New York Times Says Paul Ehrlich Got It Wrong

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Several decades late, our national "paper of record" acknowledges on its editorial page that population alarmist and darling of ideoloigcal environmentalists, Paul Ehrlich, was wrong. The population bomb fizzled.

The Times' Editors write: "A generation ago, Paul Ehrlich warned in "The Population Bomb" that with demands on resources soaring, overpopulation would kill our planet. As demands on water and air soared, many thought he was right. Now it turns out that population growth rates are plummeting … In the second half of the century, the entire world's population should start declining, if these demographic projections prevail. That could present a more affluent world with problems that are the mirror image of what Paul Ehrlich once worried about."

The editorial points out that fertility rates are below replacement in nearly all developed countries and will likely fall below replacement by the middle of this century for nearly all countries. The Times further notes, "Helping poor countries improve their economies is not a matter of charity but of intelligent foreign policy." I read the foregoing as a tepid endorsement of economic growth and globalization. By such small steps does the editorial opinion of the "gray lady" fall in line with reality.

Who knows maybe professors will soon toss out Ehrlich and start teaching Bjorn Lomborg instead? One can hope can't one?

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  1. Impressive. Though they still haven’t acknowledged his errors regarding natural resource depletion. And note that last line: Now they’re going to start demanding government programs to deal with *declining* population. It’s just like when Heilbroner recanted: “It turns out, of course, that Mises was right.” But now, he went on, we will reject capitalism not because it can’t feed the masses but because it leads to environmental destruction.

  2. It’s not just education and wealth that is causing birth rates to drop. The natural birthrate in Bangladesh has dropped from close to 7 to around 3 children per couple. The main difference is the widespread availability of contraception.

    Interestingly, the one populations which are still growing at a large rate are in the Muslim world. France’s Muslim population will grow to be over 30% its total population within a couple of decades due to the wide difference in birthrate between Muslims and non-Muslims.

    Anyway, it’s nice to see the New York Times acknowledge the drop in birthrates, but they’re a little late to the party. The U.N. Population Council has been predicting either a static or declining population by 2050 since 1994, and revising their estimates downwards every couple of years since then.

  3. “Population alarmists” like Ehrlich and Garrett Hardin have never been “darlings” of “ideoloigcal environmentalists”(sic). If you had ever read any of the primary sources that inform the current environmentalist perspective, you would know this. I recommend Rachel Carson, Donald Worster, Lawrence Buell, William Cronon, E.O. Wilson. All of these are highly respected scholars, whose ideas can be supplemented, bot replaced, by Professor Lomborg’s book.

  4. Rachel Carson? A “highly respected scholar”? By whom?

  5. Yeah that’s right: Ehrlich has never been a darling of ideological environmentalists – just look at the list of awards the ideological environmentalists give to their lesser evangelists;

    “Professor Ehrlich has received several honorary degrees, the John Muir Award of the Sierra Club, the Gold Medal Award of the World Wildlife Fund International, a MacArthur Prize Fellowship, the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (given in lieu of a Nobel Prize in areas where the Nobel is not given), in 1993 the Volvo Environmental Prize, in 1994 the United Nations’ Sasakawa Environment Prize, in 1995 the Heinz Award for the Environment, in 1998 the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement and the Dr. A. H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences, in 1999 the Blue Planet Prize, in 2001 the Eminent Ecologist Award of the Ecological Society of America and the Distinguished Scientist Award of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.”

    Just a run of the mill guy to your average environmentalist I guess. I wonder what kind of accolades are showered on the darlings…

  6. Alkali, the situation with Ehrlich is like the bias in the mainstream media – it’s like a fish saying, “water? What water?” Ehrlich, Carson, Rifkin, Brown et al. have so dominated the debate for so long that their views are largely unquestioned. Lomborg’s book is really startlingly restrained; the level of vituperation it attracted was symptomatic of how extreme environmentalist ideology has become mainstream. While I’m sure that there are educators who attempt to present more than one side, your faith in the even-handedness of the majority of them is touching.

