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Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb
by Allan Carlson
The Population Bomb, Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich’s Malthusian classic, appeared in May 1968, just two months before Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. The two documents seem far apart. The former argues that a mounting gap between human numbers and food “will continue to its logical conclusion: mass starvation.” The latter builds on Paul VI’s 1965 appeal to the United Nations, asking that nations “strive to multiply bread so that it suffices for the tables of mankind, and not, rather, favor an artificial control of birth . . . in order to diminish the number of guests at the table of life.”
Yet they are closely intertwined. The prophetic message of Humanae Vitae, particularly its prescient warnings about the consequences of severing sex from reproduction, emerged when parts of Asia and Africa were evidently starving and mounting expert opinion demanded population control.
For its part, The Population Bomb is obsessed by the Roman Catholic Church, angered by the pope’s apparent intransigence, and hopeful about a potentially rebellious laity. (I wish I could report that the book’s angry obsession also extended to my corner of the Christian world, but alas, Ehrlich finds the Lutheran Church in America of that era to have “a highly enlightened policy on population.”)
Time and again, Ehrlich veers off to grapple with his Catholic problem. He takes heart that lay Catholic use of contraception appears similar to that of non-Catholics. However, “conservative elements in the Church hierarchy still resist change.” The author notes that a majority of the papal commission charged with studying the contraception question had concluded that contraceptive methods (other than abortion) were consistent with “the teaching on responsible parenthood of the Second Vatican Council.” It is “a mystery to informed Catholics” why the pope has not acted.
He labels the rhythm method “Vatican Roulette,” joking that people who practice this form of contraception “are commonly called ‘parents.’” Ehrlich mocks prominent Catholic scholars who have families of ten or more children, while concurring with his “Catholic colleague” John Thomas that existing Catholic teaching “contributes to misery and starvation for billions, and perhaps the end of civilization as we know it.”
The Population Bomb stands as one of the most effective propaganda tracts ever published in America. On every college and university campus, the specter of imminent doom caused by human numbers motivated the children of the Baby Boom to embrace Ehrlich’s “obvious first answer”: “Set an example—don’t have more than two children.”
The Baby Bust followed, with American fertility dropping to a historic low by the mid-1970s, well under a two-children-per-couple average. The drop was particularly sharp among American Catholics. As late as 1967, twenty-eight percent of young “devout” Catholics still planned to have five or more children. By 1971, less than seven percent did. The anti-natalist ethos of The Population Bomb had triumphed over the welcoming spirit of Humanae Vitae.
Today, it is easy to see the manifest errors of logic and prediction made in The Population Bomb. Ehrlich’s dire warnings—that “the world . . . is rapidly running out of food,” “the battle to feed humanity is already lost,” and “in 1984 the United States will quite literally be dying of thirst”— appear absurd today.
It turns out that Ehrlich was a poor biologist. While briefly noting the existence of “new high-yield varieties of food grains,” he failed to see the real promise of “The Green Revolution,” which would soon transform even nations like India from grain importers to grain exporters. The author also failed to grasp how quickly simple pollution restraints could clean up the air and water, restoring even Lake Erie—where “the water is so full of filth and chemicals that not even boiling or chlorination will make it safe”—into a prime walleye fishing hole.
Ehrlich was also a poor demographer. Mesmerized by the projections on his simple population growth chart, showing a population of 60 million billion people by the year 2865, Ehrlich missed the deeper trend. He vastly overestimated modern humankind’s “urge to reproduce.” The long-term population story is actually the relentless downward pressure imposed by capitalist industrialism and modernity on human fertility. In the early phase of the “demographic transition,” death rates fall, resulting in population increase. However, after a few decades, fertility also starts to fall, as both centralizing government and a competitive economy deconstruct the family.
Mass public education that separates children from parents, social security incentives that favor the childless, market forces that crave the isolated worker and consumer, all drive fertility down. Ehrlich calls the children of the post-war Baby Boom “the gunpowder for the population explosion.” In fact, the American Baby Boom was a historically unique, even fragile event, a one-generation wonder that briefly defied the more profound anti-natalist currents that mark modern life.
Ehrlich was, in addition, a poor political economist. He complains about falling food and commodity prices, oblivious to the fact that this means abundance, not scarcity. Starvation was a reality during the 1960s. However, it was the product of ideology, politics, and corruption, not overpopulation.
Routine “crop failures” in Russia were the result of past Communist collectivization drives, just as was the great Chinese famine of the early 1960s. Food shortages in India and Africa derived from the socialist “central planning” fantasies of Third-World economists trained at the London School of Economics. In new nations such as Nigeria, would-be farmers faced daunting regulatory (and bribery) burdens before they could plant their first seed.
How, then, can we explain the book’s success? Part of its power lies in its seductive prose, an exasperated breeziness that gives energy to its arguments. Ehrlich also preys on human weakness, cleverly transforming acts long considered hedonistic—such as deliberate childlessness or sterilization—into a kind of heroism. In addition, Ehrlich ably manipulates key phrases. Good health care becomes “death control,” the supposed source of still greater disasters such as mass starvation, famine, and war. He juxtaposes “death rate control” over against a more humane “population control.”
