I was posting a few Blogs and getting a few more ready when some bad news came through. Sadly I will be needing to take some more time away from the Blogs (immediately) – which is something completely unplanned and unexpected. This may be a lengthy break of two to three weeks. I’m afraid this is unavoidable and apologise for the time away from the Blog.
The Booker Prize has been Britain’s most influential award since its inception in 1969. Following its original mission statement of awarding a prize to “the best novel in the opinion of the judges”, the prize has created headlines and controversy over five decades, including argument over the inclusion of American authors after 2014. But it has also, and surely most importantly, rewarded writers, brought them to increasing public attention, and ensured them both critical acclaim and higher sales.
Past Booker winners are now on both school and university curricula, enriching the traditional canon of literature that all too often focuses on male, white and (upper) middle class writing that is no longer in keeping with the times. The prize has also spawned some important spin-offs, most prominently the Man Booker International Prize, first awarded in 2005 that has, over the past few years, evolved into a prize that awards both international writers and, uniquely, their translators.
In February 2017, following on from the success of previous special anniversary prizes, the Man Booker foundation launched the Golden Man Booker Prize to celebrate the prize’s 50th anniversary. Rather than having to (re)read all 51 winners, the five appointed judges – writer Robert McCrum, poet Lemn Sissay, novelist Kamila Shamsie, broadcaster and writer Simon Mayo, and poet Hollie McNish – were each allocated one decade of prize winners and tasked with identifying what they thought was the outstanding winner of those particular years. The shortlist was announced at a special event at the Hay Festival on May 26. The winner of the Golden Booker will be announced on July 8. So who’s in the running?
For Robert McCrum, the outstanding text of the 1970s winners was V S Naipaul’s In a Free State. It tells the story of two British people, Bobby and Linda, travelling across an unnamed African country in the midst of an ethnic war that suggests the Uganda of the Idi Amin years. Despite their privileged position as members of the white colonial class, Bobby and Linda come to experience firsthand the escalating violence in the country.
McCrum, in his summary of why he chose the text, explained that it was:
Outstandingly the best novel to win the Booker Prize in the 1970s, a disturbing book about displaced people at the dangerous edge of a disrupted world that could have been written yesterday, a classic for all seasons.
Lemn Sissay chose Penelope Lively’s often overlooked 1987 winner Moon Tiger, surprisingly ignoring Booker heavyweights such as Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List (1982) or Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989).
Moon Tiger tells the story of Claudia Hampton, who recounts her colourful life as she lies dying, covering much of the 20th century in the process. Hampton is a fascinating heroine: not quite likeable, yet immensely intriguing and fascinating, and it was this that was most remarkable for Sissay.
The 1990s novel that stood out for Shamsie was Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992). Ondaatje shared the prize with Barry Unsworth’s slave narrative Sacred Hunger – one of only two cases of a divided jury in the prize’s history. Set in Florence at the end of World War II, the novel recounts the life of a badly burnt soldier, who relives his ill-fated love affair with the married Katherine Clifton for his three companions: the spy Caravaggio, who administers morphine to the patient; his nurse Hana; and the Sikh bomb disposal expert Kip.
Ondaatje’s novel, turned into an award-winning film starring Ralph Fiennes, has always been considered one of the most high-profile winners of the award. For Shamsie, this is entirely justified: it is “that rare novel which gets under your skin and insists you return to it time and again, always yielding a new surprise or delight.”
Mayo’s outstanding winner was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall of 2009, the first in a planned trilogy of Tudor novels. It charts the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII. Its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, won the Man Booker Prize in 2012, making Mantel one of only three authors – alongside Peter Carey and J M Coetzee – and to date the only woman to have won the award twice.
The final instalment of the trilogy – The Mirror and the Light – is highly anticipated and scheduled for publication in 2019. What stood out for Mayo in his choice was “its questioning of what England is” – a question that is, despite the novel’s historical setting, surely pertinent in the present.