  7. To alkali, my sociology textbook, in my Intro to Sociology class last semester, in its chapter on population, discussed Malthus, Marx, and Ehrlich exclusively. There was no mention that virtually all of these guy’s predictions and assertions turned out wrong or false. Reading the whole chapter one could infer from the data presented that the above were wrong, yet the authors were utterly respectful to them as if they were sages. Thank the Lord my instructor, Dr. Skaggs, did not just parrot the book but brought in other info for the class to learn. I really appreciated his lack of political correctness in all his instruction of the class. He really strove to be factual and balanced. 🙂

  8. re alkali’s comments “wondering” if there is any evidence professors ever taught Ehrlich to the exclusion of the opposing views…

    At my alma mater (CSU Stanislaus State) I had to take an upper division “multicultural” class in order to graduate. The class I selected was a sociology class that purported to study the cultures of third world societies. Instead the class was a seminar in Ehrlichean ideas (we’re overcrowding the planet, running out of raw materials, etc). I had just read several of Julian Simon’s books so I was familiar with, if contemptuous of, the issues discussed. I would say that this chicken little approach to the environment was the dominant attitude in the soc/bio/liberal studies areas of the University

    Shortly after I graduated the Stan. State hosted a “community forum” sponsored by the bio department with Ehrlich as the guest… Yes the universities (mine at least) do teach the Ehrlich point of view and yes it is to the exclusion of rational discussion…

  9. To alkali, my sociology textbook, in my Intro to Sociology class last semester, in its chapter on population, discussed Malthus, Marx, and Ehrlich exclusively. There was no mention that virtually all of these guy’s predictions and assertions turned out wrong or false.

    That’s interesting. What’s the name of the textbook?

  10. Just as there are Seven Pillars of Islam (I think seven is the number. . .) the Overpopulation Mythos is one of the Pillars of Environmentalism, which is more and more a religous faith, in my opinion. Hence the fanatical anger directed at heretics like Lomborg.

  11. Alkali, I took a freshman enviro sciences class at Pitt in 1972, and I can assure you that when the discussion turned to population I got “The Limits to Growth” to the exclusion of competing points of view. I can’t vouch for what’s been going on more recently at the undergraduate level, and it probably varies a lot from school to school, but I have no difficulty believing that some current students’ experiences are similar to mine.

  12. To Alkali

    Forgive me for replying with a letter I sent to the NYT but which was never published.

    Read the NYT article to which I responded to see how textbooks cover environmental ideas. Maybe there are good teachers who present both sides of an environ issue as one comment on this post has suggested. But why should we have to rely on hope?

    Tom Com

    Re Texas and Textbooks NYT Article 6/29/02

    Sirs

    Congratulations for showing that there is a thought process involved when some conservatives oppose textbook presentations reflecting only the position of the authors, and for showing that these authors too have biases.

    Please let me, as a transplant from New York City to Texas, forget my manners a bit. I must say that if y’all residents of The City don’t care that your kids’ or grandkid’s texts are written by environmental fundamentalists, we Texans who are au courant will look down at your rigid, robotic ways. We out here have caught on to the textbook game: these authors have their sacred texts and (in the late Harvard professor, Robert Nisbet’s, formulation) their sacred myth of The Immaculate Continent; they would force us to embrace, with unthinking belief and unquestioning fervor, chicken-little junk science or to accept as revealed truth theories such as Global Warming.

  13. Rifle308,

    I’m a bit confused as to how all the predictions and assertions of both Malthus and Marx can have turned out wrong. In the “Malthus-Marx debate”, Marx argued that poverty was a product of social arrangements (i.e. capitalism) while Malthus argued it was a product of natural limits. Marx claimed that poverty could be overcome by economic progress. Whatever else they take from him, today’s greens certainly denounce Marx as a “technological optimist” with an arrogant attitude toward dominating nature, etc.

