The Population Bomb: How A Fake Catastrophe Created A Real One

Population Bomb

On the 50th anniversary of its publication, The left-wing Smithsonian Magazine takes a critical look at Paul Ehrlich’s infamous environmentalist screed The Population Bomb and the horrific effects that its overpopulation panic led to.

The first sentence set the tone: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” And humanity had lost. In the 1970s, the book promised, “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” No matter what people do, “nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”

Published at a time of tremendous conflict and social upheaval, Ehrlich’s book argued that many of the day’s most alarming events had a single, underlying cause: Too many people, packed into too-tight spaces, taking too much from the earth. Unless humanity cut down its numbers—soon—all of us would face “mass starvation” on “a dying planet.”

Ehrlich, a Stanford professor, threw the book together very quickly, as essentially a collection of his notes from alarmist lectures he was giving at the time. It was virtually ignored by both reviewers and readers, until Ehrlich was invited onto The Tonight Show (multiple times) to discuss it, after which it shot up to the top of the bestseller lists and became a rallying cry against the potential threat of overpopulation and resource depletion that has since come to define the modern environmentalist Left.

It also became a lightning rod of criticism, even from other environmentalists, who stressed that there was no evidence for Ehrlich’s claims that overpopulation was a root cause of environmental issues, and that people simply needed to change their behaviors rather than breed less children. In addition, many of the anecdotal examples Ehrlich gave were demonstrably false, such as when he lamented the large numbers of people in Delhi’s slums – actually a result of job-driven immigration, not overpopulation.

Nevertheless, he painted a frightening and compelling picture of where overpopulation and resource depletion would lead:

“Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born,” he promised in a 1969 magazine article. “Sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come,” Ehrlich told CBS News a year later. “And by ‘the end’ I mean an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.”

Such statements contributed to a wave of population alarm then sweeping the world.

His terrifying predictions were enough to spur governments around the world into action. And, having been convinced that people were the problem, they went about implementing solutions to that problem; the kinds of solutions that only governments and one-world bodies could think of. The result was more devastating to the human race than any war or genocidal dictatorship could dream up.

The International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Population Council, the World Bank, the United Nations Population Fund, the Hugh Moore-backed Association for Voluntary Sterilization and other organizations promoted and funded programs to reduce fertility in poor places. “The results were horrific,” says Betsy Hartmann, author of Reproductive Rights and Wrongs, a classic 1987 exposé of the anti-population crusade. Some population-control programs pressured women to use only certain officially mandated contraceptives. In Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan, health workers’ salaries were, in a system that invited abuse, dictated by the number of IUDs they inserted into women. In the Philippines, birth-control pills were literally pitched out of helicopters hovering over remote villages. Millions of people were sterilized, often coercively, sometimes illegally, frequently in unsafe conditions, in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

In the 1970s and ’80s, India, led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay, embraced policies that in many states required sterilization for men and women to obtain water, electricity, ration cards, medical care and pay raises. Teachers could expel students from school if their parents weren’t sterilized. More than eight million men and women were sterilized in 1975 alone. (“At long last,” World Bank head Robert McNamara remarked, “India is moving to effectively address its population problem.”) For its part, 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.

(Funny how this stuff didn’t make it into the history books at school and never gets mentioned by the media, isn’t it?)

Of course, we now know that Ehrlich’s predictions never came true. There were some famines in the ’70s, but death rates from starvation actually dropped precipitously during that period (and the deaths that did happen were mostly a result of war rather than famine). And while the population of Earth has grown significantly, starvation and poverty today are a fraction of what they were decades ago.

So hundreds of millions of lives were snuffed out before they could begin, all for nothing. Enough lives to fill up a continent, all destroyed to make those who had been terrified by an ignorant lie feel better.

Of course, to this day Ehrlich makes plenty of excuses for himself:

-While he supported sterilization and population control, he didn’t support the governments’ brutal methods of it.
-He saw many of his predictions of environmental catastrophe as “scenarios” that possibly could happen.
-He believes they could still happen as a result of global warming/climate change.
-He didn’t pick the title, the publishers did.
-He considers the book a victory because it made population control “acceptable” as “a topic to debate.”

I have no doubt that these excuses are great comfort to the hundreds of millions of families whose children were never born as a result of Ehrlich’s book and the anti-human crusade it spawned. Maybe he, and his followers, should have spent more time reading another famous book that encourages us to “be fruitful and multiply”. In retrospect, it seems like much better advice than “sterilize and abort the poor people”. But then, that would require worshipping someone other than Gaia, and she hates competition.

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