“The United Nations recently released population projections based on data until 2012 and a Bayesian probabilistic methodology. Analysis of these data reveals that, contrary to previous literature, world population is unlikely to stop growing this century. There is an 80% probability that world population, now 7.2 billion, will increase to between 9.6 and 12.3 billion in 2100.”
In his book The Population Bomb, first published in 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich made a number of predictions about the future of population growth and food supplies. Ehrlich’s projections were not new. Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), a British political economist and mathematician, proposed that population growth would outstrip any increase in food supplies in his day.
The Malthus hypothesis seemed irrefutable because it was based on mathematics!1 These “irrefutable facts” meant to Malthus that mass starvation for Great Britain was imminent and inevitable. More than two centuries have passed since the publication of Malthus’s essay, and Great Britain is more populace and productive than it was when Malthus made his calculations.
The failure of the Malthusian worldview did not deter Ehrlich from making similar predictions. He asserted dogmatically, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”2
In 1969, Ehrlich continued with his predictions, stating, “By 1985 enough millions will have died to reduce the earth’s population to some acceptable level, like 1.5 billion people.” The same year, he predicted in an article entitled “Eco-Catastrophe!” that by 1980 the United States would see life expectancy drop to 42 years because of pesticides, and by 1999 its population would plummet to 22.6 million. The facts tell a different story.
“All you can see is growing wealth around the world, increased caloric intake, increased life expectancy, increased per-capita wealth,” says Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies for the Cato Institute, a Washington research center that opposes most government intervention.
“We are increasingly conquering death around the world,” Taylor adds. “A century ago, human life expectancy was about 30 years. Now it’s 60 or 70 years. People are not starving to death. They are getting better food and they are living longer.”
And because they are living better, Taylor said, people are having fewer children.3
In the mid-seventies, with the release of his book The End of Affluence, Ehrlich outlined a Hollywood-style disaster scenario where he foresaw the President dissolving Congress “during the food riots of the 1980s,” followed by the United States suffering a nuclear attack for its mass use of insecticides. Like Malthus before him, in 1969 Ehrlich did not see much of a future for England. “I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”4
Just to remind you, it’s now 2014.
In 1976, Ehrlich went beyond predicting food scarcity and took it upon himself to make unfounded pronouncements about natural resources. “Before 1985, mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity . . . in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion.”5 Economist Julian Simon won a bet with Paul Ehrlich on whether the price of five strategic metals which Ehrlich chose (copper, chrome, nickel, tin, tungsten) would rise or fall in a ten-year period from 1980 to 1990. As John Tierney reported in his post-wager article, “During that decade the world’s population grew by more than 800 million, the greatest increase in history, and the store of metals buried in the earth’s crust did not get any larger.”6
All five metals went down in price. Ehrlich lost the bet. Prices continued to fall relative to inflation. The year 2001 saw “the worst decline in commodity prices in at least 31 years. Copper fell to a 14-year low, coffee was the cheapest since 1971 and cotton dropped to its lowest price in more than two decades.”7
Despite being wrong on nearly every environmental prediction, Ehrlich and others who have adopted his worldview, continue to insist that overpopulation is an out-of-control problem. And yet Ehrlich has never explained how “overpopulated” Japan, Belgium, and Holland, with more than 500 people per square mile, have a higher standard of living than Columbia, Kenya, and Ethiopia with less than 100 people per square mile.
Why is it that “very densely populated places like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore report no famines”?8 Hong Kong has 20 times the number of people per square mile as India, and yet, the standard of living in India is one hundredth of what it is in Hong Kong.
Consider Singapore. This tiny nation “has more than 10,000 people per square mile, and its income per capita is more than 200 times higher than that of Ethiopia.”9
The escalating prices and shortages we are seeing in commodities are the result of government control of markets. The lack of food in underdeveloped countries is the result of government interference and wars. What do politicians believe the solution is? More government control.
- Thomas R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 2 vols. (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., ), 1958. [↩]
- Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, rev. ed. (Rivercity, MA: Rivercity Press, 1975), xi. Quoted in Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulations as a Basis for Social Policy (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 67.
In the first edition, Ehrlich stated: “There is not enough food today. How much there will be tomorrow is open to debate. If the optimists are correct, today’s level of misery will be perpetuated for perhaps two decades into the future. If the pessimists are correct, massive famines will occur soon, possibly in the early 1970’s, certainly by the early 1980’s. So far most of the evidence seems to be on the side of the pessimists, and we should plan on the assumption that they are correct. After all, some two billion people aren’t being properly fed in 1968!” ((Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb [Binghamton, NY: Sierra Club, 1969], 36–37). [↩]
- Jeff Nesmith, “6 Billion and Growing Fast,” The Atlanta Journal/Constitution (October 10, 1999), D3. Large families were often necessary because of high infant mortality, long-term family care (true social security), and the need for manual labor. With better medical care, capitalist economies, and advances in technology, families, on average, choose to have fewer children. [↩]
- Michael Fumento, “Doomsayer Paul Ehrlich Strikes Out Again,” Investor’s Business Daily (December 16, 1997). [↩]
- Quoted in Fumento, “Doomsayer Paul Ehrlich Strikes Out Again.” [↩]
- For an account of the wager, see John Tierney, “Betting the Planet,” New York Times Magazine (December 2, 1990). [↩]
- Bloomberg News, “Commodity prices hit worst decline in 31 years,” Atlanta Journal/Constitution (January 2, 2002), D3. [↩]
- Thomas Sowell, The Economics and Politics of Race: An International Perspective (New York: William Morrow, 1983), 212. [↩]
- Sowell, Economics and Politics of Race, 211. [↩]