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The Upside to Alarmism?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorNovember 11, 2010 12:35 AM


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The population issue has bubbled to the surface this year, with Fred Pearce calling concerns of population growth a "green myth" and Philip Longman, more recently in Foreign Policy magazine, warning about a planet of graybeards. It's nearly impossible to discuss population without mentioning Paul Ehrlich's role in the debate, and usually he comes out not looking so good. But in an interesting twist, one demography researcher argues that maybe Ehrlich's dire predictions didn't happen because...well...policymakers took them seriously. Here's the thrust of the argument:

Alarmism is useful when it grabs the attention of policymakers and a public that is overloaded with information, but it is also risky. Both Pearce and Longman take jabs at Paul Ehrlich because his "population bomb" never exploded. What they fail to note is that Ehrlich's predictions could have proven right, except that he was successful at scaring a generation of policymakers into action. Funding towards population programs increased greatly in the wake of such research.

A counter argument to this was made in 2009 by Daniel Drezner:

Ehrlich's book committed a triple sin. First, he was wrong on the specifics. Second, by garnering so much attention by being wrong, he contributed to the belief that alarmism was the best way to get people to pay attention to the environment. Third, by crying wolf so many times, Ehrlich numbed many into not buying actual, real environmental threats.

What do you think?

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