What Happened to Those Apocalyptic Predictions About Overpopulation?

By Matt Novak on at

In the late 1960s a biologist named Paul Ehrlich insisted that the world’s rapid population growth was unsustainable. What could be done? Ehrlich proposed radical population control measures—including sterilisation.

The always excellent Retro Report has a new 12-minute video that looks back at the predictions in Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, and the consequences of his proposed solutions. And it’s not pretty. Ehrlich’s ideas included taxes on nappies and children, covert sterilisation of the public through drinking water, and even spiking foreign food aid with anti-fertility drugs.

Ehrlich’s predictions led to real action. In India, millions of people were sterilised by the government, sometimes forcibly. His views were embraced by wealthy people in the developing world who could insist that the poor were poor because they were having too many children — an argument that’s not uncommon in the 21st century western world..

“Population growth outstripping food supply resonated quite a bit with India’s elites, with the middle classes, they much preferred to believe that the poor were poor because of too many children rather than being poor because of an unfair and unequal economic system,” says Gita Sen, a development economist at the Centre for Public Policy in the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore.

So why isn’t overpopulation on everyone’s minds today? Because most people have come to realise that it’s not food production that’s the problem. We can make enough food for the entire world to eat well. The problem is our economic system, which stands in the way of people having enough to eat.

The Population Bomb is filled with predictions of nightmare scenarios—and normally, we get to sit back and have a good laugh at incorrect predictions. But Ehrlich and his Malthusian ilk weren’t random futurists predicting doom and gloom. Their predictions of overpopulation and promotion of eugenics had real consequences on the world.

And as you can see from the video, Ehrlich isn’t apologising. Despite being wrong again and again and again.


This article originally appeared on Field Guide, Gizmodo's blog on how to get the best out of your tech