental problems, rather than total consumption. The sheer count of people, the critics said, matters much less than what people do. Population per se is not at the root of the world’s problems. The reason, Ehrlich’s detractors said, is that people are not fungible—the impact of one living one kind of life is completely different from that of another person living another kind of life.

Consider the opening scene of The Population Bomb. It describes a cab ride that Ehrlich and his family experienced in Delhi. In the “ancient taxi,” its seats “hopping with fleas,” the Ehr­lichs entered “a crowded slum area.”

The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrust their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. . . . [S]ince that night, I’ve known the feel of overpopulation.

The Ehrlichs took the cab ride in 1966. How many people lived in Delhi then? A bit more than 2.8 million, according to the United Nations. By comparison, the 1966 population of Paris was about 8 million. No matter how carefully one searches through archives, it is not easy to find expressions of alarm about how the Champs-Élysées was “alive with people.” Instead, Paris in 1966 was an emblem of elegance and sophistication.

Delhi was overcrowded, and would continue to grow. By 1975, the city had 4.4 million people—a 50 percent gain in a decade. Why? “Not births,” says Sunita Narain, head of the Centre for Science and Environment, a think tank in Delhi. Instead, she says, the overwhelming majority of the new people in Delhi then were migrants drawn from other parts of India by the promise of employment. The government was deliberately trying to shift people away from small farms into industry. Many of the new factories were located around Delhi. Because there were more migrants than jobs, parts of Delhi had become jam-packed and unpleasant, exactly as Ehrlich wrote. But the crowding that gave him “the feel of overpopulation” had little to do with an overall population increase—with a sheer rise in births—and everything to do with institutions and government planning. “If you want to understand Delhi’s growth,” Narain argues, “you should study economics and sociology, not ecology and population biology.”

Driving the criticism of The Population Bomb were its arresting, graphic descriptions of the potential consequences of overpopulation: famine, pollution, social and ecological collapse. Ehrlich says he saw these as “scenarios,” illustrations of possible outcomes, and he expresses frustration that they are instead “continually quoted as predictions”—as stark inevitabilities. If he had the ability to go back in time, he said, he would not put them in the book.

It is true that in the book Ehrlich exhorted readers to remember that his scenarios “are just possibilities, not predictions.” But it is also true that he slipped into the language of prediction occasionally in the book, and more often in other settings. “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born,” he promised in a 1969 magazine article. “Sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come,” Ehrlich told CBS News a year later. “And by ‘the end’ I mean an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.”

Such statements contributed to a wave of population alarm then sweeping the world. The International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Population Council, the World Bank, the United Nations Population Fund, the Hugh Moore-backed Association for Voluntary Sterilization and other organizations promoted and funded programs to reduce fertility in poor places. “The results were horrific,” says Betsy Hartmann, author of Reproductive Rights and Wrongs, a classic 1987 exposé of the anti-population crusade. Some population-control programs pressured women to use only certain officially mandated contraceptives. In Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan, health workers’ salaries were, in a system that invited abuse, dictated by the number of IUDs they inserted into women. In the Philippines, birth-control pills were literally pitched out of helicopters hovering over remote villages. Millions of people were sterilized, often coercively, sometimes illegally, frequently in unsafe conditions, in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

In the 1970s and ’80s, India, led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay, embraced policies that in many states required sterilization for men and women to obtain water, electricity, ration cards, medical care and pay raises. Teachers could expel students from school if their parents weren’t sterilized. More than eight million men and women were sterilized in 1975 alone. (“At long last,” World Bank head Robert McNamara remarked, “India is moving to effectively address its population problem.”) For its part, China adopted a “one-child” policy that led to huge numbers—possibly 100 million—of coerced abortions, often in poor conditions contributing to infection, sterility and even death. Millions of forced sterilizations occurred.

Feeding a hungry planet
(5w Infographics; Sources: World Peace Foundation, Tufts; Food and Agriculture Organization, U.N.)

Ehrlich does not see himself as responsible for such abuses. He strongly supported population-control measures like sterilization, and argued that the United States should pressure other governments to launch vasectomy campaigns, but he did not advocate for the programs’ brutality and discrimination.

Equally strongly, he disputes the criticism that none of his scenarios came true. Famines did occur in the 1970s, as Ehrlich had warned. India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, West and East Africa—all were wracked, horribly, by hunger in that decade. Nonetheless, there was no “great increase in the death rate” around the world. According to a widely accepted count by the British economist Stephen Devereux, starvation claimed four to five million lives during that decade—with most of the deaths due to warfare, rather than environmental exhaustion from overpopulation.

