Ehrlich’s Population Bomb Was a Dud…

…and Malthus was dead wrong.

As a child in the 70s, I remember watching TV specials with ominous graphs of population explosion. The screen would then cut to a circa 1975 shot of a loud, crowded, polluted New York City. Next a shot of a Biafra baby, then footage from the Vietnam War or the killing fields of Cambodia. Looking back, it’s no wonder that so many of my generation are depressed!

The most famous population doomsdayer was Paul Ehrlich, author of the famous and aptly titled book The Population Bomb. The alarmist tone and dire predictions can be summed up in this excerpt, taken from WikipediaThe battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…”

So what happened? Well, Ehrlich thought that agricultural production was near its limits, despite the fact that he was living in the midst of the Green Revolution. As it turned out, technological progress improved at a much faster clip than population increases.

Here’s how Bill and Melinda Gates explained it in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal:

Going back at least to Thomas Malthus in 1798, people have worried about doomsday scenarios in which food supply can’t keep up with population growth. This kind of thinking has gotten the world in a lot of trouble. Anxiety about the size of the world population has a dangerous tendency to override concern for the human beings who make up that population.

Letting children die now so they don’t starve later isn’t just heartless. It also doesn’t work, thank goodness.

It may be counterintuitive, but the countries with the most death have among the fastest-growing populations in the world. This is because the women in these countries tend to have the most births too.

When more children survive, parents decide to have smaller families. Consider Thailand. Around 1960, child mortality started going down. Then around 1970, after the government invested in a strong family planning program, birthrates started to drop. In the course of just two decades, Thai women went from having six children on average to having just two. Today, child mortality in Thailand is almost as low as it is in the U.S., and Thai women have an average of 1.6 children. This pattern of falling death rates followed by falling birthrates applies for the vast majority the world.

Saving lives doesn’t lead to overpopulation. Just the opposite. Creating societies where people enjoy basic health, relative prosperity, fundamental equality and access to contraceptives is the only way to a sustainable world.

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