November 5th, 2008 | Posted in Population Basics
by Carl Haub, Senior Demographer
What! Someone is defending Paul Ehrlich? Paul Ehrlich, the famous author of the 1968 Population Bomb, has often taken it on the chin for his infamous “predictions.” His statement in the Population Bomb “The battle to feed all of humanity is over” has probably landed him in the most hot water. While that battle has not been lost, neither has it been won even to this day.
Ehrlich’s Cassandra-like statements have caused him considerable grief – but consider them as products of the time in which they were made. The population of the world’s developing countries (Africa, Asia, Latin America/Caribbean, and Oceania) was growing at a startling 2.5 percent per year. Our old friend “doubling time” tells us that that rate would cause their population, 2.6 billion at the time, to double every 28 years - 2.6 billion in 1968, 5.2 billion in 1996, 7.0 billion today, 10.4 billion in 2024, and so on. In 1968, women averaged six children per woman; family planning was virtually unknown; and death rates were likely to continue downward thanks to immunization programs and spreading public health measures so the growth might even increase.
It had taken world population until about 1800 to reach its first billion and 130 to reach the second. Four billion would come just six years after Ehrlich had written his book and the fifth billion just 13 years further on. The unprecedented growth was a result of a very rapid 20th century decline in death rates in developing countries, something that had taken the developed countries many centuries to achieve. That growth came as a real surprise.
If you are going to sound a warning, a clarion call, sound it LOUDLY. Ehrlich (whose name means “honest” in German) pulled no punches. If he had said something like “There is a possibility that increased hunger and starvation might manifest itself should the population growth rate in developing countries not ameliorate,” no one would have listened. Nor would he be much criticized or remembered today. If you’re going to say “Fire!” don’t whisper.
To be sure, Ehrlich was hardly the first to sound the alarm. News magazines, such as U.S. News and World Report, far more influential then than now, had run stories on the population problem. In 1963, the magazine reported that President Kennedy had agreed to offer birth control information to “other nations.” It makes no sense that Ehrlich is now criticized as being alarmist because his dire warnings did not, in the main, come true. But it was because of such warnings from Ehrlich and others that countries took action to avoid potential disaster.The edition of the Bomb I picked up in a used book sale at Georgetown University in 1974 was in its 32nd printing. Someone must have been getting the message. Nice going, Paul.