If a single book has haunted the environmental movement, it’s The Population Bomb, by Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich. Published in 1968 by Ballantine, the work is remembered for a handful of striking passages: its opening description of seething crowds in Delhi; its prediction that in the 1970s hundreds of millions of people would succumb to famine; its endorsement of policies, such as taxes on childbearing, that have, to say the least, gone out of style.
The sensationalism of the book’s argument was modest compared to its marketing. Gracing the cover of the paperback edition was an image of a bomb with a burning fuse and the tagline “Population Control or Race to Oblivion?” Another line added, “While you are reading these words four people will have died from starvation. Most of them children.” The book sold 2 million copies in two years. Ehrlich became a celebrity speaker and a frequent guest on popular television shows.
Ever since the famines failed to arrive on schedule, the book has been attacked with glee by conservatives and held to epitomize environmentalism’s folly. For their part, Ehrlich and his wife, Anne (who co-authored the book without attribution), stand by their conviction that population growth is wreaking horrific damage, and they take credit for raising awareness about the planet’s limited resources. They have a point: their book is, on the whole, more measured than its notorious bits and screaming cover would suggest. And the final chapter is titled “What If I’m Wrong?” Among environmentalists, the book has been not so much renounced as met with a sort of embarrassed silence—at least until recently. Environmental writer Alan Weisman, in his new book on population, Countdown, fervently defends the Ehrlichs, insisting that the Green Revolution merely bought us some time. Still, The Population Bomb is not counted as a classic along the lines of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It surely didn’t help that Ehrlich later made and lost a high-profile bet with economist Julian Simon about the future price of commodities and generally remained a pugnacious public figure. By contrast, shortly after the publication of her book, Carson died.
The ambiguous legacy of The Population Bomb points to a larger issue: What’s the most compelling way to tell stories about threats to the environment? Does apocalyptic language ultimately do the environmentalist cause more harm than good, undermining the credibility of the warnings? Does it alienate readers by demanding that they think about an unbearable future? Or, by garnering more attention than mild-mannered writers, do doomsayers succeed in spurring essential conversation? Environmental writers face a host of choices: to invoke self-interest or moral responsibility; to elicit hope or sow fear and sorrow; to dwell on problems or solutions.
In A Climate of Crisis, a fascinating intellectual history of American environmentalism, Emory University historian Patrick Allitt discusses The Population Bomb and many other environmental texts. Though his account is fair-minded, it is book-ended by an argument that “the mood of crisis that surrounded a succession of environmental fears was usually disproportionate to the actual danger involved.” Our society, Allitt contends, has proved quite capable of addressing environmental problems. He highlights in particular the landmark legislation of the 1970s and the consequent, underappreciated “great cleaning” of America’s air and water; and he criticizes environmentalists for persisting in their rhetoric of doom rather than celebrating these triumphs. But Allitt’s very argument reveals another possibility: the progress he chronicles occurred not despite but in part because of the mood of crisis. Could major environmental legislation ever have passed without a pressing sense of urgency? If you warn loudly of potential disaster—whether regarding Y2K or air pollution—the price of success is to seem alarmist in retrospect. Allitt acknowledges that “the anticipation of catastrophe can often contribute to preventing it,” but he restricts that lesson to the case of nuclear weapons while downplaying the risks of climate change.
Writing about global warming and the associated ecological emergencies brings distinctive challenges. Different audiences disagree sharply on the facts. A recent survey conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that 23 percent of respondents believe that global warming is not happening. The project divided Americans into six groups with respect to climate change: the Alarmed (16 percent); the Concerned (27 percent); the Cautious (23 percent); the Disengaged (5 percent); the Doubtful (12 percent); and the Dismissive (15 percent). Rhetoric that will galvanize the Alarmed stands little chance of engaging the Disengaged or converting the Dismissive. Should writers choose an audience and tailor their work accordingly? How can language be exquisitely fine-tuned to prompt the desired response—to steer a course between despair and complacency?
Words alone will never halt a hurricane or stay the rising seas. But few would deny that the way we communicate about issues matters. Notwithstanding some encouraging developments, notably the Environmental Protection Agency’s new rules curbing emissions from coal-fired plants, it’s fair to say that climate-change polemicists have so far failed to achieve their goals. How might they promulgate their messages more effectively?
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