Paul R. Ehrlich & Anne H. Ehrlich, The Population Explosion, 1990.

The Bang, the Whimper, and the Alternative

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

By now it should be clear to you that humanity is quickly breeding itself into a corner. We do not want to dwell on the possible endings for civilization, since they are implicit in much of what has gone before. But it seems appropriate to give a brief summary of the possible ends of the road we're now on, and of the new route humanity might take, before turning to the question of solutions.


The population explosion contributes to international tensions and therefore makes a nuclear holocaust more likely. Most people in our society can visualize the horrors of a large-scale nuclear war followed by a nuclear winter.1 We call that possible end to our civilization "the Bang." Hundreds of millions of people would be killed outright, and billions more would [175] follow from the disruption of agricultural systems and other indirect effects largely caused by the disruption of ecosystem services. It would be the ultimate "death-rate solution" to the population problem -- a stunning contrast to the humane solution of lowering the global birthrate to slightly below the death rate for a few centuries.

As this is written (mid-1989), it fortunately seems that the chances of the Bang have lessened. New-minded leadership in the Soviet Union is for the moment in the ascendancy. President Mikhail Gorbachev, along with a few other world leaders, seems to be aware that environmental security is at least as important as military strength in providing security to nations, and appears to be doing everything possible to damp down the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. An apparently more pragmatic government also is in place in the United States, although it is still too soon to tell whether the superpowers are on the road toward massive nuclear-arms reduction and true reconciliation. What is certain is that the structure of military forces around the world still provides plenty of chances for local conflicts to escalate into Armageddon even in the face of growing East-West rapprochement.

There remains the problem that, as the world gets further and further out of control, crazies on both the left and the right may exert increasingly xenophobic pressures on national governments. The rise of fundamentalism in both East and West is a completely understandable but not at all encouraging sample of what the future may hold in terms of conflict. Those struggling to achieve a permanently peaceful world still have much work to do, especially as growing and already over-populated nations struggle to divide up dwindling resources in a deteriorating global environment.


But for now, after forty years of worrying about it, the Bang seems to be getting less likely. The same can't be said about "the Whimper." The Whimper is simply the way that civilization will end if current population/resource/environment trends continue. Such a continuation could bring us essentially to the [176] same sort of world as would be left after a nuclear war and a nuclear winter -- just more slowly, on a time scale of years rather than weeks.

The exact sequence of events in the Whimper is impossible to predict. If population growth continues on its current path, both ecosystems and social systems will be subjected to greater and greater stresses of many kinds. It seems likely that hunger, already affecting a billion or so people more or less chronically, will become acute in more places. That, in turn, will make the epidemiological environment ever more precarious and increase both intranational and international sociopolitical tensions. People in rich nations may be able to ignore starvation in the poorest nations for a while, but increasing hunger and disaffection among the poor within rich nations will be more difficult for elites to overlook.

Unless emissions of greenhouse gases, of chlorofluorocarbons and nitrogen oxides and other ozone-depleting gases, and the precursors of acid precipitation are strongly curtailed, the breakdown of both natural and agricultural ecosystems will accelerate. Agricultural systems, under current practices, will continue to deteriorate anyway from massive erosion, faulty irrigation, and depletion of groundwater supplies.

Most likely, some crucial system that we don't understand in detail, such as the global climate system, holds the key to the overall downhill slide. If, by some miracle, the climatic system returned to the relatively stable, favorable conditions of 1930-70, it might take three decades or more for the food-production system to come apart unless its repair became a top priority of all humanity. If, on the other hand, recent climatic events were not part of "normal variability," but rather were caused by atmospheric warming, we will be plagued by very difficult problems in this decade or the next.

If a large-scale nuclear war (followed by a nuclear winter) can be avoided, and if societies continue to behave much as they do now, we can expect an uneven but relatively continuous deterioration of the human condition over the next four to six decades. The pace of the downward slide is exceedingly hard to predict. The workings of the climate, the epidemiology of virus diseases, the success of technological fixes now being [177] sought, and the resilience of various societies under severe stress are among the important factors that simply are not well enough understood. Furthermore, many scientists studying the human predicament are apprehensive that problems totally unanticipated today will arise. They realize that luck will be involved as well.

We don't live in a surprise-free world. When The Population Bomb was written, we and our colleagues were enormously worried about the course that humanity was on. Yet it is sobering to recall that the book appeared before depletion of the ozone layer had been discovered, before acid precipitation had been recognized as a major problem, before the current rate of tropical-forest destruction had been achieved, let alone recognized, before the true dimensions of the extinction crisis had been perceived, before most of the scientific community had recognized the possibility of a nuclear winter, and before the AIDS epidemic.

