Sunday, November 18, 2018

50 Years Ago, The Population Bomb Dropped

The book by Paul Ehrlich, that is.  First published in May of 1968, I was 14, I recall it being talked about widely and seriously.  It was by a scientist after all.  The Stanford University biology professor famously claimed that population growth would result in resource depletion and the starvation of hundreds of millions of people.  I recall conversations about "hamburger wars" as people fought to the death for dwindling supplies of food.
Ehrlich prophesied that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s (and that 65 million of them would be Americans), that already-overpopulated India was doomed, and that most probably “England will not exist in the year 2000.”

In conclusion, Ehrlich warned that “sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come,” meaning “an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.”
Doomsday prophesy sells, and doomsday from someone with a handful of letters after their name (MS, PhD etc.) sells even better.  The future didn't turn out quite as dismally as Ehrlich suggested; he famously lost a bet where he picked a "basket of commodities" and bet that these five metals would go up in price in 10 years (1980 to 1990) - they declined in price an average of 57.6% while the  population increased.  Nevertheless, he influenced a generation or two of policy makers.

I've written about these predictions many times, but the one that I always think of first was from June, 2013.  It starts with a simple idea.  First off, I recall hearing around 25 or 30 years ago that the entire population of the world would fit in Jacksonville, Florida, without resorting to high rise apartments: just the square feet of Jacksonville divided by the number of people.  It would be highly impractical, each person only gets about a 2' by 2' square, but did you ever think the entire population of the world would fit in a single American city?  As I said at that time:
According to the Wiki, the area of the state of Florida is 65,755 square miles.  Given the 7 billion people in the world, if you spread them evenly across the state, every person in the world would get 261.9 square feet.  That's not a big room (unless you're in NYC), and small by US standards, but generous compared to much of the world.
Certainly the population of the world would fit in the southeast states.  The graphic I used in 2013 takes the population of the world and puts them into a living area that matches the population density of six example cities.

If we housed every single person on earth with the population density of Paris, they would fit into the area of three states: Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas.  If we used the population density of New York City, the entire population of Earth could fit into the area of Texas.  Likewise if we used the more generous suburban spread of Houston, the whole population of the planet would fit in the middle states of America shown in that dark orange, bottom right.

Yes this is a mental exercise, but for city dwellers who have never been in places where you can go hours without seeing another person (or drive without seeing another car), it has to be shocking.  

Paul Ehrlich wasn't the first to advance this sort of idea.  I immediately thought of Thomas Malthus in the early 1800s but have read the idea goes back much farther.  According to Marian Tupy being quoted at FEE (the Foundation for Economic Education).
Depletionism has a long pedigree that goes back to the Atra-Hasis, an 18th-century BC epic in which the Babylonian gods deemed the world too crowded and unleashed a famine to fix the “problem.” Confucius, Plato, Tertullian, Saint Jerome, and Giovanni Botero revisited the issue over the succeeding centuries.
Ehrlich's credentials caused him to influence policy makers around the world.  Ehrlich advocated for mass sterilization, sex-selective abortion, and infanticide - tell me he didn't get his wish - and in his drive for radical population control, Ehrlich said he would prefer “voluntary methods” but if people were unwilling to cooperate, he was ready to endorse “various forms of coercion.” Look at China, where their “one child” policy has led to massive amounts of abortions and abandonment of girls; today 12 boys are born for every 10 girls.  How many Chinese girls have been adopted into the West? 
To allow women to have as many children as they want, Ehrlich said, is like letting people “throw as much of their garbage into their neighbor’s backyard as they want.”
It's hard to get through the block heads of the modern socialists (cough - Occasional Cortex) just how much better life is today than even a hundred years ago.  The average person has things in their house that the richest royalty in the world couldn't have had in 1900; and I'm not just talking about the computer or whatever you're reading this on.  Clean running water, public sanitation and antibiotics are miracles, brought about by the intellect of man, and, yes, to some degree by the free and open markets.  Pneumonia?  The killer scourge in past centuries?  The antibiotics are free at Publix.

Yes we live on a finite planet.  Yes, we can't pave it over like Coruscant in the Star Wars movies.  The thing that the anti-progress people like Ehrlich or that 1800 BC Babylonian author never seem to grasp is that human ingenuity is the most powerful resource on Earth.  Time after time, humanity has faced environmental problems or shortages and figured out ways around them.  

The history of the human race is a history of using that ingenuity to improvise, adapt, and overcome.  It's not a smooth continuum but things get better.  In the long term, that's always true.  Last words to Marian Tupy at FEE:
To quote the British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, “On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”



  1. When you live in the voids - where there are few people - it feels better to me than the fetid inner cities.

    1. Only because you do not want government to take care of your every need and your every desire. THAT is why hive dwellers dwell in the hives. They luvs them some Communism. Even as they try to redefine it as merely "socialism".

  2. Well stated, I agree completely.


  3. Moving from SoCal to Northern Colorado was quite refreshing. There's fewer people in this entire county, and it's a big one, than there were in just Long Beach; 350k vs 500+k.

    And that Human Ingenuity they speak so highly of is critically dependent on a proper education in the Physical Sciences and Mathematics, something the leftist socialists seem intent on stamping out.

    1. If you want the locals to fully appreciate you, be sure to sing the praises of Moonbeam and Gavin. And Ahnold as well. Suggest that what Colorado REALLY needs is a high speed "bullet" train...


  4. I'm sorry, I couldn't get the book _The Population Bomb_ by interlibrary loan now that Peak Oil has reduced all shipping to horse-drawn wagons. What hoax is next now that the predictions of HotColdWetDry have failed?

  5. A particular hot button for me is when someone who can't do math says, "We should stop putting all these chemicals on the land and return to farming the old way."

    1. Ok. Put a fence around Ohio and let them live just the way they want. They can fight for their food with the bugs and the birds.

  6. Since Norman Bourlaug came around and put a big pause on the famine angle, I find myself rooting for Ebola to depopulate Africa. They'll do a pretty good job on each other but something has to take care of the half that remains.