The population bomb that failed to detonate

That "Population Bomb" never did detonate and it's probably now so comprehensively defused that we can safely re-examine the fears that gripped the world 50 years ago, when everyone was about to starve to death.

It was Bob Katter, the Federal Member for the seat of Kennedy in Queensland now well into his eighth decade, who last week reminded me of the book The Population Bomb which popped into his mind as he reminisced about the moon landing which this month marks its 50th anniversary.

Katter, 74, is one of our few remaining public figures who can remember the Apollo 11 triumph through adult eyes, able to grasp the political and cultural landscape that framed one of humanity's most momentous events.

And he didn't see it.

His reputation for running a chaotic schedule was clearly taking shape when he was a 24-year-old who failed to make time to watch the most significant event in human history.

"I was working in mining and cattle, but I probably would not have seen it even if I was back home in Cloncurry because we didn't have a television set then,'' he recalls.

"But I certainly remember it.''

What Katter also remembers with clarity is the mood of the times - the "Zeitgeist'' as the Germans put it - and it was not one of optimism.

"We were going to populate ourselves into extinction,'' he says.

"Food supplies were going to run out and massive wars would be fought to secure food, and the only way to survival was to populate the stars.

"The birth control pill had come into popular use, but the Catholic Church, which had a lot more power then, opposed it.

"So there were these big debates about the urgent need to reduce the population, and China sort of addressed that later on with the one child per family policy.''

Along with the anxiety about overpopulation was the war in Vietnam, and specifically the 1968 Tet offensive, which helped fuel a global student protest movement which swept western Europe, America and Australia while the Communists were being rocked by revolts such as the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia.

The death in 1968 of US presidential aspirant Bobby Kennedy and Civil Right leader Martin Luther King, just weeks apart, was causing deep anger and anxiety about a possibly violent, chaotic future.

Katter's memory is spot on. The international obsession about overpopulation was fuelled in the immediate post-war period by books such as Fairfield Osborn's Our Plundered Planet.

But the theory was popularised with the book The Population Bomb in 1968 by Stanford University Professor Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich.

Something approaching hysteria about overpopulation began to gain global traction in the early 1970s.

The moon landing produced a touch of optimism in the form of a possible escape hatch.

Humanity briefly toyed with the idea of shifting neighbourhoods and populating the stars.

We didn't.

We stayed home and here we are in 2019 in relatively good shape with violent crime across most western countries in decline, no global wars to report since 1945 and initiatives such as the Clean Air Act in the US dramatically reducing air pollution.

As for food supplies, like the biblical loaves and fishes they have multiplied, not so much miraculously as by the power of the "Green Revolution'' which, particularly through the work of noble laureate and agronomist Norman Borlaug, brought us high-yielding varieties of cereals and rice.

That, combined with mechanisation, produced what many still refer to as the Green Revolution or the Third Agricultural Revolution.

It's far too glib to equate the needless concern about overpopulation in 1969 with 21st Century concerns about climate change, other than to note humanity's endless fascination with looming catastrophe.

That preoccupation was once catered to (in the west at least) almost exclusively by St John who gave us a lively preview of the looming Apocalypse in the Bible's Book of Revelation.

Now we have to come up with our own scripts for the disaster movies and Ehrlich, alive and well today, had a good one.

He insists a lot of what he wrote came true and it's clear that any sober, logical assessment of the world in 1969 would lead an intelligent mind to consider that overpopulation as a serious threat to humanity's survival.

What Ehrlich didn't take into account, and what few of us ever do when predicting our allegedly grim future, is humanity's infinite capacity for imagination, creativity and innovation.

Michael Madigan is a journalist with the Courier-Mail.



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