Click images for more details



Recent comments
Recent posts
Currently discussing

A few sites I've stumbled across recently....

Powered by Squarespace
« Whither DeSmog? | Main | Diary dates, hit or miss edition »

Looking back at Ehrlich

Yesterday saw a flurry of articles about Paul Ehrlich's magnum opus, The Population Bomb. It's fair to say that, although it brought Ehrlich fame and a career, history has not been kind to the book and there is no shortage of people lining up to point out what a disaster it was for people in poor countries. Matt Novak at Gizmodo is a case in point:

Ehrlich’s predictions led to real action. In India, millions of people were sterilized by the government, sometimes forcibly. His views were embraced by wealthy people in the developing world who could insist that the poor were poor because they were having too many children — an argument that’s not uncommon here in 21st century America.

I think it's also fair to say that many of those who are lining up to criticise Ehrlich today would have been in the frontline of his supporters in the late 1960s. Ehrlich had caught the zeitgeist, a bandwagon was on the roll, and careers were being made out of the prophecies of doom. In the face of such economic forces, the ability of the political and media classes to brush aside dissent or, in academia, to crush it entirely is simply a depressing fact of life.

No doubt people at the time decried what Ehrlich and his minions were doing. Similarly, you can raise the uncomfortable issue of bans on aid for fossil-fuel power stations in the developing world, but the response is to bat the point aside, typically with some reference to cynicism. Motivational fallacies aside, one can't help but wonder if younger BH readers mightn't end up reading a New York Times retrospective in fifty years' time and wondering how it was people in the first years of the twenty-first century could do this to Africans.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

Reader Comments (35)

See Robert Zubrin's "Merchants of Despair" and look at (if you can bear it) the heart-breaking photograph of little Mei Ming, aged two, abandoned in a Chinese "dying room", because of the population-fixated, eugenics-based horror championed by the likes of Ehrlich.

Ehrlich may complain he has been vilified, but, in reality, he has always and professionally been vile.

Jun 2, 2015 at 9:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterOwen Morgan

... and just last year he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Jun 2, 2015 at 9:14 AM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

That just shows how low the RS has sunk and why any statement from the RS has to be taken with a large pinch of salt and examined with a fine toothcomb. 'Nullius in verba'.

Jun 2, 2015 at 9:23 AM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

The Big Problem is Ehrlich's sidekick, John Holdren, whose very poor grasp of science is leading O'Barmy to wreak eco-fascist havoc on the World.

Jun 2, 2015 at 9:43 AM | Unregistered CommenterNCC 1701E

As I've said before there is a Pulitzer and Woodward & Berstein fame for the reporter/film-maker who sticks their head above the parapet to make a film about this lot.

Jun 2, 2015 at 9:48 AM | Unregistered CommenterStuck-Record

There is indeed a twisted perversity to all this.

Jun 2, 2015 at 10:19 AM | Unregistered CommenterBrute

"people in the first years of the twentieth century..." should be:
"people in the first years of the twenty-first century..."

Jun 2, 2015 at 10:19 AM | Registered CommenterQ


Fixed. Thanks.

Jun 2, 2015 at 10:21 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Below is an extract from “The unrealized horrors of population explosion”, New York Times, May 31.

The second half of the 1960s was a boom time for nightmarish visions of what lay ahead for humankind. In 1966, for example, a writer named Harry Harrison came out with a science fiction novel titled “Make Room! Make Room!” Sketching a dystopian world in which too many people scrambled for too few resources, the book became the basis for a 1973 film about a hellish future, “Soylent Green.” In 1969, the pop duo Zager and Evans reached the top of the charts with a number called “In the Year 2525,” which postulated that humans were on a clear path to doom.

No one was more influential — or more terrifying, some would say — than Paul R. Ehrlich, a Stanford University biologist. His 1968 book, “The Population Bomb,” sold in the millions with a jeremiad that humankind stood on the brink of apocalypse because there were simply too many of us. Dr. Ehrlich’s opening statement was the verbal equivalent of a punch to the gut: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” He later went on to forecast that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s, that 65 million of them would be Americans, that crowded India was essentially doomed, that odds were fair “England will not exist in the year 2000.” Dr. Ehrlich was so sure of himself that he warned in 1970 that “sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come.” By “the end,” he meant “an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.”

