When I was a student at York University in the early 1970s, there was one must-read book on first-year course lists: The Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich.
It was full of prognostications about devastating overpopulation that would cause the world to run out of land and resources.
The book became a best-seller at a time when people were becoming environmentally conscious, women's liberation and miniskirts were upending the traditional role of wives and daughters, and people traded in their oversized Cadillacs for Pintos.
Everything that opposed the status quo was deemed to be counterculture and, therefore, esteemed.
Of course, Ehrlich's predictions about millions of people dying in the 1970s and 1980s due to starvation and other ills seemed excessive, even then.
Demographers and social scientists ripped apart his arguments. Regardless, we are still thinking about overpopulation today, 43 years after Ehrlich's book was first published.
National Geographic recently noted the world's population will hit 7 billion sometime this year — perhaps in China, India or Africa, the most populous places on Earth — and it is projected to reach 9 billion in 2045.
Noting that water tables are falling, soil is eroding, glaciers are melting and fish stocks are vanishing, the magazine asked: “Can the planet take the strain?”
No, says Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington.
“The signs that our civilization is in trouble are multiplying,” Brown writes in his new book World on the Edge: How to prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.
“No previous civilization has survived the ongoing destruction of its natural supports. Nor will ours.”
If so, why have such predictions of doom always missed the mark?
Since the time of Noah and his Ark, we have been worried about population growth.
The Babylonians held a census to determine the size of their population, so did the ancient Chinese and Egyptians. In Tuscany they tried to determine population for tax purposes in 1427.
But it was in Quebec, then known as New France, where the first official census was held by intendant Jean Talon, who later became governor. Talon discovered in 1665 that there were twice as many men in the colony as women.
From its first settlement Canada faced a different dilemma than other parts of the world: lots of land but too few people. So we opened our doors to immigrants, to farm, to build railroads, to buttress our cities. And we are still doing that today, as our birth rate falls and mortality rises. We are trying to avert the problem of Japan, which does not allow much migration, that of too many old people, not enough young.
In 1798, the father of demography, Thomas Malthus, published An Essay on the Principle of Population, suggesting overpopulation will lead to starvation and that “premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race” due to war, pestilence, plague and famine. The British prime minister at the time, William Pitt the Younger, withdrew a bill he had championed for the extension of relief for the poor after reading Malthus and thereafter conducted a census.
Ottawa investigative journalist Dan Gardner notes in his recent book, Future Babble — Why Expert Predictions Fail and Why We Believe Them Anyway, that Malthus' “conclusions were based on careful observation of past centuries, and his logic was sound.”
But his forecast never came to be.
“In fact,” Gardner writes, “what happened was pretty much the opposite of what Malthus expected, as population, food production and economies all grew rapidly — thanks to advances in science and technology Malthus did not foresee. One might reasonably have predicted a century or two after Malthus people would have learned from his example to be much more cautious about using demography to predict the future. But that prediction would have been wrong. As they usually are.”
Among those who failed to heed Malthus' example are several of today's well-known environmentalists, including Lester Brown, Joel E. Cohen and, notably, Ehrlich.
Gardner does not refute that unchecked population growth will cause problems. But he notes that predictions usually don't come true. And he suggests some of Erhlich's ideas are downright funny: “He said we were bombarded with consumer electrical goods and we should forget that entire industry because it is going to be wiped out.”
Last week, Brown said in a teleconference that we are in the “process of destroying our natural support systems,” our soil, our fisheries, our farms and our climate and we are headed “for serious trouble.”
Food prices will rise, he said, due to floods in China, Pakistan and the southern U.S. In his new book World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, Brown notes: “The average temperature in Moscow for July (2010) was a scarcely believable 14 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm.” This led to thousands of fires and smoke and “was like watching a horror film,” Brown says. “Over 56,000 people died in the extreme heat.”
Cohen, who wrote a book called How Many People Can the Earth Support? in 1995, says in an interview that 70 per cent of all the water we capture is used for agriculture and “a tremendous amount of that is wasted, running into the ground.” He also notes that cities occupy 3 per cent of all habitable land and if the population of the world rises to 9 billion the expanding cities will sprawl into the little arable land that we have left.
“There are a billion people who are hungry today, we have children who need protein. In the United States half of the pregnancies are unintended. By 2050, we will have 6 billion people living in our cities.” And that means Canadian cities, too, he says.
Canadian Thomas Homer-Dixon adds in his book The Upside of Down: “The claim that we don't have to worry any more about population growth is entirely premature. Commentators who make this claim misinterpret and take out of context recent data on fertility trends. In fact, the world's population will continue to grow rapidly even while birth rates in most countries are falling and populations of some countries are even shrinking.”
Monica Boyd, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, says some academics believe predictions such as Ehrlich's have generally failed because human innovation has made up for growing population — finding new ways to grow crops, organize cities and manage traffic.
“Optimists point out that the human race has always been incredibly innovative in terms of coming up with substitute modes of survival.”
On the phone, Paul Ehrlich talks as if he has a Duracell battery planted in his jaw. He barely stops to breathe.
The author of The Population Bomb has been a professor at Stanford for 52 years and, at age 78, still spends his days refuting critics and defending his theories first articulated in his 1968 book — one he claims was too actually too positive.
“When I wrote The Population Bomb I was more optimistic on a lot of fronts. We thought things could be changed but there has been no change in consumption by the rich. Rich countries have essentially extracted the riches from poor countries and left them to rot.
“I also underestimated the immediate impact of the green revolution on food supply. We had a short-term increase (in yields) and Third World farmers were able to adopt the agricultural techniques of First World countries.
“We didn't know about ozone depletion or global warming. We wrote about plagues but we didn't know about AIDS. The book was too optimistic in every direction.”
He does concede this point: “Expert predictions do fail. But we are stuck with them. If I was able to predict everything, I would have bought Bora Bora and lived there.”
One thing he says, with certainty, is that the projection the world will grow by 2 billion over the next 40 years is going to cause more hardship than we can understand.
Then he muses: “If we had another 1,000 years to solve all our problems, I'd relax.”