At that time, too, the greenhouse warming seemed at worst a distant threat that might never materialize, not something that could cause serious difficulties within a few years. On the latter, we wrote in The Population Bomb:

The greenhouse effect today is being countered by low-level clouds generated by contrails, dust, and other contaminants that tend to keep the energy of the sun from warming the Earth in the first place. At the moment we cannot predict what the overall climatic results will be of our using the atmosphere as a garbage dump. We do know that very small changes in either direction in the average temperature of the Earth could be serious. . . . In short, when we pollute, we tamper with the energy balance of the Earth. The results in terms of global climate and in terms of local weather could be catastrophic. Do we want to keep it up and find out what will happen? What do we gain by playing "environmental roulette"?2

What indeed? The lesson is clear: bigger and nastier surprises pop up as humanity stresses its life-support systems to the limit. The atmosphere seems especially capable of providing such surprises. Climatologists tell us that relatively minor [178] changes in such factors as the concentration of greenhouse gases could possibly push the system from one relatively steady state over a threshold into a quite different steady state -- one for which humanity is quite unprepared. Suppose, for example, warming caused the floating outer fringes of the West Antarctic ice sheet to break up and come loose from anchor points on islands and the shallow seabed. That would allow a more rapid flow of ice from land to sea, adding an enormous volume of water to the oceans. The consequences would be appalling. Sea level would rise 16 to 26 feet,3 causing massive flooding of coastal areas around the world. Vast expanses of additional land would be exposed to destructive storm surges and saltwater intrusions into many freshwater aquifers. A wise civilization would give itself a wide margin of safety to deal with such hazards.

We can't foretell precisely where the "if current trends continue" scenario will lead us. But one thing seems safe to predict: starvation and epidemic disease will raise death rates over most of the planet. Another is that social problems will proliferate with population growth, and that democracy as a form of government will be at risk. A recent study by former Ambassador Marshall Green and Patricia Barnett compared measures of population pressures and the political stability of nations. They found that, in general, rapid population growth, particularly in nations with sharp ethnic divisions, "places enormous strains on political institutions." It threatens political stability by promoting rapid urbanization, increasing the proportion of youths in the population, and expanding labor forces more rapidly than jobs are created.4 The study found that "only a handful of countries with serious demographic pressures managed to maintain stable constitutional governments with good records on civil and political rights."

Since social systems are so little understood, we can only make informed guesses about other social trends. One is that religious fundamentalism may become rapidly ascendant. People, rightly feeling betrayed by political leaders, by science, and by secular society in general, will seek intellectual shelter in a set of "eternal values" and the promise of a better life in the next world. Xenophobia and rancor may increase as people [179] search for scapegoats and as international conflict over natural resources such as water heightens. Truly new-minded leaders like Gorbachev may be overwhelmed by those who are unable to grasp humanity's plight or simply don't care.

It also seems possible that breakdowns will be most severe in overdeveloped nations. Not only do people have farther to fall, but those societies also rely much more on nation-scale cooperative ventures for their continuation and well-being. Very few Americans, Argentinians, Europeans, Australians, or Japanese live on farms; most depend utterly on complex transport systems to supply their food, and on complex systems of energy distribution to preserve and prepare that food. In turn, the farming enterprise requires energy subsidies and transport systems to maintain production. In short, while a Bangladeshi farmer may subsist through hell and high water on the produce from his own plot, a Stanford University professor can keep eating only if railroads and trucks keep running and electricity and natural gas continue to be distributed.

Even if large-scale war can be avoided, it seems likely that regional conflicts will become more frequent as disputes over land, dwindling water and energy sources, environmental refugees, and "who's to blame" become more frequent.

Whatever form it ultimately took, the Whimper would destroy civilization just as effectively as a large-scale war. The changes in our environment seen over the last fifty years will be dwarfed by those of the next fifty, and those changes are likely to be accompanied by an enormous rise in death rates. That's the rub. The world is ill-equipped to handle a massive escalation in death rates. The deaths of many hundreds of millions of people in famines, for example, will present utterly unprecedented problems -- especially when the nations in which they are dying have the capability of threatening nuclear terrorism.

