Health News Digest

January 23, 2006

The Population Bomb DefusedMusical chairs--too many people?

By  Michael D. Shaw

A still popular precept of the radical Green movement is the myth, long since discredited and easily refuted, that overpopulation is both imminent and the root of the planet’s forthcoming destruction.

Those readers of a certain age will remember Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich’s infamous 1968 book The Population Bomb, that was lapped up by so many children of the 1960’s. Funny how this generation could purport to be so idealistic, and yet fervently believe the most horrific gloom and doom scenario—all at the same time.

To appreciate the junk science Ehrlich was dishing out, check out these quotes:

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970’s and 1980’s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…”

“A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells; the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people. Treating only the symptoms of cancer may make the victim more comfortable at first, but eventually he dies—often horribly. A similar fate awaits a world with a population explosion if only the symptoms are treated. We must shift our efforts from treatment of the symptoms to the cutting out of the cancer. The operation will demand many apparently brutal and heartless decisions. The pain may be intense. But the disease is so far advanced that only with radical surgery does the patient have a chance of survival.”

Thus, it should come as no surprise that he also supported a proposal to simply stop both private and government-sponsored food aid to countries that experienced chronic food shortages, unless they controlled their populations. Otherwise, he was quite willing to let them starve.

Of course, his predictions did not come true, owing to ridiculously flawed models, as well as the emergence of high-tech agronomy. In fact, he was so wrong, and has been so beaten up about it, that his defenders have used his victim status as a hobbyhorse to attack the “Right,” as if anyone who cares about science wouldn’t have laughed this phony off the stage long ago. What famine that did occur in that era was far more about tragic corruption in Africa, than any population bomb.

At this point, then, the overpopulation card, such as it is even played anymore, is a convenient way for extremists to impose a radical agenda on government, academia, and the health care establishment.

No less an institution than the United Nations, hardly a right-wing bastion, projects that world population would peak at somewhere under 10 billion in the latter half of the 21st century and then gradually begin to decline.

The main factor driving the slowdown in the rate of population growth is the worldwide decline in total fertility rates (TFR). The total fertility rate measures the average number of children born to women during their child-bearing years. A TFR of 2.1 is considered the replacement level, whereby a population would neither grow nor decline.

TFR’s around the world have declined by 33 percent since 1985, and both United Nations and US Census Bureau projections expect them to decline further. By 2025, the US Census Bureau estimates that the TFR of the less developed countries will have fallen to 2.4, close enough to the replacement level. We will likely see a shift in where the world’s population lives. Eighty-eight percent of population growth from 1990-1995 occurred in Asia and Africa, and this seems certain to continue. By 2050, Africa’s population is expected to triple while Europe’s is expected to decline by 7 percent, even allowing for massive immigration.

Overpopulation, then, is neither a genuine threat nor an appropriate way to debate public policy. Far from being a crisis, or even something officials should seriously review, overpopulation is a tattered page from the radicals’ playbook—nothing more.