Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Bomb

The Population Bomb was a best-selling book written by Stanford University Professor Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich (who was uncredited), in 1968. It warned of the mass starvation of humans in the 1970s and 1980s due to overpopulation, as well as other major societal upheavals, and advocated immediate action to limit population growth. Fears of a "population explosion" were widespread in the 1950s and 60s, but the book and its charismatic author brought the idea to an even wider audience. The book has been criticized in recent decades for its alarmist tone and inaccurate predictions. The Ehrlichs stand by the basic ideas in the book, stating in 2009 that "perhaps the most serious flaw in The Bomb was that it was much too optimistic about the future" and believe that it achieved their goals because "it alerted people to the importance of environmental issues and brought human numbers into the debate on the human future."

In answer to the question, "what needs to be done?" he wrote, "We must rapidly bring the world population under control, reducing the growth rate to zero or making it negative. Conscious regulation of human numbers must be achieved. Simultaneously we must, at least temporarily, greatly increase our food production." Ehrlich described a number of "ideas on how these goals might be reached." He believed that the United States should take a leading role in population control, both because it was already consuming much more than the rest of the world, and therefore had a moral duty to reduce its impact, and because the US would have to lead international efforts due to its prominence in the world. In order to avoid charges of hypocrisy or racism it would have to take the lead in population reduction efforts. Ehrlich floats the idea of adding "temporary sterilants" to the water supply or staple foods. However, he rejects the idea as unpractical due to "criminal inadequacy of biomedical research in this area." He suggests a tax scheme in which additional children would add to a family's tax burden at increasing rates for more children, as well as luxury taxes on childcare goods. He suggests incentives for men who agree to permanent sterilization before they have two children, as well as a variety of other monetary incentives. He proposes a powerful Department of Population and Environment which "should be set up with the power to take whatever steps are necessary to establish a reasonable population size in the United States and to put an end to the steady deterioration of our environment." The department should support research into population control, such as better contraceptives, mass sterilizing agents, and prenatal sex discernment (because families often continue to have children until a male is born. Ehrlich suggested that if they could choose a male child this would reduce the birthrate). Legislation should be enacted guaranteeing the right to an abortion, and sex education should be expanded.

The Population Bomb has been characterized by critics as primarily a repetition of the Malthusian catastrophe argument that population growth will outpace agricultural growth unless controlled. Ehrlich observed that since about 1930 the population of the world had doubled within a single generation, from 2 billion to nearly 4 billion, and was on track to do so again. He assumed that available resources on the other hand, and in particular food, were nearly at their limits. Some critics compare Ehrlich unfavorably to Malthus, saying that although Thomas Malthus did not make a firm prediction of imminent catastrophe, Ehrlich warned of a potential massive disaster within the next decade or two. In addition, critics state that unlike Malthus, Ehrlich did not see any means of avoiding the disaster entirely (although some mitigation was possible), and proposed solutions that were much more radical than those discussed by Malthus, such as starving whole countries that refused to implement population control measures.

Ehrlich was certainly not unique in his neo-Malthusian predictions, and there was a wide spread belief in the 1960s and 70s that increasingly catastrophic famines were on their way. (read more)

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