    I reckon that Marx’s assertion that there are no natural limits to population growth has been proved true.

  14. dude,

    There are 5 pillars of Islam.
    1)Faith-one god with Muhammad His prophet
    2)Prayer-5 times a day
    3)Charity
    4)Fasting during daylight in the month of Ramadan
    5)Pilgrimage to Mecca if possible.

  15. No natural limits to population growth? You think
    Darwin was wrong?

  16. Not one to disagree with Darwin. However, define ‘natural’. We’ve been able to sustain a population impossible with ‘natural’ methods through the unnatural applications of technology. This includes everything from stone tools and agriculture through the development of civilization, industrial, computer and biotechnology. Darwin never factored those things in.

    Of course, we are the result of the natural process of evolution and everything we do with technology is constrained by the laws of physics, so the distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ becomes less clear. Still, ultimately there may be a limit (we can’t expand to infinity) but since the technology keeps changing it’s hard to predict what that limit is in advance.

  17. To Alkali

    I took an introductory Anthro class in Berkeley around 1996 or so and Ehrlich featured prominently. I can’t remember the professor’s name, though.

  18. I think Ehrlich and the Limits To Growth crowd are getting a bad rap. They raised valid concerns about trends that were not in the public consciousness at the time. Although their linear nightmare extrapolations did not accurately predict the future (thank Darwin !) they pointed out some simple and obvious truths that were not so simple and obvious before the environmental movement came along.

    Hardly anybody argues anymore that explosive population growth (still the case in many African countries) is bad for development or that there are not limits to particular resources (oil, fish, lakefront property), or that exponential growth curves always give way to tapering S curves, or even sudden crashes (stock market bubbles). The only question is “how will the world adapt ?”. The current conventional wisdom is that “the Market” will automatically make all the necessary adjustments and that government intervention is counterproductive. Interesting thesis, but not yet proven.

    The flawed and incomplete computer models of resource depletion first popularised by the “Limits To Growth” inspired a generation of scientists to develop much more sophisticated models for such processes as global warming. I hope these prove to be equally inaccurate because they provoke an intelligent response from the world that will minimize the bad effects.

  19. Yeah, and the old saying that “the moon is made of green cheese” inspired a generation of scientists to develop a space program.

  20. Ehrlich is recycling arguments that Henry George blew out of the water over a century ago in his refutation of Malthus.

    I’m sure there is some finite limit to the population the globe can support–but it’s a lot more flexible than Ehrlich supposes. I know from experience that, by employing intensive techniques like composting food scraps and waste, using leguminous green manures, etc., you can get drastic increases in the output of small plots of land with very little cost. And there’s all kinds of stuff that can be done with cisterns and other water traps to extend the wet season a lot farther.

    The problem is, the peasant proprietors who would be natural candidates for using such low-cost, human scale technologies have been dispossessed by landlord/general oligarchies so their land could be used to raise feed for McCattle. You put those people back on the land, give each cluster of villages a set of *Alternative Technology Sourcebook* and Ralph Borsodi’s *Organic Gardening*, and you’ll be surprised how much population the land can support.

  21. Wider dissemination and employment of the “intensive techniques” and “low-cost, human scale technologies” you rightly promote is a direct result of the warning provided by “enviro-weenies” about trends observed in industrial farming. Until you recognize a problem, you can’t begin to solve it, and flawed though their models may have been, Erlich and others like him helped us to recognition of a problem.

    And in some ways, the declines in population growth being held up here as giving the lie to Erlich’s (and Malthus’) theories are in fact completely consistent with them. Famine is a commonplace in many parts of the world (which does wonders for the population growth stats).

  22. These findings aren’t surprising to anyone who studies demographics. Why? Simple: the more educated women are, the fewer children they have. Why is that? A number of reasons. They can do other things with their lives, like work. They’re educated enough to use birth control. They have a greater self-esteem, which leads them to choose more carefully when and how many children they have.

