The Upside to Alarmism?

The population issue has bubbled to the surface this year, with Fred Pearce calling concerns of population growth a “green myth” and Philip Longman, more recently in Foreign Policy magazine, warning about a planet of graybeards.

It’s nearly impossible to discuss population without mentioning Paul Ehrlich’s role in the debate, and usually he comes out not looking so good. But in an interesting twist, one demography researcher argues that maybe Ehrlich’s dire predictions didn’t happen because…well…policymakers took them seriously. Here’s the thrust of the argument:

Alarmism is useful when it grabs the attention of policymakers and a public that is overloaded with information, but it is also risky. Both Pearce and Longman take jabs at Paul Ehrlich because his “population bomb” never exploded. What they fail to note is that Ehrlich’s predictions could have proven right, except that he was successful at scaring a generation of policymakers into action. Funding towards population programs increased greatly in the wake of such research.

A counter argument to this was made in 2009 by Daniel Drezner:

Ehrlich’s book committed a triple sin. First, he was wrong on the specifics. Second, by garnering so much attention by being wrong, he contributed to the belief that alarmism was the best way to get people to pay attention to the environment. Third, by crying wolf so many times, Ehrlich numbed many into not buying actual, real environmental threats.

What do you think?

15 Responses to “The Upside to Alarmism?”

  1. Paul MacRae says:

    What reduced population was not Ehrlich’s alarmism but prosperity and effective birth control. The two go together. Families that are well-off and feel secure that their children will survive have fewer children by choice.

    Ehrlich has often said that he decries the developed world’s high standard of living, but it was this standard of living that defused the population bomb, not Ehrlich’s alarmism. In poor countries, population increase continues. In well-off countries, population growth is below replacement.

    If “overpopulation” is a real problem–and there are many countries that have dense populations with a decent lifestyle and are therefore not “overpopulated”–then the solution is a higher standard of living, not the reduced standard of living that Ehrlich and his fellow eco-activists would impose on all of us.

  2. Agenda setting and bringing attention to a topic is the role of environmental NGO’s (and perhaps the media, at least in the case of bringing attention to potentially important topics).

    From enviro advocacy groups ‘s it is pretty much expected and accepted that they are one-issue organizations that primarily have the environment as a focus, and as such tend to be one-sided and more prone to exaggerate (not necessarily though). 

    Scientists should shy away from exaggeration/alarmism for the purpose of gaining attention. It is not consistent with science as a way of understanding the world around us and it could backfire as a strategy. 

  3. Jack Hughes says:

    Stephen Budiansky nails this crying wolf business on his liberal curmudgeon blog:
    “Paul Ehrlich “” who in addition to insisting in 1971 that the world had already lost the race to feed an expanding population and that mass starvation in the 1970s and 1980s would cause death rates to soar and world population to collapse to 2 billion, also declared around the same time that because of exposure to cancer-causing chemicals that had already occurred, “the U.S. life expectancy will drop to forty-two years by 1980, due to cancer epidemics.”

    He then turns his firepower onto another scare:
    “In 1979, the biologist Norman Myers declared that a fifth of all species on the planet would be gone within two decades. This prediction was based upon . . . absolutely no evidence whatsoever. ”

    I think he coined the term Neo-Malthusians to describe the latest enviro doomsters.

  4. Jack Hughes says:

    Over here in the UK we have a weekly TV show called Horizon. It’s in crockumentary format.
    Each week there’s some scary and momentarily convincing new apocalyptic threat.
    Seasoned viewers know there is no point in taking any action on this week’s big scare because next week’s will be even worse and even more urgent.
    Quite impressive really. Giant asteroids to get you wobbling – but they are trumped by killer viruses. Or seeing corn flakes are the new asbestos. Then it’s a cyber attack. Or how about nano invasions.

  5. LCarey says:

    If the captain of the Titanic had heeded iceberg warnings, taken a less risky southern course and proceeded at a more prudent speed, how many of  us would have even heard of the Titanic?  (Quick – what was the name of Titanic’s sister ship?)

    Preventing disasters doesn’t usually make news —  I’d vote for Sciubba’s assessment that Erlich’s warnings affected the outcome by building international support for efforts (especially in the agricultural  green revolution) that allowed the world to avoid the very crisis that Erlich outlined.  (Drezner’s drive-by snark is clever but he doesn’t bother to provide any support for any of his three assertions.)

