Population panic

A fascinating history in old news report footage.

By Shannon Roberts

Editor’s note. The New York Times describes the mission of its “learning network” blog as “offer[ing] rich and imaginative materials for teaching and learning using New York Times content. Every weekday we offer new educational resources based on the articles, photographs, videos, illustrations, podcasts and graphics published in The New York Times – all for free.”

Shannon Roberts’ fine piece below examines what happened in late March when the learning network again addressed the concept of “demography is destiny.” We’re told, “In this lesson, we use The Times to investigate important global demographic trends today, and we consider what these trends might and might not mean for the future.”

ABC News anchor, the late Howard K. Smith, is one of the newsman featured in a 13-minute video about "The Population Bomb" and its impact. Like many leading newsmen, Smith uncritically accepted Paul Ehrlich's apocalyptic forecast.

ABC News anchor, the late Howard K. Smith, is one of the newsman featured in a 13-minute video about “The Population Bomb” and its impact. Like many leading newsmen, Smith uncritically accepted Paul Ehrlich’s apocalyptic forecast.

The jumping off point [the “warm up”] addresses the incredible impact of Paul Ehrlich and his thesis of “The Population Bomb” by looking at a short film– “The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion

This captivating New York TimesRetro Report” was shared again recently on the site’s learning network. For those, such as myself, not old enough to remember the historic news reports it shares, it makes fascinating, sometimes chilling, viewing and is worth a re-visit.

The Times asks the following discussion questions in relation to the [nearly 13-minute long] clip:

* Why do you think some scientists’ fears of global overpopulation found a receptive audience in the media, the public and even among world leaders? What evidence did the scientists have to support their predictions of mass starvation?

* Do you agree with Dr. Ehrlich that the rising global population still represents a catastrophic threat? Or any level of threat to human progress and sustainability?

* Or, do you think population stagnation or reduction, like Japan and Germany currently face, actually presents a greater challenge in the future?

Development economist Gita Sen, of the Centre for Public Policy at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, comments in the video that it was easier in the 1970’s for elite and middle class Indians to believe that poverty lay with too many children, rather than an unequal distribution of resources or an unfair economic system, and so buy in to the population panic which spread through the world at that time.

Adrienne Germain, President Emrita of the International Women’s Health Coalition and once a strong Ehrlich supporter, adds that if you start with the premise that children are a problem then it is inevitable that governments will begin to devise coercive population control strategies. Indeed, forcible sterilization policies were implemented in response to the panic and coercion still continues today.

Biologist Paul Ehrlich’s well-known predictions were of calamity and starvation within a few short decades. However, he failed to take new farming methods, new food production technologies and a range of other factors into account.

Gita Sen comments insightfully of the former butterfly biologist that “there is a tendency to apply to human beings the same sort of models that may apply for the insect world. The difference is, of course, that human beings are conscious beings and we do all kinds of things to change our destiny.”

Conversely, the problems many countries now recognize they face today are over-consumption, obesity and too few people. Watch the report and consider the questions above for yourself here:

Editor’s note. This appeared at mercatornet.com and is reprinted with permission.