from Robert Tracinski in The Federalist, What the New York Times Didn’t Learn from Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb Fizzle


But the story is way more interesting than that. In 1980, Simon and Ehrlich made afamous bet about the future prices of commodities. If Ehrlich was right and a rising population was burning through the Earth’s resources, this ought to show up in commodities prices. As metals all got scarce, they should become more expensive. Instead, they all got cheaper—as they have done for the past century while the world’s population has more than tripled—and Simon won the bet handily.

But Simon was Ehrlich’s intellectual antipode in a more profound way. He answered Ehrlich’s great flimflam with his own identification of a great truth. Simon explained that the reason the overpopulation catastrophe never materialized was because human beings create more resources than they use up. The “ultimate resource,” Simon argued, is human thought and ingenuity which is constantly discovering untapped resources and inventing new ways to use them.

This is the real point of the story, and the Times never really takes it on board. That’s why they still give some credence to Ehrlich’s basic theory and imply that it fizzled primarily because population just didn’t grow fast enough. As Stewart Brand puts it, “they’re not having so many kids, and that’s changed the whole story.” The video then goes on to praise non-coercive efforts to reduce fertility in developing countries.

He also grasps that there is something bigger at stake than just a particular failed prediction or the destructive policies that come from it. There’s a larger worldview. “The concerns about population,” he notes, “became misanthropic.” I disagree. I think it started out misanthropic. Ehrlich tells the Times, “The idea that every woman should have as many babies as she wants is to me exactly the same kind of idea as [that] everybody ought to be permitted to throw as much of their garbage into their neighbor’s back yard as they want.” So babies are like garbage. How lovely. That outlook hasn’t changed. What changed is that Brand began to notice it.

That’s the basic issue involved: are human beings any good? Is a new person just another mouth to feed—or does he have the potential to become someone who discovers how to feed the world? Do more humans just cause more problems—or do we solve them? Do we only destroy, or do we create? Are human beings good, and if so, shouldn’t we want more of them?