It is the most recent Man Booker Prize winner, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo of 2017, that was the most outstanding recent novel for McNish. The novel covers a single night, set in a graveyard where a grieving Abraham Lincoln mourns the death of his young son Willie. Featuring a plethora of diverse voices, Lincoln in the Bardo explores ideas of life, death and mourning in a way that, according to McNish, was simultaneously “funny, imaginative and tragic” as well as “a piece of genius in its originality of form and structure”.
Narrowing down 51 Man Booker Prize winners from five decades to a shortlist of five is a herculean task. What makes this shortlist remarkable for me is its absence of the “big” winners, the ones that are most often associated with the prize: Ishiguro, Rushdie, Keneally, Coetzee, Martell. Maybe the judges tried to steer clear of them precisely because they have had so much coverage in the past.
2018’s shortlist is very varied – historical narratives, fictional biographies, explorations of war and genocide all feature. For the judges of each decade’s “best” winner, it was a very personal decision; as it will have been for the members of the public who have voted for their favourite of the five shortlisted texts.
What do I think will happen? I’m hesitant to say … but rather than truly judging “the best” of the Booker winners, perhaps 2018’s special award will reward that novel that still manages to best capture the public mood.
Is it a coincidence that J.K. Rowling studied French and Classics? Or that Shakespeare wrote passages of dialogue in Welsh and French, suggesting that he was conversant in both? To write successfully in your first language, it can help if you know a second – it is one way of seeing the world from another perspective and making comparisons, which is after all what literature is all about. But what of writers of contemporary literary fiction?
Researchers on the Open World Research Initiative at Swansea University have investigated the nearly 300 novels that have made the Booker shortlist since 1969 to find out. And as we await the announcement of the readers’ choice of the “Golden Booker” on July 8, which will name the winning novel from the history of the Man Booker prize that has “best stood the test of time”, their initial findings throw up a disturbing recent trend that language awareness is decreasing among British-born writers.
The ability of authors to understand another language gets ignored in surveys of the Booker Prize – multiple times. If a writer’s English is inflected by Australian, South African or Canadian roots, these origins are duly noted by literary journalists. Why not language background too? Language-switchers who grew up in the former British Empire are not the only multilinguals to watch out for on the Booker shortlists. Some of their British-born counterparts also learnt a second language, which influenced their writing in similar ways: their choice of subject matter and how they expressed themselves.
The second language of writers on the shortlists is nearly always European, with French firmly in first place (more than 20 speakers among the 200 writers who have been shortlisted for the prize). German, Italian, Spanish and Russian are also well represented, as is Japanese, albeit all in single figures. There is only one identifiable Czech speaker (Tom McCarthy, nominated in 2010 and 2015) but none with Polish.
Spawn of Flaubert
The most famous literary French speaker is probably Julian Barnes, winner in 2011 with The Sense of an Ending. His breakthrough novel Flaubert’s Parrot, which was nominated in 1984 presents a series of takes on the great French novelist assembled by a Francophile narrator. Knowing another language is after all one way to see the world from an alternative point of view. For this reason many writers cut their literary teeth, like Barnes, on foreign-language material or experiences.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles should have made it to the inaugural shortlist in 1969, but it was The Magus, the original “year-abroad novel” set in Greece, which launched Fowles’ writing career. J.G. Farrell, who studied French and Spanish at university, is famous for his “empire trilogy”, Troubles (named the “lost” Booker Prize winner in 2010), The Siege of Krishnapur (winner in 1973) and The Singapore Grip (1978), but his first novel A Man from Elsewhere (1963) is set in Paris.
In his debut South (1992), the Irish writer Colm Tóibín, who has subsequently been nominated for the Booker three times, was inspired by his own encounter with Barcelona as a young man – which he transfers to a female central character who narrates some of the novel. Switching languages for an author – or anyone – can change who you are in fundamental ways. Canadian author Yann Martel won in 2002 with The Life of Pi, but his first novel Self (1996) merges gender and language identity as the multilingual narrator metamorphoses from man to woman and back again, showing that language identity is bound up with other identities and can be part of the literary imagination.
