The Left has found something to raise its cheer. Needless to say, it is someone predicting that mankind is doomed. The most-read piece on the Guardian website yesterday was an interview with Paul Ehrlich – not the one who did something useful, the 19th century immunologist, but Paul R Ehrlich, the Stanford Professor of Biology, who has made a career out of warning that mankind is doomed.
His latest thesis is certainly eye-catching. The Guardian quotes him as saying “the collapse of civilisation is a near-certainty within decades”. “Population growth, along with over-consumption per capita,” he says, “is driving civilisation over the edge: billions of people are now hungry or micronutrient malnourished, and climate disruption is killing people.” Our only hope is to rapidly reduce global population from 7.6 billion to 2 billion: the maximum level he calculates that the Earth can sustain. But if we don’t get round to effecting that reduction immediately and carry on gobbling up the world’s resources, well it will have to be an even more dramatic reduction.
The only thing is that Ehrlich has a bit of backstory which is – to resort to the terminology of a left-wing academic – just a little problematic. He said pretty much the same 50 years ago – indeed the half-century anniversary of his 1968 book the Population Bomb was the whole reason for the Guardian interview. The book warned that the world was heading for a population crunch and proposed dramatic measures. The US was to have a Department of Population of the Environment charged with ‘taking whatever steps are necessary to establish a reasonable population size in the US’, including the prospect of mass sterilization.
Ehrlich is still proud of the Population Bomb, apparently. According to the Guardian:
“The book’s strength, Ehrlich says, is that it was short, direct and basically correct.”
Except, that is, that it came to the conclusion:
“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 in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
True enough, I suppose, there were a number of famines in the 1970s and have been a few since, too. In most cases, however, they have had political rather than environmental causes. As for the suggestion that the battle to feed all humanity is over, it is hard to see how Ehrlich could have been more wrong. Global hunger has fallen – and that is in spite of a huge rise in population. It is hard to find comparable statistics going back to 1968, but in 1990-92, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, there were one billion undernourished people in the world – 18.6 per cent of the world’s population. By 2014-16 that had fallen to 794 million – or 10.9 per cent of the population. And now, as ever, the chief problem is political – where people go hungry it is generally because of warfare or bad governments. The world does not have a problem producing sufficient food for humanity.
This rather raises the question: just what would have had to have happened in order for Ehrlich to announce that he had been wrong? There is really nothing. Ehrlich is one of a long line of failed Malthusians who will never accept they are wrong, just that their prediction has been put off for a few more years. If global population were to continue to grow indefinitely we would eventually be standing shoulder to shoulder, and then we really might have trouble feeding ourselves – in that sense, I suppose, Malthusians can never be wrong. But if you are going to make predictions of global doom then timing, I think, is really rather important.
There was a time when I swallowed the sort of guff that Ehrlich puts out. Back in the 1980s, when I was a geography student, I would have taken in everything he was saying. I even started to write a dystopian novel, a genuine attempt to see into a future when we had expended the Earth’s resources and were struggling to survive.
Yet the more I wrote, the more the thesis began to collapse in the face of reality. Global population was growing, but food production even more so. The world’s poor were becoming healthier, better educated. In fact, just about every measure of human wellbeing was improving. Even worse, from the point of view of the book, it was hard to escape the conclusion that the improvements in living standards all over the world came down to some of the things which young radicals are taught to hate: globalisation, capitalism, industrialisation.
By the time the book – the Great Before – was finally published nearly two decades later it had evolved into exactly the opposite of what I had originally intended: a satire mocking the pessimists like Ehrlich and their fascistic solutions for controlling global population. It is a shame that Ehrlich can’t see his original thesis as the failure it is and learn from it.