Saturday, June 08, 2019

Paul R. Ehrlich - The Population Bomb

Do any sort of campaigning around environmental issues these days and it isn't long before someone tells you that the problem is simple - there are too many people. This argument doesn't just come from the right, but is quite prevalent (though I don't think dominant) within the environmental movement itself.

Paul Ehrlich's book wasn't the first to put this argument when it was first published in 1971, but it was certainly enormously influential, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and propelling Ehrlich to fame. Ehrlich argues that overpopulation was the root cause of a whole host of social issues, though he did focus on two, questions that remain central to this sort of polemic today - hunger and environmental destruction.

There tends to be a very simple approach behind the "too many people" hypothesis. This is set out clearly in The Population Bomb:
Think of what it means for the population of a country to double... the food available for the people must be doubled. Every structure and road must be duplicated. The amount of power used be doubled. the capacity of the transport system must be doubled. The number of trained doctors, nurses, teachers and administrators must be doubled. 
In other words, there is a direct relationship between number of people and services required, as well as food eaten, and, he continues to point out, impact upon the environment. It should be noted here that Ehrlich's background in biology meant that this book reflects well the growing awareness and knowledge of environmental problems in the 1960s. While global warming is mentioned only in passing, Ehrlich highlights issues such as water and air pollution that remain problems today. We are less worried however by declines in atmospheric oxygen levels or supersonic booms from aircraft. Problematic however is that Ehrlich rarely gets beyond explaining these environmental issues as anything other than arising from population growth.

He paints a frightening picture of the future. Take one example from early in the book:
This problem [population growth in the developed world] is not as severe as it is in the UDCs [Undeveloped Countries] (if current trends should continue, which they cannot, Calcutta could have sixty-six million inhabitants in the year 2000). As you are well aware however, urban concentrations are creating serious problems even in America, In the US, one of meh more rapidly growing DCs, we hear constantly of the headaches caused by growing population; not just pollution of the environment, but overcrowded highways, burgeoning slums, deteriorating school systems, rising crime tares, riots and other related problems.
Almost all of Ehrlich's predictions failed to materialise. In 2014 Calcutta had a population of 4.6 million, far short of the potential 66 million Ehrlich feared. I am not going to spend more time here on his mistaken predictions, but wanted to draw out what I see as Ehrlich's cynical view of people.

In The Population Bomb Ehrlich saw population growth as fundamental to humankind. He compares it to compound interest early on, and repeatedly suggests that populations double automatically.  He also has a tendency to compare masses of people (usually when talking about the developing world) in terms that are highly problematic. His infamous description of his awakening to the issue while travelling through Delhi is a classic example:
The stress seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping, people visiting, arguing and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi windows, begging. People defecating and urinating.... People, people, people, people...mob...dust... cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect... All three of us were, frankly, frightened.
Ehrlich didn't write this about the crowds in the New York or London underground and its tempting to see it as a racialised critique of the people of India. I also think it shares with Robert Malthus, someone not mentioned by Ehrlich, a fear of the poor masses. Malthus famously wrote his pieces on population as a riposte to radicals who saw, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, a possibility for a world without poverty and inequality. Malthus also shared with Ehrlich a belief in exponential growth of humanity without backing this up. This is clear in The Population Bomb where Ehrlich demonstrates a fear of revolution, communism and radical left wing politics. In one of his "scenarios" (which are better described as fantasies) he imagines "the last non-Communist government in Latin America" being replaced by a "Chinese supported military junta" following years of protest when "food riots have become anti-American riots".

Ehrlich's "cheerful" scenario, by contrast, imagines a US on population control where the government refuses to sell food to countries like India that it considers "beyond hope" population wise. Ehrlich's solutions, to be fair, don't begin with population control abroad, but start in the US where he suggests the introduction of a government department that has the power to use "whatever stepes necessary" to reduce population. This might, he suggest, in the future involve mass sterilisation, but in the short term he imagines rewards and tax-breaks for couples who don't have children, and increases on prices for toys and so on. Perhaps his solutions are deliberately provocative, but I found some quite sinister:

In short, the plush life would be difficult to attain for those with large families - which is as it should be, since they are getting their pleasure form their children, who are being supported in part by more responsible members of society.

The problem with all this, is that Ehrlich separates population from society. On occasion he notes how companies pollute to increase profits, but fails to see this as being an inherent issue with capitalism. He makes, for instance, when talking about air-pollution as simple equation: Smog comes from too many cars, which arises from too many people. But he fails to discuss the possibility of public transport using clean energy. Just as when he writes about the doubling of population requiring a doubling of nurses, or roads, he fails to show why this is true even under a system like capitalism.

The problem with The Population Bomb, leaving aside its scaremongering and its fear of the masses, is that at its heart it fails to prove its central hypothesis, and its examples don't justify how Ehrlich uses them. The famines that he foresaw happening in the 1980s did occur, but they were not because of food shortages - they were caused by the inability of the countries concerned to be able to buy grain. Thus what Ehrlich imagines is a problem of humanity is actually a problem of society - specifically capitalism. Thus The Population Bomb is a text book for people who want to blame individuals, not the system - a truly ruling class ideology.

Related Reviews

Bacci - Our Shrinking Planet
Morland - The Human Tide
Pearce - PeopleQuake, Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash

Meek (ed) - Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb
Malthus - An Essay on the Principle of Population

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