The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970's the world
will undergo famines--hundreds of millions of people are going to
starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At
this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world
death rate, although many lives could be saved through dramatic
programs to "stretch" the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing
food production. But these programs will only provide a stay of
execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful
efforts at population control. Population control is the conscious
regulation of the numbers of human beings to meet the needs, not just
of individual families, but of society as a whole.
The Population Bomb
by Paul Ehrlich (1968)
A particularly popular (if that's the right word) end of the world
scenario from the mid-'60s on was overpopulation. Ever since
Malthus published his idea that population growth would always
outstrip food production, the prospect of having too many mouths to
feed had been a concern for social planners, politicians, and colour
supplement writers. And with the post-war baby boom of the '40s and
'50s it began to look as though the crunch was just around the corner.
For most of the 20th century, the threat of growing populations was
just another hurdle to be cleared by science, but by the '60s Paul
Ehrlich and other doomsayers it was a cause for alarm.
Taking a straightedge to population trends and running a pencil
line to infinity, they predicted that by the '70s hundreds of millions
would starve to death, hundreds of thousands of people in Los Angles
would die from air pollution, a universal age of scarcity would occur
by 1985, the US population would collapse to 22 million by 1999, and
England would "cease to exist" by 2000.
These sort of predictions were reflected in films like ZPG
(1972) and Soylent Green
(1973). In the latter, based on
Make Room! Make Room!
by Harry Harrison, New York City
by 2022 (1999 in the book) has become a Calcutta-like warren with a
population of 40 million people, a 50% unemployment rate and
government-encouraged suicide clinics. Sweltering under a
constant 100° F due to a rampant greenhouse effect,
the people subsist on a variety of synthetic foods, such as Soylent
Green, which is made from sea plankton. Or so everyone thinks.
In fact, the ravening cancer of an ever breeding mankind has stripped
even the oceans of their food and the government is desperately trying
to keep secret the fact that the world has been reduced to involuntary
cannibalism and Soylent Green is made out of people.*
These sort of predictions came from some fairly sloppy methodology
that looked at current trends and production figures and projected
them into the future as if nothing would ever alter the curve.
If population was growing at a particular rate, then it would do so
forever. If oil or iron ore reserves were so large, then no more
would be discovered. If food production grew at such a rate, it
would never increase. It's a bit like watching a man climb a
flight of stairs and from that fact predicting that he would therefore
ascend forever, if I have only so much food in my larder I will
inevitably be eating the rugs inside a month or that if autumn grows
cooler then all the world will freeze forever.
Thirty years after the fears of overpopulation were at their height,
things have changed markedly. Rather than looking forward to
being overwhelmed by a tidal wave of people we recognise that
overpopulation is a local problem that has less to do with rampant
breeding than abject poverty and corrupt governments. In fact, the West's population
problem isn't that one of being crowded out and starved, but of a wealthy,
who can't be bothered to reproduce themselves to the point that
countries like Italy and Scotland face the prospect of extinction if trends