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Perspective: ‘Humanity is not sustainable’ — the dangerous fiction of Paul Ehrlich

It’s easy to write him off as a crank, but the provocateur’s predictions have had a disturbing real-world impact

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In a recently surfaced television interview from 1970, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich laid out his plan for how to win the war against overpopulation, urging the government to “legislate the size of the family” and “throw you in jail if you have too many kids.”

The clip has been making the rounds online thanks to more recent appearances related to Ehrlich’s forthcoming book “Life: a Journey Through Science and Politics.”

Now 90, Ehrlich has been making doomsday predictions for decades. He made a new one on CBS’s “60 Minutes” at the start of the year, saying, “Humanity is not sustainable. ... To maintain our lifestyle, yours and mine, basically, for the entire planet, you’d need five more Earths.”

He went on to say, “Humanity is very busily sitting on a limb that we’re sawing off.”

Ehrlich has claimed that global warming would result in mass famine. But different archival footage shows that in the 1970s he said global cooling would result in famine. That’s just one of many contradictory or failed predictions he’s made over the years.

In response to widespread criticism, Ehrlich tweeted:

Some mistakes?

That’s one way to put it. In his 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” Ehrlich predicted, “In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”

It’s easy to laugh this off now, but Ehrlich’s predictions have had a devastating real-world effect.

As NPR explained, there was a clear link between Western theories of overpopulation and China’s barbaric one-child policy. Quoting American Enterprise Institute economist and demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, the NPR report said, “When China declared in 1980 that most Chinese families would only be permitted to have one child — and would be punished for violating the law — ‘this was absolutely not occurring in a vacuum.’”

Another aspect of Ehrlich’s war against overpopulation was to stage a PR offensive against those who dared to have too many kids. In the same 1970 clip he advised, “The FCC should see to it that large families are always treated in a negative light on television.”

In China, Ehrlich’s advice was adopted by the government. That didn’t happen in the United States.

But television networks got the message about what kind of “socially responsible” programming they should be promoting, and it didn’t involve families with more than three children. It turned out that the government didn’t have to mandate anything; Hollywood voluntarily took it upon itself.

In sitcoms in the 1970s and ’80s, the magic number of children in a family was three. The dynamic of three created more opportunities for conflict and interactions and was the largest socially acceptable number. Shows like “Diff’rent Strokes,” “Growing Pains,” “Mr. Belvedere,” “The Hogan Family” and “Charles in Charge” dominated the airwaves and set in Americans’ minds what the “ideal” family should look like.

There were, of course, exceptions like “The Partridge Family,” which necessarily had five children in order to comprise a band. “The Waltons” had seven kids, but they weren’t contemporary; the show was set in the 1930s and ’40s. And even exceptions like “The Brady Bunch” weren’t really exceptions, given that Mike and Carol Brady’s six kids came from two three-child families.

In today’s programming, two-child families are becoming more common, like the notion that having “too many” children is environmentally irresponsible. Shows produced for young children, such as “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” and “Bluey,” are showing children both what is commonly perceived to be the ideal number of children, and what is becoming the norm, as the average family size shrinks.

The most common representation of large families in recent television programs is a freak show or punchline. Reality shows like “Jon & Kate Plus 8” and “The Duggars” elevated highly flawed stars who are still, years later, making headlines, and not in a good way. One of Jon and Kate’s sons recently did a press tour opening up about his estrangement from his mother and some of the Duggar children are facing criminal charges and have experienced familial estrangement.

The message Hollywood is sending Americans is clear: Large families are hotbeds of dysfunction. 

Ehrlich is a crank, but he’s a crank who is still being given a platform on shows like “60 Minutes.” He still has influence and power, both globally and in the U.S. He and his anti-natalist colleagues are still setting the tone for how members of society should be behaving if we want to be considered “responsible.” It’s vitally important that those who care about the future of America and our families to pay attention to what he’s saying — and keep pointing out that he’s still wrong.

Bethany Mandel, a contributing writer for Deseret, is a home-schooling, stay-at-home mother of six and a widely published writer on politics, culture and Judaism. She is also an editor for the children’s book series “Heroes of Liberty.”