Monday, April 13, 2009

Was Ehrlich Crying Wolf?

Dan Drezner lists his 10 worst and most damaging books related to international relations. #3 on his list is Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb. Ehrlich argued that a rapidly growing population would lead to inevitable starvation in the near future. Here's Drezner's take:

The first of many, many, many books in which Ehrlich argued that the world's population was growing at an unsustainable rate, outstripping global resources and leading to inevitable mass starvation. Ehrlich's book committed a triple sin. First, he was wrong on the specifics. Second, by garnering so much attention by being wrong, he contributed to the belief that alarmism was the best way to get people to pay attention to the environment. Third, by crying wolf so many times, Ehrlich numbed many into not buying actual, real environmental threats.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. I think there are many reasons why people don't buy into environmental threats. I doubt Ehrlich has that much power over the general public or that current skeptics of climate change were followers of Ehrlich to begin with. The distance nature of environmental threats, the desire to consume, dislike of environmentalists' "hippie" culture, and a lack of knowledge all seem more explanatory than Ehrlich's books for this problem.

What about the charge of alarmism? Has this been damaging? Maybe. But I feel this isn't Ehrlich's fault either. Environmental threats are alarming and scary. But they aren't obvious. So alarmism may not be the most effective strategy because most people don't see it. Less than 4 years after Hurricane Katrina, how many Americans are really that scared of global warming induced super-hurricanes? Not many. But they probably should be, at least if they live along the Gulf or Atlantic coasts. Alarmism is a pretty natural reaction for environmental writers--not being alarmist isn't exactly working at raising awareness of issues either.

This leads us to the first charge, that Ehrlich was wrong. Yes and no I suppose. Starvation today is not a problem of resource production. It's unclear just how many people the earth can support, but the near 7 billion of today is clearly not leading to starvation. That doesn't mean that rapid population growth doesn't have its problems. And Ehrlich, like Malthus, is right that the earth can only handle so many people. However, Drezner is probably right that Ehrlich was wrong on the specifics. It's not that great of a book, even from the perspective of an environmental scholar who is really scared about these things. I don't know that I would assign it were I to put together a course on international relations. But I'm not sure it's as damaging as Drezner suggests.