The Population Bomb Was a Dud – ‘Ehrlich got it wrong because he never understood human potential’
By William McGurn
April 30, 2018 5:55 p.m. ET
“Hell is other people.” These oft-misquoted words were written by Jean-Paul Sartre. But it would take a Stanford biologist, Paul Ehrlich, to elevate them into a full-fledged ethos that would be used to justify outrages inflicted on millions of innocent people—most of them weak, vulnerable and poor.
Fifty years ago this month, Mr. Ehrlich published “The Population Bomb.” In it he portended global cataclysm—unless the world could be persuaded to stop producing so many . . . well . . . people. The book sketched out possible scenarios of the hell Mr. Ehrlich believed imminent: hundreds of millions dying from starvation, England disappearing by the year 2000, India doomed, the average American’s lifespan falling to 42 by 1980, and so on.
Mr. Ehrlich’s book sold three million copies, and his crabbed worldview became an unquestioned orthodoxy for the technocratic class that seems to welcome such scares as an opportunity to boss everyone else around. In this way the missionary fervor once directed toward Christianizing the globe found its late-20th-century expression as proselytizing for population control. Thus Robert McNamara, whose leadership would prove even more destructive at the World Bank than it had been in Vietnam, would declare overpopulation a graver threat than nuclear war—because the decisions to have babies or not were “not in the exclusive control of a few governments but rather in the hands of literally hundreds of millions of individual parents.”
Professor of biology Paul R. Ehrlich, Stanford, Calif., ca. 1970s. PHOTO: BETTMANN ARCHIVE
In his day Mr. Ehrlich’s assertion about the limited “carrying capacity” of the Earth was settled science. Never mind that it is rooted in an absurdity: that when a calf is born a country’s wealth rises, but when a baby is born it goes down. Or that the record shows that when targeted peoples resist the prescription—don’t have babies—things quickly turn coercive, from forced abortions in China to contraceptive injections given to black women in apartheid-era South Africa.
Enter Julian Lincoln Simon.
Simon was a professor of business and economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 1981, when this columnist first met him, Julian would smile and say the doom-and-gloomers had a false understanding of scarcity that led them to believe resources are fixed and limited.
The evidence, by contrast, was that by almost any measure—life expectancy, infant mortality, caloric intake—things were getting better all the time. The reality, Julian liked to say, is that we live amid “an epidemic of life.”
In 1981 he put his findings together in a book called “The Ultimate Resource.” It took straight aim at Mr. Ehrlich. In contrast to the misanthropic tone of “The Population Bomb” (its opening sentence reads, “The battle to feed all humanity is over”), Julian was optimistic, recognizing that human beings are more than just mouths to be fed. They also come with minds.
Ultimately their clashing views led to a famous wager in 1980. If Mr. Ehrlich was right, prices for commodities would grow more expensive as they became scarcer. If Simon was right, they would become cheaper as humans found more cost-effective ways of extracting them or cheaper alternatives. Mr. Ehrlich picked the commodities—nickel, copper, chromium, tin and tungsten—but in 1990 lost the bet.
The larger victory, however, was not about the price of tin. It was the idea that the finite supply of any given natural resource is only one part of the equation. The other is human ingenuity, which adapts to circumstances and turns what were once luxuries into everyday amenities. That’s why Julian called the human mind “The Ultimate Resource.” And that’s why it never runs out.
Julian left us in 1998 but his spirit can be detected in any number of thinkers. Matt Ridley, author of “The Rational Optimist,” is one. The economist Thomas Sowell is another. So is anyone who stands up to say: Give people free markets and property rights, and you will be astonished by how much they will improve their lot—and ours.
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