Malthusian Domestic Policy in the time of Disco

I’m sure there were Bush appointees writing books in the 70s about how Jeebus was going to return in 1987 after a Soviet triggered Armageddon. This, I’d say, is on par.

Internet reports are now circulating that Obama’s Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren, penned a 1977 book that approved of and recommended compulsory sterilization and even abortion in some cases, as part of a government population control regime.

Given the general unreliability of Internet quotations, I wanted to go straight to this now-rare text and make sure the reports were both accurate and kept Holdren’s writings in context. Generally speaking, they are, and they do.

The Holdren book, titled Ecoscience and co-authored with Malthus enthusiasts Paul and Anne Ehrlich, weighs in at more than 1,000 pages. Of greatest importance to its discussion of how to limit the human population is its disregard for any ethical considerations.

Holdren (with the Ehrlichs) notes the existence of “moral objections to some proposals…especially to any kind of compulsion.” But his approach is completely amoral. He implies that compulsory population control is less preferable, because of some people’s objections, but he argues repeatedly that it is sometimes necessary, and necessity trumps all ethical objections.

More “amusing” looks at the text.

Based on a quick skim, this seems like pretty serious stuff.

Whether or not this becomes a mainstream news item, it will reverberate widely on the right.

BTW, if you want to see a good example of a populist environmentalist type being dramatically wrong, pick up an old copy of Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb”.

How was Ehrlich a populist?

He was writing for the public at large (or at least, “The Population Bomb” seemed targeted that way), moreso than for the scientific community. His central thesis received widespread publicity.

Oh, I think the phrase you’re looking for then is “populizer”, then. Populist is something quite different, which is why I was confused - Ehrlich if anything is closer to the opposite of that.

Ehrich was definitely a nutcase.

OK, Jason - I probably chose the wrong word there.

I may take the time to write more about Ehrlich and The Population Bomb later.

It’s a prime example of why many (especially on the Right) are deeply suspicious of environmental doomsday scenarios. It’s probably also a contributing reason why there has been a lot of skepticism to human-caused global warming, and some of the policies proposed to address it.

FWIW, my current opinion, based on a fair amount of reading (but not necessarily exhaustive study), is that human-caused global warming is a real issue that warrants fairly significant policy to address it.

i.e. The fact that Ehrlich whiffed so badly on over-population doesn’t mean that GW should be disregarded. That said, for those here who are under about 35-40, reading a bit of the hysterical population stuff from the 70s may help you understand some of the GW skepticism today.

Also, if Holdren was as incautious (or nearly so) in his 1970s era writings and viewpoints on population issues as Ehrlich, then I would think that would be a major strike against him being in a position of substantial authority today for a science position that will presumably have a lot of say in the modern GW discussion.

Ehrlich easily could have been right (or at the very least, far less wrong), if not for the fact that the Green Revolution started at almost the precise moment he published. The mathematical models he was using were just rendered completely obsolete when crop yields started rapidly doubling in an unprecedented manner.

Glenn - I don’t think your claim is correct.

Improvements in ag. yields had, I think, been occurring for a while. See the paragraph on Mexico in the Wikipedia article.

Perhaps yield improvements continued at a somewhat higher rate than expected, but I don’t think a difference of a few percentage points here or there in ag. yields wouldn’t have made much difference in Ehrlich’s predictions. Remember, he was predicting massive famine within a very short number of years of when he made the predictions.

In any case, when your central argument is that the world can’t produce (or perhaps efficiently distribute) enough food to feed the population a few years down the line, and you are WAY off, I don’t think you can save a lot of face by saying that the world ended up producing more food than you expected/predicted. That’s kind of at the core of his prediction(s).

Yields had gone way up in Mexico, but I think they had stabilized. When I took a class on it there was some reason a lot of people thought Mexico was a fluke at the time. In 1968, the year Ehrlich published, Borlaug had just started exporting the technology from Mexico to India and Southeast Asia, places were food production had been stagnant for decades? centuries? because people were already farming on all the arable land and using traditional methods.

And then within 5-10 years food production doubled in most of the places where Ehrlich was predicting the population growth was just about to surpass historically consistent ceilings on production. He was clearly wrong to discount how much of an improvement technology was going to make in crop yields, but he was also a victim of phenomenally bad timing.

Edit: There’s a graph I can’t post for some reason from Borlaug’s wiki:,_1951-2004.png.

Mexico’s wheat yields had skyrocketed, but India and Southeast Asia didn’t budge until… the late 60’s.

