“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death …”
So began “The Population Bomb,” a 1968 advocacy book by Dr. Paul Ehrlich. He indicted American affluence and uncontrolled procreation as key parts of the overpopulation apocalypse he foresaw and thus as pernicious problems to be solved by Draconian public-sector and even international action.
He was wrong, and not just about timing of the pop bomb. I raise his scare-mongering because many people still embrace it and its derivative narratives today: resource depletion, limits to growth, and most environmental religion and green dogma.
Consider some parallels between the pop bomb and man-made global warming. Start with computer-based models and the inputs and assumptions that go into them.
For pop bomb theorists after Ehrlich, the quantitative tool was a cohort model; for global warming, complex, extensive climate and greenhouse-gas simulations. The key erroneous inputs for the pop bomb were assumed fertility rates. For global warming, we have speculative assumptions and estimates of feedback effects, increasing cloud cover impacts, etc.
Turn the crank on the model and get projections for disaster: mass starvation, now joined by rising seas and desertification, etc. As one who has over four decades built and used many computer models, I know their value in science and policy — but also their limitations.
Computer models and other scientific tools cannot sustain claims of consensus that many true believers make. Moreover, science is not about consensus, but instead about hypotheses and investigations to disprove or refine them and generate new ones. Above all, claims that scientific consensus supports or requires public-sector actions, proposed reductions in human liberty, property rights and market freedom are false in their nature, because science can’t answer those issues.
Ehrlich said, “We must have population control at home … by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.” The unvarnished desires of green elites to dictate to the rest of us (via high energy and water prices, land-use and other resource and property restrictions, and myriad other ways) is the key common thread from the 1960s through today.
Contra Ehrlich, today, we face not the population bomb, but instead population implosion from continuously and unexpectedly declining fertility rates around the world.
Russia and Japan already have experienced accelerating population decline, soon to be joined by Italy, Germany and others. Even India and Africa are seeing continuously and surprisingly declining population-growth rates. But the biggest looming human and economic disaster is in China, whose one-child policy was the kind of thing Ehrlich advocated. Without either increasing fertility or greater immigration, the U.S. will also slide into the vortex of decline.
Ehrlich erroneously claimed that, even if his diagnosis erred, his prescriptions would do no harm. Warming advocates make similar false claims now. However, suppressing population and economic growth reduces productivity growth and thus human well-being. History around the world shows that statist central planning, command and control lead to decay and decline. The rule of law, individual freedom, private property and free markets lead to human flourishing.
I’m not saying man-made warming claims are true or false; instead, they are meet for continued real scientific investigation. And scientists should bring their expertise to policy debates — while being modest about the contributions science can make to those matters and candid about their own biases. However, global warming advocacy is as much driven by the lust for power, prestige and resources as by wholesome and genuine concern.
Ron Knecht is an economist, law school graduate and Nevada higher education regent.