    Of course, this is why the Bush Administration’s cuts to the UNFPA are disheartening–the UNFPA’s primary mission is to educate woment (they’re not involved in abortion, especially the coercive abortions the right claims). Such a policy will inevitably lower the birthrate in developing countries, and help level off the population growth rate–at least until they find a cure for old age.

  23. “Who knows maybe professors will soon toss out Ehrlich and start teaching Bjorn Lomborg instead?”

    Any evidence that any professors currently “teach” Ehrlich? Any evidence that any professors ever “taught” Ehrlich to the exclusion of opposing views?

  24. Does this signal changes in the core values of Arthur Sulzberger and his ringwraiths? Hardly.

    I suspect it signals fear of a stockholder revolt or lawsuit if it’s record profits are put at risk. Having expanded it’s readership base well beyond the city and region, The NYTimes is tuning it’s output to avoid offending those with less than leftist leanings.

  25. Note also that while children tend to be net assets in agricultural societies, where they can help with the chores, they tend to be drains on a family’s resources in a more urban, technology-based society.

  26. Not to worry about UNFPA. Development will do the trick. The best bureaucracies can ever do is nibble at the margins. So let’s get on with the real fix–globalization.

  27. Ahh, didn’t you folks ever read Kaysen, who preceded Lomborg by what, twenty-eight years? What I find odd is that the same old debate has been going on between folks like Kaysen (please read “The Computer That Printed out W*O*L*F,” Foreign Affairs, 50:660-668) and Erlich and between Harold Demsetz and Hardin since the 1960s, and everytime some new talking head pops up with the ideas put by either of these camps thirty plus years ago it is seen as “new.” Lomborg may have a bunch of fancy new data in his book, but stands on the shoulders of others that came before him.

  28. Any evidence that any professors currently “teach” Ehrlich? Any evidence that any professors ever “taught” Ehrlich to the exclusion of opposing views?

    Spend a day at Ithaca College, that enviromentalist blip of a community in upstate New York. (Where else does a Green Party sheriff get 42% of the vote?) I left four weeks into my second semester, sick to death of the propaganda; I had been taking an environmental politics class. My notes read: “Classical economists we will be studying: Marx [description] and Malthus [description].” The week before I left was devoted to Erlich, the Population Bomb, and applications of the “I = P x A x T” formula (the Impact a species will have on its environment is the Population times its Affluence times its Technology.)

    To alkali, my sociology textbook, in my Intro to Sociology class last semester, in its chapter on population, discussed Malthus, Marx, and Ehrlich exclusively. There was no mention that virtually all of these guy’s predictions and assertions turned out wrong or false.

    That’s interesting. What’s the name of the textbook?

    Well, I can’t speak for Rifle308, but the section on population growth in my sociology textbook begins, “The population of the world WILL double in 50 or so years . . . . The next generation of mothers is already born — and there are a lot of them. Thus, we must continue to plan for a world that WILL SOON hold 12 to 13 billion people.” (Caps mine.) Essentials of Sociology, Brinkerhoff, Eighth edition.

  29. Alkali:
    “Any evidence that any professors ever “taught” Ehrlich to the exclusion of opposing views?”

    At the risk of piling on… 🙂 Yea, take a biology class from a tenure professor – you’ll be amazed at what you hear. And what you won’t hear will be much mention of the credible existence of another set of arguments.

    Regarding Lomborg; remember that his book is not so much original work, but more a review of the original data that others use and misuse. (BTW – did anyone who commented negatively actually READ his book?)

    No, I thought not.

  30. Bjorn Lomborg has never published a scientific ariticle in a refereed sci journal. Quoting Ehrlich may mark one as an ideological oaf, but quoting Lomborg is hardly an improvement.