No. Ehrlich would have been right if he didn’t ignore science in the name of his ideology.

Holdren should step down, or Obama should fire his ass.

P.S. The ‘Green Revolution’ happened TWENTY YEARS before Ehrlich wrote his book.

…and to make things more interesting, the Green Revolution is now being looked at very skeptically–apparently, in places like India, for instance, it’s turning out to be a lot less beneficial in the long run than we had thought or hoped. The high-yield crops apparently take too much water and are draining the aquifers, and the overall sustainability of “green revolution” crops in many parts of the world is being seriously questioned. Like a lot of things, it’ll take time to sort out the wheat from the chaff (sorry), but while we can laugh now at the mistakes of those who predicted mass famine, in the long view they may get the last laugh after all…

You beat me to it, Bob! I was reading about this just the other day. It’s potentially quite serious. The problem with Malthusian thinkers is that they tend to get carried away and become “Doom is just around the corner!” mad prophet types instead of more reasonable “Hey, let’s come to some good conclusions about sustainable planetary carrying capacity and then figure out how to avoid exceeding that figure” types. Of course, the doom prophets get more press…

A somewhat odd/disturbing turn of the phrase there.

But anyways,


We may face food issues* in the future. Personally, I think we are a long way away from such things, because from what I recall seeing both the average quantity of calories and quality (meat versus other stuff) has been on the rise for quite some time.

That said, someone who makes extreme predictions about extreme events happening in a few years does not get proven right when his predictions are WAY off over the time frame he predicted but maybe sorta right 30 or 40 years later.

If I say we will all be driving electric cars within 5 years, I am not getting the last laugh when this in fact occurs 50 years from now.


*Edit to clarify: Certainly we face food issues even now. What I meant was the sort of mass food crisis predicted by Ehrlich - a dramatic escalation from the status quo. But yeah, even the status quo is far far from ideal.

Well, a lot of that increase has been due to the Green Rev crops that are now facing issues. I was reading about a Chinese agricultural district that had to revert to older, far less productive methods for the reasons Bob listed. If that occurs on a large scale, and we have to try to feed post-Revolution populations with pre-Revolution agriculture, it will be a major crisis and one that’s not far away.

Now, if we’re smart about it, we can head it off. For example, GMO’s designed to use less water/pesticide/fertilizer while providing rougly equivalent yields could conceivably be the entire solution. If not, reducing meat production and diverting the grains that would have fed livestock to human populations combined with family planning and a severe cutback in most biofuels might do the trick. Etc. But it’s best to see these things coming and prepare to cope NOW rather than waiting for a truly, well, Malthusian calamity.

That depends on whether your opponents object to the timing of your claim, or the possibility of your claim. Many of the opponents of Malthus object to the possibility of the conclusions, not the timing. Models change, and the world is a bit too chaotic for exact figures on predictions. But if one person is predicting that electric cars will happen some day, specifically in the next five years, and another denies that it will ever happen, then I think if it happens 50 years later the original predictor is much closer to the truth.

A) We have come nowhere near Ehrlich’s predictions. Not in the 1970s, not in the 2000s. Saying we will come somewhere near Ehrlich’s predictions in the reasonably foreseeable future is another prediction. You may or may not be right, but we certainly can’t validate Ehrlich’s predictions by means of some other prediction about stuff that hasn’t happened yet.

B) It’s obvious that exponential population growth can’t go on forever without consequences. Anyone who argues that it can doesn’t understand math.

That said, there are lots of things that can’t continue as they are now forever. That doesn’t make them crises - certainly not scream from the rooftops “hundreds of millions will die without mass sterilization NOW!” type crises. Lots of things that trend one direction for a while, trend another direction later, without much direct intervention.


Really, it’s odd that folks are defending Ehrlich here. He was about as wrong as wrong gets among major popular science figures on major scientific/policy issues. Who else was a poor misunderstood scientist? Lysenko?

I’m not, really. He falls into the “mad prophet of doom” archetype I mentioned earlier. His sane counterparts deserve a hearing.

Oh, and on the Lysenko topic…inheritence of acquired traits actually does happen in limited circumstances! Genes can be turned on and off or have their expression levels modified by mechanisms like methylation in an adaptive response to environmental cues. There’ve been some recent studies showing that these modified expression patterns can sometimes be passed to the next generation.

I don’t know if it exactly “reverberates” on the left, but I’ve read substantial complaints about Holdren from leftists, although I’d yet to hear about this gem.

I’ve been largely disappointed by the people Obama has appointed, so I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. :-/