Was The Population Bomb really wrong?


Uh, yeah.

Paul Ehrlich’s environmental classic The Population Bomb keeps popping up, sparking lively discussion on comment boards. Here’s a typical comment:

The population bomb IS materializing every day. It’s not just a matter of resources or space or even pollution. It’s a matter of quality of life. Of course, the specifics of most any forecast are going to be wrong. But, the general premise that overpopulation has undesirable consequences isn’t.

The general premise of the Population Bomb was not “overpopulation has undesirable consequences.” That’s common sense. And a tautology. No. The premise of the Population Bomb was

  1. Hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in the 1970s and 1980s.
  2. There will be a massive increase in the global death rate.
  3. Conscious (and compulsory) regulation of human population is essential to prevent the worsening of this crisis.

This is all in the first paragraph of the Prologue. And it is all wrong.

On point #1, there were some terrible famines in the 1970s and 1980s, but hundreds of millions did not starve. Around 5.8 million people died from famines from 1970-1990. Those famines were as much the product of civil wars as drought and overcrowding.

Interesting side note – in 2009, Paul Ehrlich and his wife reviewed The Population Bomb with the benefit of 40 years of hindsight. Together they somehow concluded that The Population Bomb pretty much got it right the first time.

Perhaps 300 million people have died of hunger and hunger related diseases since 1968.

In the article, no evidence is provided to support this claim. And the Ehrlichs are hedging, of course. They no longer speak of hundreds of millions of people “starving to death.” Instead, in the new narrative, people are perishing from “hunger-related diseases.” And that could mean pretty much anything. For instance, this post by the World Food Program of the UN gives a sense of how big, and fuzzy, the “hunger-related disease” category might be.

On point #2, the global death rate has declined from 13 (per 1,000) in 1968 to 7.9 (per 1,000) in 2012.

On point #3, except for a few terrible decades in China, no draconian population control measures were taken. Yet women, across the globe, now have (on average) half the number of children they were having 50 years ago (in 1960 women averaged 5 children, in 2012 that number is 2.5).

So, obviously the population growth rate is steadily declining and has been for about 50 years. Without harsh, conscious, and/or compulsory population control.

Let’s just take a breath and appreciate what we have here. The Population Bomb is a spectacular monument to getting things completely wrong. We ought to appreciate it as such. And we should also remind ourselves to be as humble in our predictions as we can stand to be.

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