The Population Explosion Revisited

The NY Times has an excellent article and accompanying video regarding the Unrealized Horror of the Population Explosion (published May 31, 2015). Citing, among other doomsayers, Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University the article lays out all of the Malthusian arguments which were extremely popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The article and video go on to rather effectively debunk the notion that the planet couldn’t handle the added population strain. Not too difficult to debunk these misguided notions given that the population has more than doubled since Ehrlich and others were spreading mass panic.

Three things worth noting here. First, Ehrlich is still singing from his original hymnal. In the video he is shown both then and now, and now he’s unapologetic about being, well, completely wrong. Stewart Brand, one of Ehrlich’s fellow traveler’s does recognize that facts have made the whole zero population movement a misguided mistake. Tip of the hat to Mr. Brand.

Which brings us to our second point: the movement today might be seen as a benign cause except that, and this is clear in watching the video, a great many people were forced to undergo mass sterilization. And many others suffered from government policies to restrict child birth. This is an inexcusable cost that proponents of the zero population growth movement must acknowledge. We’ll add that the worry of the day was that third world nations were going to be the cause of the population explosion because of their high birth rates. If you’ve read our essay on the Great State of Humanity you’ll realize that the population gains over the last 50 years are not because of out of control birth rates but rather is due to increasing life expectancy.

Third, we encourage readers to read the comments of the NY Times readers that chime in with their opinion. Sadly, a great many, in fact the overwhelming majority, of the comments ignore the thrust of the piece and claim that the world is indeed overpopulated and we are all suffering for it. We are saddened that so many feel that the world is overpopulated when the facts point to an improvement in living conditions, life expectancy, per capita income, higher literacy, greater leisure time etc. for the average person on the planet. The notion that the world has so many inhabitants that the food supply cannot keep up is just simply wrong. The prevalent nutrition problem we face on a global scale is one of over consumption.

We accept that starvation and malnutrition exist, but hunger is not caused by any inability to produce adequate supplies of food. And, despite the doubling of the world’s population the percentage of humans suffering from starvation has been reduced significantly. (See note at bottom of page.) Clearly this leaves an unacceptably high number of people suffering from hunger. But the problem isn’t the ability to produce enough food on the planet, it is more a question of local political and economic breakdowns. According to the UN’s FAO, “The food is there: world agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase.” (See source information at bottom of page.)

The distinction between the ability to produce enough food to feed the planet and the inability to end world hunger caused by specific regional, economic and political issues is important. If we don’t understand the cause of the hunger we will struggle to solve it. Engaging in forced sterilizations in India under the belief that the problem is an excessively high birth rate does nothing to help the millions suffering from hunger for economic or political reasons.

Despite being factually wrong about his world view, Professor Ehrlich is unrepentant. Viewers of the video will get to see him explain why he was and is right in his predictions. Here are some of his predictions from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as reported in the NY Times (in bold) with our italicized comments in parenthesis:

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” (Incorrect. In fact there wasn’t much of a battle as humanity doubled in size and per capita calorie consumption has grown steadily.)

He later went on to forecast that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970’s, that 65 million of them would be Americans (Oops. Not only didn’t one-third of all Americans die of starvation, the US population grew from in 203 million in 1970 to 226 million in 1980.)

that crowded India was essentially doomed, (Wrong again. India’s population has grown from one-half billion to 1.2 billion between 1970 and 2010. And the per capita GDP is at an all time high.)

that odds were fair “England will not exist in the year 2000.” (Dr. Ehrlich asserts now that he wasn’t wrong in this prediction, but that maybe his timing was a bit off.)

Dr. Ehrlich was so sure of himself that he warned in 1970 that “sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come.” By “the end,” he meant “an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.” (No comment necessary.)

We’ll repeat our mantra: Life on this planet has never been better. That is a factual statement and can be supported by any number of quantifiable metrics.

Finally, thanks to our friends at humanprogress.org for alerting us to this great piece.

 

Your thoughts? Agree? Disagree? Wish to express an opinion, point out a mistake or generally reorient our thinking? Feel free to send an email to editor(at)humanprogress.com. We will likely respond and may even publish your comment.

 

Sources:

Population data for the US 1970 from https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=us%20population%201970

US 1980: https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=us+population+1980

India 1970 to 2010: http://www.indexmundi.com/facts/india/population

Regarding the percentage of the world that is suffering from hunger (including malnutrition) wikipedia is an excellent source of initial information and a good head start for primary research. The percentage of undernourished in 1990/1992 was 19%. By 2010/12 this had fallen to 12%. Obviously the population had grown over that time so the absolute number (1 billion falling to 868 million), while lower, was still high.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunger

The food is there source: FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations)  http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/y6265e/y6265e03.htm