There are for more books than there are movies, TV shows, or computer games. In one way this is a good thing, since it gives us readers more choices. On the other hand, since the number of books is in the millions, making the choices can be difficult. In a lifetime each of us can read at best a few thousand books. That means millions will be left out. How do we pick?
I’ll narrow the question slightly by leaving out recent books and focus only on classics. Even there we face a choice among millions of books, stretching from a few years old to the dawn of human history. Which ones should we read? How do we decide which books are good ones?
An old book is good if it’s been vindicated. In that respect, my homeboy G. K. Chesterton wrote a lot of good books, because the things he said are now agreed to be true. Eugenics is actually evil, as he said in Eugenics and Other Evils. Christianity has lasted, as he predicted in The Everlasting Man. It’s fun to see the man predicting things which were in his future but our past. The successful fulfillment of his prophecies also demonstrates his wisdom and clarity of thought.
On the other hand, it can sometimes be entertaining to read a book that was not vindicated, especially one that failed in spectacular fashion. Which brings us to today’s entry, The Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich.
This book, written in 1968, is most famous for its opening sentences: “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970’s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” This prediction did not come true. The 1970’s are over—thankfully—and hundreds of millions of people did not starve to death—again thankfully. Few people today know or care what’s in the rest of the book. They should. It’s highly entertaining.
For example, the final chapter, entitled “What can you do?”, presents suggestions for individuals to take to combat overpopulation. One suggested tactic is, “Proselytizing Friends and Associates”. That section begins as follows:
At no small risk of being considered a nut, you can do a lot of good by persuading your personal acquaintances that the crisis is here, that something must be done, and that they can help.
Yeah, I think anyone who started lecturing friends about the dangers of overpopulation would be considered a nut. In that sense, Ehrlich did make one correct prediction. And then there’s this recommendation for talking to college professors:
The population crisis must be an integral part of his teaching—it is pertinent to every subject. He must use the prestige of his position in writing letters to whomever he thinks he can influence most. If he is in English or drama, he may be able to write novels or plays emphasizing near-future worlds in which famines or plagues are changing the very nature of society. If he is in business school, he can “hit the road” lecturing to businesses on “The Stork as an Enemy of Capitalism.” … Any professor, lecturing anywhere, can insert into his lecture a “commercial” on the problem. “And so I come to the end of my discussion of the literary significance of Darwin’s hangnail. In conclusion, I would like to remind you that our Society for the Study of Darwin’s Hangnail can only exist in a world in which there is leisure time for intellectual pursuits. Unless something is done now to bring the runaway human population under control, the SSDH will not long endure.”
Yes, Ehrlich did write this stuff. Seriously. If you don’t believe me, buy a copy of the book and read it for yourself. He wrote it and millions of people, many of whom were educated and intelligent, took it seriously.
Unfortunately the book contains some ideas that aren’t quite so funny. First of all, there’s this recommendation: “We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.” So much for freedom. Elsewhere this:
The reproductive function of sex must be shown as just one of its functions, and one that must be carefully regulated in relation to the needs of the individual and society. … With a rational atmosphere mankind should be able to work out the problems of de-emphasizing the reproductive role of sex. These problems include finding substitutes for the sexual satisfaction which many women derive from childbearing … If we take the proper steps in education, legislation, and research, we should be able in a generation to have a population thoroughly enjoying its sexual activity, relatively free of the horrors created today by divorce, illegal abortion, venereal disease, and the psychological pressures of a sexually repressive and repressed society.
Quite a lot of bad stuff here. Ehrlich calls for government to muck around in people’s private, sexual decisions. He calls for us to teach children dishonest things about sex. He implies that women are unable to understand or control their own sexual desires. And he predicts that as soon as we rid ourselves of the boogeyman called “sexual repression”, STDs, divorce, and abortion will vanish. Needless to say, he was wrong. Society has dropped almost all traditional views of sex and we now let everyone do as they will, but divorce and abortion and STDs were still with us when I last checked.
Lastly Ehrlich offers prescriptions for international policy. Here’s where he gets truly ugly. He argues for a system of triage in distributing food aid. Some third-world countries, in his view, are well off enough that they don’t need aid. Some are deserving of our aid. And some are just so overpopulated that there’s no point in giving them aid, so we should just cut off the food and leave them to starve. Don’t take my word for it; read what Ehrlich says: “Finally there is the last tragic category—those countries that are so far behind in the population-food game that there is no hope that our food aid will see them through to self-sufficiency. India is probably in this category. If it is, then under the triage system she should receive no more food.” So there you have it is so many words. Ehrlich recommend cutting off food aid to India, which would have resulted in the deaths of many millions. Fortunately our government did not implement his recommendation.
(One final note: Ehrlich’s example of a good third-world country was Libya, the same Libya that was ruled by the murderous Gaddafi for decades.)
One thing that very few people know about this book is that it was published by the Sierra Club. Wait, you might ask, the Sierra Club promoted sterilization by force, misogyny, and the unnecessary starvation of millions of people? It sure did. I am not an enemy of the Sierra Club. I consider myself an environmentalist and I strongly support the goal of preserving nature and reducing pollution. But this book stands as a testament to the need for intelligence and skepticism when someone makes a claim of impending doom.