The shortlists for the Booker throw up some amazing linguists – but, at least when the British are concerned, their heyday appears to have been in the first two decades of the prize’s existence, the 1970s and 1980s. First prize for language prowess in any era would have to go to Anthony Burgess, on the shortlist in 1980 for Earthly Powers, who invented a new language for the dystopian Clockwork Orange and read and spoke up to ten real ones.
Burgess was born in 1917, a year after Penelope Fitzgerald, who won the in 1979 for the evocatively entitled Offshore. Three other novels are set in Italy (Innocence, 1986), Russia (The Beginning of Spring, 1988), and Germany (The Blue Flower, 1995), each written as if by a native speaker, except of course in English.
Jewish emigrés were a further force for the internationalisation of British fiction. Sybil Bedford (1911-2006) found herself on the shortlist at the age of 78 with Jigsaw in 1989. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013), who moved to India after the war, where her early fiction is set, won the Booker with Heat and Dust in 1975.
The Cold War also produced some high-profile language learners. Michael Frayn – who was shortlisted in 1999 for Headlong – was taught Russian during his national service, as was DM Thomas, whose White Hotel ran Midnight’s Children a close race for the prize in 1981. Thomas translates Russian poetry and has written a biography of Solzhenitsyn. Frayn’s novels include The Russian Interpreter (1966) – and his play Democracy (2003) was about the fall of Willy Brandt.
Their close contemporary John le Carré was recruited to the secret service on the basis of speaking fluent German, which he learned after running away to Switzerland as a teenager. He has called German his “muse”. But, sadly, genre fiction is not Booker material – and, in any case, le Carré is not keen on literary awards.
The young generation
But what of younger novelists, say those shortlisted since the turn of the millennium? If we limit the field to British writers, then it is getting narrower. Graeme Macrae Burnet made the shortlist in 2016 with His Bloody Project. The Accident on the A35 from 2017 is very much a linguists’ novel about translation and transcription, as is Men in Space – the 2007 novel by the twice-nominated Tom McCarthy which is set in Prague and includes a series of jokes on interlingual miscommunication. Both authors are still under 50.
Philip Hensher, nominated in 2008 for The Northern Clemency, is reticent about his proficiency in German, which came to the fore in his 1998 novel Pleasured which is about the fall of the Berlin wall. Simon Mawer, nominated in 2009 for The Glass Room, lives in Italy. That is more or less it.
People who visit the UK are sometimes struck by how few books are translated into the world’s lingua franca which in all its global variants can seem sufficient to itself. As a culture English monolinguals risk missing out on how near neighbours are representing their experiences to themselves and each other.
Translation takes many forms, however, and mother-tongue English novelists could make up the gap by getting abroad, whether in person or through books, as previous generations were doing up to quite recently.
Most countries produce crime fiction, but the versions vary according to national self-concepts. America admires the assertive private eye, both Dashiell Hammett’s late 1920s Sam Spade and the nearly as tough modern feminists, such as Sara Paretsky. Britain prefers calm mystery-solvers, amateurs like Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey or sensitive police like Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh-based John Rebus. The French seem to favour semi-professionals who are distinctly dissenting – in 1943 Léo Malet’s Nestor Burma stood up to Nazi occupiers nearly as overtly as to Paris criminals.
Australia’s rich and varied tradition of crime fiction and detectives, though little-known and more rarely described, reveals a range of national myths, fantasies, and even elements of truth-telling about a country whose origin lay in convictions for crime.
The first Australian crime novel appeared in 1818, but production has been uneven. Most mysteries have been published here in the period since 1980, with substantial local publicity and reviewing. Before then, locally-written and Australia-set mysteries usually arrived from England, asserting colonial authority, and then banning American publishers through an “International Market Agreement”.
Writers sent manuscripts off to London, and a hundred or so hardbacks would arrive for local libraries, with almost no publicity and little impetus to develop the form here. But things changed with an American challenge to the “Agreement” in 1976 and the waning influence of Britain in general. In 1980 Peter Corris’s The Dying Trade began a flow of local productions – some from English firms now based here, like Allen and Unwin, who produced Jennifer Rowe with their Tolkien earnings.