As you may have noticed, England is still with us. So is India. Hundreds of millions did not die of starvation in the ’70s. Humanity has managed to hang on, even though the planet’s population now exceeds seven billion, double what it was when “The Population Bomb” became a best-seller and its author a frequent guest of Johnny Carson’s on “The Tonight Show.” How the apocalyptic predictions fell as flat as ancient theories about the shape of the Earth is the focus of this installment of Retro Report, a series of video documentaries examining significant news stories of the past and their aftermath.

After the passage of 47 years, Dr. Ehrlich offers little in the way of a mea culpa. Quite the contrary. Timetables for disaster like those he once offered have no significance, he told Retro Report, because to someone in his field they mean something “very, very different” from what they do to the average person. The end is still nigh, he asserted….


Dr. Ehrlich, now 83, is not retreating from his bleak prophesies. He would not echo everything that he once wrote, he says. But his intention back then was to raise awareness of a menacing situation, he says, and he accomplished that. He remains convinced that doom lurks around the corner, not some distant prospect for the year 2525 and beyond. What he wrote in the 1960s was comparatively mild, he suggested, telling Retro Report: “My language would be even more apocalyptic today.”

Jun 2, 2015 at 10:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterDouglas J. Keenan

IF wealth is not limited by population, but by some fixed resource such as land, THEN the more people there are the poorer each one will be.

People never seem to understand the assumptions - the IF part of the IF ....THEN statement.

Cornucopians ("there is plenty of stuff and there always will be") are as prone to this naiveté as doomsayers.
And the logic behind 'well we have been expanding populations and economies for 200 years, therefore we always will' is about as reassuring as yelling to the man falling past the 31st floor 'how's it going?' and getting the response 'All right so far...'

Jun 2, 2015 at 12:14 PM | Unregistered Commenterleo smith

He must be riddled with guilt. I pity him.

Jun 2, 2015 at 12:15 PM | Unregistered Commenterconfused

See my take on Ehrlich, which took some hassle to get published, in response to a doom-laden prediction.

Jun 2, 2015 at 12:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterMichael Kelly

The Nuremberg trials sent people to their death, for facilitating mass exterminations.

The Royal Society rewards Ehrlich for doing the same.

The only thing he got right in 1970, was that in 45 years, it would be 2015. This may just have been a lucky guess.

Jun 2, 2015 at 12:23 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Having lived through all of Erlich's failed predictions, and seeing his current refusal to admit even a shred error, one is forced to conclude he and his ilk are either mad or evil. Considering the very real suffering brought upon poor people by the failed predictions of population doom, I lean toward toward the latter explanation. Climate scientists would be wise to carefully consider the harm Erlich 'accomplished' during his sorry life before repeating their endless predictions of thermal apocalypse.

Jun 2, 2015 at 12:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteve Fitzpatrick

golf charlie
Brought a smile to a very serious article.

Jun 2, 2015 at 12:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

Club of Rome, WWF, Greenpeace are modern day fronts for the eugenics supporting elite that had such a strong affinity with the Nazis. Particularly in Britain. Tooth and claw 'Darwinism' is the central philosophy of these people. Since long before Darwin.

Sir Crispin Tickell, member of the eugenics Huxley clan. Friend and mentor to George Monbiot.

"He is also a patron of population concern charity Population Matters, (formerly known as the Optimum Population Trust), and told Radio 4's Today programme that the ideal population for Britain could be around 20 million. As a member of Lord Rogers' Urban Task Force, Tickell counselled against spreading cities saying that we need denser living, that young adults should not expect to leave home straight away, and that older relatives could live in 'granny flats' "

Jun 2, 2015 at 12:51 PM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

What I thought amusing about the New York Times article, linked by Doug above, is that after several paragraphs saying that Ehrlich's doom-mongering about population turned out to be a load of nonsense, they go on to say that the real threat now is climate change! Quoting Fred Pearce:

“We can survive massive demographic change,” he said in 2011. But he is less sanguine about the overuse of available resources and its effects on climate change...
“Let’s look at carbon dioxide emissions, the biggest current concern because of climate change,” he continued....
To some extent, worrying about an overcrowded planet has fallen off the international agenda. It is overshadowed, as Mr. Pearce suggests, by climate change and related concerns.

