It might have been the first 60 Minutes of 2023, but it was the same old baloney as the Jan. 1, broadcast of that long-time CBS staple of Sunday evening program trotted out disgraced doomsayer Paul Ehrlich. The author of the infamous 1968 book The Population Bomb has been peddling the end of humanity scaremongering for more than 50 years and 60 Minutes gave him a platform to do so once again. The nonagenarian said, “Humanity is not sustainable,” explaining, “To maintain our lifestyle, yours and mine, basically, for the entire planet, you’d need five more earths. Not clear where they’re going to come from.” He added, “Resources that would be required, the systems that support our lives, which of course are the biodiversity that we’re wiping out. Humanity is very busily sitting on a limb that we’re sawing off.”
We’ve heard this before from Ehrlich. In previous iterations of Ehrlich’s chicken-little act that the sky was falling, Ehrlich predicted mass starvation in the 1970s and 1980s due to overpopulation, claiming that too many people will deplete natural resources, destroy wildlife, and end civilization. He predicted “hundreds of millions of starvation deaths in the 1970s” (it never occurred) and that by 2000 England would cease to exist (it’s still there). In fact, if Ehrlich was correct in his previous predictions we would not be around today to watch him on 60 Minutes and if some lucky few survived, we would no longer have to worry about “overpopulation.” Yet, here he is still making boldly predicting the end is nigh (again): “(I) Think we’ve had it,” he told 60 Minutes reporter Scott Pelley. “The next few decades of the kind of civilization that we are used to.” The so-called science he invokes to back up his frightening forecast is plainly silly, claiming that humanity consumes 175 per cent of what the Earth creates – an impossibility: we cannot consume more than 100 per cent of the Earth’s resources.
As one wag put it, Ehrlich “has been publicly and confidently making completely wrong predictions for longer than most people have been alive.” But getting it wrong about overpopulation and the end of prosperity as we know it hardly disqualifies this supposed expert from pontificating anew that the end is nigh. The Federalist’s David Harsanyi wondered: “Couldn’t 60 Minutes find a fresh-faced, yet-to-be-discredited neo-Malthusian to hyperventilate about the end of the world?” Well, CBS did find two others, and I will get to them in a minute.
It should be noted that Ehrlich, like that other famous scold of overpopulation, E.O. Wilson, is not a demographer but an entomologist. People who study insects see that many species overbreed and overtake an environment and then proceed to die off as they strip land of natural resources necessary to perpetuate the population. But people are not insects. As instinctually brilliant as many bugs may be when it comes to their survival mechanisms, they lack the ability to innovate that mankind has. Human population is unlikely to outstrip any natural carrying capacity of planet Earth as we are ingeniously capable of inventing new – better and more efficient – products or processes to make those products or discovering and creating substitutes.
The two other sources 60 Minutes interviewed were Tony Barnosky and Liz Hadly, a pair of Ehrlich’s colleagues at Stanford University who just happen to be husband and wife. Neither are demographers. Both are biologists, but unlike Ehrlich and Wilson, they are biologists who have studied mammals such as snow leopards and pikas (rabbit-like mountain-dwellers with shorter ears) as well as boreal forests and coral reefs. Whatever expertise is gleaned from studying plants or animals in the wild cannot be transferred to understanding how mankind will respond to the economic, social, and environmental challenges of the future. It is not even an apples and oranges comparison; it is more of a supercomputer and apples comparison.
Part of the reason that Ehrlich was so spectacularly wrong predicting mass famine in the 1970s is that Norman Borlaug was just inaugurating the Green Revolution in agriculture, in which farmers massively increased their crop yields per hectare farmed.
But that recent – and repeated — history of being wrong has not stopped Ehrlich from saying that this time he’s right. Nor has it stopped journalists from giving him a perch from which to preach his ol’ time fatalism about there being just too many people around to feed. Now, however, Ehrlich adds a dose of climate change as reason for the same old pessimistic forecasts. And despite giving a total of 13 minutes to this prophet of doom, reporter Scott Pelley did not provide any countervailing point of view to pushback against Ehrlich.
While they did not get into it during the interview, Ehrlich has endorsed coercive population measures, including (in The Population Bomb) involuntary sterilization of the population: “Doses of the antidote” to the sterilizing agents, “would be carefully rationed by the government to produce the desired population size.” He also advocates severe taxes be levied on baby furniture, diapers, and baby formula to discourage couples from having children: “There would, of course, have to be considerable experimenting on the level of financial pressure necessary to achieve the population goals.” In a 1977 book he co-authored, Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment, he again argued for a “program of sterilizing women after their second or third child.” He further expanded on his idea of involuntarily sterilizing the population by adding sterilants “to drinking water or staple foods.” In 2012, he told reaffirmed his support for mass involuntary sterilization. Ehrlich did tell 60 Minutes, “humanity is not sustainable” and that mankind “needs five more Earths” to maintain our standard of living.
You might say that this does not really matter. It is just a news show that hardly anyone watches. But Ehrlich’s prognostications influenced Red China’s one-child policy and India’s forced sterilization program. These are not only the ravings of fringe academic. Western politicians talk about curbing population growth (the last U.S. budget dedicates $575 million for international family planning programs in order to protect the natural enviroment) and it is a constant theme at many United Nations conferences on everything from women’s rights to housing to nutrition. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D, NY) questions the morality of having children that could contribute to global climate change.
It might be a coincidence, but Ehrlich’s autobiography was released later in January. It’s title? Life.