Back at the start, transportation was a natural subject: in the first book of all, Thomas Wells’ Michael Howe, The Last and Worst of the Tasmanian Bushrangers (1818), Howe is a real escaped convict turned bushranger, with fictionally exaggerated adventures. Another theme was the wrongfully-convicted man like Quintus Servinton (1831) by Henry Savery.
The strongest convict novel is The Adventures of Ralph Rashleigh: he experiences harsh imprisonment, then escapes to live with bushrangers, and then mostly genial Indigenes: written in 1845, probably by ex-convict James Tucker, the novel was not published for over 80 years.
Criminal threats to free settlers were central to Tales of the Colonies (1843) by Charles Rowcroft: an immigrant Tasmanian family encounters the exciting land and its fauna but also bushrangers and the historical and rather noble Indigenous leader Musquito.
In Alexander Harris’s The Emigrant Family (1849) English incomers meet a vigorous native-born family as well as a range of trouble-makers. The settler thriller moved up to squatter level in Henry Kingsley’s rambling The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859), which offers “every known cliché of Australian life” according to Arcady in Australia: The Evocation of Australia in 19th Century English Literature, an excellent critical book by Coral Lansbury – mother of Malcolm Turnbull.
Crime fiction illuminated the 1850s goldfields experience, mostly through short stories in the Australian Journal featuring police detectives known as “mounted troopers”, who controlled theft and crime of all kinds: they and the miners generated an early form of mateship.
The most prolific author was Mary Fortune who, Lucy Sussex’s research has shown, wrote hundreds of crime stories to the end of the century, and has begun to be re-published. The new gold-rich urban Australia was explored, especially when Donald Cameron produced the intriguing, and almost totally forgotten, The Mysteries of Melbourne Life (1873), followed by Fergus Hume’s highly readable The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886): Melbourne-set and published, it then became in London the first best-seller in world crime fiction.
There had been retrospective fictions that essentially criticised the harsh convict colony and ennobled the transportees. The Broad Arrow (1859) by “Oliné Keese” (English visitor Caroline Leakey) is about a brave, true woman convict; His Natural Life by England-born Marcus Clarke offers a long, well-researched story of a maltreated, wrongly-convicted man, appearing first as a serial in the Australian Journal.
In that version he finally escapes from Norfolk Island, becomes a successful goldfields shopkeeper, and eventually returns wealthy to his much-diminished English family. But when it became a book Clarke was persuaded to drop the optimistic “Aussie-success” ending for popular novel melodrama: the escaping hero drowns tragically, and the title becomes the unironic For the Term of His Natural Life.
A more romantic and now fully Australian account of past crime and redemption was the very popular Robbery Under Arms (1881-2) by “Rolf Boldrewood”. The bushranger-turned-convict is no Anglo hero but a tough native Australian: he and his patient girlfriend end up as successful rural property-owners. So crime fiction developed a positive patriotic approach which would soon mesh with the bush myth asserted by popular writers like Lawson and Paterson – also fictional, as the cities grew.
In the late 19th century there were predictable urban mysteries and better rural dramas by writers like Rosa Praed and Mary Gaunt, as well as the distinctly Australian sporting thriller, notably those set at the races by Nat Gould, and also bold roving amateur detectors such as Randolph Bedford’s Billy Pagan, Mining Engineer (1911).
But national mythic features could also be negative: notably absent have been police – while they were familiar overseas, here the memory of transportation limited them to Fortune’s people-friendly troopers, well-separated from convictism.
Equally lacking was any serious treatment of Indigenous people: they only appeared as lurking threats or helpful trackers, except in Arthur Vogan’s The Black Police (1890) in which an England-born New Zealander, who had taken a job in outback Queensland, told a bleak story about the racism he found there.
Between the wars, London publishers continued their dominance and there appeared two striking responses from local crime writers. Their novels can have “zero-setting”: though occurring in Australia they offer almost no local detail at all. Or they can be the opposite, “touristic” crime fiction, all bush and kangaroos, with the villain often consumed by the land itself in fire or flood.
The success of Arthur Upfield’s long series of “Bony” mysteries was not primarily based on his intelligent half-Indigenous detective but, including for overseas readers, came from the many grand outback landscapes that are so well described, to which Bony relates so strongly.