The richest countries, those with the technological resources to assist the rest of the world and to develop more benign technologies, are also the nations most vulnerable to disruption from terrorism, epidemics, water shortages, and ecological breakdown. Because these societies are highly centralized and interconnected, local disasters would tend to [180] propagate. Food riots or epidemics leading to a breakdown of transport systems, for instance, could kill a large number of Americans who otherwise could still buy food even at highly inflated prices. Local conflicts over floods of environmental refugees or transnational pollution problems leading to breakdowns of international trade could add to the problems of keeping societies functioning.5

The Whimper thus could lead to a collapse of civilization just as surely as the Bang. Populations of human beings could be greatly reduced, and national governments could be so weakened that they would be replaced by something resembling feudalism with a strong overlay of tribalism. Large cities with ethnically mixed populations could suffer fates similar to that of Beirut, made all the more difficult by severe shortages of food and the nearly total breakdown of centralized services.

Attempts would be made to keep high technology going, but it might prove impossible. As the "standing crop" of automobiles, trucks, railroad engines and cars, refrigerators, power-plant turbines, and the like were destroyed or fell into disrepair, society could revert to the sort of conditions that prevailed in the Dark Ages, with fundamentalist religions and local despots playing a greater and greater role in human affairs. This precipitous decline would be most noticeable to those living in the now rich nations and to the very poorest people who now depend on aid for survival. The adjustment might be less severe for survivors in less-developed regions, and hundreds of millions of people might hardly notice at all, since they are living at a subsistence level now.


Of course, both the Bang and the Whimper could be averted. The basic outline of how to do so is very short:

  1. Halt human population growth as quickly and humanely as possible, and embark on a slow population shrinkage toward a size that can be sustained over the long term while allowing every person the opportunity to lead a decent, productive life. [181]
  2. Convert the economic system from one of growthism to one of sustainability, lowering per-capita consumption so as to reduce pressures on both resources and the environment.
  3. Wherever possible, convert to more environmentally benign technologies.

In other words, we must simultaneously reduce all three multiplicative factors in the I = PAT equation (population, affluence/consumption, and the use of environmentally malign technologies).

Needless to say, doing this would require a transformation of society. The cost would include giving up many things that we now consider to be essential freedoms: the freedom not to consider society's needs when planning a family, freedom to drive gas-guzzling cars, freedom to own and use an off-road vehicle, freedom to use and discard huge amounts of nonbio-degradable plastics, and, perhaps most important, the freedom (if not an obligation!) to consume more and more. We would also need to give up our "freedom" to deny rights and opportunities to women and members of other races and religions and to exploit the citizens of other nations without concern for the consequences to them. All in all, it would be a big change for Americans, but the benefits would be enormous.

The first benefit is avoiding the total collapse of civilization and the disappearance of the United States as we know it -- a modest reward! But the benefits could extend far beyond that.

On the positive side, Americans in a new world could enjoy longer, more relaxed, more enjoyable lives. We could have less air pollution, fewer toxic compounds in drinking water, reduced levels of stress, and access to crime-free public transportation systems. Especially if accompanied by more healthful diets, these benefits all would help increase health and life expectancies. A less crowded, less frantic society in which all children were wanted and cared for could offer a safer, more peaceful life. If the transition to a sustainable society could be made globally, the threat of war would recede.

The inevitable aging of the population as growth slows, stops, and begins to shrink would reduce the portion of the [182] population in the high-crime-rate and -drug-use years and help alleviate those problems. Once the scramble for acquisition was damped down, more social effort could be put into education and into dealing with social ills such as sexism, racism, and religious prejudice. It would be the ultimate test of whether human society is even remotely "perfectable." More people could learn to value cultural diversity, a trend already detectable in nations like the United States.6 At the same time, society could evolve in ways that took advantage of the natural human tendency to be a "small-group" animal -- now seen in the tendency for ethnic groups, rather than nations, to be the focus of loyalty.7 In a sustainable world, with a carefully maintained environment and reasonable equity, ethnic fragmentation would not necessarily be a bad thing.

All that halting growth and starting a slow population decline could do is give us an opportunity to solve the myriad other dilemmas that plague society. It is our guess, doubtless colored by our own histories and predilections, that any resolution of the human dilemma that might lead to stability over even the medium term (say, a few centuries) would have to be based on democratic decisions acceptable to most of the world's people -- a mutally agreed-upon system, the major features of which were somehow mutually enforced by social pressures or other sanctions. To establish civilization on such a path will require inspired leadership, something that has been absent in the United States for some time. But there is hope in that area: world leaders like Prince Philip of Great Britain,8 Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, and the late Indira Gandhi of India have taken courageous stands on the population issue and its connection to environmental problems; and Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union shows promise of revising that nation's backward views on global problems and international cooperation.

