“I don't really believe it,” Lennon said in his Beatle-esque Liverpool accent. “I think whatever happens will balance itself out…It's alright for us all living to say, 'Well, there's enough of us [people] so we won't have any more…I don't believe in that.”
It was a counter-cultural statement—even for the voice of the counterculture. Back then, all of the experts were warning that our planet couldn't take much more. And no one sounded that alarm more loudly than Dr. Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford biologist behind the explosive bestseller, “The Population Bomb.”
“The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” Ehrlich announced on the opening page of his book, forecasting “an utter breakdown in the capacity of the planet to support humanity,” resulting in starvation for hundreds of millions. Half of Americans would die by the end of the eighties, he said; India and China would self-destruct, and by the year 2000, England wouldn't exist. “Sometime in the next 15 years,” Ehrlich confidently predicted the year before Lennon's Dick Cavett appearance, “the end will come.”
Well it’s forty-five years later, and we have twice the number of people Ehrlich said would exceed the earth's carrying capacity. The end has not come, and England mysteriously still exists.
In a surprising and honest move, the New York Times ran a piece this month debunking the horrors of overpopulation. A video attached with the article features Stewart Brand, a former disciple of Ehrlich's who’s now a critic, and who helped popularize his theory and played a major role in pushing for population control in the sixties and seventies.
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In the video, Brand acknowledges that “The concerns about population became misanthropic.” He pointed out that people took Ehrlich seriously when he suggested lacing public water with anti-fertility drugs.
Along with Ehrlich, Brand led a movement of Americans who took to heart his call for “a system of incentives and penalties,” to reduce childbearing, even “by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.” Ehrlich and his followers proposed “responsibility prizes” for childless marriages, a steep tax on families with more than three children, even a “blacklist of people, companies, and organizations impeding population control.”
But it was in other parts of the world where the idea behind Ehrlich's book really took root. Throughout the 70s, the Indian government undertook a program of population control that saw more than eight million women surgically sterilized. Untold numbers of these procedures were forced, and many resulted in death. The patients, in the words of one Indian family-planning official, “were treated like cattle.” And China, with its infamous One Child Policy, took even more drastic measures.
None of this defused the population bomb, though. What did, argues Brand, were advances in agriculture and economics in developing nations—advances Ehrlich could have never foreseen, and which his worldview precluded. And so today, despite an increase of four billion people, fewer people today suffer from extreme poverty or hunger than when Ehrlich wrote the book.
Explaining Ehrlich's failed prediction, Indian Economist Gita Sen told The Times, “There's a tendency to apply to human beings the same sort of models that may apply for the insect world.” The difference? We’re not insects. “[H]uman beings are conscious beings, and we do all kinds of things to change our destiny.”
Of course, what Sen calls “destiny,” we Christians would call providence. And part of God’s control is exhibited in the creativity and innovation humans are just so good at—and which can be used for evil, but can also be used for good. In short, Christians see human beings as image bearers, not insects. And ironically, sometimes it takes the voice of a Beatle to remind us of that.
Reprinted with permission from Breakpoint.