In fact, famine has not been increasing but has become rarer. When The Population Bomb appeared, according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, something like one out of four people in the world was hungry. Today the proportion of hungry is about one out of ten. Meanwhile, the world’s population has more than doubled. People are surviving because they learned how to do things differently. They developed and adopted new agricultural techniques—improved seeds, high-intensity fertilizers, drip irrigation.

To Ehrlich, today’s reduction in hunger is but a temporary reprieve—a lucky, generation-long break, but no indication of a better future. Population will fall, he says now, either when people choose to dramatically reduce birthrates or when there is a massive die-off because ecosystems can no longer support us. “The much more likely [outcome] is an increase in the death rate, I’m afraid.”

His viewpoint, once common, is now more of an outlier. In 20 years of reporting on agriculture, I’ve met many researchers who share Ehrlich’s worry about feeding the world without inflicting massive environmental damage. But I can’t recall one who thinks failure is guaranteed or even probable. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” Ehrlich warned. The researchers I’ve encountered believe the battle continues. And nothing, they say, proves that humanity couldn’t win.

Smithsonian Mag

24 Comments on "The Book That Incited a Worldwide Fear of Overpopulation"

  1. yellowcanoe on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 6:43 am 

    As long as we keep adding another 80 million people to this planet every year it is only a matter of time before we reach the state that Ehrlich predicted. It’s especially irritating to see someone criticize China’s one child rule – China now has a very healthy looking population pyramid and is well positioned to move forward.

  2. MASTERMIND on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 6:48 am 

    Here is Dr Ehrlich’s Peer Reviewed study done by the London Royal Society on collapse.

    The Royal Society: Study, Now for the First Time A Global Collapse Appears Likely (Ehrlich, 2013)

  3. MASTERMIND on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 6:49 am 

    It took humans around 200k years for their population to reach 1 billion. Now we are doing it ever 15 years…This is not sustainable!

  4. MASTERMIND on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 6:51 am 

    The last law of nature says: that any creature that despoils and out-breeds its natural habitat will be culled to bring its numbers under control and restore a stable environment.

  5. Davy on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 7:06 am 

    “China now has a very healthy looking population pyramid and is well positioned to move forward.”

    Nonsense, They are at limits of population and one need only look at their environmental destruction and social decline. Who cares about a healthy pyramid when the overpopulation is too high. Wealth transfer and inequality in China is among the worst in the world and on par with the US but with a much high population.

  6. MASTERMIND on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 7:31 am 

    My local weather man has a weather blog he writes on. And he is a far right winger who is a climate denier..And I talked to him several times through emails about climate, peak oil and overpopulation.. And he told me five years ago peak oil was a myth and supplies were meeting demands…So I sent him the wall street journal article about the IEA warning about oil shortages coming by 2020. ANd he has never emailed me back since.

  7. MASTERMIND on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 7:32 am 

    Democracy cannot survive overpopulation; Human dignity cannot survive overpopulation; Convenience and decency cannot survive overpopulation; As you put more and more people into the world, The value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies, The more people there are, the less one individual matters.

    -Isaac Asimov

  8. MASTERMIND on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 7:32 am 

    Studies of mice populations indicate that when faced with overpopulation, many catastrophic events occurred. Such as the mothers abandoned their young, the birth rate plunged, homosexuality, mass violence, cannibalism, and lack of maternal functions. Studies revealed as the mice population densities reached a tipping point. Once reached, the population began to suffer a “spiritual death” and went down a “behavioral sink”. (Calhoun, 1962)

  9. Davy on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 7:34 am 

    “Population The Elephant in the Room”

    “The Model. We will start by graphing the net birth rate over the period 2007 to 2082, incorporating a 0.015% annual decline: As you can see, the net birth rate declines to zero by 2082. Net Birth Rate Is it possible that this declining birth rate will get us closer to our sustainable population goal of one billion? The following graph shows our population growth with the effects of the declining net birth rate shown above: As you can see, my assumption about declining birth rates leads to a stable population, but it’s still 50% larger than today. In fact, this projection is remarkably similar to the one produced by the United Nations, which estimates a global population of 9.2 billion in 2050. The message of this graph is clear. If we need to reduce our population, simply adjusting the birth rate is insufficient. There will be excess deaths required to reach our target. The following graph shows the excess death rate rising and then falling as described above. I will reiterate that the origin of these excess deaths is not considered in the model. It is sufficient to understand that these are not the result of old age or the various “natural causes” we have come to accept as a part of our modern life. These deaths may be due to such things as rising infant mortality rates, shorter adult life expectancies, famine, pandemics, wars etc. Some of these deaths will be from human agency, but most will not. Applying the above excess death rate to our current population yields the following curve. As you can see, the number of excess deaths per year increases quite rapidly (consistent with the effects of overshoot) and then falls off as the population comes back into balance with the resources available. The peak rate of deaths comes much earlier than the peak in the percentage death rate shown in the above graph because the population starts to decline rapidly. A lower percentage death rate acts on a larger population to produce a higher numerical death rate. As the population declines so does the numerical death rate, even when the percentage rate still increasing. The final graph is the outcome of the full simulation. It starts from our current population and shows the combined effects of a declining net birth rate and the excess death rate due to falling carrying capacity as described above. The goal of the model has been met: it has achieved a sustainable world population of one billion by the year 2082.”

