Is Published Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With the publication of his book The Population Bomb, Paul R. Ehrlich emerged as the central leader of the population control and reduction movement. His theories remain controversial and are often debated.

Summary of Event

In the mid-1960’s, several nations experienced rapid—almost runaway—population growth. India’s population exceeded 442 million in 1960, while China’s population rose from 657 million in 1960 to 830 million in 1970. Such rates portended—accurately—that China’s population alone would be more than 1 billion by the year 2000. Carrying such logic even further led to the conclusion that the earth would be overrun by people by some unstated future date. Population Bomb, The (Ehrlich) Overpopulation [kw]Population Bomb Is Published, The (1968) Population Bomb, The (Ehrlich) Overpopulation [g]North America;1968: The Population Bomb Is Published[09600] [g]United States;1968: The Population Bomb Is Published[09600] [c]Natural resources;1968: The Population Bomb Is Published[09600] [c]Environmental issues;1968: The Population Bomb Is Published[09600] [c]Publishing and journalism;1968: The Population Bomb Is Published[09600] Ehrlich, Paul R. Simon, Julian Malthus, Thomas Robert

Paul R. Ehrlich adopted such an exponential approach to growth rates in his influential 1968 book The Population Bomb. Ehrlich used the social-science approach of establishing trends based on current, constant, unmodified behavior to convince many Americans that the existence of too many people was the single common cause of almost all the world’s major problems.

Ehrlich did not hesitate to make dire and even outlandish predictions, such as the death by starvation of hundreds of millions of people in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the devastation of fish populations by 1990, and the statement that humankind “will breed itself into oblivion.” Nor did Ehrlich refrain from offering startling corrective measures. For India, for example, he recommended compulsory sterilization, calling such a radical approach “coercion in a good cause.” In How to Be a Survivor How to Be a Survivor (Ehrlich) (1971), he urged governments to use criminal sanctions on “overbreeding,” which he defined as the birth of more than two children per family.

Ehrlich’s book appeared at a time when the burgeoning environmental movement was ready to receive his message, just as Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed (1965) had appeared when a consumer movement had started to form. That year, Garrett Hardin argued for population control in an influential article in Science called “The Tragedy of the Commons.” The Population Bomb, in stark contrast to Nader’s book, did not appear to test any scientific hypothesis, even in a popular fashion. Rather, it sought to terrorize ambivalent observers in the population-growth debate into active involvement. The most original concept in The Population Bomb—that people were liabilities to the earth as opposed to assets—emerged as one of the core beliefs of the radical environmentalists. People were pollution to Ehrlich and his supporters.

That argument marked a clear departure from those of others who in the past had used trend analysis to show that too many people might constitute a problem for society as a whole. In his An Essay on the Principle of Population, As It Affects the Future Improvement of Society Essay on the Principle of Population, An (Malthus) (1798), Thomas Robert Malthus purported to show a relationship between population, which he claimed grew geometrically, and agriculture, which he contended grew arithmetically. In other words, Malthus argued that in the absence of war, population would outstrip food supplies and starvation would result. For Malthus, that was not necessarily bad, because the population would then return to a level at which it would produce more food than it needed. The cycle would then start again. Even Malthus recognized that his approach was too simplistic, and he abandoned or greatly modified some of his conclusions for the second edition of his essay, although virtually no one paid attention to the revision. The original, unrevised projection analysis remains the theory by which he is best remembered.

Trend analysis enjoyed wide application by natural scientists, but social scientists embraced it less warmly, precisely because humans could modify their behavior based on political, religious, or economic incentives. Ehrlich, writing from a natural-science perspective, dismissed all but political incentives in changing human behavior. Instead, he focused on the “doubling time” of the earth’s population. He estimated that the doubling time decreased from one thousand years between 8000 b.c.e. and 1650 c.e. to two hundred years by 1850; by 1969, he wrote, the doubling time would be only thirty-five years.

Such projections, however, were based both on insufficient knowledge of early population numbers and on assumptions, like those that underlay Malthus’s first theory, that population trends would continue without change. For example, Ehrlich ignored such factors as economic incentives when he asserted that there were absolute limits to potential food production from the earth. In practical terms, however, the ability of the earth to sustain the production of food is dependent on many factors over which people have control, only one of which is population. In Ehrlich’s interpretation, even radical remedial efforts such as those he proposed would eventually prove unsuccessful.

Ehrlich warned that, as a consequence of overpopulation, the earth would face “an environmental crisis which will persist until the final collapse.” In several scenarios that he offered as “possibilities, not predictions,” Ehrlich envisioned that the United States would need to adopt food rationing by 1984, that there would be an ice age in Kansas, that the imposition of an international “survival tax” on the “overdeveloped” nations would be necessary, and that worldwide spread of an uncontrollable fever would claim 120 million lives by 1974.

Ehrlich focused all of his solutions on the United States. He insisted that the United States dramatically lower its own population, through, if necessary, “temporary sterilants to water supplies or staple food.” More reasonable approaches, he argued, included tax penalties, or removal of deductions, for families with more than two children. He favored taxing cribs, diapers, and toys “with the proviso that essentials be available . . . to the poor.” Ehrlich also suggested tax incentives for couples who waited until age twenty-five to marry, and he advocated the creation of adoption lotteries.