At the same time, interest developed in the formerly minor “crime novel”, the name for a story without detection and tending to sympathise with the criminal – an Adelaide-set series came from Arthur Gask. Classical mysteries were often set in the northern islands, as by Beatrice Grimshaw and Paul Maguire and, amazingly, the Hollywood actor and Tasmanian journalist, Errol Flynn, whose Showdown (1946) is a very capable thriller.
In the 1930s Jean Spender, adopting the English style, deployed an under-heroic police detective and she was followed post-war by other successful women. June Wright’s restrained policemen usually marry the young Melbourne lady amateur detective, but she also created a fine nun-detective, Mother Paul. Sydney-based Pat Flower, from Hell for Heather (1962) on, produced a sequence of psychothrillers as potent as those by international stars such as Patricia Highsmith or Barbara Vine (the pseudonym of Ruth Rendell).
Effective post-war male crime writers existed, such as Sidney Courtier and A. E. Martin, but they too were mostly England-published and little noticed or remembered. The American private eye had a brief presence in and after World War II, with many Americans in the country and English book imports rare: both US-based and local tough-guys thrived like those by the ultra-prolific “Carter Brown” (Alan G. Yates).
They faded, but the form would return when, feeling abandoned by Britain and looking more across the Pacific, readers were offered their own version of the American mode. The Dying Trade (1980), published in Sydney, with full local publicity, featured a truly Aussie tough guy, Cliff Hardy, and the author, Peter Corris, academic and journalist, stimulated more Sydney-based detectives, Marele Day’s elegant feminist Claudia Valentine, glamorous lesbian cop Carol Ashton by Claire McNab, and the thoughtful English-style amateur Verity “Birdie” Birdwood from publisher Jennifer Rowe. Now local readers could enjoy a wealth of their own national crime fiction, newly embodying many forms of contemporary conviction.
Melbourne soon followed with Shane Maloney’s wry amateur inquirer Murray Whelan and Peter Temple’s Chandleresque private investigator Jack Irish, so well realised on television by Guy Pearce.
The crime novel continued through Garry Disher and his genuinely tough Wyatt, while the psychothriller and other sub-genres flourished, especially from the ever-productive Gabrielle Lord. Finally, major male writers started to employ police – Disher by 1995 with Inspector Challis in The Dragon Man and Peter Temple’s very successful The Broken Shore (2005) introduced injured cop Joe Cashin.
Modern retrospection arose from Australian acceptance of the innovative mode of historical crime fiction pioneered by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose (1980). Melbourne led with Kerry Greenwood’s glamorous 1920s investigator Lady Phryne Fisher in Cocaine Blues (1989); later Marshall Browne offered a turn-of-the century Melbourne thriller series.
International gay crime fiction arrived: Claire McNab handled the female side forcefully, while for the men Adelaide’s notorious Duncan drowning was reworked in Roger Raftery’s The Pink Triangle (1981) and Phillip Scott’s amusing opera-related series started with One Dead Diva (1995).
Indigenous crime fiction writers also appeared. Mudrooroo Narogin produced, then as Colin Johnson, Wild Cat Falling (1965), a potent crime novel about a Perth teenager; later crime stories featured his Detective-Inspector Watson Holmes Jackamara, a figure both ironic and revealing. Archie Weller wrote a strong crime novel The Day of the Dog (1981) and tough short stories; Philip McLaren’s major novel Scream Black Murder (1995) has Indigenous police detectives, male and female, facing both public and personal challenges in Sydney’s Redfern.
Since 2000 Australian crime fiction has strengthened further, mostly with new voices. Day, Rowe and McNab all put an early end to their series and in 2017 Corris has called it a day – Cliff is smiling as the story finishes. Temple’s darkest novel, Truth, won the Miles Franklin national prize in 2010, but his recent death has saddened readers.