  6. Shub says:

    <blockquote>”Agenda setting and bringing attention to a topic is the role of environmental NGO’s (and perhaps the media, at least in the case of bringing attention to potentially important topics).
    From enviro advocacy groups ‘s it is pretty much expected and accepted that they are one-issue organizations that primarily have the environment as a focus, and as such tend to be one-sided and more prone to exaggerate (not necessarily though). ”

    Then, can one be sure that you would not have any problems, in not allowing material found in publications from such organizations, finding their way into IPCC reports?

  7. Jack Hughes says:

    Interesting logic. Maybe this applies to Stephen Schneider – maybe he was too effective when he warned the world about global cooling and the global counter-measures that we all remember so well are what started off the global warming 🙂

  8. LCarey says:

    Jack @7, it seems to me that a rather significant difference between (1) warnings regarding overpopulation and (2) global warming, is that governments and major NGOs actually DID take action to address overpopulation and to increase agricultural output,  With global warming / ACC, well, not so much.  Except for that minor point, it might be an apt comparison.

  9. isaacschumann says:

    IMHO Norman Borlaug deserves a teensy bit more credit for averting global famine than Ehlrich. And no one averted the early deaths he predicted from “exposure to cancer causing chemicals”, this just simply didn’t happen. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it wasn’t “population programs” instituted by policy makers that averted disaster, it was that we radically increased the food supply. So are environmentalists taking credit for the green revolution? I thought they hated that. Its ironic then that Norman Borlaug was recently included among the most evil people in the food system over a grist.
    People predicting calamity are a dime a dozen, people doing something about it are harder to find.

  10. Roddy Campbell says:

    It’s just such an absurd discussion (population, not alarmism) SO FAR.  Because all stats are better than they have ever been.  Sure, something MAY happen in the future that will cause the population to fall again, and that MAY be anthropological.  But at the moment show me a moving average stat of any importance over the last 2 centuries that isn’t just so much better in the last decade – for humans.  (And that’s in % please, of course more people die now of X than in 1900, because there are Y times as many of us).

  11. laursaurus says:

    What policies to address over-population were put in place other than China’s one child per couple mandate?

  12. Dean says:

    There are places on the planet with very high population densities that are very prosperous, but they have a consumption footprint that is much larger than their own extent.
    There are places on the planet with very high population where fertility rates are declining because of growing prosperity. But also some where fertility is decreasing because of regulations, such as in China. But in Russia, population has decreased not because of growing prosperity, but because of declining prosperity.
    And there are some places where population growth has declined (and sometimes the population itseff has declined) because their carrying capacity is declining, mainly in sub-saharan Africa.
    The main thing to remember is that the entire world will not share the same experience. Ehrlich could be right for a few places and wrong in others. Following global statistics isn’t going to be very enlightening for the huge variations around the world.
    But I think the most important aspect is that the period of time that many look at is so short. People seem to think that because something has worked for a century to two, that it will work permanently.

  13. Tom C says:

    You realize, of course, that Ehrlich had absolutely no relevant training to address the population/scarcity question.  He studied insects, if I remember correctly.  Persons who study issues of scarcity of resources are called economists.  Not surprising since the definition of ecomonics is the “study of the allocation of scarce resources that have alternate uses”.  Economists thought Ehrlich was nuts, which, of course, he was.

    The real scandal is that so many people listened to someone with no relevant expertise who happened to be a “scientist”.   Hopefully, his co-conspirator Holdren will be ignored this time around.

  14. gautam says:

    People who express concern about overpopulation obviously do so because they believe the earth’s resources are being used up too fast by mankind. Now, a baby born in the U.S. is likely to consume, on average, over 20 times the resources (certainly energy) compared to, say a baby born in India or Africa if current consumption rates hold. Even if there is a drastic change in lifestyles over their lifetimes, the baby born in the U.S. will consume many many times more resources than the baby born in India or Africa. Does it then mean that people in poorer countries have a much bigger “right” to have babies than in richer countries? The exhortations in these arguments to control population usually seem to be aimed at the poor of the world rather than the rich. Is this not wrong? If the poorer parts of the world remain 20 times poorer and consume 20 times less resources compared to the U.S., can they have 20 times more babies compared to the U.S.? How does this logic work?

  15. JohnB says:

    gautam. No, they can’t have more babies. They can’t have more of anything.

    The solution to every environmental problem is to keep the poorest people on the planet poor, sick and dying by the millions.

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