Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Population Bomb

I recently picked up a copy of The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich.  I have heard much made of this book from a number of different sources and I wanted to see what exactly was up with it first hand.  The book was first published in 1968 and the library delivered me the 1971 version though I believe there were more versions after that.  The basic premise of the book is that the world's population is completely out of control and the coming decade (that is, the 1970s) will be marked by catastrophic starvation and most likely widespread war and plague.  This book was a powerful galvanizing agent for the environmental movement and helped make population control a much more widely acknowledged issue.  It has also been widely and roundly criticized for being wrong on nearly every prediction and being full of speculation and emotional appeal instead of fact and science.  Everyone agrees that it was an influential book and mostly everyone agrees it was completely wrong.  That is, of course, notably barring the author who believes that the book was very accurate.

In a book focused on dire predictions and imminent apocalypse there are some real bright spots.  Ehrlich tells us exactly how long it will take given current growth rates for the mass of humanity to be a gigantic sphere that is expanding at the speed of light.  (Images of a ball of humans the size of the solar system blasting outwards at light speed based on the number of new babies being produced is certainly amusing.  If nothing else it triggered a very interesting physics discussion between myself and Wendy concerning whether or not such an outrageous mass would be relatively stable or if it would collapse into a black hole.  We ended up not being entirely sure.)  Ehrlich does have some absolutely irrefutable points though they are really quite trivial in many cases.  For example, he points out regularly that if we reduce the death rate but do not reduce the birth rate we will eventually be unable to feed everyone - see expanding ball of humanity.

The primary failure of the reason in the book is one that is very common even to this day; that is the assumption that since the individual cannot fathom what power and benefits new technologies might bring that those powers and benefits will not arrive.  Some scientists in the early parts of the 20th century were known to declare that science was nearly at an end; humanity was very near to knowing all things.  This is of course utter rubbish and would be rubbish no matter when the speaker lived as the idea that we will somehow arrive at an ending of ingenuity and creativity is laughable.  Even if science did not have nearly endless mysteries that we simply do not yet possess the power and technology to plumb the very idea that we cannot use the technology and understanding we have to improve the way we do things is ludicrous.  Every day, a hundred times a day somebody comes up with a new gadget, product, technique or substance that is a huge improvement over what we had before.  Constantly we recombine, redesign and tweak to make things better and more efficient in every field of human endeavour.  There are mistakes, false starts and backslides of course but there is no reason to think that this trend is going to stop; at least not while people, technology and Earth remotely resemble what they do today.

In the end the book is really just a retread of a very old line.


Doomsayers have attracted audiences forever and most likely always will.  People are very interested in dire predictions and certainties and much less concerned by error bars, potential concerns and issues that will take a long time to appear.  I liken The Population Bomb and its author to modern global warming alarmism.  Both AGW and population pressure are real issues that humanity is going to have to come to grips with.  Both of them are things that are longterm in scope, both are things that greater technology will assist us in dealing with and both have been blown hilariously out of proportion by some people and groups.  When dealing with such issues it is important that we take them seriously and that includes not listening to people whose primary message is


1 comment:

  1. I have an unrelated anecdote with a useful moral (I totally agree that doomsaying is bad when it comes to nearly anything):

    A mutual friend of ours (no clever faux name) wrote a paper for a philosophy course that covered Ehrlich and some other over population alarmists. It turned out, after reading a bunch of over population books, she came to the conclusion that they were just a bunch of racists. That doesn't necessarily mean that they are secret racists trying to convince non-racists to wipe out black people under the guise of saving humanity (though for some of them this supposition wouldn't be a stretch, apparently), but at the very least they seem to think that black people having children in Africa is somehow going to be the death of us all.

    On the AGW front, there are those that argue that anything we do to combat AGW would be pointless because the Chinese and the Indians are just going to keep going and there's nothing we can do about it so they are going to destroy the world whether we participate or not so there's no reason for us to act. The racists, this time, are against primary doomsayer movement, but this time the problem is real (even if the alarmism is bad).

    I promise a useful moral, and here it is: If you don't know what to think about a large and complex problem that involves too much information and data for you to process completely, simply choose the point of view that is opposite to the broad consensus among racists. They are wrong reliably enough to serve as a litmus test.