Earth at seven billion In an era of high anxiety, few issues rattled people in the 1960s and 1970s more than the Earth’s seemingly runaway population growth. The sense of imminent overcrowding doom was chillingly articulated by Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford University biologist whose 1968 book, The Population Bomb, became an unlikely bestseller, propelled in part by the academic’s numerous appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. The swelling ranks of humankind would lead to “hundreds of millions” dying of starvation by the 1970s, a substantial increase in the global death rate and assorted ecological disasters, he predicted. Involuntary sterilization might be needed to lessen the coming cataclysm.
“We can no longer afford merely to treat the symptoms of the cancer of population growth; the cancer itself must be cut out,” he wrote. Four decades later, the Earth’s population has doubled and the United Nations predicts a newborn’s arrival some time this fall will push the total to seven billion souls.
By 2050, another two billion humans are likely to be jostling for elbow room. Yet the doomsaying predictions of Prof. Ehrlich and others have in most cases failed to materialize. The world still has more than its share of misery: Almost one billion people go hungry every day and 1.4 billion live in extreme poverty. But as the population expanded at a pace never seen before, the overall death rate dropped rapidly, life expectancy climbed and the number in poverty — though still huge — shrank.