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The Population Bomb Essay

In Paul Ehrlich’s controversial tome The Population Bomb, the Stanford University entomologist espouses a modernized revival of the Malthusian catastrophe argument, which posits that population growth will outpace civilization’s ability to support it. Written in 1968, the book prognosticates that “in the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death,” and that radical action is necessary to limit growth in order to prevent the potential for mass famine.

(Ehrlich, 1968) Written just a few years after the post-War baby boom, Ehrlich’s book was a natural extension of the zeitgeist, and made the assumption that the resources available at the time were at their limits, and as such, civilization was headed towards an inevitable confrontation with scarcity. (Ehrlich, 1968) ‘Population Bomb’ is basically a figure of speech which suggests that population growth is a catastrophic scenario, one which precipitates the aforementioned resource crisis.

Ehrlich made extreme suggestions, such as starving whole nations that refused to comply with measures for population control, arguing that civilization had already crossed a tipping point in which nothing could prevent a substantial increase in rates of starvation and death. (Ehrlich, 1968) Although Ehrlich’s predictions of massive population growth have largely come true, the efforts of the 60s Green Revolution have helped ward off the purportedly inevitable degrees of famine which is a crucial part of Ehrlich’s eschatological world view.

Population growth rates have slowed down significantly within the developed world, particularly in Europe and Japan, with the United States being the exception in this regard. (Khaltourina, Korotayev & Malkov, 2006; Vidal, 2004) The general consensus is that massive population growth in its modern incarnation presents famine as a problem borne not of food production shortages, but of political instability. (FAO, 2000) Another problem with Ehrlich’s assumptions is that they suppose that population growth would continue to be exponential when data actually suggests that population growth skews closer towards a linear progression.

Grenier (1994) argues that the theorized scarcity does not follow the time table established by Ehrlich. It is in such a light that critics such as Judd (2000) have found Ehrlich’s methodology questionable. He has taken a snapshot in time and projected it forward without trying to place it in context … It’s as if he’s chosen one moment in a car ride from New York to California and tried to generalize from it about the whole trip … a moment when the car was accelerating to get on the highway and concluded that the car just kept going faster and faster the whole trip … he’s obviously made a tremendous error.

In this instance, Ehrlich … can’t see past this one moment of population acceleration. (Judd, 2000) Discussion regarding the notion of overpopulation maintains currency simply because it is an issue that is tied to concerns regarding environmental sustainability and resource consumption. While researchers in fuel studies from either side endorsing a state of plenitude or scarcity carry the most attention in mainstream news magazines, the unsustainability of humanity’s presence is less vigorously disputed.

Thus, regardless of whether or not huge strides are made towards containing population growth, the fact remains that the planetary footprint of our species is massive and continues to grow. Alex Steffen (2006) argues that even in an optimistic best-case scenario, Ehrlich’s concerns regarding planetary capacity remain valid, albeit at a rate slightly more restrained than he had pessimistically suggested but on dimensions that extend far beyond food supply.

Donella Meadows (1999) remarks that “not only are there so many more of us, but each of us is bigger” when one measures the amount of energy and material we use and the amount of pollutants and waste created by the industries we have created to support our energy and material use. Additionally, the human presence has encroached into the habitats of other species which Meadow dramatically exaggerates as “causing an extinction spasm” so great it exceeds all others seen since the extinction of dinosaurs.

In short, humanity is in a state of overshoot, such that the planet is unable to restore itself at a pace which matches this intensity of use. (Steffen, 2006) However, Meadows (1999) is mindful to point out that acknowledging the problems inherent with a massive human population should not lead us to the conclusion that humans have no ecologically acceptable place in the planet. We are not a virus on the operating system of the planet. As such, Ehrlich’s contentions toward population growth should be framed not around the issue of resource supply, but around the issue of our impact upon the planet and its ability to support us.

As Meadows (1999) notes, “The number of people is not what degrades the earth; it’s the number of people times the flow of energy and material each person commands. ” The existing problems which humanity faces regarding resources and supply have been born largely out of the perils and pratfalls of the industrial economy. But the faults of the industrial economy are not the only side of population eschatology; it is compounded by the growing appetite for better living among developing nations.

Steffen (2006) argues that the reason why conventional environmentalist rhetoric (as represented by the totality of deep green and light green environmentalist thinking) fails to convince the public or engage their imagination is that the solutions they present are either trivial or downright unappealing. “Asking people in the world’s wealthiest, most advanced societies to turn their backs on the very forces that drove such abundance is naive at best,” he opines. As such, the development of a sustainable human presence within the near future requires the reconciliation between the guilt of modern living and the desire for a smaller footprint.

By embracing creative solutions and innovative approaches to problems and a political stance of optimism, humanity’s ten figure presence becomes less of a doomsday scenario as Ehrlich would like to believe. The ultimate goal of global development should not be the imposition of limits on population (which would entail the infringement of reproductive rights) but a one-planet living in which lifestyles can continue be luxurious, become equitably distributed among classes and without limiting such affluence to Americans only.

As Steffen (2006) observes: “ [The “developed” and “developing” worlds] now live around the corner from each other, mutually dependent. … People who live in shanties can compare the material quality of their own lives with that of people who fly over them in jets. … What the kids want, from Cape Town to Caracas to Novosibirsk, and everywhere in between, is to live like Americans. … It’s wrong to think that we are going to talk them out of pursuing that. ” (Steffen, 2006)

Scenario engineer Jamais Cascio notes that while people like to imagine awful futures for a myriad number of reasons, the inability to imagine positive futures discourages creative thinking and imagination. But Meadows (1999) insists that as global populations grow, we should not “simplify or trivialize it” nor “caricature each other as … the scourges of the earth. ” Rather, we should “commit to the vision of everyone being able to thrive and contribute to a diverse, sufficient, equitable, joyful, sustainable, nature-rich world,” no matter how many billion people the future turns out to hold.


Ehrlich, P. (1968) The Population Bomb. New York: Random House Publishing. Khaltourina, D. , Korotayev, A. & Malkov A. (2006). Introduction to Social Macrodynamics: Compact Macromodels of World System Growth. Moscow: URSS. Vidal, J. (2004, August 18) World faces population explosion in poor countries. The Guardian. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. (2000) The State of Food and Agriculture 2000. Greiner, K. (1994, Winter). The baby boom generation and how they grew.

Chance: A Magazine of the American Statistical Association. Judd, O. (2000, May 17) Review of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. Brothers Judd. Retrieved June 25, 2008 from: http://brothersjudd. com/index. cfm/fuseaction/reviews. detail/book_id/91 Steffen, A. (Ed. ) (2006) Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century. New York: Abrams, Inc. Meadows, D. (1999, October 12) The Deep Six. Grist Online Environmental News and Commentary. Retrieved June 24, 2008 from: http://www. grist. org/comments/citizen/1999/10/12/deep/index. html

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