When the U.N. announced its global population projection of 10 billion by 2010 a few days ago, it was hard not to think back on Paul Ehrlich. Prof. Ehrlich was the butterfly researcher whose books and TV appearances scared the bejeezus out of us in the late 60s with predictions of a planet running out of food and hundreds of millions starving. Ehrlich’s name has come up as pundits have been pondering the meaning of this scary projection, but actually he and wife Anne had already taken a victory lap in HuffPo a few weeks earlier:
When The Population Bomb was published in 1968, there were 3.5 billion people, and we were called alarmist — technology could feed, house, clothe, educate, and provide great lives to even 5 billion people. Nuclear agro-industrial complexes or growing algae on sewage would feed everyone. Well, they didn’t. Instead, the roughly half-billion hungry people then have increased to about a billion…
The fear of runaway population, and the belief that it explains hunger, are old indeed; they even predate Malthus. But in modern times no one has beat these drums as loudly as Ehrlich. With this new population projection reviving old concerns, it’s a good time to think about Ehrlich’s victory lap and whether he has earned it.
Ehrlich’s original population epiphany was triggered by a wild ride in a Delhi taxi which he described in the prologue to The Population Bomb:
I have understood the population explosion intellectually for a long time. I came to understand it emotionally one stinking hot night in Delhi a few years ago. My wife and daughter and I were returning to our hotel in an ancient taxi. The seats were hopping with fleas. The only functional gear was third. As we crawled through the city, we entered a crowded slum area. The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob, hand horn squawking, the dust, noise, heat and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get to our hotel? All three of us were, frankly, frightened… since that night I’ve known the feel of overpopulation.
The problem, he concluded, was bigger than the crowded evening hell in Delhi: it was that there could never be enough food for all those Indians. In 1968 he wrote
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.
The next year he was more specific, writing that “by 1985 enough millions will have died to reduce the earth’s population to some acceptable level, like 1.5 billion people.” More chilling yet: “[m]ost of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born”; by 1975, “some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions.”
Oddly enough, Ehrlich was saying all this just as wheat yields were soaring due to Green Revolution seeds. In fact, this “revolution” was never the life saver that it is in legend; I am persuaded by the analysts who say that it mainly led to the replacement of cut-rate American wheat with Indian-grown wheat. But while I’m thinking that India wouldn’t have starved even without the Green Revolution, Ehrlich was sure India would starve even with it. The statistics said there as plenty of food but Ehrlich was having none of it:
These clowns who are talking of feeding a big population in the year 2000 from make-believe ‘green revolutions’ … should learn some elementary biology, meteorology, agricultural economics and anthropology…
I know some elementary anthropology and I have to point out that Ehrlich’s claims about population and agriculture have never fit the facts. Farm production per capita was climbing in the 1960s, it has been climbing ever since, and the FAO sees it continuing to climb for as far out as they care to project (2030). India does have a lot of undernourished people, but it has nothing to do with population ourstripping farm production; in fact as I pointed out recently, India has an ongoing crisis of grain surpluses.
OK, but just because Ehrlich has been wrong for the last 40 years, doesn’t this scary new projection warrant pulling the alarm? What’s the harm in trying to be safe rather than sorry?
Actually there is a lot of harm.
First, these projections are much too fuzzy to base anything on. To quote Joel Cohen (who, unlike most commentators, actually knows a lot about population), tiny changes in our assumptions about reproduction give wildly different numbers. If women average just half a child more or half a child less than the U.N. assumes, the population in 2100 rises to 15.8 billion or falls to 6.2 billion, which was the world’s population around 2001. The farther into the future you project, the more you are just guessing. We have no theory to predict the reproductive behavior of people who have not even been born yet.
But more importantly, attributing hunger to population growth distracts attention from the actual (primarily political) causes of hunger while yielding the floor to the politicians, academic researchers and corporations that benefit by promoting agricultural inputs. After all, if we really are in a desperate scramble to create food, then all these discussions about sustainable, organic, local, and humane farming are a dangerous distraction.
On the other hand, if we are making ourselves and our environment sick with agricultural systems that grow faster than the population, then it is writing like Ehrlich’s that is the dangerous distraction.