Paul Ehrlich is a biologist who has predicted the collapse of civilization due to overpopulation for decades. His claims have been consistently refuted by empirical evidence. This article critiques his recent appearance on 60 Minutes, where he repeated his pessimistic views, and shows why his arguments are flawed and misleading.
Last night, CBS decided to start the new year with a 60 Minutes segment on overpopulation. That’s not really all that surprising. In recent months, many left-leaning media outlets profiled advocates of depopulation (here is The New York Times and here is The Atlantic), thereby helping to normalize their message of anti-humanism and anti-natalism. What is surprising is that CBS thought it wise to interview none other than the Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich. Ninety years old, looking healthy and sounding as self-assured as ever, Ehrlich revisited the main thesis of his 1968 book The Population Bomb. The book’s beginning will be familiar to many readers:
“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will 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…”
In fact, the world’s crude death rate per 1,000 people fell from 12.9 in 1965-1970 to 8.1 in 2020-2025. That’s a reduction of 37 percent. Famines, which were once common throughout the world, have disappeared outside of war zones. The world produces (or produced before the Russian invasion of Ukraine) record amounts of food. Hundreds of millions of people did not starve to death in the 1970s or thereafter. Quite the opposite happened; the world’s population rose from 3.5 billion in 1968 to 8 billion in 2022. That said, some 400 million people were prevented from being born in China because of the misbegotten one-child policy (1978-2015), which the writings of Paul Ehrlich helped to inspire.
I realize that CBS has no time or space for the authors of Superabundance – a book showing that resources are getting more, rather than less, abundant. But why not interview Nobel Prize-winning economists like Paul Romer, Angus Deaton, and Michael Kremer, who never bought into the overpopulation nonsense? And if that’s a stretch, why not interview smart Democrats, like Lawrence H. Summers (Bill Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury) or Jason Furman (Barack Obama’s Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers)? They, too, argue that we do not have an “overpopulation problem.” Or was 60 Minutes only looking for scholars willing to confirm the pre-determined narrative of doom and gloom?
CBS claims that the world has too many people consuming too much stuff, which threatens the biosphere (a.k.a. human life-support systems). Once again, remember that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, human life expectancy was rising, and the death rate was falling – even though the world’s population grew by 129 percent between the publication date of The Population Bomb and the present. So, humans are doing just fine, thank you very much! What about the biosphere? Let’s consider three trends that Ronald Bailey from Reason magazine and I looked at in our 2020 book Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know: And Many Others You Will Find Interesting.
- The World Database on Protected Areas reported that 15 percent of the planet’s land surface was covered by protected areas in 2017. That’s an area almost double the size of the United States. Marine protected areas covered nearly 7 percent of the world’s oceans. That’s an area more than twice the size of South America. Plans are afoot to increase the size of the protected areas substantially.
- The world is urbanizing. By 2050, 80 percent of humanity will live in cities. In other words, we are withdrawing from land, thereby increasing, not decreasing, the space available to plants and animals.
- The Rockefeller University environmentalist Jesse H. Ausubel estimates that due to the continued improvements in the efficiency of farming practices, including rising crop yields, the world will see “a net reduction in use of arable land (i.e., land used for farming) in about 50 years totaling 10 times the area of Iowa, and shrinking global cropland to the level of 1960.”
Finally, the world has never been as wealthy and as determined to protect the environment. We have the technology to reintroduce species at the risk of depletion and, perhaps, even to resurrect long-extinct ones. Just last year, thanks to knowledge and investment from a wealthy country, humanity deflected a small asteroid for the first time. If wealth is allowed to grow, we may one day save the biosphere from a true mass extinction. Economic development, in other words, is the key to environmental protection, which is why all the environmental ranking tables are topped by economically advanced nations. To stress: rich countries are better stewards of the environment than poor ones. Just compare the quality of the environment in Denmark with Papua New Guinea.
None of the above is a license to be wantonly cruel to animals or careless about our surroundings. Living on a beautiful planet teeming with wildlife is a part of human flourishing. But let’s get real. The reason the planet matters is that we are here to perceive it and to enjoy it with our senses. (Animals don’t care about biodiversity per se. What they do care about is finding an organism to kill and eat or mate with.) Moreover, the planet is not a fragile damsel in distress (for a more academic discussion, see this article). Rather, it is a ruthless killing zone in need of taming. The way forward, therefore, is to find a balance between environmental concerns and human flourishing – understanding that humans are not only destroyers, but also creators and protectors of the planet and that which thrives on it.