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Prophets of doom in high places

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

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.

A later book in a similar vein, co-authored in 1977 by Ehrlich, his wife Anne, and John Holdren, is Ecoscience (full text). Instead of dialling back the alarmism in light of a decade of experience, this dull, academic-looking tome – amounting to 1649 pages – doubles down on it. Famine, environmental disaster, energy crises and war all feature prominently in the Holdren-Ehrlich dystopia.

A continuing set of interlocking shortages is likely – food, energy, raw materials – generating not only direct increases in human suffering and deprivation, but also increased political tension and (perversely) increased availability of the military wherewithal for LDCs to relieve their frustrations aggressively. Resort to military action is possible, not only in the case of LDCs unwilling to suffer quietly, but, with equal or greater likelihood, in the case of industrial powers whose high standard of living is threatened by denial of external resources. The probability that conflicts of any origin will escalate into an exchange of nuclear weapons, moreover, can hardly fail to be greater in 1985’s world of perhaps 15 or 20 nuclear armed nations than it has been in the recent world of five. …

This gloomy prognosis, to which a growing number of scholars and other observers reluctantly subscribes, has motivated a host of proposals for organised evasive action: population control, limitation of material consumption, redistribution of wealth, transitions to technologies that are environmentally and socially less disruptive than today’s, and movement toward some kind of world government, among others.”

Their objective is not hidden; it isn’t a conspiracy theory. It’s patently clear to anyone who can be bothered to wade through the massive volume.

The three authors go on to consider solutions to the problem of population control, some of them quite extreme and totalitarian. “Indeed, … compulsory population-control laws, even including laws requiring compulsory abortion, could be sustained under the existing Constitution if the population crisis became sufficiently severe to endanger the society,” they wrote. They admit that “[f]ew today consider the situation in the United States serious enough to justify compulsion,” but promptly follow up with “compelling arguments that might be used to justify government regulation of reproduction” and “sound reasons that support the use of law to regulate reproduction”.

Besides forced abortions, they contemplate other laws, such as forcing unmarried women to put illegitimate babies up for adoption, or requiring pregnant single women to marry. The idea of mass sterilisation again rears its ugly head: “Adding a sterilant to drinking water or staple foods is a suggestion that seems to horrify people more than most proposals for involuntary fertility control. Indeed, this would pose some very difficult political, legal, and social questions, to say nothing of the technical problems. No such sterilant exists today, nor does one appear to be under development. To be acceptable, such a substance would have to meet some rather stiff requirements: it must be uniformly effective, despite widely varying doses received by individuals, and despite varying degrees of fertility and sensitivity among individuals; it must be free of dangerous or unpleasant side effects; and it must have no effect on members of the opposite sex, children, old people, pets, or livestock.”

That would make it “acceptable”, would it? The implied sexism of that last sentence is made explicit elsewhere: “A programme of sterilising women after their second or third child, despite the relatively greater difficulty of the operation than vasectomy, might be easier to implement than trying to sterilise men.”

Taking a leaf out of communist China’s playbook, they propose limiting the number of children families would be entitled to have: “In today’s world … the number of children in a family is a matter of profound public concern. The law regulates other highly personal matters. For example, no one may lawfully have more than one spouse at a time. Why should the law not be able to prevent a person from having more than two children?”

Enforcing all these laws would require a powerful government, of course. The Ehrlichs and Holdren have just the thing: A “Planetary Regime” which they describe as “sort of an international superagency for population, resources, and environment. Such a comprehensive Planetary Regime could control the development, administration, conservation, and distribution of all natural resources, renewable or nonrenewable, at least insofar as international implications exist.

Thus the Regime could have the power to control pollution not only in the atmosphere and oceans, but also in such freshwater bodies as rivers and lakes that cross international boundaries or that discharge into the oceans. The Regime might also be a logical central agency for regulating all international trade, perhaps including assistance from [developed countries] to [less developed countries], and including all food on the international market. The Planetary Regime might be given responsibility for determining the optimum population for the world and for each region and for arbitrating various countries’ shares within their regional limits. Control of population size might remain the responsibility of each government, but the Regime would have some power to enforce the agreed limits.”

Now you’d think that these are the ravings of extremist lunatics, but you’d be wrong. Ehrlich is still happily employed at Stanford University, as Bing Professor of Population Studies and president of its Center for Conservation Biology. He’s still banging on about population growth. Here he is, quoted in the French magazine Le Temps, just last week: “Humanity would do well to return to 1.5-billion people. The world is heading for disaster.”

John Holdren is equally gainfully employed, as “Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.” He is Barack Obama’s right-hand man on science, occupying perhaps the most powerful scientific policy advisory position in the world.

None of their predictions have come to pass, yet these people continue to occupy influential or powerful positions. Worse, they pose an actual danger to society by proposing drastic measures to solve nonexistent problems. But then, that is true for many alarmists who exaggerate problems to advance a commercial or political agenda.

We should stop believing them. DM


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