It’s a bit too soon, arguably, to do a full postmortem on the book The Population Bomb and especially on related debates – given the global population continues to rapidly rise and is heading towards 9 or 9.5 billion by mid-century – but lately I spotted some interesting revisiting of the book, its impacts, and the emergence of related social movements and debates. It’s worth checking out, e.g. see:
The related video by the Retro Report: http://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000003712862/the-population-bomb.html
One of the sections of the Retro Report video that really got my attention was Paul Erhlich’s rationale for the confident and seemingly authoritative tone throughout the book. He stated that “I expressed more certainty because I was trying to bring people to get something done”. That’s a common ploy.
And Ehrlich himself back in 2009 revisited his work back in a paper entitled The Population Bomb Revisited’ which is co-authored with his wife. They reflected on the use of scenarios, writing that:
The biggest tactical error in The Bomb was the use of scenarios, stories designed to help one think about the future. Although we clearly stated that they were not predictions and that “we can be sure that none of them will come true as stated,” (p. 72) – their failure to occur is often cited as a failure of prediction. In honesty, the scenarios were way off, especially in their timing (we underestimated the resilience of the world system). But they did deal with future issues that people in 1968 should have been thinking about – famines, plagues, water shortages, armed international interventions by the United States, and nuclear winter (e.g., Ehrlich et al. 1983, Toon et al. 2007) – all events that have occurred or now still threaten. We also didn’t realize that many commentators would assume that our analysis in The Population Bomb comprised our last thoughts on the subject… (pp.67-68)
Although the book did contain some scenarios (see Chapter 2 entitled The Ends of the Road), which are noted above, overall I find his defense a bit rich. Consider the opening sentences of the book: “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 programmes embarked upon now”. The most “rosy” scenario that is presented in The Population Bomb “presumes the death by starvation of as many as a billion people” (p. 81).
What followed publication of the book and Ehrlich’s rising fame (along with many other factors, of course) is fascinating and disturbing, such as the sterilization programs in India, related coercion and abuses, US Presidents campaigning on related issues (Richard Nixon). Indeed, one day I’d like to study in more detail the global population control movement given its influence and importance especially during the 20th century and its use of the spectre of the future to justify enormous social engineering experiments. (E.g. see the book Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population).
Additionally, the book nicely illustrates that some things are much harder to predict than others. Justin Fox, writing for Bloomberg, notes that Ehrlich did get some things right (e.g. he accurately forecast in the book that global population would double by 2005) but also noted that “what Ehrlich famously got wrong was the planet’s carrying capacity”. Also interesting is that Ehrlich was aware of many in-progress innovations that could lead to an inflection point of global agricultural productivity but he discounted the possibility (or at least saw it as less likely than the catastrophes he forecasted).
The Ehrlichs remain defiant arguing that “The [Population] Bomb did exactly what we had hoped … It was thus a successful tract, and we’re proud of it”. Perhaps this is just willful blindness to the darksides, horrors and mistakes of efforts to control world population that the book contributed to.
Perhaps more fundamental is Ehrlich’s recognition that “science never produces certainty”, which conflicted with his desire to express sufficient certainty in order to “bring people to get something done”. In resolving this conflict Ehrlich appears, by his own admission, to have expressed more certainty than the evidence supported in order to promote/justify certain lines of action. This arguably helps to illustrate why the generation and sustaining of expectations is often an inherently political process.