No doubt this sounds like a Utopian pipe dream. There is, however, nothing whatever in "human nature" to make unattainable most of the features of what many of us would consider to be a Utopia. At one time or another, human societies have gotten along without war, have largely suppressed racial prejudice, and have at least begun to equalize opportunity [183] between the sexes. But the road to Utopia, we believe, can be traveled only in small steps, and there can be neither Utopia nor survival without population control.

Many of the objections to the helpful small steps are simply vigorous assertions: "People won't pay any attention to you -- they won't have smaller families." But many did pay attention to The Population Bomb,9 and Americans have been having smaller families for nearly twenty years. All that's needed now is for those families to shrink just a little more.

"You can't get Americans out of their cars!" Who says so? If there were clean, safe, and speedy mass transit, we suspect many people would prefer to have a relaxed time to read the newspaper on their way to work and a glass of beer or wine on the way home, rather than breathing poisonous gases in a traffic jam for an hour or so each way.10

"People won't go on mass-transit systems because they're not safe." This strikes us as a simple failure of imagination. For example, as international tensions slacken, many people now in the military could be assigned temporary duty as transit police. The organizational ability of the vast surplus of higher military officers that now runs up the cost of national defense (there are many times more generals per soldier at the present time than there were during the Second World War) could be employed in organizing the transit police. Furthermore, the excellent Metro in crime-ridden Washington, D.C., has been made very safe by the use of high technology -- TV cameras are everywhere. So, even if we run out of surplus military officers, the problem is not insoluble.

"Mass transit would put too many autoworkers into unemployment lines." A lot of them are there already, thanks to Detroit's failure to anticipate changes in the 1970s and 1980s and its subsequent loss of market. Furthermore, increasing automation and budget constraints have led to reduction in white-collar staff as well. Even so, unemployment in the automobile industry could, at least temporarily, be offset by hiring the workers to build (or rebuild) mass-transit systems. Many additional jobs could be created to rebuild the nation's decaying infrastructure -- highways, bridges, streets, water mains, etc. [184]

There could be a return to more fine handwork and less mass production in both industry and agriculture, which would help solve environmental problems as well as unemployment problems. Small trends toward both can be seen in the popularity of craft fairs and in the growing interest in ecologically sound, more labor-intensive organic farming. And if a steady-state society can't maintain enough jobs to keep its citizens busy for forty hours per week, the work week could be cut to thirty-five or thirty hours. Unemployment then might be largely eliminated. We really can't see any truly insuperable barriers to reorganizing our society so that virtually everyone could lead a more pleasant, productive, satisfying life. Just because it's possible doesn't mean that society will actually get the job done, however.

Above all, no matter how daunting the problems of organizing a sustainable society may turn out to be, they are problems we must face unless we wish to follow our current path to either the Bang or the Whimper. And achieving a sustainable society depends absolutely upon the establishment of an effective worldwide program of population control -- a topic to which we now turn.


1. For early descriptions of the possible atmospheric effects of nuclear war, see T. Stonier, Nuclear Disaster (World Publishing, Cleveland, 1964); P. R. Ehrlich, "Population Control or Hobson's Choice," in L. R. Taylor, ed., The Optimum Population for Britain (Academic Press, London, 1969); and P. Ehrlich and A. Ehrlich, Population, Resources, Environment; Issues in Human Ecology (Freeman, San Francisco, 1970), pp. 191-93. The central papers of the more recent analysis by the scientific community are R. Turco, O. Toon, T. Ackerman, J. Pollack, and C. Sagan, "Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Weapons Explosions" (known as the "TTAPS" study), Science, vol. 222, pp. 1283-92 (Dec. 23, 1983); and P. Ehrlich, J. Harte, M. Harwell, P. Raven, C. Sagan, G. Woodwell, J. Berry, E. Ayensu, A. Ehrlich, T. Eisner, S. Gould, H. Gfover, R. Herrera, R. May, E. Mayr, C. McKay, H. Mooney, N. Myers, D. Pimentel, and J. Teal, "Long Term Biological Consequences of Nuclear War," ibid., pp. 1293-1300.

