Following the publication of The Population Bomb in 1968, the new predicament of overpopulation was inducted into our gruesome mob of predicaments. World leaders snapped to attention, contemplated their options, realized that promoting population control was political suicide, and chose to step around the messy issue. The house was not on fire today, just some smoke.
The big exception was the Chinese, whose one-child program successfully prevented 350 million births. It was sometimes heavy-handed, but ignoring runaway growth would have guaranteed a super-heavy disaster. China had the same amount of cropland as the U.S., but four times the population, and the cropland was wearing out after centuries of organic farming. The last thing they needed was more mouths to feed.
In 1968, there were 3.5 billion people, twenty years later 5.3 billion. Paul and Anne Ehrlich realized that The Population Bomb had failed to inspire miraculous change, so they wrote The Population Explosion (1990). The problems they had predicted earlier were now appearing in many places, and a new generation needed an excellent primer on overpopulation and its side effects. This second book did not repeat the 1968 error of predicting timeframes. It was much more substantial than the first, and is still illuminating to read today. Readers will recognize that the raging bloody chaos of the twenty-first century is an obvious consequence of soaring overshoot.
In this second act, the Ehrlichs took readers into the ecological equivalent of an amusement park funhouse, where loud and scary ghouls and goblins frighten us at every turn — except that their eco-spooks were genuinely dangerous. The trends in food production and population were not in any way encouraging. In 1970, population was growing by 75 million per year. By 1990, it was 95 million.
At the same time, staggering amounts of irreplaceable topsoil were being lost, aquifers were being depleted, and fields were being taken out of production because of salinization and waterlogging. The Green Revolution surge in food production was peaking, whilst population continued to soar, setting the stage for crisis. “We shouldn’t delude ourselves: the population explosion will come to an end before very long.”
North America produced 75 percent of the world’s grain exports, and the U.S. was the number one exporter. In 1988, a severe drought reduced U.S. grain production from 300 to 200 million tons. That year, Americans consumed more than they produced. A stable climate was essential for crop production. So was healthy topsoil, which was being lost at an estimated 24 to 26 billion tons per year. So was cheap and abundant oil, and water for irrigation.
In 1990, the Ehrlichs were aware that global warming might become a serious problem some day, one that might disrupt agriculture, and spark major famines. They knew that fossil energy was finite, and that we would be insane to burn it all. But peak oil and climate change were not presented as current threats in this book. The inevitable return to muscle-powered agriculture is certain take a huge bite out of food production, and an unstable climate will ensure unstable harvests.
Most of humankind lives in the northern hemisphere, in regions having a temperate climate. These regions are where most of the world’s grain is produced. Tropical regions are far more troublesome to farm, and they are home to most of the world’s hungry folks. There is no winter to provide pest control. Forest soils are typically thin. Rains are often heavy, sweeping away soil, fertilizer, and pesticides. The magic seeds of the Green Revolution do not thrive in the humid tropics.
A fascinating chapter reveals why it is so hard for us to take action on long-term issues. It’s almost impossible to see, hear, touch, or smell greenhouse gasses, overpopulation, acid rain, aquifer depletion, soil destruction, or mass extinction. These are not sudden, attention-grabbing events, like a charging rhino. They are slow motion processes that are mostly perceptible via charts, graphs, and books. We are tropical primates, and we evolved to pay close attention to the here and now, in the immediate vicinity.
Slow motion threats cannot be chased away with complaints or magical thinking. We can’t seem to get interested in making enormous sacrifices today in the hope of theoretical benefits somewhere down the road, maybe. Exponential growth can blindside us, because it’s slow at first, and gradually spins into a devastating whirlwind. Evolution did not prepare us for civilized living.
The Ehrlichs are more homocentric than ecocentric. Here’s a real boner: “The population problem is rooted in one of humanity’s greatest triumphs — overcoming natural controls on population size: predators, starvation, and disease.” Triumphs? Overcoming natural controls was the blunder that hurled us onto the path of doom! Replace “triumphs” with “mistakes” and the line makes sense. Natural controls work beautifully. There are not 7.2 billion chimps staring at cell phones.
From 1968 to today, the main goal of the Ehrlichs has been to prevent the collapse of our global civilization. In The Population Explosion, they fire hose readers with torrents of grim information. Readers are likely to conclude that today’s global civilization is already far beyond the point of no return. The solutions recommended require countless miracles, by next year, if possible — world leaders fully cooperating to rapidly reverse the course of humankind.
In a 2014 essay, they concluded that the odds of preventing collapse are now less than one percent. Every civilization collapses, and not one has ever been anything close to sustainable. Instead of rescuing civilization, wouldn’t a wiser goal be to quit destroying the ecosystem? The early civilizations destroyed themselves by overexploiting renewable resources, like water, forests, and topsoil. The newer ones are also extracting nonrenewable resources at an exponential rate. We’re beating the stuffing out of the planet.
Sadly, the super-loony consumer lifestyle has been successfully marketed as being extremely cool. Everyone in China, India, Africa, and everywhere else is eager to live as wastefully as possible, like Americans, but finite resources make this impossible. Instead, Americans need to learn how to live like the people who pick their coffee beans, and we will, sooner or later.
Civilization appears to be speeding toward decades of collapses, yet most of us have little understanding of how we created our mob of predicaments. Methinks it would be ideal to understand our boo-boos before the lights go out. It would be great to quit repeating them. Long ago, the introduction of plows increased carrying capacity. Today, their continued use is reducing carrying capacity. It’s important to understand this.
Here’s an essential sentence: “The complacency with which our education system at all levels accepts the production of citizens hopelessly unequipped to understand the population explosion and many other aspects of the modern world is a national disgrace.”
Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H., The Population Explosion, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1990.
In 2012, the Ehrlichs published a detailed essay, Can a Collapse of Global Civilization be Avoided?