The_Population_BombIn this week’s New York Times Retro Report, Clyde Haberman explored the unrealized population explosion predicted by biologist Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb forecasted that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s, that 65 million of them would be Americans, that crowded India was essentially doomed, that odds were that England would not exist in the year 2000. Like Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), Ehrlich’s compelling writing drew attention to pressing environmental issues of the 1960s in a way that had never been done before. Both books sold in the millions.

Drawing parallels between the human population and the natural world, suggesting that we were far outstripping the planet’s ability to support life, even led Ehrlich to promote Zero Population Growth. The rapidly growing group of young adults vowed to have no children, or at most two to replace themselves, in order to help stop population growth. In India, the government had already begun to promote family planning and they seized on the opportunity to forcibly sterilize millions of people–sometimes even withholding aid or food supplies until people complied. In the US, President Nixon advocated population control and spoke of the dystopian future in store in America.

Undoubtedly, people around the world became more aware of the impact of population on the environment because of Ehrlich’s book and frequent speaking engagements–much like Carson, whose bestselling book led to a nationwide ban on DDT and inspired a movement that led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency. But improvements in farming contributing to higher yields, a worldwide decrease in the birth rate except for a few hot spots, and improved health standards in the developed world have mitigated the doomsday effect Ehrlich envisioned. So it turns out that “in the year 2525” man may still be alive…sorry Zager & Evans.

How much fun would it be to do a Retro Report on a planning prophecy? Right now I can think of Vancouver’s postwar highway proposals. Those of you who are familiar with Gordon Price’s PriceTags might know this story–if not, check out the link to his newsletter here which includes a video clip on the Chinatown residents’ protests against the proposed highways. In short, the prediction was that unless a whole network of highways was put in place, nobody would be able to get in or out of Vancouver’s downtown. Teachers out there, a Retro Report might be a great assignment for a planning class!

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