All of Ehrlich’s solutions demanded a vast expansion of the federal bureaucracy, and he proposed the creation of a Federal Bureau of Population and Environment. Among the government’s tasks would be research to guarantee that all first-born children would be male; he also advocated the extension of abortion to any woman at any time. He saved some of his harshest attacks for Christians, whose religion, he asserted, emphasized “man’s mastery over nature”; he encouraged the adoption of Eastern religions by Western society. Ehrlich praised the then-current hippie movement as illustrative of the sort of changes needed to solve the problems of population—an especially remarkable suggestion in the light of the movement’s call for “free love” and an unfettered right to children beyond marriage.


Concerns about population growth had already surfaced before The Population Bomb. In 1948, William Vogt published Road to Survival, which argued that rising population and the availability of natural resources were in conflict. In 1952, the Population Council was founded in New York City by John D. Rockefeller III with the purpose of focusing public opinion on the population question. Ehrlich himself had written on the subject of population prior to The Population Bomb.

The most immediate result of the publication of The Population Bomb was Ehrlich’s founding of Zero Population Growth Zero Population Growth movement (ZPG), an advocacy organization that sought to stop population growth in developed countries. Although influential at first, ZPG virtually disappeared by the 1980’s.

For several years, Ehrlich’s critics responded by challenging the morality of population control on the grounds of the biblical injunction to “be fruitful and multiply” or on the basis of threats to individual freedom, including the freedom to have children. Neither argument went far to persuade those looking for statistical evidence that the earth was overpopulated.

By the late 1970’s, however, Ehrlich’s direct predictions had failed to materialize. Some famines had occurred, but in those cases, people were not starving because of overpopulation; instead, local governments had deliberately pursued policies of starvation in efforts to end rebellions. Those episodes illustrated to many people that governments, rather than being the solution to famine, often were a part of its cause. Moreover, since the United States and other countries had enough surplus food to help alleviate such crises, there was no famine in the real sense. Indeed, by 1980, a pessimistic view similar to Ehrlich’s appeared in the report of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality and was roundly criticized. By then, the World Fertility Survey had provided data that showed growth rates leveling off or even falling in India and China.

A second major challenge to the population-control movement came from academics, most notably economist Julian Simon, whose book The Ultimate Resource Ultimate Resource, The (Simon) (1981) directly contested Ehrlich’s data. Simon pointed out the severe deficiencies of trend analysis and detailed how many predictions about known reserves of oil and other resources had been proven wrong by new discoveries. He challenged the view that most resources were scarce by simple economic analysis of data, showing that prices for resources, the single most important indicator of scarcity, had fallen steadily for more than a hundred years. More important, Simon attacked the notion that people were pollution, maintaining that, since all technology came from the minds of people, people were the solution to pollution problems. Population Bomb, The (Ehrlich) Overpopulation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Costanza, Robert, Charles Perrings, and Cutler Cleveland, eds. The Development of Ecological Economics. Brookfield, Vt.: E. Elgar, 1997. This collection on the environment and economics includes two chapters cowritten by Paul Ehrlich, including “Population Sustainability, and Earth’s Carrying Capacity,” with Gretchen C. Daily.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehrlich, Paul R. The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine, 1968. The seminal book sparking much of the debate over population control. Most of Ehrlich’s predictions have failed to materialize. The book has been reprinted several times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehrlich, Paul R., and Anne H. Ehrlich. One with Nineveh: Politics, Consumption, and the Human Future. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2004. Synthesizes the work of the Ehrlichs, focusing on “overpopulation, overconsumption, and political and economic inequity.” Includes discussion of the war in Iraq and other political topics through 2004.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Population Explosion. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. Similar in tone to The Population Bomb, this work blames the affluent for the world’s problems.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Malthus, Thomas. Essay on Population. 1798. Reprint. New York: Sentry, 1965. The first of the population prophets who found a disparity in the growth rates of population and food production. Malthus, however, revised his arguments in subsequent editions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simon, Julian L. The Ultimate Resource. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. Presents the pro-growth position from the perspective of an economist. Rebuts many of Ehrlich’s assertions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Ultimate Resource Two. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. At more than seven hundred pages, this comprehensive work continues Simon’s scholarship on global natural resources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “The Unreported Revolution in Population Economics.” Public Interest, no. 101 (Fall, 1990): 89-100. Reports on international and national scientific studies on population since 1981.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spengler, Joseph. “Population Problem: In Search of a Solution.” Science 166 (December 5, 1969): 1234-1238. One of several articles to appear in Science after The Population Bomb advocating governmental solutions to population problems.

Osborn Publishes Our Plundered Planet

Vogt’s Road to Survival Warns of Overpopulation

Rockefeller Founds the Population Council

FDA Approves the Birth Control Pill

National Council of Churches Supports Birth Control

Zero Population Growth Movement Begins

Hardin Argues for Population Control

Categories: History