    “The Cost. The human cost of such an involuntary population rebalancing is, of course, horrific. Based on this model we would experience an average excess death rate of 100 million per year every year for the next 75 years to achieve our target population of one billion by 2082. The peak excess death rate would happen in about 20 years, and would be about 200 million that year. To put this in perspective, WWII caused an excess death rate of only 10 million per year for only six years. Given this, it’s not hard to see why population control is the untouchable elephant in the room – the problem we’re in is simply too big for humane or even rational solutions. It’s also not hard to see why some people are beginning to grasp the inevitability of a human die-off.”

  10. deadly on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 8:29 am 

    “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.” – Paul Ehrlich

    I have been alive all of those years and I don’t remember 100,000,000 people starving to death at any time during those years. Quite a few have died from being bombed to death, though. What you call a Population Bomb right there.

    That was circa 1970. 47 years ago. 100,000,000 times ten years equals 1,000,000,000 dead people, two billion at two hundred million per year for ten years. In 1998, the total population would have been something like three billion, not the almost six billion then. 80 million each year for 20 years is another 1.6 billion more for a total of 7.5 billion lost souls freaking out everywhere they go. Dash cams in Russia show that.

    At 100,000,000 deaths per year for 47 years, we would be almost if not extinct if Paul’s prediction would have been come true. Making up stuff is easy. Done all of the time.

    People make stuff up, write whole books of made up stuff and get paid. You sell the sizzle, not the steak.

    About as dumb as it can get. Nice prediction, Paul, you idiot.

    Maybe there are too many people, so what, places like Wyoming and Montana have plenty of room. If you want to see a sparsely populated deserted landscape, it’s there.

    Good thing it can all drive you to drink because drinking helps the most.

  11. onlooker on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 8:47 am 

    Democracy cannot survive overpopulation-
    Very true. And overpopulation is by definition overshooting the environmental carrying capacity and the Human species is most definitely in Overshoot

  12. Ghung on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 8:54 am 

    Malthus couldn’t grok our ability to cheat nature and steal from the future. These are, of course, temporary fixes.
    Too many humans. Not enough stuff.

  13. Davy on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 9:29 am 

    What I posted above is not what I think will happen nor am I saying it won’t. “Population The Elephant in the Room” is a model. My point is to show a model of what would need to happen to get our population down to what has been traditionally a sustainable population for most of man’s history. The model I posted above is a process over 50 years. The number get really horrible if you compress the time period. I believe the model referenced confronts a legitimate scenario that human populations must return to around the 1BIL mark. It is possible we can degrowth over 50 years. It is also possible drastic changes could occur with uncontrolled population loss.

    A policy of acknowledging the 1BIL carrying capacity as public policy is needed. The resulting draconian polices could be discussed. It should be understood it is likely they could not be implemented with current civilizational arrangements. If this reduction could even happen in 50 years is unclear. The point is the science needs to be honest and I believe the real science is honest about these numbers. This honesty is oppose to ignoring the problem or maintaining current levels are sound. Publically population degrowth will not be touched but privately scientist and policy makers can make arrangements to adapt and mitigate the worst.

    The sheeple will not hear this talk of anything draconian so there is no use pursing the subject main stream. Likewise the management of affluence will not be addressed in a market based liberal democratic system. Affluence management is vitally needed to make population reduction fairer. It is not so much fairness as a moral issue it fairness as a practical issue. Unless we all participate, some more some less, an effort at even adaption and mitigation will be minimal. The tragedy of the common issues means we are all on the hook. Instead war and social crisis will intensify.

    This leaves a natural process of dangerous events and processes driving reactive policy if nothing is done. This is never good and sadly this is likely the outcome. This means as individuals we need to acknowledge location is a key to survival. We need to recognize populations will grow and naturally adjust with likely dangerous results.

  14. yellowcanoe on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 9:39 am 

    “Nonsense, They are at limits of population and one need only look at their environmental destruction and social decline. Who cares about a healthy pyramid when the overpopulation is too high. Wealth transfer and inequality in China is among the worst in the world and on par with the US but with a much high population.”

    China’s population is expected to peak in a few years at slightly over 1.4 billion and then start to decline. India, with it’s large population of young people is set for a substantial growth in population for many decades before there is any possibility of reaching a peak. I agree that China has many challenges, but they are at least bringing their population growth under control.

