The Population Bomb shared Paul Ehrlich’s predictions about the future. After his doom-laden warnings about mass starvation and the need for population control, by compulsion if necessary, Ehrlich asked, “What if I’m wrong?” What if his Malthusian thinking is a mistake? (See here for Malthus). The author was trying to make the point that it made sense to do what he advised as he suggested the costs to action were low and the costs to inaction high.
I found the short, 2 page, chapter looking at ‘what if he was wrong’ one of the worst bits of Ehrlich’s book. (And there were plenty of dodgy bits). Rather than seriously address the meaningful public policy question of what action to take in a world of flawed prediction he cheats. Ehrlich plays a trick that you can imagine an 18-year-old philosophy student doing and thinking they are very clever. But it is glib, trite, and unsatisfying. It reveals the author to be fundamentally unserious about the question, “What if I’m wrong?”
Ehrlich invokes Pascal’s Wager on the existence of God. In this wager, it costs (practically) nothing to believe in God and so if God doesn’t exist you don’t lose much by believing. If God does exist you had better believe in ‘Him’ because the reward is eternal salvation versus damnation. The decision is easy if this assessment of the costs is correct. Pascal’s Wager makes sense if the cost of being wrong one way is essentially nothing and the cost of being wrong the other way is massive. You should err on the side where a mistake costs nothing. (Of course, this is a stylized representation. Maybe God exists but gets really annoyed if you are a Catholic versus Protestant or vice versa etc… In which case the costs of error even if you believe in God could be really quite high, but that isn’t the point here.)
The Cost Of The Population Bomb
So for Pascal’s Wager to be a useful analogy there needs to be little cost to taking the action.
In other words, play it safe [and implement population control]. If I’m right, we will save the world. If I’m wrong, people will still be better fed, better housed, and happier, thanks to our efforts.Ehrlich, 1978, page 179
Sounds great doesn’t it? It is grotesque bullshit, but sounds nice.
What If I’m Wrong? What Happens To Women?
Ehrlich’s plan was, if people didn’t follow his advice, coercion. What’s a little determination of someone else’s life for them between friends?
His plan had very serious negative consequences, he just didn’t seem to mind them, presumably because the consequences wouldn’t directly involve him. For example, consider the impact on women. The problem goes beyond the obvious that individuals have their rights to make decisions taken away from them.
He notes that people in many cultures (at the time and still now sadly, though hopefully less) wanted male, nor female, children. Is this a problem? Not for Ehrlich.
..if a simple method could be found to guarantee that first-born children were males the population control problems in many areas would be somewhat eased.Ehrlich, 1978, page 133
Ehrlich thinks we will all be happier if families aren’t burdened with female children. To add to the suggestion that he wasn’t great on gender relations the research seems to have been done with his wife, Anne, but she didn’t get credited with authorship for many years. What a charmer. I know what all single heterosexual women looking for a partner are thinking: “What happened to all the great potential husbands like Paul Ehrlich?”
Even if you aren’t worried about female infanticide etc… (and you should be) what is this society with a massive unbalance of relatively more males going to be like? It isn’t ideal. How could someone who studies populations not think an unbalanced population would become a problem? It has proved an issue in the world with far less action to limit the number of girls taken than Ehrlich would have advocated.
Let me paraphrase Paul Ehrlich: ‘Who cares if my predictions are wrong? Let’s just coerce people anyhow. What would we want a load of girls for anyhow?’