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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

"The Population Bomb," Revisited

Recently, while looking for something on my bookshelves to read myself to sleep, I came across a paperback of "The Population Bomb," by Paul Ehrlich, published not long before I bought it, in 1968. That book made quite a stir at the time. Among other things Ehrlich predicted famines in the 1970's that would take many millions of lives. He was especially concerned about India. Famines did occur later but not to the extent that he predicted, because they happened mostly in Africa and especially in Ethiopia. India was saved because of the "Green Revolution."

Nowadays you don't hear so much about the dangers of overpopulation. It doesn't carry nearly the urgency of, say, global warming or the Federal deficit. Meanwhile Ehrlich's numerous critics gleefully like to point out how few of his predictions came true.

But it seems to me that we can hearken back to a moment in the largely and unjustly forgotten movie "World War Three," in which the Russian villains are momentarily taken aback when their machinations designed to attack the U.S. preemptively with nuclear bombs seems to be short-circuited by the unexpected murder of the peace-loving General Secretary, whom they had hoped to use as unwitting cover for their plans. The leader of this plot convinces one of his lieutenants that they must go on with their scheme anyway, because "Nevertheless, the principle is correct."

There are two basics to Ehrlich's views, and it seems to me that both have held true since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. One is that the Earth's population, despite war and famine, has kept growing at an ever accelerating speed despite the lowering of birth rates in various countries and and now stands at well over six billion souls. And secondly, the materials that can be ripped out of the flesh of Mother Earth to accommodate all these people are finite and there are lesser and lesser amounts of these things, since no more is being added to the planet, from outer space, inner space, or anywhere else.

So Ehrlich's basic proposition must be correct. It's just that he's a bad predictor and bettor, when it comes to time frames. But that's a risk that anybody runs when they try to get a jump on the future.

I read that in 1980 he told one of his adversaries that he would buy $1,000 worth of five commodities each -- tin, tungsten, copper, nickel, and chrome -- and that if their prices were higher in 10 years time, as he predicted, reflecting the growing scarcity of the metals, the guy would have to pay him the difference, and vice-versa if they were lower. In 1990 he ended up losing the bet and having to fork over $476.

We might wonder why he stuck in blah light bulb stuff like nickel and tungsten. Why didn't he rely instead on the bigtime things that we all know and love? Even by 1980 a rise of oil prices could be foreseen, due to the crisis of 1973. He could've made a killing there if he had waited a little longer. Or why didn't he bet the cost of cars, houses, or land instead?

Overpopulation might not be much spoken of these days, but I think that's because racism in particular has driven people to perfect the art of saying one thing when they really mean another. Overpopulation -- acccompanied in many cases by racism -- is behind the numerous outcries against "illegal immigration." It is behind the unjustified invasion of Iraq and the necessity that Israel finds to lock its own self up behind a wall, ghetto-style. It is behind the outbursts in a number of countries, especially in Europe and Russia, when the people who are used to being the majority and the land's creating citizens now find their status threatened by the higher birth rates of what they judge to be inferior components of their population. It is behind the fear of countries like India and China and their increasing technical and financial prowess and their several billions of people, as they reach out for what they consider their share of the ever dwindling supply of oil and other items considered absolutely necessary for the better life. It is behind gridlock and the drowning of the individual and the inability anymore simply to walk up to the window and buy a ticket and walk into the stadium to see a pro football game, as you used to be able to do 40 years ago, before the travesties of season tickets (though maybe I can better attribute that last-cited to the same mass hysteria that made gladiator fights and the wholesale murder of wild animals so attractive to the ancient Romans).


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