  15. onlooker on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 10:05 am 

    Yellow, too little too late for China. They are rapidly losing top soil and desertification is getting worse. Their aquifers are being drained at a rapid rate. Too make things worse, the economic boom has transitioned many of their largely subsistence agrarian population into city folk with unhealthy habits like driving and have thus lost valuable survival skills

  16. Davy on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 10:41 am 

    “I agree that China has many challenges, but they are at least bringing their population growth under control.”

    Yea, agreed, China made an admirable effort with population control but now they have chosen the western growth model so consequently this nice resulting population pyramid from population control is tarnished because of the nature of this large population mixed with the dynamics of high consumption. It does not matter if per capita consumption is still low since the aggregate population is so large and the consumption factor growing rapidly. The middle class in China is exploding. There are more millionaires in China than most other countries.

  17. Go Speed Racer on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 4:40 pm 

    50 years later what do we got?
    Far as the eye can see,
    Dumb stupid fat ugly rude people,

    on welfare, pulling down their pants
    taking a shhit down the forced air
    heat registers and dumping their used
    motor oil into the salmon stream.

    Solve the problem toss all these dumb
    fat people into a big industrial branch
    chipper. Aim the chute into the harbor
    and feed the fishes.

    That’s called the Trump plan to Make
    America Great Again.

  18. Go Speed Racer on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 4:41 pm 

    Somebody put a big red button
    on Trump’s desk. Big as a soup bowl.

    Hopefully he will push it.

  19. DerHundistlos on Thu, 4th Jan 2018 12:49 am 

    @ dead

    So your solution is to move excess population to Wyoming and Montana? Your mental acuity is amazingly shallow. The physical space occupied by one person fails to consider:

    The average American has an ecological footprint of 12 acres and each year 3 million people are added to the US population.

    One acre of natural habitat or farmland is converted to built-up space or highway for each person added to the U.S. population.

    Of the nearly 470 million acres of arable land that are now in cultivation in the U.S., more than 1 million acres are lost from cultivation each year due to urbanization, multiplying transportation networks, and industrial expansion. In addition, about 2 million acres of prime cropland are lost annually by erosion, salinization, and water logging. Iowa has lost more than half of its fertile topsoil after farming there for about 100 years. Their topsoil is being lost about 30 times faster than sustainability.

    If present population growth and other trends continue, over the next 60 years, both degradation and urbanization will diminish our arable land base of 470 million acres by 120 million acres.

    400 gallons of oil equilvalents are expended to feed each American.

    I could continue the exercise, but even you should get the point. Your facile analysis is simply absurd.

  20. Sissyfuss on Thu, 4th Jan 2018 9:44 am 

    Well-spoken, Derhund. I see the vitriol directed at Erlich is a product of denial and in defense of the cancerous system installed by humanity. I believe that Erlichs failings are a result of mistiming, not of misunderstanding. When the growth-oriented buffoons fail to produce resources that are rapidly depleting we might replace them with some green weenies also destined to fail. Predicaments are neither challenges nor opportunities. They are disasters that only the very few will survive. Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.

  21. Davy on Thu, 4th Jan 2018 10:20 am 

    “If present population growth and other trends continue, over the next 60 years, both degradation and urbanization will diminish our arable land base of 470 million acres by 120 million acres.”

    please, do you really believe in trends like that? I don’t knowing what I know about AG and the decline of civilization.

  22. DerHundistlos on Thu, 4th Jan 2018 7:32 pm 

    Thank you, Siss. I hope I will have the pleasure of meeting you. You’re my kind of person.

    Your living arrangements, which you briefly alluded to in an earlier post, sound charming and invigorating.

  23. Kenz300 on Fri, 5th Jan 2018 12:06 pm 

    Too many people create too much pollution and demand too many resources.
    China made great progress in moving its people out of poverty.    One reason was slowing population growth.
    If you can not provide for yourself you can not provide for a child.
    CLIMATE CHANGE, declining fish stocks, droughts, floods, air water and land pollution, poverty, water and food shortages, unemployment and poverty all stem from the worlds worst environmental problem   OVER POPULATION.
    Yet the world adds 80 million more mouths to feed, clothe, house and provide energy and water for every year… this is unsustainable… and is a big part of the Climate Change problem 
    Birth Control Permanent Methods: Learn About Effectiveness

  24. Kenz300 on Fri, 5th Jan 2018 12:07 pm 

    Too many people demand too many resources……yet the worlds population grows by 80 million every year…..
    How many charities are dealing with the same problems they were dealing with 10 or 20 years ago with no end in sight. Every problem is made worse by the worlds growing population. IF you can not provide for yourself you can not provide for a child.

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