A long fuse: 'The Population Bomb' is still ticking 50 years after its publication

A long fuse: 'The Population Bomb' is still ticking 50 years after its publication
Slums like this one in Rio de Janeiro embody the problems Paul Ehrlich warned of in ‘The Population Bomb.’ Credit: dany13, CC BY

"The battle to feed all of humanity is over," Stanford biologist and ecologist Paul Erhlich declared on the first page of his 1968 best-seller, "The Population Bomb." Because the "stork had passed the plow," he predicted, "hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death."

Ehrlich's book identified dramatically accelerating world as the central underlying cause of myriad problems, from a food crisis in India to the Vietnam War to smog and urban riots in the United States. It sold more than 2 million copies and went through 20 reprints by 1971. Ehrlich appeared more than 20 times on NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson", and became the first president of Zero Population Growth, a Washington D.C.–based advocacy organization, while remaining a professor at Stanford.

"The Population Bomb" created more space to hold radical views on matters, but its impact was fleeting, and maybe even harmful to the population movement. By the early 1970s, many critics were savaging Ehrlich and the larger goal of achieving zero population . And the politics of "morning in America" in the 1980s successfully marginalized Erhlich as a doomsdayer.

However, as a historian who has studied debates about population growth throughout U.S. history, I believe that Ehrlich's warnings deserve a new and less hysterical hearing. While Ehrlich has acknowledged significant errors, he was correct that lowering birth rates was – and remains – a crucial plank in addressing global environmental crises.

A Malthusian warning

Ehrlich drew on nearly 200 years of thinking inspired by British pastor and political economist Robert Thomas Malthus. In his 1798 study, "An Essay on the Principle of Population," Malthus famously predicted that "geometric" population growth would overwhelm "arithmetic" gains in agricultural production, leading to wars, famines and societal collapse.

Fears of the potentially dangerous social and ecological effects of population growth intensified after World War II. Global population surged as public health improved greatly in developing nations, increasing life expectancy. At the same time, the new science of ecology demonstrated the fragility of Earth's interconnected systems. And the Cold War promoted worries that population-induced poverty would breed communism.

It took 200,000 years for Earth’s human population to reach 1 billion – and only 200 years to reach 7 billion. But growth has begun slowing as fertility rates decline.

Mainstream advocates of arresting population growth emphasized better access to family planning and education, but Ehrlich had no use for such baby steps. "Well-spaced children will starve, vaporize in thermonuclear war, or die of plague just as well as unplanned children," he wrote.

Technological optimists pointed to the "Green Revolution" in agriculture, which had vastly increased crop yields up until the late 1960s. But Erhlich, echoing a growing chorus of farmers and agricultural scientists, warned that pesticides ruined the environment and would eventually backfire as weeds and pests developed resistance.

Erhlich never called population the only variable. With physicist John Holdren, he proposed the I = P x A x T formula, which describes human impact as the product of population, affluence (the effects of consumption) and technology.

Nonetheless, Ehrlich believed that population was the key multiplier and massive reductions in global population were critical for human survival. He hoped that a combination of policy carrots and sticks would reduce fertility sufficiently and preserve voluntary family planning. But he held out the possibility that coercive measures, including compulsory sterilizations, might be needed.

Backlash and a new population politics

Millions of Americans shared Ehrlich's anxieties in 1968. Concerns about the ecological impact of growth had helped birth modern American environmentalism. Feminists cited overpopulation to buttress the case for reproductive and abortion rights. Politicians on both sides of the aisle urged action to lower birth rates, and Republican President Richard Nixon signed into law a Commission on Population Growth and the American Future.

But the "culture wars" of the 1970s subsumed and reconfigured population issues. On the right, the "pro-life" movement that crystallized in the wake of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision considered any talk of population reduction anathema.

A long fuse: 'The Population Bomb' is still ticking 50 years after its publication
As nations develop economically, couples have fewer children and fertility rates decline. CC BY-ND

China's one-child policy, launched around 1980, led to serious human rights abuses that allowed anti–family planning conservatives to paint all population programs in a negative light. Conservatives subsequently ignored China's significant reforms to the policy, as well as research indicating that slowing population growth contributed to China's economic miracle.

Moreover, newly ascendant anti-Keynesian economists rejected an older consensus that slowing population growth would yield economic benefits. These market-oriented economists asserted that denser populations created economies of scale, and that individual fertility decisions would adjust to any temporary population problems. President Ronald Reagan, who once had dabbled with Malthusianism, tellingly labeled advocates who worried about scarce resources "Doomsday prophets."

After Congress eliminated national-origin immigration quotas in 1965, immigration rose steadily and accounted for a growing share of population growth in the U.S. In this context, white liberals increasingly risked being branded racist for supporting population reduction.

By the late 1970s, both liberals and conservatives had bought into exaggerated talk of an "aging crisis" – too few workers to pay for the bulge of baby boomers headed toward retirement. This perspective bolstered calls for higher birth rates and further reduced the sting of the overpopulation critique.

An unsolved equation

Today Ehrlich is a largely forgotten prophet, although some small population-centric organizations continue to tilt at windmills and the mainstream press occasionally dips its toes in the water. After some very public rifts over immigration policy, mainstream environmental groups generally avoid or downplay the issue. Meanwhile, the Right continues to dismiss talk of population problems.

Looking back with the benefit of time, it's clear Ehrlich was wrong to view population as all-encompassing. In addition, the global total fertility rate has declined more than he anticipated – although the development and modernization that has helped lower birth rates, a process known as the demographic transition, comes at great environmental cost.

