Population Bomb: The Overpopulation Theory That Fell Flat

In the 1960s, fears of overpopulation sparked talk of population control. So what happened?

Not enough babies are being born to support an aging population in some parts of the world. But decades ago, there seemed to be the opposite problem: a prediction about a future with too many people. The concern then was that a population bomb would tip the world into chaos.

In 1968, the release of Paul Ehrlich’s best-selling book The Population Bomb and his multiple appearances on the “Tonight Show” helped spread fears that our planet could not sustain itself. Population concerns were already percolating, and Americans soon flocked to Ehrlich’s movement, Zero Population Growth, whose mantra on children was “stop at two.”

While many of his forecasts did not come true, they left a legacy that is still with us today. In the end, the story of The Population Bomb sheds a fascinating light on the dangers of prediction and the adaptability of the human race.

View full episodes at PBS.org/RetroReport.

This video was supported in part by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Related: The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion by Clyde Haberman

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At Retro Report, we update our journalism as news unfolds. Here are the previous published versions of this story.
For teachers
  • Producer: Kit R. Roane
  • Producer: Sarah Weiser

For Educators


This 13-minute video introduces students to the origins of the public debate on population policy. It includes recent interviews with the activists and experts who first raised awareness in the 1970s with dire predictions of catastrophe unless extreme measures were taken to curb population growth. In clarifying why some of these predictions didn’t come true, the video shows students how the Green Revolution expanded “carrying capacity,” and how some countries have adopted policies to manage population growth. A concise and vivid contextualization of policy debates on population, the video is useful as an introduction to a sequence of lessons on population growth and demographic transition, or as a way of teeing up discussion or debate at the end of the unit.

Background reading

In the late 1960s, “The Population Bomb” by Paul Ehrlich spread fear that the earth would soon be unable to support an exploding global population.

Ehrlich, a professor of population studies at Stanford, pushed that dire message home in his book, on television, and in lecture halls across the country.

It quickly became a talking point for television news anchors, late night-talk show hosts and magazine writers. His supporters pushed for families to have fewer children, and touted the benefits of Z.P.G. – zero population growth.

Ehrlich himself was increasingly alarmed that untamed global population growth might destroy the planet within 15 years. He even talked about the need for compulsory methods of population control, like a tax on children and luxury taxes on diapers and cribs if all else failed.

Ehrlich’s belief that population was approaching the exhaustion of the food supply hit home in India, which launched a controversial sterilization program in the mid-1970s that affected 8 million people. But his dire predictions overlooked the so-called Green Revolution of the 1970s, when high-yield seeds, pesticides and better farm management triggered a boom in food production world-wide.

Over the decades, those advances have lessened hunger in India and across the developing world. As efficient farming has increased, the need for large families to run those farms has decreased as well.

There’s no doubt that Ehrlich raised awareness of the impact of population growth on the environment, but his story shows the danger of underestimating mankind’s ability to change.

Lesson Plan 1: Human Geography: The Population Bomb

Students will learn why concerns about population growth first emerged in the 1970s, why predictions about population were wrong, and what that means for today.

  • How public concerns about population growth first emerged in the United States.
  • Why forecasts of catastrophic overpopulation made in the 1970s were not borne out.
  • How some countries have responded to overpopulation.
Essential questions
  • In the 1970s, why was Paul Ehrlich worried about the “population bomb”?
  • What solutions did he propose to limit population growth?
  • How did the Green Revolution affect hunger in the developing world? What effect did it have on public concerns about overpopulation?
  • How is India managing population growth? Which policies have they tried? Which seem to be the most successful?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.Geo.5.9-12. Evaluate how political and economic decisions have influenced cultural and environmental characteristics of various places and regions.
  • AP Human Geography
    • Topic 2.7: Population PoliciesSkill 1.D: Describe a relevant model in a specified context.
  • AP Environmental Science
    • Unit 5: Land & Water Use