A little more than two years ago, I wrote a column titled, “What margarine can teach us about climate change.” Inspired by a book excerpt in National Geographic, that column summarized just one example (the U.S. government’s promotion of margarine and synthetic oils over actual dairy products to reduce heart disease) of how politicizing science can have devastating results.
As the “climate crisis” wunderkind have been “striking” all over the world, led by grumpy guru Greta Thunberg, I couldn’t help but think of that column, and the many other “crises” we’ve been warned about over the years that never panned out.
Take Paul Ehrlich, for example. Ehrlich wrote “The Population Bomb.” Published in 1969, it made shocking and foreboding pronouncements like, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” and “[H]undreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” While researching Ehrlich, I came across a 2018 article in Smithsonian Magazine that was sharply critical of Ehrlich and his book, which Smithsonian describes as having “fueled an anti-population-growth crusade that led to human rights abuses around the world.”
I remember that Ehrlich’s predictions were absurdly, insanely wrong. What I didn’t know was how much damage they actually did. Ehrlich may have “given a jolt to the nascent environmental movement” in the United States. But outside the U.S., people paid a horrible price for his irresponsible jeremiads. Smithsonian described in detail the global impact of Ehrlich’s half-cocked hysteria:
“The International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Population Council, the World Bank, the United Nations Population Fund, the Hugh Moore-backed Association for Voluntary Sterilization and other organizations promoted and funded programs to reduce fertility in poor places. ’The results were horrific,’ says Betsy Hartmann, author of Reproductive Rights and Wrongs, a classic 1987 exposé of the anti-population crusade. … Millions of people were sterilized, often coercively, sometimes illegally, frequently in unsafe conditions, in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia and Bangladesh. …
In the 1970s and ’80s, India, led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay, embraced policies that in many states required sterilization for men and women to obtain water, electricity, ration cards, medical care and pay raises. Teachers could expel students from school if their parents weren’t sterilized. More than eight million men and women were sterilized in 1975 alone. … For its part, China adopted a ‘one-child’ policy that led to huge numbers—possibly 100 million—of coerced abortions, often in poor conditions contributing to infection, sterility and even death. Millions of forced sterilizations occurred.”
What the Smithsonian article does not address – but an 2010 cover story in The Economist did – was that the overwhelming majority of those victims of abortion and infanticide were girls. The subhead of that article, titled, “Gendercide” is shocking: “Killed, aborted or neglected, at least 100 million girls have disappeared – and the number is rising.”
How many times do we have to learn this lesson? (Maybe that’s why today’s hysterics have teenagers leading the charge. It’s much easier to persuade people that the sky is falling when they aren’t old enough to remember other such failed predictions.)
As it happens, National Review’s Kevin Williamson also touched on Paul Ehrlich this week. In “China’s Population Problem,” Williamson calls Ehrlich “the wrongest man in the history of modern American thought” when he recounts that China’s work force has declined by 25 million people in just 8 years. This poses a serious problem for the country’s productivity, not to mention the social safety net the communist government promises. Williamson’s assessment is blunt: “’[P]opulation control’ … isn’t about population: It is about control. The same is true of gun control. … In the progressive imagination, the perfection of society — and the perfection of man — is only a matter of control, and choosing the right controllers.“
Ronald Reagan once said, “It isn’t so much that liberals are ignorant. It’s just that they know so many things that aren’t so.” Reagan was addressing the point in his inimitable humorous style. But the underlying principle is quite serious.
You’d think, given their history of failed predictions, progressives would have a little more humility and a lot less hubris. Not so. In that vein, another quote from Williamson’s essay this week is particularly salient:
“The main reason the modern United States has not, for all its errors and failures, pursued something as destructive as China’s one-child policy is that no one actually has the power to do so. Those dusty old terms from the long-forgotten civics textbooks — separation of powers, federalism, unalienable rights — have saved us many times from the worst kinds of tyranny. And, as our founders knew, the worst forms of tyranny very much include majoritarian tyranny.”
In other words, the very things which most infuriate our own aspiring central planners (not to mention grievance-peddling Swedish teens) are those principles of limited government which protect us from zealots and the excesses brought about in pursuit of their inevitable errors.