SUCKING IN THE SEVENTIES: The Book That Incited a Worldwide Fear of Overpopulation.
On February 1970, Ehrlich’s work finally paid off: He was invited onto NBC’s “Tonight Show.” Johnny Carson, the comedian-host, was leery of serious guests like university professors because he feared they would be pompous, dull and opaque. Ehrlich proved to be affable, witty and blunt. Thousands of letters poured in after his appearance, astonishing the network. The Population Bomb shot up the best-seller lists. Carson invited Ehrlich back in April, just before the first Earth Day. For more than an hour he spoke about population and ecology, about birth control and sterilization, to an audience of tens of millions. After that, Ehrlich returned to the show many times.
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“Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born,” he promised in a 1969 magazine article. “Sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come,” Ehrlich told CBS News a year later. “And by ‘the end’ I mean an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.”
Such statements contributed to a wave of population alarm then sweeping the world. 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. Some population-control programs pressured women to use only certain officially mandated contraceptives. In Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan, health workers’ salaries were, in a system that invited abuse, dictated by the number of IUDs they inserted into women. In the Philippines, birth-control pills were literally pitched out of helicopters hovering over remote villages. 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. (“At long last,” World Bank head Robert McNamara remarked, “India is moving to effectively address its population problem.”) 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.
Curiously, the name Norman Borlaug doesn’t show up until the comments section. In any case, if you’re old enough to remember the 1970s’ non-stop doomfest, Ehrlich and his media enablers are some of the people you can “thank.”
(Classical reference in headline.)