More recent overviews are P. Ehrlich, "The Ecology of Nuclear War," in P. Ehrlich and J. Holdren, eds., The Cassandra Conference: Resources and the Human Predicament (Texas A & M Press, College Station, 1988); and A. Ehrlich, "Nuclear Winter: Is Rehabilitation Possible?," in J. Cairns, Jr., ed., Rehabilitating Damaged Ecosystems, vol. II (CRC Press, Boca Raton, Fla, 1988). A treatment of these issues including fine coverage of the social and economic effects on k society of a nuclear attack can be found in the report of the Greater London Area War Risk Study Commission, London Under Attack (Basil Black-well, Oxford, 1986). Some of the physical studies subsequent to the TTAPS study indicated that climatic effects might not be as severe as originally expected, and this brought great joy to some fans of nuclear war. But more recent work is pushing the pendulum in the other direction (e.g., J. Nelson, "Fractility of Sooty Smoke: Implications for the Severity of Nuclear Winter," Nature, vol. 339, pp. 611-13 [June 22, 1989]). It really makes little difference, since, although there femains considerable uncertainty about the precise atmospheric effects of a large-scale nuclear war, one anywhere within the range of possibilities would translate into an ecological and social disaster of unprecedented magnitude.

2. p. 61.

3. S. H. Schneider, Global Warming (Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1989).

4. S. Camp, ed., Population Pressures -- Threat to Democracy (Population Crisis Committee, 1120 19th St. NW, Suite 550, Washington D.C. 20036, 1989). Indicators employed for demographic pressures were rates of population increase, urbanization, and labor-force growth; age composition, and heterogeneity (the existence of major ethnic, religious, or language divisions). Indicators of political stability wer; number of changes of government between 1962 and 1989, political freedom (participation in the political process), civil liberties (right of free expression and assembly, freedom of religion, etc.), communal violence (violent conflicts between groups), and frustrated expectations (a proxy indicator of the gap between employment expectations and opportunities). Since most of the unstable nations in this study are poor ones, the argument may be made that it only illustrates that poverty causes instability. Arguing about this is probably a waste of time, returning to the question of whether poverty causes population growth or vice versa. We think both rising standards of living and gradual population shrinkage would be conducive to political stability.

5. In The Population Bomb we tried to deal with uncertainties about the course of events by using scenarios -- little stories about the future as an aid to thinking about it. That was a mistake, because people took the scenarios as predictions, and some concluded that because they had not "come true" the basic message of the book was wrong. But, of course, the entire purpose of the book and the scenarios was to stimulate the kind of action that would prevent events such as those described in the scenarios from occurring. (Unfortunately, as we have seen, much of the action that was stimulated by the food problems of the late 1960s turned out to be a short-term cure which has made the long-term situation worse.) At any rate, we're avoiding scenarios in this book. We would not be surprised, however, if some reviewer dismissed The Population Explosion because the scenarios in The Population Bomb did not actually materialize. Live and learn.

6. Witness the great popularity of ethnic restaurants and the interest in other cultures manifested in entertainment, magazines, travel/learning programs, museums, and so on. Of course, only a minority of the population manifests most of the appreciation, but nonetheless it's a start.

7. This trend is present not only in places like Canada, Northern Ireland, Kenya, India, and Lebanon, but recently in the Soviet Union and, upon the partial collapse of the civil-rights consensus with encouragement from the Reagan administration, in the U.S. Interconnected social units with varied structures and values might come to replace the mass culture that now predominates. Such a trend in the U.S. can be seen, for example, in the diversification of cable-television systems at the expense of a few nationwide networks. Ethnic refragmentation in the world is occurring at a time of a shrinking resource pie, environmental deterioration, and massive and growing economic inequity. While ethnic identification can be a source of strength, it obviously also can lead to conflict unless carefully guided by wise leaders. Unless the problems that divide groups can be alleviated, the end of the road may well be a breakdown of civilization into numerous small warring fragments.

8. For example, Prince Philip's "Living Off the Land," BBC "Dimbleby" lecture, March 7, 1989, and also the collection of his speeches and writings, Down to Earth (Collins, London, 1988).

9. Literally thousands have written or told us in person that reading The Population Bomb led them to have smaller families. Needless to say, this is not a scientific sample, but it does convince us that the book had an impact.

10. Economists may object that building mass transit is extremely expensive and thus not often feasible because it won't "pay for itself." This is just another example of the need to change the way economists think of costs. The comparison should be made to the high costs to the environment (and the human stress) caused by the use of automobiles and the costs of maintaining the infrastructure to support their use. One recent estimate for the repair and replacement of the U.S. interstate freeway system alone for the next few decades is $600 billion. Similarly stratospheric estimates have been made for repairing New York City's poorly maintained bridges. Finally, the economists' calculations are based on an assumption that gasoline will always be cheap. If all those costs are taken into account, mass-transit systems become very economical indeed.