“Sometime in the next fifteen years the end will come. By the end I mean the utter breakdown of the planet’s capacity to support humanity.” Dr. Paul Erlich, 1970
In 1973 before we moved to Maine, we lived in a two bedroom cottage on Mashnee Island where the Cape Cod Canal connected to the bay. One of my contractor customers was a locked down, fit, good looking guy with a locked down, fit, good looking wife and no children. He invited me back to his house to review some upcoming house building plans in his home office one afternoon. When I went in, he offered me some coffee and a half hour of pacing and proselytizing on his zealous organization, Zero Population Growth, for which he was the head of the Cape Cod chapter, one of 600 chapters. ZPG’s ideas rapidly gained ascendency due to Paul Erlich’s best seller, Population Bomb. Dr. Erlich, a Stanford professor of ecology and demographics, developed mathematical models of population growth that foretold of doomsday: the earth is running out of food, mass starvation, riots and complete social breakdown. His solution was population control, voluntary if possible, but government enforced if necessary. His “wisdom,” while radical in the late sixties and early seventies became mainstream and deeply inculcated in our culture. As we have seen again in the climate change debate, elaborate computer models aren’t always predictive. What was neglected in his models was the human capacity to adapt, to learn, and developments like the “green revolution” in India that multiplied our ability to feed and house the growing population. Imperfect solutions, but adjusting constantly to new reality.
My customer thrust on me with messianic fervor a copy of Erlich’s book. At a certain age, we are all convinced that the world is coming to an end, ignorant humans are the cause, and that we and likeminded cognoscenti are privy to its deprivations and must all rally to radical solutions. Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Chairman Mao, Voltaire, Adolph Hitler, even such as Margaret Sanger[i] and Peter Singer—so many similar true believers in that desperate parade—were convinced and convincing that they possessed the truth. The detritus of their error was death. Dr. Erlich delivered his version. Whether his inaccuracies were mistakes, bad computer modeling or lies to bolster an agenda, I’ll leave to others.
“A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” “Sometimes history needs a push.” Vladimir Lenin
Recent articles reminded me of Erlich’s past. The New York Times published “The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion” about the radical drop in birth rate to below replacement levels in many countries that threatens their culture and sustainability, citing Erlich’s work as an example of science gone wrong. Erlich was the darling of the media in the early seventies; movies like ZPG and Solvent Green were made. A frequent guest of Johnny Carson, he was often hailed as gospel by liberal media giants like Walter Cronkite and Howard K. Smith. He told Johnny to bet big that England wouldn’t exist by the year 2000. The world was headed for catastrophic uncontrolled population growth. Erlich recommended coercive birth control if voluntary good sense didn’t prevail. He advocated doing away with tax deductions for children and punitive luxury taxes on diapers, baby furniture and formula with public shaming of any mother birthing more than two children. India initiated mandatory sterilizations, and eight million women had their tubes tied against their will in hellish assembly line “clinics.” China initiated a one child policy with forced abortions and job loss, eviction from homes or jail time for violators. Much of Western Europe stopped having babies; so did we. ZPG put out scary videos of mobs of people wearing gas masks to enable breathing while immersed in polluted air caused by populations living like rats in a box.
The birth rate plummeted in many nations, including our own. We are now faced with rapidly aging populations, birth rates below the 2.1 minimum necessary to sustain an economy or take care of its own; some are calling what has befallen us a “demographic winter.”
“Children bring life, joy, hope, also trouble, but life is like this…However, it’s better to have a society with these worries and problems than a sad and grey society because it has remained without children.” Pope Francis, General Audience 3/18/15
The same media that parroted Erlich’s earlier errors still shills for him. He acknowledges that his time line was a bit off—England still exists after all, smug smile—but he contends that anthropogenic climate change, the toxins of ocean pollution and escalating species extinction support his earlier theory. After all, he intones in that affected condescension only an academic darling can perfect, “time for an ecologist is different” from that of the uninformed.
While MSNBC is delighted that a pope has finally seen the light as published this week in Pope Francis’s encyclical “Laudato Si’,” they neglect to report some of the document’s other conclusions that solutions to environmental challenges lie as well in our individual and local decisions about overconsumption, compassion in daily practice and sharing, perhaps more than in massive Al Gore like government power interventions that engender more disruption and human misery than they alleviate.
Some lessons for me are these. We do need to consider the impact of our daily life decisions, and while the scientists continue to work out their data, their models and their recommendations, each of us each day can begin right now, where we are to do our part. Erlich’s polemics praising small families and childlessness contributed to the fuel of the so named “sexual revolution,” with all its social ramifications of commitment phobia, single parent families and renegade male irresponsibility; it’s all of a piece. And that the generosity requisite for good child bearing and child rearing, if atrophying in our collective lives, is exactly the generous spirit we need to tamp down our personal avarice, our consumption and our reluctance to share our planet’s resources and in its future.[ii]
“If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.” Wilbur Wright, from “The Wright Brothers,” David McCullough[iii]
[i] See prior two part blog posts on Sanger’s handiwork and life. Maggie
[ii] As quoted by Regis Martin in Crisis Magazine, Ross Douthat wrote in a 2012 NY Times piece, our “’retreat from child rearing, is at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion,’ a condition of ‘decadence,’ he calls it, evoking a ‘spirit that privileges the present over the future.’”
[iii] While not his best book, Mr. McCullough at 81 may have lost some velocity off his fastball, but he still has all his pitches. Well worth your time.
3 responses to “Population Bomb Defused”
I recall those times! There was a scare in the air that set the tone for television shows, movies, magazines, and books – both fiction and non-fiction. It even invaded the public schools, well mine anyway. I was in the fifth grade in 1970 and our teacher led us through a two-week course on the results of overpopulation. I remember the message being rather dire and threat presented as imminent. There were slides and film strips (remember those?) and films filled with nasty images of death, destruction, and doom. A series of “experiments” involving rats in crowded cages were used to illustrate the violence we could expect once the tipping point was reached. It weren’t pretty.
I remember watching films like Soylent Green and Silent Running et al, and reading books filled with Malthusian-level predictions about humanity’s bleak future. Sigh, the 70s… It was the same decade that brought us disco, platform shoes, and polyester clothing, so what can you expect?!
One slight niggle: Erlich was a scientist in the same way Uri Geller was a psychic. Sure, he had the education and training, but it seems to me that instead of properly and efficiently applying the tools of science, he instead opted to use them to pound the facts into submission and mold them to his thesis. Presupposition is a dead end if you’re looking for answers.
As we’ve parried in the past, science and scientific methods, when diligently and judiciously applied, are the best tools we’ve come up with for finding answers to the big questions as well as the small. Scientists are only human. If you prick them with a broken pipette do they not bleed? Not all are diligent and many fall prey to vanity. But for the most part they are as dedicated and honest as any other group of people. Or as the Osmond’s musically reminded us back in the early 70s, “One Bad Apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl!”
Interesting topic. Thanks for the memories!
I always love your informed and informative comments, AV, agree or disagree. They are never fatuous or less than thoughtful. Hope you get your email posts going again soon. Be well.
I post weekly on social media. More readers, more comments and discussion, greater satisfaction. Of course the posts are a bit more difficult to write since they need to fall into the 200 – 300 word range, but it’s always an interesting challenge.