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Brendan O’Neill: Why Paul Ehrlich Has Always Been Wrong

The reason every population panicker and moody green has been wrong about future doom is because they’re addicted to the idea of finiteness; they think resources are fixed and will run out one day.

One of my favourite pastimes is picking holes in the population panic-mongering of people such as Paul Ehrlich.

It’s so easy: dig up any prediction made by these sourpussed baby-fearers 20-odd years ago, contrast it to how things actually turned out, and hey presto, you have hard evidence that Malthusian miserabilists always overstate how bad things are going to get.

Ehrlich, the population control lobby’s alarmist-in-chief, who’s in Australia to speak at the Adelaide Festival, is the easiest doom-monger to slap down. He wrongly predicts calamity as casually as the rest of us discuss the weather.

In his 1968 book The Population Bomb, bible of eco-bellyachers everywhere, he said the planet was about to become so overpopulated that global famine would ensue and millions would die. He predicted that “by the year 2000 the UK will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people”. Nope. I can report that Britain is doing so well that we’re more freaked out by an alleged obesity epidemic than by hunger.

Ehrlich said India would not survive the 1970s. As a result of too many brown babies being born, we’d see the “dissolution of India as a viable nation”.

Wrong again. India’s population has more than doubled since 1970, from 550 million to 1.2 billion, yet there are fewer hungry people, more in the middle class, bigger cities, and life expectancy has risen from 49 years in 1970 to 65.1 years today. If India is anything to go by, more people means more stuff, more development, more life – not more disaster.

Amazingly, Ehrlich’s passion for misery-mongering hasn’t been dented by the failure of any of his horror scenarios to materialise. In The Australian this week he and his wife Anne warned of “global disaster” if women didn’t stop having “large-scale families”.

If you want to make some easy money, I suggest putting a bet on this prediction going the same way as all the others – straight into the file marked “Crazy Things Paul Ehrlich Predicted That Never Came True”.

Yet while many observers, like me, get a kick from exposing Ehrlich’s wrongheaded alarmism, the big fallacy on which all his other fallacies are built is rarely challenged.

Ehrlich’s core belief – that we live on a finite planet, with fixed resources – is never mocked. And that’s because this ill-informed prejudice is commonplace even among the more moderate greens and “progressives” who laugh in the face of Ehrlich’s crazier claims during his visit to Oz.

Like every Malthusian since Malthus himself, Ehrlich is convinced that resources are limited and therefore we can sustain only a certain number of people. As he told ABC radio in 2011, “You cannot have infinite growth in a finite space.” But it isn’t true that we live on a finite planet. That’s a spectacularly ahistorical way of understanding natural resources and humanity’s relationship with them.

Resources aren’t fixed; they’re fluid and changeable because the usefulness of a resource is determined by us.

Consider coal. For centuries it was a useless black rock that some Roman-era communities used to make jewellery. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that mankind unlocked coal’s secret: that it could be used to power new machines and in the process remake entire societies and overhaul human existence.

Or consider uranium. Two thousand years ago people used it as a dye, to make glass yellow. In the 20th century we used it to light up and power entire cities. We transformed a decorative chemical element into a source of awesome energy.

If you had said to a Roman woman, “One day that jewel around your neck will power things called steam engines”, or told an early Christian that his yellow dye would be used to create light and heat comparable to the sun’s, they would have laughed at you or locked you up.

As human society develops, so does our understanding of the secrets hidden within natural resources, alongside our ability to exploit those resources. Nature doesn’t determine what is a resource or how far it will go; we do.

The reason every population panicker and moody green has been wrong about future doom is because they’re addicted to the idea of finiteness; they think resources are fixed and will run out one day.

Nonsense. The only thing in short supply today is a willingness among people to experiment like earlier generations did, and to find out what else uranium, or some other as yet untapped earthly or planetary resource, can do for us.

The Australian, 7 March 2013