  31. The dropping birth rates are not due to Ehrlich’s predictions, because most of the decline has been in the developed countries, not the countries experiencing famine. Of course it is a logical trusim that if famine and population growth continue indefinitely in a given area, the population will start to die off and thus stop reproducing. However Ehrlich’s larger point that the world as a whole is on this death spiral has been subtantially discredited.

    Obviously there are some fans of organic farming here. I have nothing against organic farming per se, and I even comsume personally some organic products. However I think it’s pretty much the consensus opinion that organic farming can’t support the entire world’s population. Even some environmentalist groups have acknowledged as much.

  32. Oh, and someone also commented that Ehrlich served a valid purpose by challenging people’s thinking on issues of the environment. This is true and is also a valid reason for studying other now discredited thinkers ranging from Plato to Marx. At the very least it is important to understand what people thought and why it is no longer accepted so as to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. However there is a big difference between analyzing previous philosophers for historical interest and to understand the history of thought, and to teach these philosophies as if they are regarded as universally true today. It appears from the numerous posts here that in college sociology and environment classes it is still being taught verbatim.

  33. John B.:

    But the critique of corporate agribusiness and Ehrlich’s population theory are two separate things. I’ve got a lot of respect for people like Max Gerson and Frances Moore Lappe. Sometimes the “enviro-weenies” are right, sometimes wrong.

  34. Buckminster Fuller was way ahead of the curve. He said in the 50s or earlier that rising per capita incomes correlated with declining birth rates.

    He said that the key ingredient other than $$$ wealth as control of energy. What Bucky called energy slaves.

  35. Ages ago, Ehrlick had wanted to endorse a proposal to stop both private and government sponsored food aid to nations which experienced chronic food shortages and if nations were to refuse to institute Ehrlick’s population control proposals, he was more than willing to let the people in those nations starve.People starve to death for not accepting proposal?!yeah thats a sure way of decreasing the world population growth.

  36. In every era there are environmentalists who develop theories, on why the world works as it does and try to predict what the future will bring, most of these reports contain nothing new or are ideologically based.
    It is often said that the optimist is just as wrong as the pessimist, only the preceeding has more fun, amongst many environmentalists however the latter perspective seems to be more popular.

    In the NYT article ‘Paul Ehrlich Got It Wrong
    ‘ its is written; “Now it turns out that population growth rates are plummeting … In the second half of the century, the entire world’s population should start declining, if these demographic projections prevail. That could present a more affluent world with problems that are the mirror image of what Paul Ehrlich once worried about.”
    It seems to me the autor is going from one extreme to another, proclaiming human extinction due to a decline in birthrate.
    There will always be two sides to a story, and to get a clearer picture it is important to establish knowledge of both, which is why people like Ehrlich and Boserup are taught in schools, but it was interesting to read those who had posed critical thoughts on their theories.

    The advance in human technology argues that there will be a declining death rate due to better medicine and genetic screening, and allow couples to have healthier babies.
    Along with the female role in society changeing into a more proactive one on the workfront, and a wider spread of contraception, also in LEDC’s. Population may decline to avoid ‘explosion’ on the other hand the children that are then born will have a much more important role in socity both as workers and as beholders of the future.

  37. I’m in a 9th grade world geography class, and I have to do a “thoughtful” essay about whether I agree or disagree with Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s view that a child born in a developed country poses a greater threat to global overpopulation than a child born in a less developed country. I really feel I can’t have a relevant opinion on the subject. Have Ehrlich’s theories actually been disproved, or are they still open to discussion? If you could help me out and just email me some information or a good website name at CContiguglia@cs.com I would appreciate it. I’m having a lot of trouble getting a straight answer from all kinds of different websites, where it’s sometimes hard to tell the fanatics from the scientists.

  38. Turning back in time, Paul was a predictor. He had came up with Theories, and predictions of what is going to happpen in the world. Most of his predictions were wrong, or it had not happen yet. He kept on moving his predictions forward in time until he gave up. Since the world’s population is decressing, the article or author just stresses on how human might be extinct in the future, but technology has increased tremendosely from the pass, so some people argue that technology would save the population. We can always argue if Ehrlich or Boserup is right but in the end we still have to see what happens to human!

