The Bomb That Never Detonated

On the 1970s, Paul Ehrlich, overpopulation, and why poverty is mostly caused by bad ideas and lack of virtue, not lack of resources.

I.

Back in the early 1970s, in the heyday of unceasing rancor over Humanae Vitae, a great number of books were published that prophesied disaster for the human race. Among the most famous was Paul Ehrlich’s widely read The Population Bomb. At that time, we were given various apocalyptic scenarios about the end of things caused by our own uncontrolled breeding. We were soon to starve to death. The world, then with a population of around three billion, was running out of food, clothing, gas, and just about everything else. Things could only get worse. Resources were “limited”; no more new ones were imaginable. The Catholic Church was often singled out as contributing to this approaching demise of the human race since she taught that the world was made for man. Her weird stance on human breeding was “irrational”. Her views on marriage and children were said to go against the principles of, you guessed it, “modern science”.

The main group did not readily buy these forebodings were the economists, or at least the free market ones. (See, for example, John Mueller’s Redeeming Economics and John McNerney’s The Wealth of Persons). Not a few farmers and agrarian biologists also thought that perhaps increasing populations was not such a bad thing. Increased yields in many grains were shown to be quite feasible and soon put into production. India, once a basket case became a bread basket, an exporter of grain and not just an importer of it. Children and youth meant new markets and incentives. They also meant more potential workers who would be both producers and consumers. They were also provided some assurance to the elderly, as the Japanese and Europeans were to find out when they had too few of them. Some folks seemed to know how to respond to these so-called scarcities; others did not. It was something that needed to be both learned and encouraged. 

World population proceeded to reach four billion, then five, and now approaches eight billion. If anything, we are better prepared to deal with eight billion than the world was  prepared to meet its needs when the population of the planet was less than half a billion. This is counter-intuitive; many would expect the opposite, especially if they do not really think about it. In fact, the whole socialist agenda was largely a thinking about it in a way that never worked and usually made things worse. The solutions based on empowering governments to deal with it always backfired. Instead of inciting growth and increased quality in things, government control of resources to insure justice invariably produced stagnation and inefficiency. Such a seemingly sensible solution produced something worse; good intentions did not produce good results.

At that time, I wrote two books, Human Dignity & Human Numbers and Welcome Number 4,000,000,000 (more recently, there is On Christianity & Prosperity). My thesis was that the birth of new human lives was not a disaster. It was something to rejoice about. This welcome was not merely in a family sense, but also in an economic, political, and cultural sense. This approach seemed to be the way things were supposed to work. Earlier writers such as Locke and Rousseau had understood this value of population long before Malthus came along with his calculus of a world with standing room only. Subsequent writers have often been amused to point out that we could put the whole present eight billion population of the earth into the state of Texas with about as much space between folks as present day New Yorkers enjoy in their neighborhoods. Increasing populations were in fact good, but this possibility depended on what we thought of the family, of children, and of the human ability to meet its own needs by means that actually work and were not intrinsically immoral. Man was not created with all the answers, but with the capacity to find good answers, and this process required a rejection of what did not work.

II.

At the time, I knew the late Julian Simon, whose books, The Ultimate Resource and The Ultimate Resource 2, proposed (along with George Gilder and Herman Kahn) that wealth was not a matter of supposedly available resources based on contemporary estimates of their quantities. Rather, the human mind was the only real source of wealth in the universe. The Arabs sat on pools of oil for centuries with no idea what to do with it. Oil or anything else is only valuable if some use can be found for it. It seemed odd at first sight that people would think that unused raw material was of any value at all. The American Indians, who were said to have had ten square miles of territory for each person when the colonists arrived, actually were not surviving well merely on what they could garner from unimproved nature. An intimate relation is found between human culture and nature. Contrary to some recent sentiments, the world was not intended just to sit there in order for us to admire it or to leave it alone.

Everyone was amused when Simon made a bet with Ehrlich that in the future more—not fewer—resources of every type would be available than when the bet was made. Ehrlich assumed we were rapidly running out of most everything. As I read later, Ehrlich lost and paid the bet. Adequate resources become available when we need them—if we are permitted to figure out how to do so and are allowed to sell them in the market at a profit. Simon’s point was that resources are not merely things in the ground, sea, or air. They are products of mind that only come about when we have need of them. 

This point is why the economist Joseph Schumpeter’s famous “entrepreneur” is so important. If someone does not know what to do or how to do something, nothing much will happen. Moreover, to understand the world as a place designed for what man is, we need to have a correct philosophy about what nature and man are in themselves and in their relation to each other. Poverty is mostly caused by bad ideas and lack of virtue, not lack of resources. Many cultures and societies are indeed stagnant because they never learned or never wanted to learn how to be otherwise. This is why cultures ought not simply to remain what they are. They ought to be open to what is the right order of things. Sometimes a little preaching helps.

After the seventies, the population issue seemed to die down. It became clear that resources were not the real problem, nor were babies. Governments, religions, and ideologies were the problem if they did not know or did not want to know how to deal with increasing human numbers. If there is a population problem, it is almost always the result of ideas and government controls that had other purposes than human well-being. In addition, the countries we thought to be the poorest, China and India, suddenly became richer, though with many a dubious anti-human policies still in place. The places where we were told people were starving, were in fact busy coping with smog from their new cars and industries. They had learned how to become rich by imitating enough of those systems that did know how to succeed in improving themselves.

III.

