The Population Bomb

Predictions revisited

The Population Bomb

On World Population Day (today, if you didn’t know it) the Royal Society of London announces a new working group on human population growth, led by the geneticist Sir John Sulston. But this is no exercise in professional demography. Political overtones are evident in the working group’s inclusion of “experts on the environment, agriculture, economics, law and theology drawn from a mix of rich and poor countries including the UK, China, Brazil and the US,” as the BBC tells us. So when the working group reports in 2012 we can expect technocrats once again to be wanting to tell other people how to live.

Of course the population scare goes way back to Thomas Malthus (1798), but in its modern guise it has underpinned militant environmentalism for more than 40 years since a butterfly expert, Paul Ehrlich of Stanford, published The Population Bomb in 1968. Never mind that what he predicted turned out to be wrong. That sort of mishap doesn’t matter once you’ve been sanctified by true believers.

Ever been stuck in traffic on a hot night in Delhi? I once was in the 1960s, before I first read The Population Bomb, so I recognised the scene described by Ehrlich:

The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people.”

Yes, I saw it, and was awestruck. The exuberant bustle of what was then a rather hard-up urban population, enjoying the comparative coolness of the night, challenged my cosseted modern Westerner’s view of what human life is all about. That Delhi street was probably not very different from the suburbs of Imperial Rome or even from Shakespeare’s London on a warm evening.

Not so for Ehrlich:

As we moved slowly through the mob, the dust, noise, heat and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get to our hotel…? Since that night I have known the feel of overpopulation.”

Isn’t it comical – that yearning for the air-conditioned hotel where things would get nearer to Ehrlich’s Californian view of normality? Plainly this self-appointed saviour of humankind didn’t care too much for real-life men, women or children.

The forerunner of The Population Bomb was an article published in New Scientist in 1967 (when I was no longer the Editor) and reprinted in the Washington Post in 1968. David Brower of the Sierra Club then persuaded Ehrlich to use his lectures and articles to put a book together.

How deeply flawed Ehrlich’s predictions were! He wrote:

The battle to feed humanity is over. In the course of the 1970s the world will experience starvation of tragic proportions … hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.

It simply didn’t happen. As Bjørn Lomborg has commented succinctly:

[Ehrlich] believed that aid should only be given to those countries that would have a chance to make it through. India was not among them. India, however, has lived through a green revolution. In 1967, when Ehrlich wrote those words, the average Indian consumed 1,875 calories a day. Even though the population had almost doubled, in 1998 the average Indian got 2,466 calories a day.”


Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, Sierra Club-Ballantine Books, 1968

Bjørn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist, Cambridge University Press, 2001


7 Responses to The Population Bomb

  1. Pascvaks says:

    Every minute of every day we experience ‘the end of life as we know it’; life is always changing. Indeed, life is like a beach, always changing and –in many many ways– always the same. The older I get, the more I am amazed, that nothing seems to ever really change. In the area of ‘human behavior’, I don’t think we’ve changed at all in a million years.

  2. Morley Sutter says:

    I think that The Club of Rome, with its rather exclusive membership was strongly pushing Ehrlichs’s book and the food and water scarcity in the late 60s. Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s erstwhile Prime Minister was a member of the Club of Rome. Does that Club still exist?

  3. Richard111 says:

    I remember being vastly impressed in my distant youth with an article by Isaac Asimov about population doubling every 35 years. He wasn’t far wrong.

    Today I suspect The Club of Rome and others are being driven to take control before starvation becomes global. I see this as an evolutionary process for humanity. My guess is just a couple of poor harvest years combined with present low food reserves and extensive production of bio-fuel crops may tip the scale.

    I think we will know the answer before the end of Solar Cycle 24.

  4. calderup says:

    Asimov’s was a typical expectation of exponential growth, Richard, and that has definitely not happened. Rising living standards and reductions in child mortality have curbed the rate of growth in population. A demographer told me many years ago that, roughly speaking, people have always had as many children as they wanted, and if half your babies are dying you want more.
    As for Cycle 24, that’s another story, I agree. Historical data show populations going up and down quite scarily with the climate. If we get into serious global cooling we may be grateful for the fertilising effect of all that extra CO2, especially in semi-arid areas.
    My aim in the post was to check a specific prediction, not to shrug off the problem of global nutrition.

  5. John says:

    Ehrlich is just a small, little westerner comfortable in his small, little suburban academic environment observing that the world had places with lots of people and decreeing that such is evil.

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