Historicism has continued. Sulari Gentill explores the politics of the 1930s in her Rowland Sinclair series, and Lady Phryne has re-appeared, but Greenwood now also turns to the “cozy” tradition with large detecting chef Corinna Chapman. Police presence has grown, with notably realistic treatments by former female officers, P.M. Newton, Karen M. Davis and Y.A. Erskine; and there are others, like Leigh Giarratano’s subtle detective Jill Jackson and Felicity Young’s Senior Sergeant Stevie Hooper, tall, brave and based in Perth, like several other modern investigators, including Alan Carter’s “Cato” Kwong, a police detective from a long-present Chinese family.
Australian women crime writers are now in a clear majority, and they also offer private eyes: Gabrielle Lord has a series about Gemma Lincoln, and Angela Savage’s well-developed Thailand-based novels feature Jayne Keeney. The psychothriller remains vigorous: journalist Caroline Overington produced the intriguing Ghost Child (2009), while Honey Brown offers deeply imaginative stories like Red Queen (2009).
The crime novel thrives among male writers — Disher’s man re-asserted his presence in Wyatt (2010) and Andrew Nette produced the both local and international Gunshine State (2016); the comic crime novel emerged in Robert G. Barrett’s series about the idiotic bogan Les Norton. Other traditions continue: Tara Moss keeps feminism alive in her Mak Vanderwall series, while Nicole Watson’s The Boundary (2011) is a powerful Brisbane-based, Indigenous-oriented narrative.
Unique features appear in Australian crime fiction, and not just the five different authors who focus their mysteries on the Melbourne Cup. More notable are Leigh Redhead’s series about Simone Kirsch, the stripper-detective, starting with Peepshow (2004), revealing in several ways, and the two fascinating poem-based mysteries by the sadly late Dorothy Porter: The Monkey’s Mask (1994) and El Dorado (2007).
Such brilliant exotics, and the richness of the tradition as a whole, show how far Australian crime fiction has come from convicts and bushrangers, without losing its continuing relationship with changing national concerns and the social and personal myths it can both test and validate.
Stephen Knight is the author of Australian Crime Fiction: A 200-Year History
“The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” Stanford biologist and ecologist Paul Erhlich declared on the first page of his 1968 best-seller, “The Population Bomb.” Because the “stork had passed the plow,” he predicted, “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.”
Ehrlich’s book identified dramatically accelerating world population growth as the central underlying cause of myriad problems, from a food crisis in India to the Vietnam War to smog and urban riots in the United States. It sold more than 2 million copies and went through 20 reprints by 1971. Ehrlich appeared more than 20 times on NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson”, and became the first president of Zero Population Growth, a Washington D.C.–based advocacy organization, while remaining a professor at Stanford.
“The Population Bomb” created more space to hold radical views on population matters, but its impact was fleeting, and maybe even harmful to the population movement. By the early 1970s, many critics were savaging Ehrlich and the larger goal of achieving zero population growth. And the politics of “morning in America” in the 1980s successfully marginalized Erhlich as a doomsdayer.
However, as a historian who has studied debates about population growth throughout U.S. history, I believe that Ehrlich’s warnings deserve a new and less hysterical hearing. While Ehrlich has acknowledged significant errors, he was correct that lowering birth rates was – and remains – a crucial plank in addressing global environmental crises.
A Malthusian warning
Ehrlich drew on nearly 200 years of thinking inspired by British pastor and political economist Robert Thomas Malthus. In his 1798 study, “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” Malthus famously predicted that “geometric” population growth would overwhelm “arithmetic” gains in agricultural production, leading to wars, famines and societal collapse.
Fears of the potentially dangerous social and ecological effects of population growth intensified after World War II. Global population surged as public health improved greatly in developing nations, increasing life expectancy. At the same time, the new science of ecology demonstrated the fragility of Earth’s interconnected systems. And the Cold War promoted worries that population-induced poverty would breed communism.
Mainstream advocates of arresting population growth emphasized better access to family planning and education, but Ehrlich had no use for such baby steps. “Well-spaced children will starve, vaporize in thermonuclear war, or die of plague just as well as unplanned children,” he wrote.
