Great Moments in Muddled Thinking: I

I was excited this week to find a copy of the original 1968 version of Paul Ehrlich's "The Population Bomb."  I have been itching to find such a copy so I can demonstrate just how wrong and wrong-headed his zero-sum limits-to-growth thinking is. 

Now, one may ask, why even bother?  You could argue that thoughtful folks have dismissed Paul Ehrlich and his ilk for years, particularly after Julian Simon owned him in their famous bet.  However, I find two compelling reasons to take the time to fisk a forty-year-old book:

  • Paul Ehrlich and his brethren actually have not been disowned by much of the intelligentsia.  The media still breathlessly reprints Ehrlich's and his cohorts' predictions of disaster, despite the fact that all their past predictions have utterly failed to come true.
  • The fundamental mistakes he makes in his analysis are constantly repeated today.  These mistakes include:
    • Static analysis - blind projection of trendlines without any allowance for individuals actually doing something to alter those trends, particularly in response to pricing signals.  This leads not only to predictions of disaster, but to the consistent conclusion that only governments coercing individuals on a massive scale can avert dire consequences for humanity
    • Zero confidence in humanity - every analysis implicitly contains the assumption that we will never know how to do more than we know how to do today.  Kind of an anti-Kurzweil mentality
    • Zero-sum economics - the common misconception that wealth can only come at the expense of poverty elsewhere.

I have not had a chance to dig into it, but I will leave you with this tasty teaser from the back cover:


  1. The right to eat well
  2. The right to drink pure water
  3. The right to breathe clean air
  4. The right to decent, uncrowded shelter
  5. The right to enjoy natural beauty
  6. The right to avoid regimentation
  7. The right to avoid pesticide poisoning
  8. The right to freedom from thermonuclear war
  9. The right to limit families
  10. The right to educate our children
  11. The right to have grandchildren

Well, that seems to cover it.  Anyone want to bet I don't find anything about property rights in this book?  Gotta go read the book now, since I have so many questions now:  Is it OK if someone kills me with a conventional bomb rather than a nuclear one?  Can I sue McDonald's on the basis that yesterday's lunch was a violation of my right to eat well?  And just how do I force my kids to have sex and procreate?  I can't wait to find out.


  1. markm:

    "Is it OK if someone kills me with a conventional bomb rather than a nuclear one?"

    You see, it isn't getting killed that's bad, it's how new the method of getting killed is. People have been smashing, stabbing, and chopping each other up with blunt and edged weapons for thousands of years, so that isn't so bad. People have been shooting each other with firearms for 400 years, so that's much worse. And they've only had nukes for 60 years, so that's terrible.

    This explains the slow liberal reaction to the massacres in Botswana - the killers were mostly using machetes, so that barely counts as killing. Similarly, people have been dying of malaria for ages, probably since before Homo sapiens emerged, so a vulture egg breaking because of DDT is far more tragic than a child dying of malaria.

    I used to be a liberal. Did I get smarter or did they get much, much stupider?

  2. Matt:

    And how exactly are we supposed to "avoid regimentation" while simultaneously building a government so huge, pervasive, and all-encompassing that it can credibly promise to deliver _any_ of those other supposed "rights", let alone _all_ of them.

    It's amazing that people can simultaneously think so little of human beings that they follow Ehrlich's logical process, and yet think so much of human beings that they'd trust a government run by humans with preventing catastrophe and making the world a "better" place.

  3. Kim Scarborough:

    Regarding static analysis: I believe it was Orwell who said, "An intellectual is someone who believes a current trend will continue indefinitely." Something like that, anyway.

  4. Eric H:

    Don't be surprised if you find "no there" there. I got a copy of _The Limits to Growth_ and couldn't believe the thing made it through a complete printing. The basis of the book was a computer program that captured the entirety of human existence. They ran it through, changed variables and ran it again, and by that "rigorous" process, "proved" that civilization will collapse by the end of the 21st century. The unbelievable conceit that you are *now* living at the end, a conceit which has been with us for at least 2000 years.

  5. markm:

    I read it when it was new, and what I recall is exactly as Eric says. If you understand the mathematics of exponential growth at all, you don't need a computer to reach the same results - you just need the stupidity to think that the real world is that simple.

  6. Alex:

    First of all lets define "right" so we have a common point of reference. Websters says a "right" is "someting that is due a person or governmental body by law, tradition, or nature." One of the definitions of the word "due" is "anticipated or looked for." As with so many things, interepretation is the key and I interpret him to mean that we anticipate that nature owes us the opportunity to eat well, have clean water, have pure air, have decent and un-crowded shelter, enjoy natural beauty, avoid regimentation, avoid pesticide poisoning, have freedom from nuclear war, limit our families, educate our children, have grandchildren.

    From Nature we are in fact due the anticipation of all these things. Nature gives us good, natural food, clean air and water, we are the ones who pollute the air and water and eat junk. Nature gives us plenty of land to move about, we are the ones who chose to pack into cities. There is not doubt that nature offers plenty of natural beauty. Nature does give you the right to do whatever you want as long as you deal with the consequences. Pesticides and nuclear weapons do not exist in nature without the help of man. The Kalahari Bushmen used to limit their families by natural means, so nature has given us the anticipation of that as well. How many people do you know who don’t look for kids and grandkids. There is no forcing involved, just the right to expect that it will happen.

    As is usual, you have all avoided an opportunity to open your minds and used this opportunity to chose an interpretation that reaffirms your preconceptions. By saying we don’t have these rights you are saying that we don’t have the right to clean water, air, good food, natural beauty, kids and grandkids, and that we dont' have the right not to be killed by nuclear weapons. I am pretty sure none of you want that.

    As for some of the other comments, I think the person who mentioned Botswana actually meant Rwanda. That is the country where nearly 1 million people were killed by machete, among other means. That happened in just under four months. This same type of situation has been going on for well over three years right now in Sudan and we are still not intervening.

    As for “a government so huge and pervasive,” ever heard of the Department of Homeland Security? That was the largest restructuring of the U.S. Government in our countries history and it was created by GW. And remind me again, where is the national debt at now? Oh, that’s right, it’s at $8,249,120,772,426 as of Feb. 20, 2006 and all of it happened on GW’s watch. Apparently the Republicans have taken up the cause of big government.