Building a Fund of Sustainability Knowledge, One Book at a Time–Part Nine

by Brian K. Yeoman


The Population Bomb

Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich

Published: 1968

ISBN: 1-56849-587

We introduced a series of book reviews in 2015. This is the ninth installment in the series. Hopefully, you have enjoyed some of the earlier reviews and perhaps some of the books. Please partake of them. If you are interested in purchasing any of the books, I’ve provided the ISBN number with each review. And remember: it’s all about the journey, not the destination.

The Population Bomb is one of the seminal books on the environment. The primary theory was that there will be a disaster for all humanity due to overpopulation. It warns of the potential of mass starvation of humans in the 1970s and 1980s. It is a bit like An Essay on the Principle of Population by Robert Malthus, the famous 18th century mathematician. Malthus concluded that population pressures would tend to undermine improvements in living standards.

Population growth is, for many people, the singular issue driving sustainability. You know the type, right? Those who like to say population is the only real problem; we just have too many people! In 1968 The Population Bomb saw the problem through the eyes of Malthus to the point of prophesying catastrophic population collapse. Ehrlich wrote, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…” He went on to say, “…a minimum of ten million people, most of them children, will starve to death during each year of the 1970s. But this is a mere handful compared to the numbers that will be starving before the end of
the century.”

The Ehrlichs believed that if living standards were raised, there would be a resultant human behavior change that would put massive pressure on the food supply and reverse any technological gains. The book sold more than two million copies, raised the general awareness of population and environmental issues, and influenced late 1960s and 1970s public policy.

The book has been criticized since its publishing for its alarmist tone and, in recent decades, for its inaccurate predictions. The worldwide political far-right, ignoring how many things the book actually did get correct, uses it as the poster child for most of what is wrong with the sustainability and climate change debate. The Ehrlichs continue to stand by their basic ideas and as late as 2009 were still stating, “Perhaps the most serious flaw in The Bomb was that it was much too optimistic about the future.” They also believe that the book achieved their goals because, “It alerted people to the importance of environmental issues and brought human numbers into the debate on the human future.”

Simply put, they assumed that available eco-resources, food in particular, were nearing their limits. Considering that the book was written in 1968, the Ehrlichs would have found it difficult to anticipate the geometric rise in the agricultural output that has been achieved through advancements in agribusiness and technology. But that gain has not come without a huge environmental consequence—dead zones, loss of arable land, and acidification of waterways—and there are still about a billion people a day who, according to Dr. Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University and the United Nations, suffer in a constant state of starvation.

The book goes to great length in describing the state of the environment and pointing out the food insecurity problem. The Ehrlichs argue that the existing human population was growing rapidly, not being fed adequately, creating a global problem. They conclude that it is unreasonable to expect sufficient improvements in food production. Interestingly, they also argue that the growing population has placed escalating demands on all ecosystems.

The book does offer actions which readers could take. These actions are focused primarily on changing public opinion to pressure politicians to enact policies aimed at reducing population growth. Near the end of the book, the Ehrlichs discuss the possibility that their forecasts might be wrong, an acknowledgment they felt they must make as scientists. However, they believed that humanity would be better off if it thought deeply and followed their suggestions, so that even if they were incorrect,they still pointed policy evolution in the
right direction.

Some of those famous predictions from the scenarios:

  • In 2001 roughly two million people would die due to famine
    related causes.
  • The United States could only support a population of
    150 million.
  • The U.S. government would have to levy “luxury taxes on layettes, cribs, diapers, diaper services, and expensive toys…”

They also suggested giving “responsibility prizes” to couples who went at least five years without having children or to men who
got vasectomies.

In fact, famine has not been eliminated, but its root cause has been political instability and climate change, not global food shortage. The U.S. population has more than doubled and is rapidly urbanizing.

I don’t think the Ehrlichs could have imagined how swiftly the change could take place, from a producer economy to a service economy. It is true that the government has not levied luxury taxes, but the efforts of China and India in slowing their meteoric population increases did include incentives for birth control, which are still in place today. The Ehrlichs were successful in creating awareness in the world about the population issue. That awareness certainly helped to create a much better world.

This is a book I always recommend to those entering the field of sustainability and climate change. I do it knowing its shortcomings, but the lessons are well worth the time invested in reading this epic work.


By E. O. Wilson

Published in 1998

ISBN 0-679-45077-7

Consilience is an inspired work from one of the greatest minds in the American environmental movement, E. O. Wilson. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1929. Wilson, a professor of biology at Harvard, is the recipient of numerous awards in science and two Pulitzer prizes. More than any of his other works, this book could easily mandate a review at the chapter for a reasonable analysis of the author’s thoughts. Some measure—beyond perfunctory—of the reader’s understanding of biology will certainly help, but it is not a requirement.

Webster defines consilience as “the linking together of principles from different disciplines especially when forming a comprehensive theory… a jumping together” of converging evidence. Consilience should not be confused with Einstein’s Grand Unification Theory, which attempted to coalesce the theory of relativity with electromagnetism. Consilience, rather, refers to a coming together of knowledge from many different fields. An example is the theory of evolution, although Charles Darwin did not know that in his lifetime. It is supported by the fields of biogeography, comparative anatomy, comparative physiology, genetics, geology, molecular biology, and paleontology.

In Consilience Wilson echoes the goal of earlier researchers: when we have unified enough knowledge we will understand who we are as a species and why we are here. Thus, Wilson identifies a need to unify not just among the sciences, but among all the great branches of learning: the sciences, humanities, and arts. He argues that this task has been hampered by our increasing fragmentation and hyper-specialization of knowledge since the 1800s. Knowing more and more about less and less is hindering our ability to understand. The attempts of science in the late 1990s to start developing a synthesis were a source of hope for Wilson. He believes that the difference between these branches of learning is in the magnitude of the questions, not in the principles needed for solution.

This book is a significant work for me. Wilson was trained as a classical reductionist scientist, focused on ants. After becoming the leading expert in his narrow field, he stepped back to take a look at the bigger world. What he discovered was that certain concepts that apply at the micro level in the biological realm apply equally to the macro level. Not happy to stop there, Wilson continued expanding his contemplations to encompass human societal functions. He strongly believes we will not solve the environmental issues we face today—from the impending loss of biodiversity to the human-driven causes of climate change—until we understand the human condition, which gives me pause. Pause because other noted environmental thinkers such as Karl Henrik-Robert have postulated similar assertions. Robert, the founder of the Natural Step, articulates, “Until the time that basic human needs are met, humans will never take any action proactively about the environment because they are in a survival and protection of the family unit mode.”

One might want to argue with Wilson that these crises are the products, not parts, of human nature, but I feel that would be fruitless. What Wilson suggests is that, while we might experience some successes in our struggle (such as addressing acid rain in North America and developing an international agreement on the ozone layer), we will not advance an elegant solution until we have a much better interdisciplinary understanding of the principles driving the issues. In essence, he is saying we are practicing eco-efficiency in a system that requires mega-efficiency.

I challenge you to think about this, move forward, and do great things!








Brian K. Yeoman is Director of Sustainable Leadership at NAEP and is the retired Associate Vice President for Facilities Planning and Campus Development at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Email: