It’s official. The New York Times has confirmed that the population explosion has not wreaked horrors upon the world: the apocalyptic predictions of the 1960s have fallen “as flat as ancient theories about the shape of the Earth.” Some people won’t believe that, but, if the Times says so, that’s good enough for me.

In an impressive video the Times’ Retro Report team take us back to the hysteria whipped up by Paul Ehrlich’s 1969 tract, The Population Bomb, and then sketch how it fizzled. They revisit not only Ehrlich himself (who is unrepentant) but other key figures who were believers then and have since accepted the evidence that population growth is not an unmitigated evil.

The film is frank about how extreme the population control movement became.

A young Stewart Brand, founding editor of the Whole Earth Catalogue and “totally” persuaded by Ehrlich, is interviewed at a public starve-in staged to bring home the alleged connection between children and poverty. “Maybe anyone who’s thinking about having a third child ought to go hungry for a week,” he says.

That was mild compared with Ehrlich’s proposals for blacklisting of people, organisations and companies “impeding population control”, responsibility prizes for childless marriages, a tax on children, a luxury tax on diapers and cribs, putting something in the water…

We see a newspaper article by Garrett Hardin questioning the right to have children.

There’s also an admission that the ZPG gospel was a gift to the (eugenics inspired) birth control movement.

The forced sterilisations in India under Mrs Gandhi are acknowledged – and their persistence today in some regions.

“Some time with the next 10 to 15 years the end will come, and by that I mean an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to sustain humanity,” says the younger Ehrlich with grim authority.

Even now the Stanford University professor clings to his belief in a coming population apocalypse – and to his draconian ideas for forcing people into line.

Allowing women to have as many babies as they wanted, he said, is akin to letting everyone “throw as much of their garbage into their neighbour’s backyard as they want.”

Old allies, however, have long since bowed to the evidence.

“How many years do you have to not have the world end – for whatever reason you thought it was going to end — and actually it didn’t end because maybe that reason was wrong?” asks Steward Brand.

What was wrong was Ehrich’s pessimism about mankind, his failure to factor into his calculations human genius and adaptability, among other things. In a famous wager with economist Julian E. Simon in 1980 he pitted his scarcity creed against Simon’s optimistic view – and lost.

It’s a pity that Simon, who died in 1998, was not still around to be interviewed for this retrospective. Another great interviewee would have been Jacqueline Kasun, author The War Against Population (1999), who died in 2009.  

Ehrlich, a biologist, didn’t reckon with Norman E. Borlaug, an American plant scientist whose breeding of high-yielding, disease-resistant crops led to the Green Revolution – something that had a huge impact on food supply in India, says Gita Sen, a development economist with the Centre For Public Policy, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. She describes a basic difference between her worldview and Ehrlich’s:

“There’s a tendency to apply to human beings the same models as might apply for the insect world. The difference is that human beings are conscious beings and we do all kinds of things to change our destiny.”

Indian city dwellers talk about their preference for smaller families, and the point is made that providing maternal and infant health care lowers the mortality rate and makes people “more responsive to the government’s message”.

Today, low fertility rates across the world raise a different spectre than Ehrlich’s: ageing, and population implosion.

“What if large population is not bad but is good?” asks Brand. The story when population peaks at nine billion (UN estimate) in the middle of this century will not be, “Oh my God we’ve got nine billion people, how horrible,” he adds, but, “Oh my God, we’re running out of people.”

It’s not that all’s right with the world, as the climate change debate and environmental degradation show. But, says British writer Fred Pearce, who is quoted in the text accompanying the film, that story is not about overpopulation but overconsumption. In the richest countries. Now that is something to start crusading about.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet