Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


When Doomsayers Turn Out to be Wrong

Paul Ehrlich has spent most of his adult life claiming the world is ending, birth rates are skyrocketing, populations are exploding, famine is around the corner and we’re running out of everything. He’s been largely wrong but refuses to admit it. He tweeted very recently that he “made some mistakes, but no basic ones.”

It all depends on what you think is basic. Does predicting with “near certainty” civilization will completely collapse count? Do massive famines destroying large parts of Europe and North America count? These are huge errors but Ehrlich refuses to see them. And if you dare point them out, he will claim you are just a “right-winger” and should be dismissed — causing confusion for liberals such as myself.

In 2015, Michael Lynch pointed out that a “number of scientists and experts have noted that Ehrlich has not only been laughably wrong and that he not only doesn’t acknowledge it, but considers himself prescient.” Daniel Gardner wrote in Future Babble, “In two lengthy interviews, Ehrlich admitted making not a single major error in the popular works he published in the late 1960s and 1970s.”

In his recent tweet, Ehrlich claimed “I’ve gotten virtually every scientific honor” but Lynch writes of the 18 awards listed “maybe half are from ecological and environmental groups”  such as the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Foundation. It’s easy to get awards from groups when you tell them what they want to hear. All ideological groups do this. But science means verifying the predicted results and for the last half-century, Ehrlich’s predicted results have not been verified.

Here’s an itemized series of predictions from Ehrlich, all of which thankfully failed to materialize. Among them: Ehrlich has regularly predicted mass world starvation; there would be a major food shortage in the United States; by 1999, the U.S. population would have declined to 22.6 million; 65 million Americans would die of starvation between 1980 and 1989; and the oceans would be destroyed by 1979 and that fishing would collapse.

As for poor England, Ehrlich said, “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” He did make a gamble once on his theory. He argued resources would become scarcer thus pushing prices up in constant terms. Prof. Julian Simon disagreed and offered a wager to Ehrlich.

Ehrlich could pick any five resources he wanted and in ten years’ time they would see if their costs had increased or not. When the bet came due in 1990, all the resources Ehrlich had chosen declined in price.

Twelve years ago, Ehrlich said in an interview: “Civilisations have collapsed before: the question is whether we can avoid the first time [an] entire global civilisation has given us the opportunity of having the whole mess collapse.”

The Guardian wrote the idea “sounds melodramatic, but Ehrlich insists his vision only builds on famine, drought, poverty, and conflict, which are already prevalent around the world, and would unfold over the ‘next few decades.’”

The problem as I see it, is in the 1960s, Ehrlich predicted these things for the 1970s; in the 1970s they were coming in the 1980s and 1990s; but when they failed to materialize then he predicted they would hit in the new century — yet here we are with less global poverty than 50 years ago, far less famine than when Ehrlich started his doomsday career, and declining fertility rates — declines large enough that some nations are now trying to boost populations.

BBC News warned, “Falling fertility rates mean nearly every country could have shrinking populations by the end of the century” while “23 nations — including Spain and Japan — are expected to see their populations halve by 2100.” As the number of young continues to shrink the number of elderly will increase due to longer life spans. That will put a strain on welfare states and care facilities. Yes, there is a population crisis, but one very different from Ehrlich’s prediction.

There are other dire consequences to Ehrlich’s theory of doom and death.

Video of a television interview from the 1970s shows Ehrlich calling for authoritarian population control measures. He started out sounding liberal—against state interference—but ends saying if voluntary measures don’t work “then you’ll have the government legislating the size of the family” and if you have too many children “the government will simply throw you in jail.”

According to Charles Mann, Ehrlich said his book was a great success because it made population control “acceptable,” something Mann notes “led to human rights abuses around the world.” He noted the results of this hysteria: “Millions of people sterilized, often coercively, sometimes illegally, frequently in unsafe conditions, in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia, and Bangladesh…China adopted a ‘one-child’ policy that led to huge numbers — possibly 100 million — of coerced abortions, often in poor conditions contributing to infection, sterility, and even death. Millions of forced sterilizations occurred.”

China’s coercive policies mean its population declined last year and the New York Times reported the decline, according to experts, is irreversible. The paper warns the declining population is “coupled with a long-running rise in life expectancy” thrusting China “into a demographic crisis not just for China and its economy but for the world.”

Ideas have consequences