Prognosticators and Proselytizers, Part 1

In 1968, biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote that “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. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate….”

To prevent this catastrophic loss of life, Ehrlich called for drastic actions to curtail population growth. He advocated using incentives and penalties to “encourage” individuals to have fewer children, but acknowledged that coercive measures might be required.

To say that Ehrlich’s prediction was wrong would be a gross understatement. In 1968, the world’s population was about 3.5 billion. Today, it is over 7.5 billion. Despite the population more than doubling, the percentage of people who are undernourished has decreased from about 18 percent in 1991 (the earliest statistic I could find) to about 11 percent in 2015. In real numbers, more than 4.3 billion people were adequately nourished in 1991. In 2015, the number had risen to more than 6.4 billion.

Not only did mass starvation fail to materialize, more people than ever are being fed. These facts, however, have failed to dissuade Ehrlich. In 2004, he stated,

Anne [Ehrlich’s wife and co-author] and I have always followed U.N. population projections as modified by the Population Reference Bureau — so we never made “predictions,” even though idiots think we have. When I wrote The Population Bomb in 1968, there were 3.5 billion people. Since then we’ve added another 2.8 billion — many more than the total population (2 billion) when I was born in 1932. If that’s not a population explosion, what is? My basic claims (and those of the many scientific colleagues who reviewed my work) were that population growth was a major problem.

In other words, anyone who took Ehrlich seriously when he claimed that “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death” is an idiot.

If Ehrlich’s predictions aren’t really predictions, then what are they? The answer to that can be found in another statement from 2004:

The worst population problems are in rich nations, especially the U.S., because of their very high rates of consumption. Consumption is, in Anne’s and my view, the single most difficult problem to deal with now — as we discuss extensively in One With Nineveh. Times have changed — population control, especially among the rich, is critical, but consumption control today is probably more critical and certainly tougher to achieve.

Reducing consumption–our standard of living–is Ehrlich’s real goal. Indeed, that is the goal behind the entire environmentalist movement.

The environmentalist movement has a long history of making dire prognostications about the future, none of which have come true. But that hasn’t stopped them from continuing to claim that disaster will soon befall mankind, unless we reduce industrialization and our standard of living.

For fifty years, environmentalists have used predictions of catastrophe to push their agenda. For five decades, they have fought against progress, development, and human flourishing. Ehrlich was one of the first to issue dire warnings, but he certainly wasn’t the last.

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