Saturday, July 14, 2007

Population Bomb

Title: The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine, 1968)

Author:
Dr. Paul Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies, president of the Center for Conservation Biology, and professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University. He's called himself "an unusual academy specimen," due to his "having had only one tenure-track job (Stanford), which I've held for 44 of my 72 years." He has written widely, both biological/scientific work and more popular environmental nonfiction. A recent book of the latter ilk, written with Anne Ehrlich, was titled One with Nineveh: Politics, Consumption, and the Human Future (2004).

Argument/structure:
Every bit of enviromental immiseration we complain about is being brought on us by a simple problem: people have too many kids. Food shortages; water shortages ("By 1984, the US will be dying of thirst", Ehrlich proclaims [97]); "psychic" problems caused by overcrowding (64); an overreliance on dangerous methods of environmental engineering (pesticides, etc)—all of these stem directly from our insistence on having as many offspring as we damn well please. This insistence is tied up with ideologies of continual material progress and technological optimism (i.e., "if we could just figure out a way to do it, the United States could feed the world!")

Ehrlich sees his project as a fundamentally humanitarian one: if fewer people are born, fewer people will starve (the front of the book reads, scarily: "While you are reading these words, four people will have died from starvation - most of them children"). His book is prescriptive, offering examples of letters which the reader could use as models of political action (readers are told to send letters to congressmen urging them to support programs limiting population growth; send letters to the Catholic Church asking them to change their anti-contraception policy; send letters to television networks requesting that programs glorifying families with large numbers of children not be aired).

Most interesting of all to me is Ehrlich's insistence that we cannot use the ideology of free choice to justify bearing a large number of children. The concept of "family planning" comes in for an amount of scorn, because in the end, Ehrlich argues, it tends to continue to produce an inordinate number of children. Ehrlich believes that the government should a) include abortion in the range of options considered to be valid "family planning" and b) fund the entire range of "planning" programs, once they are modified to include abortion, at a much higher level. It's interesting that Ehrlich does not come right out and say that government should require people to have fewer children, but he does seem to be pointing in that general direction.

At the end of the book, Ehrlich compares the problem of population growth to cancer, writing "I wish I could offer you some sugarcoated solutions, but I'm afraid the time for them is long gone." His best-case scenario involves a "die-off" of millions of people, combined with good governmental management which saves the optimum number for future carrying capacity of the earth. This can sound incredibly brutal, and critics of the book have pointed that out (including Betsy Hartmann, who, Wiki writes, applied a feminist critique to the argument in her book Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control & Contraceptive Choice [1987]).

So this is an illo I found doing a Google Image search for "Population Bomb". It's by a retired geologist named John Holden, whose drawings all seem to have some kind of intimate engagement with the kind of science that speculates about possibilities. I want to buy some, but in the meantime, this will have to do, I suppose. I wish I knew more about the popularization of the Population Bomb concept - I can think of a but a couple of random cultural examples, including the movie Zardoz (1974), in which an elite technocratic class incites the underclass to kill each other instead of breeding, in hopes of controlling their demographics.

Books I've read which cite it:
Frederick Buell, From Apocalypse to Way of Life. Buell argues that Ehrlich's alarmism about the population crisis ended up doing the environmental movement more harm than good, because when it didn't all come true, people were reaffirmed in their fundamental belief that nothing was really wrong at all. (Here is an article by Gary Becker, economist, who points out that while populations have not had the immediate dire effects that Ehrlich predicted, the trend in recent years has been toward low population growth in rich countries and high growth in developing countries - a trend which Becker suggests could be reversed by immigration policies, were this not politically unfashionable.)

Buell also points out that the first bit of Ehrlich's book, in which he leaves a hotel in India with his wife and very sensibly singular daughter and is plunged into a mass of teeming humanity, can be read as being very anti-developing country (or almost racist - see Hartmann's critique, cited before). Why use Calcutta as a paragon of overpopulation, when American examples might be called into play?

According to Wikipedia, the book was included on several "Worst Books of the Century" lists by conservative groups (though of course, Origin of Species and Silent Spring showed up on these as well, so, as they say, whatever).

Ehrlich argued in an article published by Grist in 2004 that although many of his dire predictions did not come true, the bulk of his warnings have held: "Some things I predicted have not come to pass. For instance, starvation has been less extensive than I (or rather the agriculturalists I consulted) expected. But it's still horrific, with some 600 million people very hungry and billions under- or malnourished. What I predicted about disease and climate change was essentially right on. And of course the movement the 'bomb' helped to fuel softened some of the impacts. Many people said not to worry - that marvelous technological fixes would make it possible to take wonderful care of even 5 billion people. We now have 6.3 - you judge how well technology is doing. Bottom line: substantial criticism, little embarrassment."

Leads to follow up on: There's more in here about supersonic transport (SST), which Lindbergh rallied against in his later years, and about which I know little. An activist handbook to the issue, advertised in the beginning of Pop Bomb: William Shurcliff, SST and Sonic Boom Handbook. The problem was also mentioned on pp 60 and 128. On p 21, Ehrlich addresses the question of space colonization as a solution to surplus population, citing Garrett Hardin as one who has studied the question and found that we would fill up the remaining planets in the solar system too quickly to make the solution work. On p 62, Ehrlich cites a New York Times article about Russian conservationists' efforts to save Lake Baikal. On p 103, Ehrlich writes that there was an effort underway when the book was published to cultivate protein-rich molecules of food on petroleum - an effort which, Ehrlich says, had not been fully proven to be useful. Whatever happened to that? On p 126, Ehrlich writes that pesticides were directly associated with anticommunism by people in the Agricultural Chemical Association, in 1964, as a riposte to the environmentalist claims that pesticides were killing off fish populations.

1 comment:

Julien Peter said...

The claim that The Population Bomb should or can be placed alongside Silent Spring and The Origin Of Species is actually more dubious than Wikipedia says.

If we turn away from paleoconservative lists to the much more liberal Modern Library, we see that Silent Spring was #5, whereas the Population Bomb did not even make the Top 100! The fact that classic conservative targets like Dewey and Keynes were included, and that two judges had works on the ISI's 50 Worst Books of the Twentieth Century plainly suggest one thing. This being that Ehrlich's work really has not the same reputation as the books Wikipedia compares it with, probably because trends in recent years have made it dated.