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Prophets Of Doom In High Places

Ivo Vegter, Daily Maverick

Before climate change, there was the population explosion. Predicting disaster for humanity and environmental doom became the means by which government power could be expanded, even if the record of such prophesies is dismal.


The record of populist predictions about the evils of modern society is terrible. The most alarming predictions, which garner the most headlines and have the most impact on public policy, never come to pass. Perennial pessimism is nothing but paranoid neurosis.

Prophesies about the catastrophes that would follow population growth have long been both shrill and high-profile. Yet they simply failed to materialise. The prophets of doom wish they would be quietly forgotten, and for the most part they have been. But they shouldn’t be, when the very same fearmongers remain in positions of influence or power.

In 1967, the brothers William and Paul Paddock wrote a book, calmly entitled Famine 1975! In it, they predict that most nations will be unable to sustain their growing populations by expanding agriculture, leading to a “Time of Famines” within a decade from the book’s publication. They believed that the United States would become the “sole hope of the hungry nations”, but that its charity had to be limited by necessity, forcing it to choose which countries it would simply leave to starve.

The scientific community, far from rejecting the preposterous alarmism, took it seriously. A review in the magazine Science explains: “From its title, one might infer that this book is an attention-seeking potboiler, on one of today’s ever more gripping and therefore popular subjects. It is not. It is deadly serious, a solemn analysis of things to come in the food domain, together with a proposed plan for action in a field where others have none. … All serious students of the plight of the underdeveloped nations agree that famine among the peoples of the underdeveloped nations is invetiable. The US Department of Agriculture, for example, sees 1985 as the beginning of the years of hunger.”

The Paddock brothers may have faded into obscurity, but their book received high praise from a more famous prognosticator of environmental apocalypse. The central thesis of Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb (full text) is stated in the prologue: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programmes embarked upon now.”

Ehrlich’s problem statement was the same as that of the Paddock brothers, but his proposed solutions were different. As suggested in the subtitle, “Population control or race to oblivion?”, Ehrlich was a proponent of penalty taxes on families with more children, levying luxury taxes on childcare products, and incentivising sterilisation after two children. He even suggested putting sterilants in the drinking water, but dismissed the idea as impractical because of the “criminal inadequacy of biomedical research in this area”.

The book makes no bones about how doomed he thought the world to be: “At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate, although many lives could be saved through dramatic programmes to ‘stretch’ the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing food production and providing for more equitable distribution of whatever food is available. But these programmes will only provide a stay of execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control. Population control is the conscious regulation of the numbers of human beings to meet the needs not just of individual families, but of society as a whole.”

He proposed that the United States establish a Department of Population and Environment, which “should be set up with the power to take whatever steps are necessary to establish a reasonable population size in the United States and to put an end to the steady deterioration of our environment”.

Despite the stubborn refusal of the population to grow poor and die, half of this wish did come true, and environmental bureaucrats have been spewing forth reams of rules and regulations ever since. Some of them have been sensible and beneficial, but many are driven purely by fear, political opportunism, cronyism, or sheer hunger for power.

As is common, Ehrlich invoked the presumed plight of the next generation, whose future his own generation were presumably destroying: “Nothing could be more misleading to our children than our present affluent society. They will inherit a totally different world, a world in which the standards, politics and economics of the past decade are dead. … We are today involved in the events leading to famine and ecocatastrophe; tomorrow we may be destroyed by them. Our position requires that we take immediate action at home and promote effective action worldwide.”

Almost 50 years later there is no sign of Ehrlich’s dystopian delusions about poverty and famine. Population growth, which peaked in 1963 at 2.2%, has halved. There are fewer poor people now than ever before, and even the poor are far better fed than they were in 1968. Agriculture has been boosted immeasurably by the adoption of modern farming techniques and new techologies, feeding a population of more than 7-billion better than it did a population half this size in 1968. Yet the echoes of Ehrlich’s language are louder than ever. Ironically, the generation that wasn’t yet born in Ehrlich’s day, but are parents and grandparents today, fret just as much about the future they’re bequeathing to their children as Ehrlich himself did.

At the first Earth Day in 1970s, predictions of the Ehrlich variety were commonplace headline-grabbers. According to Senator Gaylord Nelson, who quoted Dr Dillon Ripley of the Smithsonian, 80% of all species would be extinct by 2000. Four billion people would starve to death during the 1980s, predicted Ehrlich himself. Kenneth Watt, an ecologist, predicted that the world would be 11 degrees colder by 2000, but that we’d have run out of crude oil.

None of these alarming predictions has come true. […]

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