Isn’t All This Talk Of An Apocalypse Getting A Bit Boring?

This year is the 40th anniversary of Paul Ehrlich’s influential The Population Bomb, a book that predicted an apocalyptic overpopulation crisis in the 1970s and ’80s.

Ehrlich’s book provides a lesson we still haven’t learnt. His prophecy that the starvation of millions of people in the developed world was imminent was spectacularly wrong – humanity survived without any of the forced sterilisation that Ehrlich believed was necessary.

It’s easy to predict environmental collapse, but it never actually seems to happen.

The anniversary of The Population Bomb should put contemporary apocalyptic predictions in their proper context. If anything, our world – and the environment – just keeps getting better.

Ehrlich was at the forefront of a wave of pessimistic doomsayers in the late 1960s and early ’70s. And these doomsayers weren’t just cranks – or, if they were cranks, they were cranks with university tenure.

Despite what should be a humiliating failure for his theory of overpopulation, Ehrlich is still employed as a professor of population studies by Stanford University. Similarly, when George Wald predicted in a 1970 speech that civilisation was likely to end within 15 or 30 years, his audience was reminded that he was a Nobel Prize-winning biologist.

These predictions were picked up by people eager to push their own agendas. And a subgenre of films arose to deal with the “inevitable” environment and population crisis. Soylent Green(1973) depicted a world where all food was chemically produced, and other films imagined dystopias where amoral bureaucrats strictly controlled the population – just the sort of things advocated in The Population Bomb.

In retrospect, these fears seem a little bit silly. The green revolution that was brought about by advances in agricultural biotechnology came pretty close to eliminating the problem of food scarcity. Nor did the alarmists expect the large changes in demography and fertility rates that have occurred during the past few decades.

Nevertheless, for people in the 1970s, predictions of apocalypse through overpopulation and famine were just as real as the predictions of an apocalypse caused by climate change are today. And, just like today, environmental activists and their friends in politics were lining up to propose dramatic changes to avert the crisis.

For instance, the vice-president of the Australian Conservation Foundation wrote just last week in The Age that we needed to imagine global suffering before we can tackle climate change through “nation-building” – whatever that is.

But there are substantial grounds for optimism – on almost every measure, the state of the world is improving.

Pollution is no longer the threat it was seen to be in the 1970s, at least in the developed world. Changes in technology, combined with our greater demand for a clean environment, have virtually eliminated concerns about pungent waterways and dirty forests. Legislation played some role in this, but as Indur Goklany points out in his recent study, The Improving State of the World, the environment started getting better long before such laws were passed.

Goklany reveals that strong economies, not environment ministers, are the most effective enforcers of cleanliness in our air and water. Indeed, the world’s 10 most polluted places are in countries where strong economic growth has historically been absent – Russia, China, India and Kyrgyzstan have not really been known for their thriving consumer capitalism.

Other indices, too, show that humanity’s future is likely to be bright. Infant mortality has dramatically declined, as has malnutrition, illiteracy, and even global poverty.

And there are good grounds for hope that we can adapt to changing climates as well. History has shown just how capable we are of inventing and adapting our way out of any sticky situation – and how we can do it without crippling our economies or imposing brutal social controls.

Environmental alarmists have become more and more like those apocalyptic preachers common in the 19th century – always expecting the Rapture on this date and, when it doesn’t come, quickly revising their calculations.

Optimism is in too short supply in discussions about the environment. But four decades afterThe Population Bomb, if we remember just how wrong visions of the apocalypse have been in the past, perhaps we will look to the future more cheerfully.