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The Unexploded Population Bomb

Lawrence Bush
May 28, 2017

Biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, who shared with his fellow entymologist, E.O. Wilson, Sweden’s 1990 Crafoord Prize (awarded to support areas of science not awarded Nobel Prizes), was born in Philadelphia on this date in 1932. A world expert on butterflies, Ehrlich is president of the Center for Conservation Biology and Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University. His 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb, made frightening predictions about mass starvation and an overtaxed planet that have largely proved untrue — which has often been pointed to both as an example of science’s unreliability and as a scapegoat analysis that dodges the socio-political causes of famine, war, and environmental disaster. Yet the alarms that Ehrlich raised (including in a 1990 sequel, The Population Explosion) were “precisely the . . . rhetoric that prevented the catastrophes of which Ehrlich warned,” argues Carl Haub of the Population Reference Bureau. “It makes no sense that Ehrlich is now criticized as being alarmist because his dire warnings did not, in the main, come true. . . . it was because of such warnings from Ehrlich and others that countries took action to avoid potential disaster.”

“Rich western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate. We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cellphones. We grab all the fish from the sea, wreck the coral reefs and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We have triggered a major extinction event. The question is: how do we stop it?” --Paul Ehrlich

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.