  39. overpopulation is a very serious problem. what will happen if natural resources are used up? i could not even imagine myself walking from home to school! governments should address this matter immediately instead of wasting the taxpayers’ money on ‘self-defence’ or making weapons.

  40. whats happing now is didfferent from what Paul Ehrlich said but no one can tell what it is going to happen next, for e,g Nostradamus said “something really bad will happen and the world will come to an end” but it didn`t.
    You might prospect by whats happning now but it might not happen, so maybe what Paul Ehrlich said will happen much later.

  41. Paul Ehrlich’s predictions never came true till now but we never know what will happen in the future. but i think there won’t be any population bomb as technology is improving. technology can help us produce more and more food etc. so there won’t be mass starvation.

  42. I love how everyone seems to be focused on the fact that if we can feed any and all increases in Human populations, than this should be the measure of our progress and success. While Human beings are currently the superior and dominate life form on our planet, they are not the sole organism living on it and using its’ resources. We are only the most important to ourselves. To think that it is a natural progression for us to multiply to such numbers that naturally occuring sources of food can no longer be relied upon to support us is disgusting. And this then propels the development of technologies such as genetic manipulation of foods or the farming of fish to meet these unnatural demands? Who cares, it’s all about us, the Human beings. But wait, maybe Mars can support life! What a great place it will be too, will we use all our great technology to re-create the Biological diversity and natural balance that at one time actually took place on planet Earth? Take a look at large cities like Bejing,Los Angeles,or Mexico city and tell me how great technolgy is making those places better to live in. Better in what rationale? I believe that we will continue to destroy things before fully understanding them or the possible consequences resulting from our actions because that is the way we operate. We are a domination species, and until something comes along that can keep our own kind in check I see no change in our habits.

  43. There is always some truth in both cases – Ehrlich and Boserup. Societies with no interaction with the rest of the world – closed socities, show both Malthus and Boserup’s theories depending on which one.
    In my opinion, it’s better to be too pessimistic than too optimistic. It corresponds to ‘better to be safe than sorry’. Food production will eventually be used up by the world, and there will be starvation unless checks take place. After all, how long can we keep finding out new ways to solve our problems? Was it just luck that technology was invented and to prove Boserup’s theory right?

  44. I agree with Jeff on this matter…
    its like in the matrix: Human beings are a virus!
    I believe that we can support this population for the next couple of hundred years, but after that, with all the pollution, deforestation, depletion of the ozone layer… not only do we directly kill ourselves, but make sure we drag everything down with us. Maybe it would be better if Erlich’s prediction came true so it can teach all of us a lesson, it may be a great price to pay, but apparently there is no way to make people care until it is their lives on the line.

  45. “Helping poor countries improve their economies is not a matter of charity but of intelligent foreign policy.”

    This statement does not take into consideration of the later years. I agree with Lidija and jeff. We can save as many economies now. However, doesn’t that mean that we are creating more competition for economies for the future? Even with help, how far can we go in developing their economies when a country needs to be thinking of it’s own success, although, there are benefits of helping one another.

  46. I would have to agree with Lidija’s comment. The world will sit there and say World Peace and Earth Day, but we don’t really do anything about it, if we really wanted to change the future and let our children’s children and so forth experience some of the joys we have now then we must fix it. If not no one will be here to tell the stories of how we lived.

  47. I agree with Lidija and Deepa on this. Although we are able to support the population at the moment, eventually food production just might run out. Which then may lead to starvation. However every year technology is improving so there is a good chance the population will remain stable and we just may keep the support we need.

  48. I also agree that eventually food production will be all used up, the people won’t be able to survive due to starvation. Even though the improvements of technology is helping us in many ways now,We should think and be more aware of the future because we definitely can’t rely on it forever as an solution to every problems.

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