Why the Population Bomb bombed

Population Bomb, The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich

This book came up in a discussion I was having earlier today. Published in 1968, and an eventual bestseller, The Population Bomb asserted that within 10 – 20 years the world would be wracked by starvation and wars for food.

In my early teens in the ’70s I lived in a small town in western Kansas surrounded by literally an ocean of wheat that farmers were going broke producing because the world had too damn much of it. So I could not reconcile the dire warnings of “The Population Bomb” and the reality around me.

At least until the famous “bet”.

“Julian Simon, frustrated by the huge attention that Paul Ehrlich was receiving for his apocalyptic warnings about overpopulation, offered Mr. Ehrlich a bet in 1980. If a selected basket of commodities became more expensive over the coming decade — which would signal scarcity caused by a crowded planet — Mr. Ehrlich, an ecologist, would win the bet. If the commodities fell in price — signaling a triumph of human ingenuity — Mr. Simon, an economist, would win.

“Mr. Simon won the bet, with room to spare, and it’s easy to forget today how serious the overpopulation fears once were. Mr. Sabin catalogs them — from the United Nations, major publications and even a United States president — in entertaining fashion. But ‘The Bet’ also makes clear that some of Mr. Ehrlich’s worries had an undercurrent of reason.”

The above quote is from here. An interesting discussion of not just the famous bet, but how the presentation of apocalyptic warnings can be so overplayed (even if correct) that the response is the opposite of what is intended.

Which takes us to the role of science fiction (all fiction, in fact). James Gunn, the acclaimed sci fi novelist and historian (who chaired my MA Thesis committee) has recently argued in a guest editorial for Analog (Sep/Oct ’17) that…

“In recent years my own [writing goal] has been ‘let’s save the world through science fiction.’ H. G. Wells warned that the world was in a race between education and catastrophe and called for an ‘open conspiracy’ to create a better world.”

Our story telling can be more effective than any dire warning ever could be. Good storytelling is seductive and can make the nonbeliever a devout proponent.

Why The Population Bomb bombed
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Why The Population Bomb bombed
The Population Bomb asserted that within 10 - 20 years the world would be wracked by starvation and wars for food. It was proven wrong by a famous bet.
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2 thoughts on “Why the Population Bomb bombed”

  1. I was recently involved in a book club discussion about Niven & Pournelle’s 1974 *The Mote in God’s Eye* . .. and had occasion to observe how neatly certain aspects of the plot tied in with the then-pervasive fears about overpopulation.

    1. Hey Rick! I have not read that book in ~30 years, but very much enjoyed Niven and Pournelle’s work when I was younger. I think every generation has to have one or two scary things to obsess about. The reality is there is a bit of truth in all of them and in some cases a lot of truth. The longer to unfold and the more complex to explain (eg global warming) the harder they are to identify for what they are. Alarmist nonsense just makes the truth harder to comprehend as the boy who cried wolf discovered.

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