Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

How They Sold ‘The Population Bomb’

SPOTLIGHT: Examining a mass market paperback.

BIG PICTURE: The Population Bomb was first published in May 1968 – 50 years ago this month. Page one of my copy, printed in 1970, describes its author as “a qualified scientist.” The back cover provides further detail:

Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich is Professor of Biology and Director of Graduate Study for the Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University. His specialty is population biology. He has written over seventy scientific papers and several books on this and related subjects.

Curiously, the authoritative nature of Ehrlich’s argument is undercut by the inclusion, on that same back cover, of an 11-point list of what the good professor considers “Mankind’s Inalienable Rights.”

(click to enlarge)

Here we find the right to:

  • “eat well” (#1)
  • “avoid regimentation” (#6)
  • “have grandchildren” (#11)
  • live free from “thermonuclear war” (#8)

This list tells us Ehrlich isn’t just a scientist calmly discussing a scientific question. The book is, instead, a manifesto – written by a man who thinks his opinions about regimented workplaces and nuclear war are relevant, who thinks it’s his job to unilaterally identify inalienable rights.

Turning to the front cover, in the bottom left we’re advised that “the population bomb keeps ticking.” There’s a hazard yellow banner that proclaims, in full caps: “While you are reading these words four people will have died from starvation. Most of them children.”

Above the title, also in full caps, it says: “Population control or race to oblivion?”

(click to enlarge)

Famine. Dead children. Ticking bombs. Nuclear war. Oblivion. Circumspect scientific discourse this is not.

Nor does the macabre marketing end there. Pages two and three advertise other volumes of possible interest to readers. One is titled The Frail Ocean. Another warns of humanity’s “accelerating destruction” of the environment.

A third blurb insists that supersonic air travel is a “dangerous and destructive” threat, an “incredible, unnecessary insult” that must be stopped.

The fourth describes a book that presents the “case against nuclear power,” raising the spectre of the poisoning of “the present generation – and generations to come.”

Fifty years later, the blurb for the final book sounds wearily familiar. It begins: “The 1970’s is our last chance for a future that makes ecological sense.” Claims of ‘last chances’ evidently have a long history.

TOP TAKEAWAY: Fear may be the only thing that sells better than sex. By February 1970, The Population Bomb was in its 13th printing.


The Population Bomb
Paul Ehrlich
The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future
Paul Sabin

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This entry was posted on May 28, 2018 by in ethical & philosophical, quotations and tagged , .
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