Jun 2, 2015 at 1:10 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

'Twas only today that a report from the German government surfaced bemoaning that their birthrate, the lowest in the world, will cause an economic slump, presumably an irreversible one unless they let in millions of migrants.

Jun 2, 2015 at 1:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterRick Bradford

leo smith
» There is enough land in Australia alone to give every person on the planet an acre all to themselves and still have some left over (as well as all the rest of the planet).
» The UN itself admits that the population is likely to stabilise at ~10bn by the end of the century.
» There is reckoned to be enough uranium on the planet to last for at least a millenium at current consumption rates.
» Estimates of coal reserves suggest at least 300 years.
» Other resources depend on a) what we do wth it; b) how efficiently we use it; c) how much more we keep on finding.
» We have so far barely scratched 1% of the earth's crust.

Calm down.

PS Having just read Professor Kelly's excellent paper I may need to revise my estimates down. It's better than we thought!

Jun 2, 2015 at 1:30 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

For Phillip Bratby : I think you'll find your teeth are much cleaner if you use a brush and not a comb, even if it's a fine-tooth comb !

Jun 2, 2015 at 1:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterGillespie Robertson

It is a simple fact that poor / uneducated people have more children, everywhere in the world. It's why every generation is less intelligent than the previous one and why society has been so massively dumbed down in the last few decades.

No I'm not implying genetic inheritance of intelligence.

Jun 2, 2015 at 1:43 PM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

@ Mike Kelly
Thank you for posting your paper it is very good.
I would add to the debate:-
Newcomen invents the steam engine primarily used for pumping in mines.
Watt modifications make the engine more efficient
Steam engines used for transportation of people
Steam power used for generating electricity.
All beneficial and wind power fell by the wayside.

Jun 2, 2015 at 1:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterStacey

I'm not sure that the unrepentantly misanthropic Ehrlich is necessarily the cause of the resource/population/sustainability nexus. But I do think he helped shape the discourse of a generation, which persists to today. If you doubt that, just scan the comment stream under any Guardian article relating to the environment.

Something strange happened in the late sixties. In this country it was a flip from Harold Wilson's optimistic "white heat of technology", with its world-beating Concorde, Blue Streak and TSR2, to a world view more akin to Dryden's Noble Savage, or more powerfully, Tolkien's bucolic utopia of contented farmers and wise rulers where industry is evil. In this country we might regard the switch as due to the emergence of the first post-imperial generation. However, the change of mood was as strong in America. Popular books of the time like Bury my heart at wounded knee, The population bomb, Silent spring and so forth posited an ancient nature-wise primitivism as being far superior to industrial progress. This coming from the most affluent generation in all human history.

Despite accelerating industrial progress, there are still huge numbers of people who will get on their iPhone to complain that the main problem of the world is that there are too many people -- or its synecdoche, global warming.

Jun 2, 2015 at 2:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterBraqueish

Stewart Brand, one of Ehrlich's many students, saw the light (partially). In his Whole Earth Discipline he writes how incredulous he and a bunch of scientist friends were, visiting the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage site, at the insane amounts of money wasted on '10,000 year horizon safety' on the basis of 1950s style thinking. With population he admits Ehrlich was wrong and Barry Commoner was right, but only in an underhanded manner.

The story that is not often recounted (or yet to be told widely) is how hardline population-bomb/eugenics/racism mutated into its soft variant a la Bill Gates, with the horrors of 1970s sterilization horrors, Borlaug's green revolution and the failed apocalypse of Ehrlich. Development, women's education, cellphones, ..progress in general is good because it controls population. Brand presents the same argument: urbanization is good because it's what controlled population and reduced 'ecological footprint'.

Jun 2, 2015 at 2:59 PM | Registered Commentershub

What is fascinating, of course, is that as soon as people get out of poverty, they start having fewer children off their own bat! Look at Hans Roslings presentations (and try not to be wowed by the speccy graphics - just focus on the numbers). If you really are worried about over-population, then getting people out of poverty is the way to go.

Jun 2, 2015 at 3:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterRob

Rob, I don't think birth control involves people having their own bat. I may be wrong though.

Jun 2, 2015 at 3:14 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Erlich's testimony to US Senate in 1974.
This alone should make Erlich (and his chum, John Holdren: Obama's Science Czar. SNORT!) objects of ridicule.

But no, forty years later they are still going strong. Rich and powerful.