The Population Bomb also effectively combines induced fear with a sense of the inevitable. Ehrlich offers three scenarios showing “the kinds of disasters that will [his emphasis] occur as mankind slips into the famine decades.” The first sees the United States launching nuclear weapons to save Thailand from a starving China. The latter responds by landing five “dirty bombs” on American soil, killing 100 million people.
This is relatively optimistic, though, compared to Scenario II. In a script that reads like a blend of the film On the Beach with the Patrick Swayze classic Red Dawn, massive famines sweep across South America, and the whole continent goes Communist. “Pope Pius XIII” (a “good” pope, it appears) denounces America for “eating meat while the hungry of the world lack bread.” Mexico falls to the Reds just as 90,000 die of smog poisoning in Los Angeles.
America’s draconian “one child per couple” policy comes too late to prevent the devastation of our fisheries and farmland. In 1980, a general thermonuclear war breaks out. Monster fires rage over North America; the Northern Hemisphere becomes uninhabitable. Small pockets of Homo sapiens hold out down south, but not for long. Soon, only the cockroaches remain.
Alongside these horrible prospects, Scenario III seems positively sunny. Here, in Ehrlich’s “best case,” the United States cuts off food aid to Egypt and India, countries “beyond hope,” and institutes domestic food rationing. “Pope Pius XIII” urges “all good Catholics . . . to drastically restrict their reproductive activities,” giving “his blessing to abortion and all methods of contraception.” Famines and food riots sweep through Asia, Africa, and South America. However, a “die back,” claiming 500 million lives through starvation, is successfully navigated by the nations with food, and a one-child-per-couple world finally settles into a sustainable population of two billion in 2025, falling to 1.5 billion by 2100.
The Population Bomb succeeded as well because it got some things right. In an area actually close to his expertise, Ehrlich correctly condemns the excessive use of insecticides, including DDT, and the absurd federal government campaign of that era to exterminate fire ants in the South. He is right about sloppy chemical use, about industrial pollution and fish kills, and about the foolishness of the SST (Super Sonic Transport). Ehrlich advances good ideas about putting a price tag on pollution and using incentives to discourage gas-guzzling autos.
All the same, Ehrlich’s overall policy agenda is monstrous in vision and sweep. He casts humanity as a cancer on the planet, and calls for a “cutting out of the cancer,” an operation that “will demand many apparently brutal and heartless decisions.” He opposes “family planning,” because it leaves families with an element of choice.
Domestically, he toys with the idea of putting sterilizing agents in the water, but shifts instead to tax policy. He would turn the child income-tax exemption on its head, placing a heavier net tax on families with three or more children. He would impose luxury taxes on layettes, cribs, diapers, and toys. The government would give grants to couples who married late, prizes to childless marriages, and bonuses to those who sterilize themselves. Free abortion, sex-selective reproduction, and sex education in the schools (focused on the recreational side) should also follow.
Internationally, Ehrlich calls for “drastic policies.” He would use “coercion in a good cause. . . . We must be relentless in pushing for population control around the world.” Adapting the principles of triage, food aid for “hopeless” nations such as India, Egypt, and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) would be denied. Only governments ready to impose birth control on their people—including mandatory sterilization—would be helped. On the religious plane, he condemns the Christian God, who, it is said, “made for us a world to dominate and exploit.” In place of this polluting God, Ehrlich praises both pagan animism and the hippie movement, with its embrace of Zen Buddhism.
Ehrlich’s ideal world actually exists today in once-Christian Europe and parts of Asia. Spain, Italy, Russia, Saxony, the Czech Republic, the Ukraine, the Baltic states, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and Korea all are near the one-child-per-couple average and all face accelerating depopulation. The driving force in these places, however, may be less Malthusian ideology and more a militant secular individualism in league with the anti-natalist incentives of “modernity.” In any case, we find in such lands abundant food alongside diminishing human numbers.
This is the strange legacy of welfare capitalism. Elsewhere on the globe, human populations are also in freefall in the early twenty-first century, a phenomenon ably analyzed in Phillip Longman’s 2004 book, The Empty Cradle. Rapidly aging populations and too few children are the apparent future, even in places such as China, India, and Mexico.
While The Population Bomb stands as a historically powerful document and a testament to the power of ideas (especially bad ones), it reads today as a quaint embarrassment. Meanwhile, Humane Vitae’s time may have come. Paul VI’s courageous encyclical affirms “the very serious duty of transmitting life” and recognizes married persons as “free and responsible collaborators with God the Creator.” It labels the generation of new human life a “mission” and endorses “the thoughtfully made and generous decision to raise a large family” as compatible with the world’s natural order.
Widely rejected and ridiculed nearly four decades ago, these words emerge now as clear answers and reliable guides to confronting the true population disaster looming over the twenty-first century.