The (Metaphorical) Bet: Paul Ehrlich versus Norman Borlaug
By James Schneider
Like many libertarians, I find the bet between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon to be a fascinating episode in intellectual history. However, I’ve always been even more interested in Ehrlich’s descriptions of imminent mass starvation from The Population Bomb. By 1980, when Ehrlich and Simon made their bet, it was already clear that Ehrlich’s most dire scenarios had failed to materialize. Yet these failed predictions provided Ehrlich his international fame. Few people have done so well by being so wrong.
When I first learned about Ehrlich, I only knew that his predictions of mass starvation went unfulfilled. It wasn’t until I read Cormac Ó Gráda’s Famine that I realized just how poorly timed Ehrlich’s pessimism was. In the 50-year period before The Population Bomb, Ó Gráda lists six famines with excess mortality greater than a million lives. Since 1968, the worst famine that Ó Gráda listed, the North Korean tragedy from 1995-2000, had an excess mortality of “only” 0.6 to 1 million people.
After Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb was written, the human population increased dramatically but the rate of dying from famine imploded. (Interestingly, to this day, Ehrlich believes that he has been basically right all along. He still argues that the odds of avoiding a collapse of civilization “seems small.”)
Later, I found out that the poor timing of Ehrlich’s doomsaying was no accident. By the time that Ehrlich came to the world’s attention with The Population Bomb, Norman Borlaug had basically ensured that Ehrlich’s nightmare scenarios would go unfulfilled. In fact, by the time that The Population Bomb saw it’s 1971 edition, Borlaug had already won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work revolutionizing agricultural productivity in the developing world. For many years, Borlaug had gambled his life on an obsessive quest to enable nations like Mexico and India to feed themselves. During much of this time, he was a migrant farmworker in the literal sense; he moved between Mexican farms with the seasons, and he worked long hours in the field. (Fittingly, he was working in the field when he learned that he had won the Nobel Prize.)
For someone who isn’t a household name, Borlaug inspires outsized praise by those who discuss his accomplishments. Some call him the greatest human who ever lived and many say that he saved a billion lives. This latter claim seems to be an exaggeration; for example, in 1971 the entire population of India was only 548 million. Borlaug’s New York Times obituary more modestly mentions “hundreds of millions of lives” saved. In any event, Borlaug spared India immense suffering by dramatically increasing the country’s wheat production. (As it was, Ó Gráda lists drought as having caused 0.1 million excess deaths in India from 1972-1973.) Just as the Ehrlich/Simon bet might not have occurred without Ehrlich’s pessimistic predictions bringing him notoriety, the bet might not have occurred without Borlaug. Ehrlich might have been “above” betting with Simon if anything resembling his nightmare scenario had actually occurred.
When you save millions of people from starvation, you are bound to do a lot of collateral good. Borlaug’s work safeguarded arguably the most important liberty, the right to have children, for a wide swathe of the world. In fear of overpopulation, some countries implemented heavy-handed population control programs. For example, here are a few quotes from Matthew Connelly’s Fatal Misconception that describe the coercive nature of India’s sterilization program.
Sterilization became a condition not just for land allotments, but for irrigation water, electricity, ration cards, rickshaw licenses, medical care, pay raises and promotions.
Gandhi had still not decided whether states like Maharashtra would be permitted to impose compulsory sterilization. One day, in November 1976, Dhar passed along a report describing how schoolteachers were treated when they failed to meet their quota. Teachers, like everyone else, could be demoted, fired, or threatened with arrest. They, in turn, sometimes expelled students when their parents did not submit to sterilization.
Gandhi seemed saddened and remained silent for some time after reading the report.
Altogether, in the course of one year, the government would record more than 8 million sterilizations…
The astonishing thing about this sterilization program is that it occurred after Borlaug had dramatically increased India’s wheat production. By 1974, India was self-sufficient in grain production. Had Ehrlich’s nightmare vision become reality, India might have imposed far more draconian rules to reduce population growth.