This article was first published by the Bbrief on 2 February 2023
The consequences of Paul Ehrlich
Paul Ehrlich has spent most of his adult life claiming the world is ending, birth rates are skyrocketing, populations are exploding, famine is around the corner and we’re running out of everything. He’s been largely wrong but refuses to admit it. He Tweeted very recently that he “made some mistakes, but no basic ones.”
It all depends on what you think is basic. Does predicting with “near certainty” civilisation will completely collapse count? Do massive famines destroying the United Kingdom and North America count? These are huge errors but Ehrlich refuses to see it. And if you dare point them out to this butterfly specialist he will claim you are just a “right-winger” and should be dismissed — causing confusion for liberals such as myself.
Michael Lynch at Forbes, in 2015, pointed out a “number of scientists and experts have noted that Ehrlich has not only been laughably wrong and that he not only doesn’t acknowledge it, but considers himself prescient.” Daniel Gardner wrote in Future Babble, “In two lengthy interviews, Ehrlich admitted making not a single major error in the popular works he published in the late 1960s and 1970s.”
In his recent Tweet Ehrlich claimed “I’ve gotten virtually every major scientific honor” but Lynch states of the 18 awards listed “maybe half are from ecological and environmental groups” — groups such as Sierra Club and World Wildlife Foundation. It’s easy to get awards from groups when you tell them what they want to hear. All ideological groups do this. But science means verifying the predicted results and for the last half century Ehrlich’s predicted results have not be verified.
Smithsonian magazine itemised a series of predictions from Ehrlich, all of which thankfully failed to materialise:
- “has regularly predicted mass world starvation”;
- “there would be a major food shortage in the United States”;
- “by 1999 the U.S. population would have declined to 22.6 million”;
- “65 million Americans would die of starvation between 1980 and 1989”;
- “the oceans would be destroyed by 1979 and that fishing would collapse”.
As for poor England, Ehrlich said, “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” He did make a gamble once on his theory. He argued resources would become scarcer thus pushing prices up in constant terms. Prof. Julian Simon disagreed and offered a wager to Ehrlich.
Ehrlich could pick any five resources he wanted and in ten years time they would see if their costs had increased or not. When the bet came due in 1990 all the resources Ehrlich had chosen declined in price.
Twelve years ago Ehrlich told the left-of-center Guardian newspaper:
Civilisations have collapsed before: the question is whether we can avoid the first time [an] entire global civilisation has given us the opportunity of having the whole mess collapse.
The paper wrote the idea “sounds melodramatic, but Ehrlich insists his vision only builds on famine, drought, poverty and conflict, which are already prevalent around the world, and would unfold over the “‘next few decades’”.
The problem as I see it, is in the 1960s Ehrlich predicted these things for the 70s; in the 70s they were coming in the 80s and 90s; but when they failed to materialise then he predicted they would hit in the new century — yet here we are with less global poverty than 50 years ago, far less famine than when Ehrlich started his doomsday career, and declining fertility rates — decline large enough that some nations are now trying to boost populations.
BBC News warned, “Falling fertility rates mean nearly every country could have shrinking populations by the end of the century” while “23 nations — including Spain and Japan — are expected to see their populations halve by 2100. As the number of young will continue to shrink the number of elderly will increase due to longer life spans. That will put a strain on welfare states and care facilities. Yes, there is a population crisis, but one very different from Ehrlich’s prediction.
There are other dire consequences to Ehrlich’s theory of doom and death.
Video of a television interview from the 70s shows Ehrlich calling for authoritarian population contol measures. He started out sounding liberal— against state interference—but ends saying if voluntary measures don’t work “then you’ll have the government legislating the size of the family” and if you have too many children “the government will simply throw you in jail.”
According to Charles Mann, in Smithsonian, Ehrlich said his book was a great success because it made population control “acceptable,” something Mann notes “led to human rights abuses around the world.” He noted the results of this hysteria:
Millions of people sterilised, often coercively, sometimes illegally, frequently in unsafe conditions, in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia and Bangladesh… China adopted a ‘one-child’ policy that led to huge numbers — possibly 100 million — of coerced abortions, often in poor conditions contributing to infection, sterility and even death. Millions of forced sterilizations occurred.
China’s coercive polices mean it’s population declined last year and the New York Times reported the decline, according to experts, is irreversible. The paper warns the declining population is “coupled with a long-running rise in life expectancy” thrusting China “into a demographic crisis not just for China and its economy but for the world.”
Ideas have consequences.