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In his 1968 book The Population Bomb, Paul R. Ehrlich made predictions about the future of our planet based on his understanding of population growth and projected food supplies. Ehrlich’s work was not new. Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), a British political economist and mathematician, proposed that population growth would outstrip any increase in food supplies in his day.

Malthus theorized that food production follows an arithmetical growth rate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and so forth) while population growth follows a geometrical pattern (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, ad infinitum). The hypothesis seemed irrefutable because it was based on the exactitude of mathematics![1] These “irrefutable facts” meant, according to Malthus, that mass starvation for Great Britain was imminent and inevitable. More than 200 years have passed since the publication of Malthus’s essay, and Great Britain is more populace and productive than it was when Malthus made his calculations.

The failure of the Malthusian worldview did not deter Ehrlich from making similar predictions. He asserted dogmatically, “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.”[2] In 1969, Ehrlich continued with his predictions, stating, “By 1985 enough millions will have died to reduce the earth’s population to some acceptable level, like 1.5 billion people.” The same year, he predicted in an article entitled “Eco-Catastrophe!” that by 1980 the United States would see life expectancy drop to 42 years because of pesticides, and by 1999 its population would plummet to 22.6 million. The facts tell a different story.

“All you can see is growing wealth around the world, increased caloric intake, increased life expectancy, increased per-capita wealth,” says Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies for the Cato Institute, a Washington research center that opposes most government intervention.

“We are increasingly conquering death around the world,” Taylor adds. “A century ago, human life expectancy was about 30 years. Now it’s 60 or 70 years. People are not starving to death. They are getting better food and they are living longer.”

And because they are living better, Taylor said, people are having fewer children.[3]

In the mid-seventies, with the release of his book The End of Affluence,[4] Ehrlich outlined a Hollywood-style disaster scenario where he foresaw the President dissolving Congress “during the food riots of the 1980s,” followed by the United States suffering a nuclear attack for its mass use of insecticides. Like Malthus before him, in 1969 Ehrlich did not see much of a future for England. “I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”[5]

In 1976, he went beyond predicting food scarcity and took it upon himself to make unfounded pronouncements about natural resources. “Before 1985, mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity . . . in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion.”[6] Economist Julian Simon won a bet with Paul Ehrlich on whether the price of five strategic metals which Ehrlich chose (copper, chrome, nickel, tin, tungsten) would rise or fall in a ten-year period from 1980 to 1990. All five metals went down in price. Ehrlich lost the bet.[7] Prices continue to fall. The year 2001 saw “the worst decline in commodity prices in at least 31 years. Copper fell to a 14-year low, coffee was the cheapest since 1971 and cotton dropped to its lowest price in more than two decades.”[8]

Endnotes:

[1] Thomas R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 2 vols., Everyman’s Library (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., [1798] 1958.
[2] Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, rev. ed. (Rivercity, MA: Rivercity Press, 1975), xi. Quoted in Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulations as a Basis for Social Policy (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 67. In the first edition, Ehrlich stated: “There is not enough food today. How much there will be tomorrow is open to debate. If the optimists are correct, today’s level of misery will be perpetuated for perhaps two decades into the future. If the pessimists are correct, massive famines will occur soon, possibly in the early 1970’s, certainly by the early 1980’s. So far most of the evidence seems to be on the side of the pessimists, and we should plan on the assumption that they are correct. After all, some two billion people aren’t being properly fed in 1968!” (Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb [Binghamton, NY: Sierra Club, 1969], 36–37).
[3] Jeff Nesmith, “6 Billion and Growing Fast,” The Atlanta Journal/Constitution (October 10, 1999), D3. Large families were often necessary because of high infant mortality, long-term family care (true social security), and the need for manual labor. With better medical care, capitalist economies, and advances in technology, families, on average, choose to have fewer children.
[4] Paul R. Ehrlich, The End of Affluence: A Blueprint for Your Future (New York: Ballantine Books, 1974).
[5] Michael Fumento, “Doomsayer Paul Ehrlich Strikes Out Again,” Investor’s Business Daily [6] Quoted in Fumento, “Doomsayer Paul Ehrlich Strikes Out Again.” (December 16, 1997).
[7] For an account of the wager, see John Tierney, “Betting the Planet,” New York Times Magazine (December 2, 1990), 52. Copper is being replaced in the communication’s industry by “fiber optics.” Two hair-thin fiber optic strands can carry 24,000 telephone calls. It would take 48,000 copper wires to carry the same number of calls.
[8] Bloomberg News, “Commodity prices hit worst decline in 31 years,” Atlanta Journal/Constitution (January 2, 2002), D3.

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