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Population Control and Vincible Ignorance

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In The Weekly Standard, Patrick Alllitt has a review of Paul Sabin's new book, The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth's Future (Yale University Press), about the bet between Ehrlich and Simon on whether the apocalyptic scientific predictions in the 1960s of famines and collapse of Western civilization because of "overpopulation" would come to pass.

Excerpt:

Paul Sabin's excellent new book tells the whole story, linking it to larger issues in American political and intellectual life. He argues convincingly that Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon represent the two poles in this late-20th-century debate, which echoes down to the present. He shows that Ehrlich's exaggerations, and the steady failure of his prophecies to come true, eventually led conservatives to conclude that environmental "crises" were really no more than minor annoyances. Ehrlich unwittingly helped lay the groundwork for the global-warming skepticism that is widespread on the American right today. 

Sabin is good on the naïveté with which the two men entered their bet. The metals market is too volatile to act as a proxy for world trends in resources. Certain years a decade apart could even have led to an Ehrlich victory, as price spikes and plunges respond to short-term shifts in supply and demand. Simon was lucky to win as handsomely as he did, although Sabin agrees that the long-term trend in prices is indeed downward. 

He also reminds us that environmentalism, at least for a while, was good politics for Republicans as well as Democrats. President Nixon and California's Governor Reagan, in the late 1960s and early '70s, both spoke out against pollution, waste, smog, and oil slicks, and in favor of an enhanced respect for nature. The squalor and pollution, along with the eye-stinging smog, were real. A bipartisan consensus supported the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. It also supported a flurry of congressional acts to achieve clean air and clean water, to protect endangered species and their habitats, and to discontinue the use of lead compounds in gasoline. 

Sabin did not have a chance to meet Simon, who died in 1998. But he did meet Ehrlich, and to judge from the book's photographs, socialized with him as well. Aiming for even-handedness, he kept discovering that Simon was right and Ehrlich wrong, which put him in the awkward spot of having to judge harshly a man who had become his friend. He tries to cover up his discomfort by looking for a bright side, as when he claims that "Ehrlich and other scientists helped avert genuine ecological disasters." It would be more accurate to say that some scientists helped avert genuine ecological disasters, but that Paul Ehrlich was not one of them.

This caveat aside, The Bet very capably explains how we got to today's political impasse over environmental questions. It also shows how the interplay of ideas and personalities can have serious consequences when a feud goes public.

Finally, like all good histories, it reminds us that the past is a foreign country. It takes us back to a time and place in which the prevailing orthodoxy about overpopulation, famine, and exhaustion of resources was so powerful -- and its antithesis apparently so implausible -- that its principal spokesman could enjoy decades of almost complete immunity to refutation.

The overpopulation hoax was only one in a series of science apocalypses to afflict humanity over the past couple of centuries. The whole business began with Malthus, whose "scientific" fact-free hysteria became the template for anti-human social policies, and even totalitarian policies, for the next two hundred years. The British reluctance to provide assistance in the Irish famine in the 1840s -- the British exported food from Ireland during the famine -- and the fatal complacency of the British in the Great Indian Famine of 1876-1878 (again the British exported food from the regions experiencing famine) were both due in significant part to the influence of Malthusian junk science on the elites who declined to intervene decisively in what appeared to be a natural, and even scientific, culling of humanity.

The modern era's second worst atrocity (after the Holocaust) -- the One Child Policy of China which selectively exterminated tens of millions of baby girls and and violated the most intimate human rights of billions of men and women -- was conceived in a Malthusian passion. Ehrlich's junk science was a significant factor in the planning and implementation of China's totalitarian population policy. The unconscionable deprivation of DDT and other safe and effective pesticides to the Third World, which has cost the lives of tens of millions of poor -- mostly women and young children -- has been defended by some environmentalists on the basis of Malthusian science. During the 1966 crop failure that threatened massive famine in India, American policy-makers decided to withhold food aid until India instituted draconian population control measures, which included coerced sterilization of millions of men and women -- they were offered the choice of fertility or food. Even eugenics had Malthusian, as well as Darwinian, origins -- sterilizing the supposedly over-proliferating races was given the scientific imprimatur of "taking control of evolution" to save mankind from overpopulation of the wrong kind of people (notice that it's never the population of Palo Alto or Berkeley that seems apocalyptically large).

There are even Malthusian shadows in environmentalists' current fact-lite hysteria over "global warming," which entails the belief that carbon-based human flourishing will lead to apocalypse lest we impose policies sure to bear the hardest on the world's poor, for whom industrialization is the best chance for food security and a decent standard of living. The bill for remedies for science apocalypses is invariably paid by the poor, in lives more than specie.

Only the nature of the apocalypse seems to change with the times. That unscrupulous third-rate scientists like Ehrlich would cynically profit from science apocalypticism is no shock. The real atrocity is that such vincible ignorance would be the basis for so much cruel and lethal public policy.

Image source: Wikipedia.