Revisiting Paul R. Ehrlich’s Population Bomb

June 12, 2015


Earlier this month, the New York Times revisited Paul R. Ehrlich—through both his cult favorite 1968 work The Population Bomb, and as a doomsday-advocating talk show guest, who spent much of the 1970s and years since advancing the notion that it was just a matter of time before the strained resources of our overcrowded planet could no support humanity. Though the years since might have seeded us with a kinder, gentler apocalypse, Ehrlich remains (mostly) resolute:

But Dr. Ehrlich, now 83, is not retreating from his bleak prophesies. He would not echo everything that he once wrote, he says. But his intention back then was to raise awareness of a menacing situation, he says, and he accomplished that. He remains convinced that doom lurks around the corner, not some distant prospect for the year 2525 and beyond. What he wrote in the 1960s was comparatively mild, he suggested, telling Retro Report: “My language would be even more apocalyptic today.”

And yet, in a second Times piece, an op-ed, “Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb Argument Was Right,” by statistics professor Paul A. Murtaugh, Ehrlich’s ideas are framed less as nostalgia for a time of reasonable doomsday bets, and more as the inevitable catastrophic consequences of human reproduction and environmental degradation, in the age of what the children are calling the Anthropocene:

The more catastrophic consequences of human population growth predicted by Paul Ehrlich have not yet materialized, in part because he did not anticipate the enormous increase in agricultural productivity enabled by fossil fuels. But Ehrlich’s population bomb will inevitably detonate when fossil fuels become too scarce and expensive to sustain a growing population. . . . Ehrlich’s argument that expanding human populations cannot be sustained on an Earth with finite carrying capacity is irrefutable and, indeed, almost tautological. The only uncertainty concerns the timing and severity of the rebalancing that must inevitably occur.

If this seems reasonable, Ehrlich writes about the current state of our environment, along with the continual threats posed by our often careless inhabitancy, in two recent books: Hope on Earth (a conversation with Michael Charles Tobias about catastrophe and morality within the contemporary context) and the forthcoming Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie (a comparative study of how these concerns have been [mis]handled by two global democracies, Australia and the United States, coauthored with Corey J. A. Bradshaw). You can read more about both here.

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