Population Control: A Solution in Search of a Problem

Bill Nye offers an all-you-can-eat buffet of dystopia, but this rehash isn’t from yesterday or even yesteryear. More like yester-century.

Bill Nye addresses a conference in New York City in 2015.
Bill Nye addresses a conference in New York City in 2015. (photo: Credit: BD Engler, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

After all the hoopla surrounding Bill Nye’s comments regarding population control, I decided to watch his show: Bill Nye Saves the World.

The serious responses that serious people have made to Bill Nye stand in stark contrast with Nye himself and his show. Beginning with the title itself, it is not entirely clear whether the program is intended to be serious or not. Nye’s live audience doesn’t seem to know, either. His audience often seems to wonder to whether they are meant to laugh, moan, applaud, or gasp. For instance, Nye regularly makes dire and apocalyptic claims, yet these are met with giggles from audience members. The audience produces some nervous laughter but also something that could be termed nervous applause. There is an old Zen mind-trick question: What is the sound of one hand clapping? I cannot be sure, but as I watched the show, I think I heard it.

A recurring theme of the show is population control. You see, climate change and environmental disruption are caused by people, so one solution to these problems is fewer people. And so, with all the objectivity of a Soviet show trial and the intellectual rigor of an after-school special, Nye pursues the case. Perhaps being the prophet of population control is how he will “save the world.”

With his foreboding prognostications about overpopulation, Nye offers an all-you-can-eat buffet of dystopia, yet I kept thinking that I had been served this dish before. And this rehash isn’t from yesterday or even yesteryear. More like yester-century.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Thomas Robert Malthus famously warned the world that mass starvation was quickly and inexorably on the way. Malthus writes: “Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” Of course, Malthus was wrongly dreadful—and dreadfully wrong. Malthus lived in a world of perhaps one billion people, whereas we have a current population of over seven billion. Yet today, much of the land once dedicated to farming has been re-dedicated to other purposes; so much land is simply unnecessary to feed the people of the world.

In the twentieth century, Paul Ehrlich picked up Malthus’ baton. Ehrlich might have been the first celebrity scientist of modern times; Johnny Carson even stated that Ehrlich was one of his favorite guests on The Tonight Show. Ehrlich, the “science guy” of his day, would appear on television and make scary predictions about overpopulation. His basic claim was that the world’s food supply could simply not support its current population; moreover, the resources consumed by people would leading to global warming, which would prove disastrous. Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The Population Bomb, predicted virtual Armageddon. It began: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”

The only thing Ehrlich was lacking from your garden variety prophet of doom was the ubiquitous sandwich sign—which, considering his message, would have been perhaps in poor taste.

Ehrlich’s solution: “We must have population control at home, hopefully through changes in our value system, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail….We can no longer afford merely to treat the symptoms of the cancer of population growth; the cancer itself must be cut out.” Since the book’s initial printing, when “the battle to feed all of humanity” was said to be lost, the world’s population has doubled. Yet, the world is far from lacking food; in fact, many farmers have been paid not to grow food, lest the food commodity prices get “too low.”

Two hundred years ago, the prophet was Malthus. Fifty years ago, the prophet was Ehrlich. Today, the prophet is Nye. Yesterday the problem was food scarcity; today, the problem is climate change. Tomorrow, the problem may be the survival of the ceramic toilet industry, a shortage of maple syrup, or an oversupply of junk email. It really doesn’t matter what the problem is, but you can be darn sure what the proposed solution will be: population control. For hundreds of years, population control has been a solution in search of a problem. Population control is some people’s favorite solution for any and all the world’s problems, both real and imagined.           

To those who give credence to the population-control philosophy of Bill Nye, it’s worth considering that he is just the latest in a long line of population control advocates. He is making arguments that have been proven wrong repeatedly for many years. Science is supposed to be about observation and testing hypotheses, yet to be a population control fanatic, you have to refuse to observe a huge amount of historical data and ignore the many times their hypothesis has failed.

Oh, and to the producers of Nye’s show: If you are going to make shameless propaganda, could you at least make it entertaining?