More Paul Ehrlich Revisionism


Stanford University's Bing Professor of Population Studies Paul Ehrlich is trying once again to salvage what remains of his sorry reputation as environmentalist prophet of doom. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a pretty good op/ed this past Sunday critiquing the exaggerated alarmism of ideological environmentalists. Kristof pointed out that Ehrlich's 1968 prediction in The Population Bomb that "hundreds of millions of people are going to starve" was way off.

In today's Times, Ehrlich replies with a letter to the editor, in which he claims:

"Since "The Population Bomb" was written in 1968, conservatively 200 million people have starved to death. As the Food and Agriculture Organization's 2004 annual hunger report pointed out, hunger and malnutrition kill more than five million children every year."

Sadly the figures Ehrlich cites are all too true, but they are MUCH BETTER than what he was actually predicting would occur–a fact which he still refuses to acknowledge. So let's take another walk down memory lane:

"The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s (emphasis mine), the world will undergo famines–hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death."—The Population Bomb

Ehrlich escalated his dire predictions several times in the early 1970s in the face of the success of the "Green Revolution." To wit:

"Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born," wrote Ehrlich in an essay titled "Eco-Catastrophe!," which ran in the special Earth Day issue of the radical magazine Ramparts. "By…[1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s."

Ehrlich sketched out his most alarmist scenario for the Earth Day issue of The Progressive, assuring readers that between 1980 and 1989, some 4 billion people, including 65 million Americans, would perish in the "Great Die-Off."

Unfortunately, great foundations like the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, begin to listen to Ehrlich's population control message and they diverted resources from their highly successful agricultural research programs and put them instead into largely fruitless efforts at direct (and often coercive) population control programs. It turns out that boosting food production through agricultural research is probably the best way to reduce population growth rates. The countries where food security is highest are precisely the countries where one finds below replacement fertility rates. Not only was Ehrlich wrong, his false predictions may have made the world a worse place.