For decades, the world has been haunted by ominous and recurrent reports of impending demographic doom. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s neo-Malthusian manifesto, The Population Bomb, predicted mass starvation in the 1970s and ’80s. The Limits to Growth, published by the global think tank Club of Rome in 1972, portrayed a computer-model apocalypse of overpopulation. The demographic doom-saying in authoritative and influential circles has steadily continued: from the Carter administration’s grim Global 2000 study in 1980 to the 1992 vision of eco-disaster in Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance to practically any recent publication or pronouncement by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
What is perhaps most remarkable about the incessant stream of dire—and consistently wrong—predictions of global demographic overshoot is the public’s apparently insatiable demand for it. Unlike the villagers in the fable about the boy who cried wolf, educated American consumers always seem to have the time, the money, and the credulity to pay to hear one more time that we are just about to run out of everything, thanks to population growth. The Population Bomb and the Club of Rome’s disaster tale both sold millions of copies. More recently, journalist Robert D. Kaplan created a stir by trumpeting “the coming anarchy” in a 2000 book of the same name, warning that a combination of demographic and environmental crises was creating world-threatening political maelstroms in a variety of developing countries. Why, of all people, do Americans—who fancy themselves the world’s pragmatic problems-solvers—seem to betray a predilection for such obviously dramatic and unproved visions of the future?
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