What do you know about Paul Ehrlich? If you’re anything like me, probably not a lot more than the following: in 1968 he published a book called the Population Bomb.  It was kind of big deal. A big, alarmist, deal. Now, he’s back in the media (read Guardian) and has obviously re-invented himself as a stand-up comedian.  Some of his funniest jokes were leaked to 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.”

Hmmm, of course the easiest way to cut this Gordian knot is to eliminate the poor – thus you kill two birds with one stone.  Further on in the article:

“The optimum population of Earth – enough to guarantee the minimal physical ingredients of a decent life to everyone – was 1.5 to 2 billion people rather than the 7 billion who are alive today or the 9 billion expected in 2050, said Ehrlich in an interview with the Guardian.

“How many you support depends on lifestyles. We came up with 1.5 to 2 billion because you can have big active cities and wilderness. If you want a battery chicken world where everyone has minimum space and food and everyone is kept just about alive you might be able to support in the long term about 4 or 5 billion people. But you already have 7 billion. So we have to humanely and as rapidly as possible move to population shrinkage.”

How does one rapidly (and yet humanely) move to population shrinkage?  No, seriously, how do you do that? It’s oxymoronic as far as I can tell.  But like any good comic, Ehrlich ends on his best material:

“Ehrlich, who was described as alarmist in the 1970s but who says most of his predictions have proved correct…‘Most of the predictions [in Population Bomb] have proved correct.’”

Most of the predictions in Population Bomb have proved correct! Seriously? He must be a master to deliver this with a straight face. Tom Chivers at the Telegraph has frisked the Population Bomb predictions:

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?”

So you will perhaps forgive me if I don’t lose any sleep because of Paul Ehlrich’s latest prophecies. What does worry me is that they might be taken seriously in corridors of power by people who want to reduce population as rapidly and humanely as possible.

PS What annoys me the most is that a “reputable” paper like the Guardian can print this without any vetting of his claims – surely they have some idea of what a load of coswallop his predictions made in the Population Bomb were? None so blind, I suppose…

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...