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A long fuse: ‘The Population Bomb’ is still ticking 50 years after its publication, read this book!

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” Stanford biologist and ecologist Paul Erhlich declared on the first page of his 1968 best-seller, “The Population Bomb.” Because the “stork had passed the plow,” he predicted, “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.”

Ehrlich’s book identified dramatically accelerating world population growth as the central underlying cause of myriad problems, from a food crisis in India to the Vietnam War to smog and urban riots in the United States. It sold more than 2 million copies and went through 20 reprints by 1971.

Ehrlich appeared more than 20 times on NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson”, and became the first president of Zero Population Growth, a Washington D.C.–based advocacy organisation, while remaining a professor at Stanford.

“The Population Bomb” created more space to hold radical views on population matters, but its impact was fleeting, and maybe even harmful to the population movement. By the early 1970s, many critics were savaging Ehrlich and the larger goal of achieving zero population growth. And the politics of “morning in America” in the 1980s successfully marginalized Erhlich as a doomsdayer.

However, as a historian who has studied debates about population growth throughout U.S. history, Ehrlich’s warnings deserve a new and less hysterical hearing.

While Ehrlich has acknowledged significant errors, he was correct that lowering birth rates was – and remains – a crucial plank in addressing global environmental crises.

Our population is growing at an expansive rate and we need to think of new ways to deal with this crisis!


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