Paul R. Ehrlich And “The Bomb That Keeps Ticking”
The second half of the 1960’s were boom years for frightening visions of what lay ahead for humanity. Science fiction novels about dystopian futures and films about mankind’s struggle for survival all found a willing audience. But none created more fear, controversy and debate than the writing of an American Biologist by the name of Paul R. Ehrlich.
Paul Ralph Ehrlich was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in may 1932. He was inspired by the subject of ecology at an early age when, in high school, he read William Vogt’s Road To Survival (published in 1948). Vogt’s book presented a summary of the ecological status of the planet and documented the negative effects of an expanding population on the environment. “We are subject to the same biological laws as any species”, Vogt wrote. “If a species exhausts its resources, it crashes.” Road To Survival was considered highly inspirational to the environmentalist movement of the 1960’s.
Ehrlich achieved a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1953. He held a number of research positions there, before accepting a position at Stanford University in 1959 where, 7 years later, he became a professor of biology.
Although much of Ehrlich’s research was in the field of entomology, he became increasingly concerned with the issue of unchecked population growth. He believed that humanity should “treat earth as a spaceship, with limited resources and a heavily burdened life-support system”, fearing that otherwise, “mankind will breed itself into oblivion”.
Ehrlich wrote hundreds of papers on the subject of unchecked and unsustainable population growth, summarising his findings and predictions in The Population Bomb, which he published in May 1968.
“Few problems are less recognised, but more important than, the accelerating disappearance of the earth’s biological resources. In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it is perched.”
Written when the earth’s population was still at 3.5 billion, less than half today’s figure, The Population Bomb warned of the acute dangers of overpopulation, chiefly mass starvation, societal upheaval and environmental deterioration. The book pulled no punches in delivering its warning message, opening with the line: “The battle to feed all humanity is over”.
Although initially ignored, The Population Bomb soon gained popularity. It went on to sell millions of copies, becoming one of the most influential books of the 20th century, as well as one of the most hotly debated and frequently attacked.
Ehrlich published his book at a time of conflict and social upheaval. In it, he argued that many of the day’s most alarming events had a single, underlying cause: “Too many people, packed into too-tight spaces, taking too much from the earth”. He claimed that unless humanity cut down its numbers, all of us would face “mass starvation on a dying planet”.
Most notable of the book’s predictions was that, in the 1970s, hundreds of millions of people would starve to death, having stripped the earth of natural food resources. Ehrlich claimed that no matter what people did, “nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate”.
It was this prediction, primarily, that gave the critics and overpopulation deniers fuel for their counter-argument, when the mass starvation that Ehrlich wrote of did not occur.
Arguably, however, Ehrlich’s prediction only proved wrong because he underestimated the extent that man could and would go to provide the extra food and resources necessary to support an ever increasing population. He would have been unaware, also, of how quickly technology would advance in the latter decades of the 20th century, and how those advances in technology would be employed in agriculture, livestock breeding and the further extraction of natural resources from the planet.
Paul R. Ehrlich’s knowledge and research work remains highly regarded, and he has been the recipient of multiple biological and ecological accolades over the years, including The Eminent Ecologist Award of the Ecological Society of America (2001) and BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Ecology and Conservation Biology (2013).
Ehrlich, now 88, remains as convinced today as ever about the dangers that overpopulation presents to our planet and how mankind’s consumption continues to outstrip natural resources.
Interestingly, despite its popularity (and perhaps notoriety) over the years, The Population Bomb is not widely in print today, with copies not inexpensive to acquire. This may well be testament to how uncomfortable the topic of overpopulation still is and how, with mankind now close to 8 billion, few people remain prepared to publicly discuss population control.
Submitted by Friends of Retha