13 June 2015

The New York Times: “The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion”

No one was more influential — or more terrifying, some would say — than Paul R. Ehrlich, a Stanford University biologist. His 1968 book, “The Population Bomb”, sold in the millions with a jeremiad that humankind stood on the brink of apocalypse because there were simply too many of us. Dr. Ehrlich’s opening statement was the verbal equivalent of a punch to the gut: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” He later went on to forecast that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s, that 65 million of them would be Americans, that crowded India was essentially doomed, that odds were fair “England will not exist in the year 2000.” Dr. Ehrlich was so sure of himself that he warned in 1970 that “sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come.” By “the end”, he meant “an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.”

Clyde Haberman

As with all Doomsday predictions, the reality proved less severe. The problems when doing long-term forecasts usually arise because some trends continue their past evolution, while others change radically. In this case, population did indeed grow rapidly in the last decades, but so did agricultural productivity. In fact, the world uses 68% less land to produce the same amount of food compared to 50 years ago – according to this study. It’s a wonderful example of how technology can alleviate many of humanity’s problems, giving us the time to come up with new ones – such as global warming.

Area harvested and production for agriculture
Area harvested and production for wheat in France 1820-2010, rice in China 1920-2010, and wheat in Egypt 1890-2010 – Ausubel, Wernick, & Waggoner (2013)

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