Environmental Author Paul Ehrlich still prophesying doom, and still wrong!
Paul Ehrlich, the author of The Population Bomb and the 20th century's keeper of the Malthusian flame, has popped up in The Guardian. "The world's most renowned population analyst has called for a massive reduction in the number of humans and for natural resources to be redistributed from the rich to the poor," it reports, both gushingly and alarmingly. (Hat tip to the estimable Dan Gardner for noticing, by the way.)
"Ehrlich, who was described as alarmist in the 1970s but who says most of his predictions have proved correct, says he was gloomy about humanity's ability to feed over 9 billion people [the predicted population peak in 2050]," it says. He says that, does he? So, let's take a look at some of his predictions, made in 1968:
1) “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s 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,” he said. He predicted four billion deaths, including 65 million Americans.
What actually happened: Since Ehrlich wrote, the population has more than doubled to seven billion – but the amount of food per head has gone up by more than 25 per cent. Of course there are famines, but the death rate has gone down. I don't think a significant number of Americans have starved.
2) "The train of events leading to the dissolution of India as a viable nation is already in motion.” India was doomed, and should be left to die in a "triage" system that would concentrate resources on those places that can be saved.
What actually happened: The Green Revolution, a series of technological and agrarian advances led by a man called Norman Borlaug, transformed our ability to produce food. These techniques were introduced to India by one Prof Monkombu Swaminathan. “They [Ehrlich, and Paul and William Paddock, authors of Famine: 1975!] said Indians, and others, were like sheep going to the slaughterhouse. They’ll all die,”Swaminathan told Gardner in an interview. But thanks to Borlaug, Swaminathan, and human ingenuity, India is now one of the few countries with a booming economy, and is a net exporter, rather than recipient, of food aid. But if Ehrlich's and the Paddocks' advice had been followed, there could have been tens of millions of deaths, says Swaminathan.
3) "By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000."
What actually happened: I'm not hungry. I just ate. Are you hungry? Were you hungry in 2000, especially? Does England exist?
As recently as 2009 Ehrlich was saying The Population Bomb was "too optimistic". But he's wrong. He's not lying, he entirely believes what he is saying, but he is wrong. For the reasons why he is wrong, and why smart people make such dreadful predictions and then stick to them so rigidly even after they have obviously not come true, please read Gardner's brilliant book Future Babble; for a small taste, read this comment piece I wrote for the paper a few months ago. But when he says that "most of his predictions have proved correct", remember what some of those predictions actually were.
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