Eight billion humans: Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich tells DTE situation worse than 50 years ago

The world’s population is not declining; but there is a good drop in fertility rates among the rich, according to the author of the controversial book, The Population Bomb  

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Sunday 13 November 2022
Paul Ralph Ehrlich in 2008. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate ...

These famous words were the introduction to the original edition of The Population Bomb published in 1968 by Stanford University Professor, Paul Ralph Ehrlich and his wife Anne. On November 15, 2022, there will be eight billion humans on planet Earth. But Ehrlich is adamant that he was not wrong in his hypothesis over half a century ago.

“Certainly not. The timing was off but tens of millions of children have died because of malnutrition-related disease and roughly two billion are micronutrient malnourished and are unable to function today,” Ehrlich, now 90 years old, told Down To Earth in an email interview.

Ehrlich, who is now Bing Professor of Population Studies Emeritus and President, Center for Conservation Biology at the Department of Biology, Stanford University, United States, added:

The situation is even more desperate today than in 1968 with climate disruption helping wreck food production systems, global toxification, the biodiversity we depend on disappearing, a large land war and other factors making a terminal nuclear catastrophe even more likely.

Prophet of doom?

The Population Bomb begins by describing a “stinking hot night in New Delhi”:

The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging… People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob… the dust, noise, heat, and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect.

Mytheli Sreenivas, a professor at Ohio State University specialising in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies with a focus on modern South Asia, referred to this passage in an article in November 2009.

“Many of Ehrlich’s claims may have sounded familiar to nineteenth century British administrators grappling with Indian famines,” she wrote in Population Bomb? The Debate over Indian Population.

DTE asked Ehrlich about how various commentators had accused his book in the years since 1968 of having racist undertones and how he had responded to the allegations.


“I have been a crusader against racism for my entire life and had death threats when organising sit-ins to desegregate restaurants in Lawrence, Kansas in the 1950s. See may book The Race Bomb written years ago with Professor Shirley Fieldman,” he said.

But what Ehrlich wrote in The Population Bomb was extremely controversial.

He had advocated compulsion as a means for population control. Even more controversially, he had said the United States must ‘push’ other countries on controlling their numbers.

“We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail. We must use our political power to push other countries into programs which combine agricultural development and population control,” he had written in his book.

Sreenivas pointed out that this was where Ehrlich’s book was different from other works on population:

Ehrlich insisted that the “bomb” of overpopulation not only posed a risk to the overcrowded countries, but also threatened the entire planet. In the globalizing world of the mid-twentieth century, Indians could not be expected to “starve silently” on their overcrowded land, but to venture outward in search of more — with untold consequences for the “American way of life.”

Finally, Ehrlich also refused to accept that humanity was going through a ‘population bust’ rather than a ‘population boom’, as has been concluded in several recent studies.

“The world population is not declining. But there is a good drop in fertility rates among the rich. We won’t avoid a collapse without massive redistribution, which in my view means we won’t avoid a collapse,” he told DTE.

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