Technological optimists pointed to the “Green Revolution” in agriculture, which had vastly increased crop yields up until the late 1960s. But Erhlich, echoing a growing chorus of farmers and agricultural scientists, warned that pesticides ruined the environment and would eventually backfire as weeds and pests developed resistance.
Erhlich never called population the only variable. With physicist John Holdren, he proposed the I = P x A x T formula, which describes human impact as the product of population, affluence (the effects of consumption) and technology.
Nonetheless, Ehrlich believed that population was the key multiplier and massive reductions in global population were critical for human survival. He hoped that a combination of policy carrots and sticks would reduce fertility sufficiently and preserve voluntary family planning. But he held out the possibility that coercive measures, including compulsory sterilizations, might be needed.
Backlash and a new population politics
Millions of Americans shared Ehrlich’s anxieties in 1968. Concerns about the ecological impact of global population growth had helped birth modern American environmentalism. Feminists cited overpopulation to buttress the case for reproductive and abortion rights. Politicians on both sides of the aisle urged action to lower birth rates, and Republican President Richard Nixon signed into law a Commission on Population Growth and the American Future.
But the “culture wars” of the 1970s subsumed and reconfigured population issues. On the right, the “pro-life” movement that crystallized in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision considered any talk of population reduction anathema.
China’s one-child policy, launched around 1980, led to serious human rights abuses that allowed anti–family planning conservatives to paint all population programs in a negative light. Conservatives subsequently ignored China’s significant reforms to the policy, as well as research indicating that slowing population growth contributed to China’s economic miracle.
Moreover, newly ascendant anti-Keynesian economists rejected an older consensus that slowing population growth would yield economic benefits. These market-oriented economists asserted that denser populations created economies of scale, and that individual fertility decisions would adjust to any temporary population problems. President Ronald Reagan, who once had dabbled with Malthusianism, tellingly labeled advocates who worried about scarce resources “Doomsday prophets.”
After Congress eliminated national-origin immigration quotas in 1965, immigration rose steadily and accounted for a growing share of population growth in the U.S. In this context, white liberals increasingly risked being branded racist for supporting population reduction.
By the late 1970s, both liberals and conservatives had bought into exaggerated talk of an “aging crisis” – too few workers to pay for the bulge of baby boomers headed toward retirement. This perspective bolstered calls for higher birth rates and further reduced the sting of the overpopulation critique.
An unsolved equation
Today Ehrlich is a largely forgotten prophet, although some small population-centric organizations continue to tilt at windmills and the mainstream press occasionally dips its toes in the water. After some very public rifts over immigration policy, mainstream environmental groups generally avoid or downplay the issue. Meanwhile, the Right continues to dismiss talk of population problems.
Looking back with the benefit of time, it’s clear Ehrlich was wrong to view population as all-encompassing. In addition, the global total fertility rate has declined more than he anticipated – although the development and modernization that has helped lower birth rates, a process known as the demographic transition, comes at great environmental cost.
Ehrlich underestimated human ingenuity. And for now, one can reasonably argue that food insecurity remains primarily political rather than technological. In Ehrlich’s own words, the book’s weaknesses were “not [focusing] enough on overconsumption and equity issues.”
But he got much right, even if many details and his timing were off. Global population has increased at a remarkably steady rate since 1968, and the United Nations projects that it will reach 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100. Scientists continue to extend his prescient warnings that efforts to feed all these people through pesticide-intensive monoculture may backfire. And although Ehrlich exaggerated the threat of mass starvation, about 8,500 young children die from malnutrition every day.
Human-driven climate change is an overriding threat, and is unambiguously worsened by population growth. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that limiting warming in this century to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) would require cutting global greenhouse gas emissions 40 to 70 percent by 2050 and nearly eliminating them by 2100. “Globally, economic and population growth continue to be the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion,” the panel observes.
There lies an enduring flaw in Ehrlich’s approach. If impact equals people times affluence times technology, then reducing population alone is not sufficient to solve our ecological crises. But reducing affluence is neither possible nor desirable, since it would condemn millions to lifelong poverty. Ultimately, “The Population Bomb” offered no road map for transitioning away from capitalism without causing human ruin as serious as the environmental ruin that seems to be our destiny.