"Ehrlich: I suspect you're aware, that the increased price of petroleum which is certainly related to the near depletion of petroleum resources-they're going to be gone by the end of the century . . .

I think that what is not realized, and it's going to be one of the hardest things to be accepted by the Americans in general, is that the onset of the age of scarcity essentially demolishes current models of economists. We are going to move to a no-growth [economy]. Now, whether we do it intelligently through the Government by planning as rapidly as possible, or whether we move there automatically-by the way, when I look at some of the figures these days, I think we're moving there much more rapidly than people realize--we're going to get there, obviously. And I think we'd do a lot better if we had some planning for the dislocations that will inevitably occur. . .

If bad weather continues in the Midwest this year, and if the monsoon should fail this year in India, as it might, then I think you're going to see the age of scarcity and many of the changes I'm talking about coming on next winter.'I mean that's when we're really going to start getting into it. If we are "fortunate" for a few years, and have nothing but good weather, then it'll come on, you know, 5 or 10 years down the pike. But of course during that time populations will have increased. . . .

I think that the thing you can say with absolute assurance is, considering the magnitude of the changes, if we have 20 years-which I wouldn't put a nickel on-but if we have 20 years, we're already 10 years too late in starting to do something about it. We're not going to change the political and economic structure of the United States overnight. And for that reason, I think that any feeling of urgency that you can generate--one of the big problems is how do you generate a feeling of urgency . . .

Jun 2, 2015 at 3:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterStuck-Record

Rob - exactly. Thanks for the Hans Rosling tip.

This World - Don't Panic: The Truth About Population (BBC Documentary)

Professor Hans Rosling presents a spectacular portrait of our rapidly changing world. With seven billion people already on our planet, we often look to the future with dread, but Rosling's message is surprisingly upbeat. Almost unnoticed, we have actually begun to conquer the problems of rapid population growth and extreme poverty.

Across the world, even in countries like Bangladesh, families of just two children are now the norm - meaning that within a few generations, the population explosion will be over. A smaller proportion of people now live in extreme poverty than ever before in human history and the United Nations has set a target of eradicating it altogether within a few decades. In this as-live studio event, Rosling presents a statistical tour-de-force, including his 'ignorance survey', which demonstrates how British university graduates would be outperformed by chimpanzees in a test of knowledge about developing countries.

Jun 2, 2015 at 5:15 PM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

Thanks for the link, esmiff.

I keep meaning to bookmark his presentations, but never do!

Jun 2, 2015 at 7:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterRob

How depressing.

First DeSmogBlog and then Erlich.

If their work / output could in actuality be converted to the manure it is, millions could be fed from crops fertilized from it.

Jun 2, 2015 at 8:59 PM | Unregistered Commentertimg56

The only thing he got right in 1970, was that in 45 years, it would be 2015. This may just have been a lucky guess.

He could still manage that sum in 1981, but he predicted that all life would extinct this year. A variation on Nelson's remark, "I see no ships." becomes, "I see no life.."

Jun 2, 2015 at 10:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterPhilip Foster

Monsoon failures are a sort of coda in Ehrlich's work

Jun 2, 2015 at 11:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterRussell

The one thing known to cause long-term monsoon failure is an ice-age.

Jun 2, 2015 at 11:41 PM | Unregistered Commentertty

Great observation, GC! Ehrlich has shown that maths is not really his strong point – mind you, he also seems somewhat detached from all reality, with all his wild guesses being proved comprehensively wrong, yet still he utters them (perhaps in the hope that at least one will be right? Like a machine-gunner shooting blindly over a hill, expecting at least one bullet to find a target, he is unable to entertain the idea that there might be no targets there.).

Thank you, esmiff. An entertaining and informative programme (I suppose the usual climate clap-trap was necessary for it to be aired on the BBC, though he does cleverly twist it), and does back up my own hypothesis stated some time ago: as any country’s wealth grows, so its population growth will slow, and probably decline to negative. This is one reason why it is imperative that we should be encouraging the cheap and safe energy that coal-fired electricity can offer.

Jun 3, 2015 at 10:19 AM | Registered CommenterRadical Rodent

@Rick Bradford: That'll work only if the "millions of migrants" are all Germans. Other people have different attitudes to work, taxes, rules, law and order, etc etc.

Jun 3, 2015 at 12:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Duffin

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>