Despite evidence to the contrary, population control advocate Paul Ehrlich maintains that the Earth cannot support 7 billion people.

Despite evidence to the contrary, population control advocate Paul Ehrlich maintains that the Earth cannot support 7 billion people.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of biologist Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, in which he famously and incorrectly predicted it was a “near certainty” that humanity faced imminent demise because over-consumption of resources would result in “hundreds of million of people (who) are going to starve to death.” Ehrlich was not only wrong but spectacularly wrong, having written his doomsday book at the beginning of the green revolution in agriculture that increased yields so that less land could feed more people. He wrote it just before globalism, technology, and scientific breakthroughs would unleash human potential in parts of the world mired in poverty. Despite being completely wrong, Ehrlich’s Malthusian fear-mongering about population outstripping the Earth’s capacity to feed humanity still holds currency among environmentalists and even policy-makers today.

On March 22, The Guardian interviewed Ehrlich to mark The Population Bomb’s 50th anniversary and he is still predicting doom and gloom. Indeed, he maintains his book was essentially right, with the paper summarizing his view of his seminal book as “correct overall” despite getting “many details and timings of events” wrong. Considering he predicted the majority of mankind would die off in the 1970s and that poverty would inflict many of the survivors, he could hardly be more wrong. Despite ample reason to reconsider his views, Ehrlich is doubling-down: “Population growth, along with over-consumption per capita, is driving civilisation over the edge: billions of people are now hungry or micronutrient malnourished, and climate disruption is killing people.” He says contraception and abortion must be made available to all if mankind is to continue evading catastrophe.

Not only was Ehrlich off in his book about the future, he is wrong in his Guardian interview about what is happening now. Billions of people are not hungry. Ehrlich leaves an image of worsening poverty. The fact is, the material well-being of mankind has never been better.

Three recent books highlight the progress we have made in the ability to feed, shelter, and cloth ourselves over the last few decades, to increase our lifespans, and to improve opportunity and flourishing: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker (Penguin, $45, 576 pages), It’s Better Than it Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear by Gregg Easterbrook (Public Affairs, $36.50, 352 pages), and Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling (Flatiron Books, $36.60, 352 pages) each explain that generally life is getting materially better.

Three recent books refute Paul Ehrlich's population doomsday scenarios by pointing out that by almost every metric, people are living longer, healthier and wealthier lives.

Three recent books refute Paul Ehrlich’s population doomsday scenarios by pointing out that by almost every metric, people are living longer, healthier and wealthier lives.

All three marshal evidence that materially, our lives are improving. This is true both in the west and in the developing world. Indeed, any one of these books provides an onslaught of statistics and reams of charts that prove the world is indeed becoming safer, healthier and wealthier.

On almost every possible measure examined by social scientists, life is getting better. People live longer (global average is 70 years). More people are getting educated (with women aged 30 having almost as much formal education as men as 30, nine years of school compared to ten). Fewer people in Africa and Asia live in extreme poverty. More people live in middle-income countries than poor countries. Heck, as Pinker points out, deaths by lightning strike are declining precipitously because of better weather forecasting. There is no doubt that contrary to the doom-and-gloomers, life is getting better.

In a direct refutation of Ehrlich’s brand of 1970s pessimism, Easterbrook notes that the 1972 study “The Limits of Growth,” based on dubious assumptions and faulty models, was wildly incorrect; far from running out of oil which was being burned at the “unsustainable” rate of 55 million barrels per day at the time of “The Limits of Growth,” Easterbrook notes, the number today is 96 million barrels. And American gas-pump prices in inflation-adjusted dollars is about the same as the 1950s. But the prophets of peak oil are nothing new. In 1956, geologist King Hubbert said peak oil would occur in 1970, and yet the statistics show that the world consumes nearly twice as much oil today as the peak predicted for 50 years ago.

Rosling is famous for his online videos of talks he gives in which he presents data with stunning graphs and his inoffensive Swedish accent, but mostly an enthusiasm for progress. Key statistics for him are surveys that show people are unaware of the state of the planet’s people and their ignorance that things are better than they are perceived. This, no doubt, is because the Erhlichs of the world are parroted by politicians and editorialists, which makes books like Rosling’s, Easterbrook’s, and Pinker’s all that more necessary.

Rosling’s Factfulness combines a conversational style with copious data. Easterbook’s It’s Better Than it Looks is more journalistic and the author sometimes over-simplifies arguments and ignores counter-arguments or contradictory data. Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is an academic but still accessible sustained argument for the four ideas in his subtitle — “reason, science, humanism, and progress” – although he also seems to think these things are inevitable. Pinker denies he believes in the inevitability of progress – in the minds of these authors it is definitely a capital-P Progress – and yet he writes “some kinds of social change really do seem to be carried along by an inexorable tectonic force.” Not really, though.

All three take culture seriously and understand that how we ended up where we are with jobs that pull people out of poverty and medicines that heal people and schools that teach children is a result of deliberate policies pursued by governments and intergovernmental organizations.

Each of the books is full of data about progress, and Rosling is good at providing stories that illustrate improvements in living standards. Sometimes the authors fall into the trap in looking at improvements in the aggregate that hide continued shortcomings in feeding or educating those on the margins. But as each of them argue, if we do not recognize the material progress being made overall, we risk its continued success and enlargement if in trying to address the misconception that we are largely failing at the task of providing a decent standard of living for most people, we radically alter policies that truly do benefit people.

The problem with all three but especially Rosling is that they look at every so-called advance as progress. Rosling is correct to note that declining fertility correlates with rising living standards but is wrong to say the former causes the latter. Two centuries ago, about half of children died before they became adults, but as societies become wealthier, they become healthier, and therefore there is less “need” to have six or seven children. All three are skeptical of traditional social norms and morality, which they see as impediments to not only social reform, but improvements in standard of living. Pinker is the only one that makes the case that these advances must come in unison, but he is unpersuasive. Indeed, readers might wonder whether our material improvements are sustainable not because of a shortage of natural resources, but rather a shortage of moral sanity and religious belief. This might be a topic for other books and other authors, but it is important. Civilizations do not always fall because of war or pestilence, but also decadence.

Still, despite the authors’ enthusiasm for science as a way of thinking (rather than a method of knowing), reproductive rights, and various fashionable causes, these books provide valuable information about the material progress humanity has experienced over recent centuries and decades. Each author explores several reasons for the continued misconception that our living standards are declining, but the evidence they provide shows why these perceptions are wrong and why we must resist the Erhlich view that there are just too many people in the world because we cannot possibly feed them and provide them a dignified life due to irreversible widespread poverty. It is simply not true.