The population bomb four decades on – Are we still doomed?


There is nothing new about fears of overpopulation – every century has had its fair share of apocalyptic claims about the future of mankind and the Earth. The late 1960s saw the release of The Population Bomb by Paul R. Ehrlich, which stands as one of the founding texts of the modern environment movement. It popularised neo-Malthusian concerns that current rates of population growth were unsustainable, a fear revived every year on the UN’s World Population Day (today, July 11).

This year, the Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development took the opportunity to assess whether these fears are justified. It features a new paper by Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich (unnamed co-author of the original book) who have few regrets about the claims they made. If anything, they argue that “perhaps the most serious flaw in The [Population] Bomb was that it was much too optimistic about the future". They point to the collapse of numerous fisheries, the irreversible loss of biodiversity, ozone depletion, and most importantly in their view, global warming.

But such claims – no matter how popular they remain – are at odds with empirical evidence, according to Indur M. Goklany, co-editor of the EJSD (free online journal) and author of The Improving State of the World. In his article, he argues that “despite unprecedented growth in population, affluence, consumption and technological change, human well-being has never been higher."

Even if Goklany concedes that the record is mixed for the environment, he explains why this is: “Initially, in the rich countries, affluence and technology worsened environmental quality, but eventually they provided the methods and means for cleaning up the environment… After decades of deterioration, their environment has improved substantially." His and many of the other articles in the EJSD show that if anything, we need more economic growth and technology, underlined by stable market institutions like property rights – not less.

But as Goklany warns, the great advances mankind has made in the past centuries do not mean that economic growth and technology innovation should be taken for granted. Rather, he warns that the “policy preferences of some environmentalists and Neo-Malthusians, founded on their skepticism of affluence and technology, would only make progress toward a better quality of life and a more sustainable environment harder. Their fears could become self-fulfilling prophecies."

Issue 3 of the EJSD – “The Population Bomb Four Decades On" – is available here.

The EJSD is a peer-reviewed, open access, online journal- the result of a partnership between International Policy Network and the University of Buckingham.