Paul Ehrlich, still around with his theories, was recently invited to a conference on “biological extinction”, to be held at the Vatican in late February. Several similar advisers, who were well-known advocates of limiting world population, were invited earlier to discuss Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’. There is no problem in hearing what adversaries hold, provided they are not imitated. For many, such invitations seemed to imply an unholy alliance. People who insist that the world should be limited to two or three billion in population, assuming this is a good idea—which it isn’t—also advocate enthusiastically the means they insisted must be accepted to achieve it: birth control, abortion, gay marriage, and sundry other lethal proposals that sound mostly like the narrative in The Brave New World.

The key to understanding this strange relationship seems to be found in the notion that the earth is our permanent and only home. It needs to be protected at all costs from man’s incursions. Instead of looking on the earth as itself given to man to accomplish his natural and supernatural purpose, the emphasis is shifted to the notion that the earth is the sole place of man in the universe. The purpose of the human race is to keep itself afloat in space for as long as possible. This end requires an ethic of complete care rather than an ethic of virtue and abundance. Sin and moral fault are redefined in terms of how we use the earth, not how we stand to one another. The moral absolutes must be reinterpreted in the light of this priority.

Though not always immediately evident, behind this earth-first perspective is a human control mechanism that usually proposes limiting the number of people present on the planet at any one time. This limitation, said to be based on available science, requires medical and legal procedures to limit these numbers, to license those who can and cannot be born. Eventually, no doubt, the sun will burn itself out, and human life on this planet will be rendered impossible. But holding out as long as possible is, it is thought, a workable endeavor. Out of this thinking we find frequent proposals to transport at least some human beings to other planets, so that our kind are not “lost in the cosmos”, to cite the title of Walker Percy’s famous book.

Supporting much of this thinking is also the proposition that earth warming is caused, it is said, primarily by human development, not by recurrent natural causes. This is presented as an unquestionable scientific fact, even though recorded changes and computer projected changes are not the same. The evidence for this man-made cause is, to say the least, ambiguous, if not simply false. It is opinion, not science. And many think that a warmer earth would be an advantage in many ways. 

There is danger here, in any case, of what might be called the “Galileo problem” in reverse. Namely, the Church seems to embrace another form of dubious science in the name of its primary mission. This time the danger is in agreeing with popular science, not disagreeing with it. The so-called “sustainability” principle is premised on a projection of present-day science and technology on what might or might not be available in the future. It would be like proposing, on the same grounds, to leave development as it was in 1800 or 1900 and then to insist that what we have in the 21st century could not be possible on scientific grounds.

The view of the earth as parsimonious instead of abundant under man’s dominion results in very different attitudes towards the earth and our place in it. Suppose we imagine that things are radically limited, that waste is the biggest problem. The world is basically divided between haves and have-nots. The function of morality is to redistribute existing goods on some abstract equality principle. With such suppositions (besides making everyone poor), we will usually end up with a total control position. International control of resources and population will be offered as the only “just” solution. We will in practice, if not in our rhetoric, elevate goods over people and their final end. We estimate what we think is now available in terms of technology and enterprise. Our focus is to take care of the poor, not to enable them to not be poor and hence independent of state control. This control is now justified because of scarcity thinking.

If, however, our operative presuppositions are abundance, we will emphasize our mind and inventiveness. We will suspect that plenty of resources are or can be made available. We do not need to panic and cut ourselves off from those ideas and procedures that can provide for increased population without subjecting everyone to state control. The dark side of ecology, as Paul Johnson pointed out, is the ease with which its logic justifies the totalitarian state. Emphasis should not be on a morality that assumes scarcity, but one that presumes abundance and gift. We need a just order that can envision a world prospering with more brains, more freedom, more virtue, and more enterprise.

IV. 

Looking back over the whole cast of thinking in this area, we suspect a curious separation of reason and revelation. Reason and what we can learn from it are replaced with a exclusively revelational approach that does not envision any possibility of meeting normal human purposes. Rather it falls back on a keep-things-going vision. For actual persons, there is an inner worldly instead of an extra worldly approach. Revelation normally presupposed, as in St. Thomas Aquinas, that man could and would learn to take such care of himself. He could, but he need not, lapse into a constant recurrence of worst regimes with different rationales. Revelation rightly did not see any necessity to reveal what the various sciences and arts were all about. It presumed that man could and should be left to figure out these things by himself. 

Even with its relation to reason, revelation would always be needed and welcome in any existing society, as Pope Benedict pointed out in Deus Caritas Est. But revelation was not intended to substitute for it. When it did so, we witness a strange overturning of human ends. The end of man now is said to be keeping the earth in its pristine form down the ages, not the salvation of actual persons within the time and place in which they actually lived. The focus is not on eternal life for each person according to his deeds and faith. At the end of time, however, we have no reason to suppose that the earth will also be running out of its resources at the same time. This suspicion of a “wasted” abundance should alone be enough to cause us to take another look at what the earth is really “for”. The end of the earth is a function of the end of man. 

Perhaps a hundred billion human beings have already lived on this planet. They did not exist so that some future society be kept going down the ages. They existed to save their souls in the places they were. There is nothing wrong with seeking a better regime in our time. But whatever regime we find ourselves in, even in the worst, we can achieve or reject the purpose for which we were created, that is, to achieve the eternal life that Jesus Christ, in a nasty political trial in one of the better ancient regimes, promised to us.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 153 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.