So, do we have too many people on earth, or too few?
Here are two things I distinctly remember from the 1970s:
If you got rear-ended while driving a Ford Pinto, you were doomed.
It didn’t matter, because the world population was growing so fast that we were all doomed anyway.
It was gospel. There were too many people, and we were warned about it in books, science journals, pop culture and even in public schools. Where was Ron DeSantis when you needed him?
Between 1950 and 1986 the population doubled thanks to better medicine, agriculture, energy and the move by Denny’s to start serving dinner at 4:30. This, obviously, was sure to lead to shortages of drugs, food, coal and afternoon pancakes.
By the end of the 1900s, we would all be out in the streets gnawing on pinecones and fighting rats over scraps of rancid fat. This was assuming you could even get out the door of your house, because voluminous crowds of people would just be wandering around with no place to eat or sleep.
The hysteria was fed in part by a Stanford professor named Paul Ehrlich who wrote the book “The Population Bomb” in 1968 that predicted that in “the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
Ehrlich, dashing and articulate, might have been the world’s first doomsday celebrity. I understand that plenty of people through the centuries have made hay off of doomsday predictions. But did Hilary of Poitiers ever appear on the Johnny Carson Show? He did not. Carson, by contrast, had Ehrlich on 20 times, not to mention appearances Ehrlich made on more serious-minded productions such as “60 Minutes.”
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Ehrlich — who subsequently explained his failures to accurately predict the future by basically saying “oops” — urged widespread government action before it was too late. For once, the standard failure of governments to face pending crises with bold, cohesive action paid off, because, of course, none of these doomsday scenarios ever happened.
In fact, today we have a new crisis: population decline.
That’s right, the academics and social scientists who 50 years ago said the world was growing too fast are now saying it’s not growing fast enough. This is a crisis because there won’t be enough people to do all the work that needs to be done and, correspondingly, pay into pension funds that support great waves of retirees.
So instead of fighting over rancid fat, we’ll all be out in the streets fighting each other for Social Security checks.
Oddly, world population projections for the end of this century — between 10 billion and 11 billion — are almost exactly the same today as they were in 1968. But in 1968, this figure was too high; today it’s not high enough. We can’t win.
As usual, China is being blamed, largely because of its one-child policy dating back to the 1970s. Initially viewed with horror, couples in China cumulatively noticed that one child wasn’t so bad, and if one were better, zero would make them happier still.
The world, apparently, has learned that kids are just one big fat headache. Who wants to be changing diapers when you could be arguing about M&Ms on Facebook?
China’s Xi Jinping, who demonstrates the same positive leadership qualities as Odell Beckham Jr., is just as liable to respond with a 12-child policy, which, in another decade or two, will have us all worried about overpopulation yet again. At which point he will start a global war with Taiwan (Xi Jinping, not Odell Beckham Jr. — I don’t think) which will swing us back the other way.
This gets really confusing if you put too much thought into it, so we’re going to need to put more people on it to discover the answer. Or less, one of the two.
Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.
This article originally appeared on The Herald-Mail: Global population decline reverses doom predicted in the 1970s