* Or, why I have no use for Paul Ehrlich
Yesterday the world population reached 7,000,000,000 (billion). And no, the human world did not unravel, the cataclysm is not upon us, it is not obvious to most that the human adventure on this 4.6 billion year old planet is in serious trouble. This ominous milestone passed uneventfully for almost everybody.
And that's the problem. If you think there are limits to growth and feel compelled to say something about it—there is a considerable body of evidence indicating that we are now hitting those limits—why should anybody listen to you? Why should anybody pay attention to your increasingly justified ranting and raving about peak oil, climate change, ruined ecosystems, dying species, fished-out oceans and all the rest?
The optimist's argument is basically always the same, although there are many variations on it. In short, all our experience after 1750 (to pick a date) proves Thomas Malthus was wrong. The logic goes like this: if an assumption—limits to growth—has been wrong for over 200 years, it is very likely wrong now in 2011. Many have cryed wolf before. Current cryers should be ignored. The fact that there are now seven billion of us as opposed to billions fewer in the past has no bearing on the outcome.
That's why I have no use for Paul Ehrlich. The Earth's human population was approximately half of what it is now in 1968 when he wrote The Population Bomb. Had Ehrlich been right, the population would have crashed a long time ago. In 1968 the astonishing power of the exponential function had not yet worked its magic (graph below). We were still in the early stages of what looked like exponential growth, but the issue was not yet settled. Once you are firmly on the exponential growth path, as we are now, you are entitled to say that such growth—in population, oil consumption, global GDP per-capita, wild-caught fish, and the rest must end—but you are not entitled to say when.
Consequently there was no good reason to believe we were all in big trouble when the Beatles released the White Album in 1968. Here comes the sun, as George Harrison put it. It was way too early to conclude anything. And Ehrlich's premature prediction, his crying wolf, has given every delusional optimist another "good" reason to ignore the arguments of limits-to-growthers ever since 1968. The Wall Street Journal's William McGurn is a case in point.
At Columbia University's Earth Institute, Prof. Jeffrey Sachs tells CNN "the consequences for humanity could be grim." Earlier this year, a New York Times columnist declared "the earth is full," suggesting that a growing population means "we are eating into our future." And in West Virginia, the Charleston Gazette editorializes about a "human swarm" that is "overbreeding" in a way that "prosperous, well-educated families" from the developed world do not.
The smarter ones acknowledge that Malthus's ominous warnings about a growing population outstripping the food supply were not borne out in his day. The track record for these scares in our own day is not much better. Perhaps the most famous was Paul Ehrlich's 1968 "The Population Bomb," which opened with these sunny sentences:
The battle to feed all humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.
The book was wildly popular, and the assertions large. India was so hopeless he advocated a policy of "triage" that would just let them die. In fact, the mass starvation he predicted never materialized, and the Indians whom he thought could never feed themselves are now eating better than ever despite a population more than twice the size it was when "The Population Bomb" appeared.
The record, alas, doesn't seem to matter. Like so many other articles on population, one in the New Yorker this month concedes that the predictions Malthus made "proved to be wrong." Like so many other articles too, it goes on to conclude that "the premise of [his] work—that there must be some limit to population growth—is hard to argue with."
As I have explained, I think the record does matter, though not in the same way McGurn does. The record matters because it is so dismal, but it needn't have been that way. Like I said, you are not entitled to say when.
There's much more I could say about this subject, but I think today's simple point will suffice. This is why I am unusually cautious in my statements on this blog. I will write posts like The Breakdown Of Growth In the 21st Century, but note carefully that the 21st century has a long way to run. Now, I happen to think humankind will be completely screwed by 2030, if not before, and almost certainly by 2040. Also note that "screwed" is undefined. It has of course become increasingly obvious that we are truly screwed in many ways now, some of which were not predictable decades ago.
That's my personal view, but its not my "official" view. I refuse to make specific statements about the timing of future events. I will continue to (not) do so. I hedge my bets with wishy-washy probability phrases like "in all likelihood" or "not likely." I do not claim to know the future with any precision, as Ehrlich did in 1968. I do know how to extrapolate a ruinous trend, and I also know what those extrapolations are likely telling me. Finally, I do not share the unqualified enthusiasm for the human species that optimists always espouse.
When the 36-year-old Ehrlich made his bogus prediction about what would happen in the 1970s, perhaps we can chalk it up to a youthful mistake. (You probably didn't know that I consider 36 to be "youthful.") But the damage Ehrlich's famous mistake has done just goes on and on and on. Let me conclude with the painful but obvious point: the real, unfortunate lessons of Ehrlich's mistake apply to all of us today.
Bonus Video — The eternal optimist William McGurn makes my argument for me.