For the Year 2100, the Only Question That Counts

Have we learned to live within the means of our sweet blue planet?

Ever since Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb in 1968, he has been ridiculed by the right, who say his claims were, and still are, nonsense. They point, smirking, to the Green Revolution, the development of high-yield rice, which came on the scene about the same time as Ehrlich’s book, as proof that we will always be able to find a way to feed ourselves, no matter what. Meantime, world population literally doubled, and now stands at 7.2 billion.

Unfortunately, they are wrong. Agricultural land is shrinking under population growth and a hotter climate. The raw materials for artificial fertilizer needed by the new rice are starting to become scarce. New crop pests have evolved, resistant to the poisons put on the crops by the ton. And there is more.

Paul Ehrlich was ridiculed
for the dire predictions of
The Population Bomb.
But he was right.

For the record, Ehrlich never claimed that mass starvation was inevitable. What he said was that it would happen if the trajectory he saw in the 1960s didn’t change. The trajectory was modified, but population growth continued, and the projected bad outcome still stalks the planet, more apparent than ever. We have done nowhere near enough to avert the disaster he warned about, and the specter of terrible things now lurks just at the edge of our vision, and in every newspaper.


The global climate change that was just beginning to be noticed in the 1960s is becoming the takeover factor. All else will fade into comparative insignificance when the sea rises an additional meter or more, as it is expected to do this century. A rise of several inches will cause huge problems, but an additional meter means there will be hurricane sea surges of four or five meters. Hundreds of millions of people in at least fifty of the world’s largest cities—think New York—and hundreds of smaller ones, will either have to move to higher ground, or enormous dikes must be constructed. That would be the largest construction project in world history, by far. Melting of any of the planet’s great ice fields would drown so much land as to create an entirely new planetary environment and rearrange nations wholesale.

All else will fade into insignificance
when the sea rises an additional meter,
as it is expected to do.

Nobody likes to have their entire life and belief system upended, but that is exactly what is happening to people all over the world. The land they can call their own shrinks as it is repeatedly subdivided for the family children. Every year it’s hotter, and crops are more difficult to grow. The sea laps at the back door, constantly washing away the land. A dozen cities have populations greater than whole nations of a few decades ago. This is a formula for tragedy.

For thousands of years couples have protected themselves against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune by having many children. But the younger generation sees that having many children has brought more poverty, disease, and death, and they have fewer. This will help, but won’t avert catastrophe by itself.

They also have a better understanding of their own place in the sea of people covering the planet. They understand that if we don’t all find a way to reduce our population vast numbers of people will die. They understand that too many people all around them makes for too little food, too little opportunity. Overfishing decimates fish stock, and then there are no more fish. Cattle and other animals die when there isn’t enough grass or water. People die when disease comes to filthy cities crowded with surging masses of people in abject poverty, and there is no money to help them.

Common people understand that
if we don’t find a way to reduce
our numbers we will all die.

In our own case, of rich Western nations that have been largely insulated from the growing disasters of the third world, it can be hard to imagine the trouble at our doorstep. We still have plenty of food, and are able to buy all the things we need for a comfortable life.

But this is an illusion, one not shared by our own low income citizens, who have long realized they are only one or two setbacks from desperation. As for us, we should pay close attention. California is now experiencing its third winter of inadequate snowfall in the Sierras, and a state water emergency has been declared. What will happen if this becomes permanent, and there is no longer enough water to irrigate the nation’s major produce growing region, the Central Valley? What will happen if the Midwest Corn Belt becomes permanently too hot and dry for the nation’s biggest crop, which has already happened to part of it? What will happen as the sea continues its inexorable rise of an additional meter beyond the 20 cm (8 inches) of the last century, flooding hundreds of cities and towns? These things and many more are happening now. Any one of them could create national emergencies all over the world. Combined, they will become a global catastrophe impossible to ignore.

Perhaps we should do some serious thinking now, while we, at least in the rich nations, still have enough to eat. So far we’ve done nothing but pick around the edges of the problem.


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