Commuters pass through Grand Central Terminal during morning rush hour December 19, 2005 in New York City.

Commuters pass through Grand Central Terminal during morning rush hour December 19, 2005 in New York City.

The warning, as such things tend to be, was dire.

“At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…”

Stanford University Professor Paul R. Ehrlich said the planet was getting too crowded. Lives could be saved by stretching and more evenly distributing food, but it would “only provide a stay of execution,” he insisted.

Ehrlich’s solution was population control. Only that, he wrote, could stop a mass die-off and the inevitable descent of humanity into a new age of “brutality.”

When would this age begin? In the 1970s.

Except it didn’t.

When it was first published 50 years ago, Ehrlich’s book, “The Population Bomb,” set off a panic. People stopped having children, sometimes not by choice. While some parents in the United States opted in to childlessness, in India, the panic led to forced sterilization.

But even though the planet hasn’t become the crowded hellscape Ehrlich predicted, he says overpopulation is still an existential crisis. “My language would be more apocalyptic today,” he tells The New York Times‘ Retro Report.

From the story:

Dr. Ehrlich offers little in the way of a mea culpa. Quite the contrary. Timetables for disaster like those he once offered have no significance, he told Retro Report, because to someone in his field they mean something “very, very different” from what they do to the average person. The end is still nigh, he asserted, and he stood unflinchingly by his 1960s insistence that population control was required, preferably through voluntary methods. But if need be, he said, he would endorse “various forms of coercion” like eliminating “tax benefits for having additional children.” Allowing women to have as many babies as they wanted, he said, is akin to letting everyone “throw as much of their garbage into their neighbor’s backyard as they want.”

The planet has indeed become more crowded. It’s expected that the global human population will top eight billion in the next few years.

But at the same time, the rate of population growth is slowing. Some countries are now worried about their populations getting too old.

And while there are famines and other “ecocatastrophes” (in Ehrlich’s term), these are typically blamed not on the number of people on earth, but on how those people use the resources that are available.

Ehrlich’s most dire predictions may not have come true (yet). But the question of whether the planet is getting too crowded remains in the public consciousness. This topic is one of the most-requested by 1A listeners. And it’s also the subject of new major motion picture.

By popular demand, we take a look at whether the rise in human population is a threat, and what can be done to sustain everyone on Earth, now and in the future.


  • Joel Cohen Professor of populations at Rockefeller University and Columbia University; author, "How Many People Can the Earth Support?"
  • Robert Engelman Senior fellow, Worldwatch Institute; senior fellow, Population Institute; author: "More: Population, Nature and What Women Want"; @RobertEngelman
  • Kathleen Mogelgaard Consultant on population and environment issues; adjunct professor, University of Maryland; associate, World Resources Institute

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