A long fuse: 'The Population Bomb' is still ticking 50 years after its publication
The demographic transition is a pattern in which countries tend to transition from high birth and death rates to lower birth and death rates as they industrialize. Credit: Max Roser, CC BY-SA

Ehrlich underestimated human ingenuity. And for now, one can reasonably argue that food insecurity remains primarily political rather than technological. In Ehrlich's own words, the book's weaknesses were "not [focusing] enough on overconsumption and equity issues."

But he got much right, even if many details and his timing were off. Global population has increased at a remarkably steady rate since 1968, and the United Nations projects that it will reach 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100. Scientists continue to extend his prescient warnings that efforts to feed all these people through pesticide-intensive monoculture may backfire. And although Ehrlich exaggerated the threat of mass starvation, about 8,500 young children die from malnutrition every day.

Human-driven climate change is an overriding threat, and is unambiguously worsened by population growth. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that limiting warming in this century to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) would require cutting global greenhouse gas emissions 40 to 70 percent by 2050 and nearly eliminating them by 2100. "Globally, economic and population growth continue to be the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion," the panel observes.

There lies an enduring flaw in Ehrlich's approach. If impact equals people times affluence times technology, then reducing population alone is not sufficient to solve our ecological crises. But reducing affluence is neither possible nor desirable, since it would condemn millions to lifelong poverty. Ultimately, "The Population Bomb" offered no road map for transitioning away from capitalism without causing human ruin as serious as the environmental ruin that seems to be our destiny.

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Jul 10, 2018
Increasing poverty (reducing affluence) increases birth rates as poor people are observably having more babies, so that's a non-solution.

It seems that the opposite should work: societies get up to certain levels of "affluence" where people find they can't "survive" without certain amenities. For example, in the western societies if you can't afford to pay your electric bills, you're unlikely to have a family at all, whereas in African societies having no electricity is just business as usual.

So, if you manage to make people rich enough, they will automatically reduce their birthrate to stay at that level. If a prehistoric farmer's crops fail, they go back to hunting and gathering. If a modern man loses his job, he can't sustain a family by dumpster diving, which prevents the Malthusian catastrophe from happening, unless the whole society takes a nosedive due to some social experiment gone wrong.

Jul 10, 2018
Looks like Hoff is trying to rekindle Erlichman's population bomb hypothesis but as "environmental ruin", and gain fame and profit from it. Note his initial focus on book sales and highlighting of TV appearances and his professorship (both being professors). Also note, no mention of the wager Erlichman made with Julian Simon which he lost spectacularly. At least Hoff states "Ehrlich underestimated human ingenuity." Perhaps we can get a bet between Ronald Bailey, author of "Ecoscam" and "The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century" which shows the opposite.

Jul 10, 2018
Before someone else brings up the two knee-jerk "culprits" of large families, poverty and religion (especially Islam) I will point out the country that has reduced family size more than any other on the planet: the desperately poor devoutly Muslim country of Bangladesh. Even with the influx of refugees from Myanmar their population is steadily dropping.

Like everything in life, there is no "one size fits all" solution for population growth.

Jul 11, 2018
The irony of the 'welcoming committee' demonstrations (Socialists) in the US over the "plight" of the illegal aliens and their children coming into the country from Central American nations, including possible terrorists and MS-13 gang members, is that these very same American citizens are great supporters of Roe v. Wade (abortion and later-term abortions = the legalised murder of later-term babies that are born and immediately killed by sticking a scissors into his/her head and then sucking the brain out). The problem is that these people are welcoming the illegal groups to populate the US further, while doing their best to eliminate American babies through their mothers' abortion rights. The illegal aliens will have to be supported by American taxpayers in any case and American taxpayers lose out again because more and more babies are aborted who would have been the future American taxpayers.

Jul 11, 2018
Malthus, Ehrlich, now Hoff: doomsayers and worrywarts, and all spectacularly and demonstrably wrong.

The "Green Revolution" attributed to Norman Borlaug is still charging onward, producing more food with more nutrition using fewer resources and feeding more people than ever. Under-nourishment continues to decrease all over the world thanks to innovators, engineers, agronomists and others; people who simply use their God-given brains to create practical and helpful solutions rather than feverishly fretting themselves into a black cloud of gloom.

See the enlightening graphs about global nutrition trends here:


the demographic transition comes at great environmental cost

The damage is brief. As socities become wealthy, they repair the environmental damage, clean the water and air, protect natural habitats. We have cleaner air and water and more trees in the U.S. than we did a century ago.

Jul 11, 2018
So much misinformation, so little time.

the United Nations projects that it will reach 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100

First of all, so what? The human capacity for innovation is virtually limitless and it shouldn't be very hard to feed 30% to 50% more people. That's the equivalent of a couple increasing their family from two to three, a thing humans accomplish almost effortlessly.

Secondly, what's missing is the fact that half the world's population lives in countries with birthrates below replacement. And that appears to be the natural trend for every society as it becomes wealthy.


As older generations die, there aren't enough babies to replace them and their population will shrink as is already happening in several countries like Japan and Germany. No one knows if global population will even reach 10 billion before declining.

Jul 11, 2018
...transitioning away from capitalism without causing human ruin as serious as the environmental ruin that seems to be our destiny.

Never mind the central fact that capitalism (in other words, freedom, property ownership and free trade) has lifted more people out of poverty than any other economic system in the history of the world. By far.

How about that "environmental ruin". Where is it happening? In poor countries where subsistence living is the standard, people barely obtaining enough to feed and shelter themselves while consuming natural resources with little thought to replenishing or conserving them. In post-industrial economies, they've developed the wealth and technology to replenish, conserve and protect their natural resources and continue to innovate ways to produce things ever more efficiently, using even fewer resources. Wait a few decades and those poor countries will likely transition to where America and Europe are today.

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