Paul Ehrlich is a Stanford University biologist most famous for his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, and subsequent dire predictions about how human population growth would exhaust food and other natural resource supplies, leading to cataclysmic destruction of the human race and all of earth’s creatures. Ehrlich was not the first to predict that population growth would outstrip food production (the idea goes back at least to the 18th century’s Thomas Robert Malthus), and he certainly won’t be the last. People love doomsday predictions no matter how often they turn out false.
And Ehrlich’s predictions have turned out to be remarkably false. Wikipedia provides some examples:
On the first Earth Day in 1970, he warned that “[i]n ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish.” In a 1971 speech, he predicted that: “By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”
The fact that nearly half a century after warning of the imminent collapse of civilization and mass starvation Ehrlich’s predictions have not come to pass has done nothing to shake Ehrlich or his most ardent supporters’ confidence in his analysis. Disaster has merely been deferred, in their view. Like the members of the cult profiled in Leon Festinger‘s When Prophesy Fails, Ehrlich and his supporters have doubled-down with an increased conviction that human action is about to destroy the planet.
Of course, it is always possible that humans will eventually destroy themselves, but this does not appear to be imminent. Ehrlich’s analysis has been and is likely to continue to be flawed because he grossly under-estimates the ability of human ingenuity to innovate and adapt, avoiding resource shortage catastrophes.
The economist, Julian Simon, articulated this argument in his 1981 book, The Ultimate Resource. Simon explains that price is the most efficient mechanism for avoiding shortage catastrophes. When rising demand begins to make a resource more scarce, the price rises. Rising prices provide strong incentives for people to find substitutes for the scarce resource or to innovate and develop techniques for producing more of that resource. Catastrophic shortages tend not to sneak up on us. Prices anticipate future shortages and give us time to innovate or adapt.
To prove his point, Simon actually made a wager with Ehrlich about how innovation and adaptation would make shortages less severe over time, causing resource prices to tend to decline in real terms. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the wager:
In 1968, Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, which argued that mankind was facing a demographic catastrophe with the rate of population growth quickly outstripping growth in the supply of food and resources. Simon was highly skeptical of such claims, so proposed a wager, telling Ehrlich to select any raw material he wanted and select “any date more than a year away,” and Simon would bet that the commodity’s price on that date would be lower than what it was at the time of the wager.
Ehrlich and his colleagues (including John Holdren, later an advisor to President Barack Obama for Science and Technology) picked five metals that they thought would undergo big price increases: chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten. Then, on paper, they bought $200 worth of each, for a total bet of $1,000, using the prices on September 29, 1980, as an index. They designated September 29, 1990, 10 years hence, as the payoff date. If the inflation-adjusted prices of the various metals rose in the interim, Simon would pay Ehrlich the combined difference. If the prices fell, Ehrlich et al. would pay Simon.
Between 1980 and 1990, the world’s population grew by more than 800 million, the largest increase in one decade in all of history. But by September 1990, the price of each of Ehrlich’s selected metals had fallen…. As a result, in October 1990, Paul Ehrlich mailed Julian Simon a check for $576.07 to settle the wager in Simon’s favor.
I am not nominating Paul Ehrlich for The Higgy because he’s been wrong. A lot of scientists have been wrong about a lot of things and there is no harm in advancing an argument that turns out to be mistaken. Nor am I nominating Ehrlich because he has stubbornly adhered to his theories despite considerable evidence to contradict them. This is a remarkably common flaw among scientists when they are proved wrong and also does relatively little harm.
Instead, I am nominating Ehrlich because his arguments have provided intellectual support for oppressive government policies to reduce population growth. As Ehrlich wrote in The Population Bomb:
“We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail. We must use our political power to push other countries into programs which combine agricultural development and population control.”
As it turned out, resource shortages have not produced the catastrophes Ehrlich expected, but government-orchestrated population control efforts have almost certainly been far more destructive, let alone oppressive.
China’s One Child Policy is the most glaring example of the devastation produced by this mistaken, authoritarian approach. Since 1979 China has imposed fines on families that have what the government considers to be too many children. This “system of incentives and penalties,” as Ehrlich suggested, was effective at reducing population growth in China… but at what cost and for what benefit?
Because families are pushed to have only one child and because there is a strong preference for boys, girls have become an endangered species in China. Between 2000 and 2013 there were 117 male babies born for every 100 girl babies, likely the result of selective-sex abortions. In addition, neglect, abandonment, and outright infanticide are skewing China even more towards boys after birth. According to a Chinese government commission, there will be 30 million more men than women in 2020. In short, there has been a female genocide in China with hardly a peep from American feminists pre-occupied with what they consider more important matters, like whether they need to Lean In to avoid being called “bossy.”
The gender imbalance produced by China’s One Child Policy is also far more likely to lead to social instability and war than the imaginary resource crisis it was meant to prevent. Having tens of millions of young men unable to find wives is likely to create a violent mob whose untamed aggression Chinese leaders may wish to divert toward conquest and war rather than against their own rule.
The severe decline in birth rates is also creating a demographic disaster of enormous proportions. Elderly Chinese are dependent on a shrinking number of younger Chinese to support them in old age. If young Chinese men are not driven toward violence by an inability to find marriageable women, they may well be by the crushing burden of having to work harder and longer to support a much larger number of older Chinese.
And of course, it is hard to imagine a more severe intrusion on personal liberty, including women’s reproductive rights, than to have the government coerce people to have only one child. Again, where are the developed world’s feminists on this issue?
The Chinese government has begun to notice the disaster they’ve created and are starting to relax the One Child Policy in a variety of ways. Unfortunately, government technocracy is not nearly as efficient at anticipating and adjusting to the future as price mechanisms are. There is a government-induced shortage of young people, particularly young women, that cannot be as quickly corrected by tinkering with China’s family policy as other resource constraints could be handled by allowing price to encourage adaptation and innovation.
Ehrlich is worthy of The Higgy because he advanced the catastrophically wrong notion that central planning could more efficiently manage resources than could price mechanisms. And he is further worthy because his views rationalize the enormous infringements on human liberty that central planning produces.