Fake News from 50 Years Ago: A Bomb that Killed 100 Million in China

Fifty years ago, one of the most sensational books ever published warned Americans that “The battle to feed all of humanity is over” and that “humanity lost.”  Ask anyone who was a college student in the 1970s – they were likely forced to read this book as a course requirement.

The book was entitled “The Population Bomb” and was written by Paul Ehrlich, PhD.  In this lengthy tome, Ehrlich predicted that ever-increasing birth rates would doom the planet and force massive numbers of citizens to starve to death. Because of the timing of its dire predictions, a world-wide environmental movement was born among other progressive ideas associated with the book.

The predictions of mass starvation were not only wrong but the recommendations contained in the book led to anti-population crusades that morphed into some of the most egregious human rights abuses around the world; many continue today.  It is estimated that in China, who adopted a one-child policy to prevent mass starvation, nearly 100 million babies were aborted and millions of women suffered through forced sterilizations to prevent further births.  India’s government “embraced policies that in many states required sterilization for men and women to obtain water, electricity, ration cards, medical care and pay raises.”  “More than eight million men and women [in India] were sterilized in 1975 alone.”

Interestingly, when published, the book received little or no attention from traditional book reviewers such as The New York Times.  Yet when Johnny Carson invited the author to appear on NBC’s “Tonight Show”, the book became an instant best seller and the topic of much conversation.

The book was wrong on so many levels but none as significant as their prediction of mass starvation around the world.  When the book was first published, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that “1 in 4 people in the world was hungry. Today the proportion of hungry is about one out of ten.”  Meanwhile the world’s population has more than doubled and world-wide starvation has been nearly eradicated due to amazing innovations in agriculture including better seeds, more efficient fertilizers and American technology that has been shared world-wide allowing countries around the world to feed their people.

It’s extremely important to note the role that scientist and Minnesota agronomist Norman Borlaug and his team played in the development of staving off the doomsday food shortages predicted by Ehrlich and his fellow travelers.  Borlaug’s work on developing disease-resistant wheat eight years before the publication of “The Population Bomb” resulted in a “Mexican wheat crop being six times larger than in 1944. Soon afterwards, Mexico became a wheat exporting country. A few years later this know-how was transferred to Pakistan and India where it similarly helped to diffuse the local "population bombs" and earned Borlaug the nickname of "Father of the Green Revolution."’  Today, most scientists would agree that food shortages sometimes exist but they most often exist because of government incompetence or government corruption not a lack of food and resources to feed the world.

Finally, even some of Ehrlich’s former allies have decried the apoplectic predictions contained in the book.  According to The New York Times, Stewart Brand, founding editor of the Whole Earth Catalog loosely quoted John Maynard Keynes when asked to comment about the timetable for disaster prescribed in the book: “When the facts change, I change my mind, sir.  What do you do?”  Mr. Brand rhetorically then asked of Mr. Ehrlich: “How many years do you have to not have the world end to reach a conclusion that maybe it didn’t end because that reason was wrong?”

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