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Paul Ehrlich: There are too many super consumers on the planet

The conservation biologist Paul Ehrlich awakened fears of our rapidly growing population in his book The Population Bomb, published in 1968. Fifty years later, he reflects on what has changed

Surroundings


November 11, 2020

By Richard Webb

The UN predicts that the world population will approach 11 billion by 2100

ROGER HARRIS / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

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Paul Ehrlich (Photo: James D. Wilson / Getty Images)

In the late 1960s, the emerging environmental movement began to worry about the impact of humanity on the planet, and the idea that population growth needed to be limited became a major theme.

Paul Ehrlich was at the center of this movement from the start. In 1968, with his wife Anne, he wrote an influential book, The Population Bomb, which expressed fears about the planet’s burgeoning population. It predicted widespread famine, social upheaval, and environmental degradation in the 1970s if steps were not – and not quickly – taken to halt and reduce population growth.

Honestly was wrong. The “green revolution,” which increased agricultural production significantly from the 1960s, meant that most of his terrible predictions did not materialize. His work has since been accused of raising alarmism and spreading fears of rising birth rates in lower-income countries, which justified mandatory population control measures. As he now recognizes, consumption is an integral part of the equation in higher-income countries.

With our climate crisis worsening, the population size debate has begun to re-enter mainstream over the past two years. The 88-year-old Ehrlich still works in the field of population studies at Stanford. New Scientist caught up with him and asked: Is he withdrawing any of his earlier views?

Richard Webb: Since you wrote The Population Bomb, the narrative has moved away from overpopulation as a problem. Should it have done?

Paul Ehrlich: The main …