Back in the 1970s, when the elites were convinced that overpopulation would destroy the Earth, the Chinese acted as only a one-party autocracy or totalitarian state could: It limited women to one child. The result was that millions of female fetuses were aborted so that China now has about 120 males to every 100 females -- a potentially destabilizing imbalance -- and a slow-growing population that means China will get old before most of its people grow rich.
Meanwhile, the population bomb has turned out to be a dud worldwide, as birth rates declined, and the real demographic problem, as Ben Wattenberg and Phillip Longman have pointed out, is population decline. Warren Buffett, who planned to leave his fortune to population controllers, wisely decided to leave it to Bill and Melinda Gates to spend as they think best.
The verdict isn't in on global warming yet, but some alarmist predictions have proved false. The world has been getting a little colder in the last decade, and climate models have been failing to predict the recent past. Moreover, as global warming believer Bjorn Lomborg points out, it's economically much more sensible to spend money on pending problems (like lack of safe drinking water) and on mitigating possible future effects of climate change than it is to reduce carbon emissions, which choke off the near-term economic growth needed to address environmental needs.
China's one-party autocracy can ignore such arguments. Our two-party democracy can't. Thomas Friedman may lament what Barack Obama on Wednesday night called "bickering." But in a democracy, citizens don't always take the advice of their betters, even that of Friedman and the three experts he quotes -- a climateprogress.org blogger, a former Clinton budget official and a "global trade consultant who teaches at Baruch College."
The lesson I take from the overpopulation scare is to be wary when media, university and corporate elites warn that we must change our ways or face disaster 50 years hence, and when they insist, as Al Gore does and as Tom Friedman seems to, that the time for argument is over.
In our two-party democracy, it never is. And shouldn't be.