Population explosion: Is the end nigh?

Paul Ehrlich says the collapse of civilization is a “near certainty” within decades – again. Well, given how awful his track record has been, I’m happy to hear it.

Ehrlich has about a 0% correct rate on all his other predictions. But, he plays the same role to the Left that religious fanatics on the Right play – they predict the end of the world to rile up the faithful. Sure, neither side is ever right but if you don’t scare the people thoroughly, they won’t demand you take over “and do something!”

This man predicted the collapse of the West in a massive famine that was to take place decades ago. He issued a rewrite of his book on population – which should be classified as science fiction – claiming the people of Vietnam would be starving to death. The book was still at the printing house when Vietnam moved into the category of being a food exporter.

This con artist first predicted massive famine in 1968. And then he double downed in 1990 and now he’s up to his old tricks yet again: “The End is Coming!” Except – it wasn’t! And it isn’t.

A few years ago, Tim Dyson, professor of population studies at the London School of Economics said “a global Malthusian crisis is unlikely to occur during the next few decades”. Dyson found all regions of the world made progress in reducing hunger, they weren’t going backwards.

In his second dire prophecy, Ehrlich said food production in India had lost momentum and the end was right around the corner. The International Food Policy Research Institute, two decades later, said food production in India continues to expand as it has been doing since Ehrlich first appeared on the scene. Ehrlich’s claim that India was losing the battle wasn’t true when he made it and still isn’t true, almost 30 years later.

While food insecurity remains a problem for India, things have steadily improved since Ehrlich’s 1990 prediction. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN says “prevalence of undernourishment has been decreasing in India over the past decade”. USA Today reported, in 2017, “Between 1990 [coincidentally the date of Ehrlich’s last disaster porn book] and 2015, the proportion of undernourished people in the world was cut in half”.

Ehrlich consistently overstates problems and understates solutions. In 1990, he claimed “the world population seems committed to a growth rate of closer to 2 percent for the next few decades”. (“Few decades” seems to be one of his favorite projections, which is okay since every few decades he is proven to be full of hot air all over again.)

Instead of remaining near 2 percent, population growth rates were already declining by the time Ehrlich wrote his book. Population growth peaked in 1962 at 2.2 percent, so it had already declined by the time Ehrlich’s first book was published. By 1980, it was down to 1.73 percent and, when Ehrlich’s second book was published, the growth rate had dropped to 1.7 percent. In 1995, the Institute for Demographic Studies said the rate had declined to 1.5 percent, and in 2016, it was down to 1.3 percent, almost half of what Ehrlich claimed it would be.

The world population growth rate peaked in the 1960s and has been in rapid decline nearly every year since then. UN projections based on current demographics say the growth rate should be about one tenth of one percent by the end of the century. What has been driving population growth is not a high birth rate, but longer life spans. In the past 50 years, the number of children per woman over her lifetime (Total Fertility Rate: TFR) has been halved. This is contrary to Ehrlich’s prediction. Population growth today isn’t the result of people breeding like rabbits, but because they have stopped dropping like flies. But longer life spans only delay the inevitable. Accumulating more and more older people just means one day the death rate must jump dramatically – unless we discover the secret of immortality.

For population growth rates to remain steady, the TFR must be at 2.1. More than that means population growth, less than that means population decline. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, listing the TFR for 224 nations, 80 of them have a TFR of 2.5 or more; 16 are approaching the zero population growth level – they are below 2.5 but above 2.2; 7 are right stable population rates of 2.1 to 2.2; the remaining 118 nations have populations that are declining in numbers. In other words, more nations have shrinking populations than growing ones – and it isn’t because they are all starving to death as Ehrlich predicted would be the case.

This is not to say politicians can’t screw it all up. They are masters at it. Trump’s trade wars won’t help the cause of ending hunger, but I suggest it would take more damage than Trump can inflict to save Ehrlich’s prediction from being spectacularly wrong yet again. 

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute and author of several books including Exploding Population Myths and The Liberal Tide

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