Introduction: Is This Zero Hour?

Tom Flynn

 

Yet we’ve had too much fecundity; it’s now no virtue; it’s eating us out of house and home.

—Edward Hoagland

The decision to develop this feature was taken before the economic meltdown, when prices for gasoline, agricultural products, and metals were at or near all-time highs. Food riots rocked the developing world, not because food was unavailable but because it was unaffordable. In Mexico, unrest focused on corn, a crop whose diversion for biofuels production had made the nation’s staple grain too expensive for the poor. Across America, abandoned or ill-secured buildings were invaded and stripped of their copper piping, which fetched record prices on the scrap market. And who can forget the pain of $4.50 per gallon gasoline?

Many factors drove this upward spiral. But I wondered whether one of them was the relentless pressure of human numbers. Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 classic book, The Population Bomb, famously sounded the alarm regarding overpopulation. Some of its near-term predictions—including mass famines in the 1970s—never came true. Its midterm predictions were revisited in succeeding years. In 1980, Ehrlich and cornucopian economist Julian Simon (1932–1988) wagered over the future cost of commodities: Ehrlich expected them to rise as population growth drove up demand, while Simon expected them to fall as technological improvements gave us more efficient extractive methods or superior substitute materials. Simon won the bet.

Still, I wondered—did the price spikes of 2007 and 2008 presage a new stage? Had runaway population finally—if decades later than expected—begun driving up prices in the way Ehrlich and others had anticipated? In other words, was the population bomb finally exploding?

Free Inquiry invited Paul Ehrlich and his wife, Anne, coauthors of the new book The Dominant Animal, to address the issue. Also invited were another husband-and-wife team of activists, the Cornell ecologists David and Marcia Pimentel. Writing for the dissent is philosopher Jan Narveson, perhaps the most conspicuous of those upholding the optimistic banner of Julian Simon.

Commodity prices are no longer at record levels. As I write, gasoline prices have fallen by more than half; prices for many agricultural products and metals are in free fall. On the other hand, it took a global economic collapse of dimensions not seen since the Great Depression to make this happen. If the Ehrlichs and those who share their thinking are correct, once the extraordinary retarding influences of this economic contraction run their course, the collision between nature’s carrying capacity and surging human numbers may drive prices sharply upward once again. Regardless of economic factors in areas ranging from climate change to water shortages to depletion of fish stocks, the question, “Is the population bomb finally exploding?” remains distressingly apt.

Unless Jan Narveson is right, of course.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


  Yet we’ve had too much fecundity; it’s now no virtue; it’s eating us out of house and home. —Edward Hoagland The decision to develop this feature was taken before the economic meltdown, when prices for gasoline, agricultural products, and metals were at or near all-time highs. Food riots rocked the developing world, not because …

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