The book [The Population Bomb, 1968] begins with India. [Author Paul] Ehrlich describes a trip he and [wife and co-author] Anne took to the country with their young daughter. “[O]ne stinking hot night in Delhi,” he wrote, they rode back to their hotel in a flea-infested taxi. Along the way they passed through a slum, and he looked out the window. This is what he saw:
People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob, hand horn squawking, the dust, noise, heat, and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get to our hotel? All three of us were, frankly, frightened.
During that cab ride, population growth went from an intellectual to an emotional preoccupation for Ehrlich—and for his readers. Indians, he implied, were “multiplying like rabbits.” (Hvistendahl, pp. 94-95)
The Population Bomb appeared at a time of rising inflation, mounting protests over the Vietnam War, and deepening civil rights fractures across the country. Difficult times make it easy to fear those different from ourselves, and the book preyed on this tendency. Ehrlich, the historian Matthew Connelly writes, “probably connected precisely with those readers who had imagined getting lost in a large city and ending up in the wrong neighborhood—not Delhi, but Harlem or Watts. Only Ehrlich invited readers not just to imagine a wrong turn, but to recognize that America—all of it—was turning into a bad neighborhood.” (Hvistendahl, p. 95)
Journalists and television personalities loved Ehrlich’s charisma and energy, and [Johnny] Carson, in particular, couldn’t get enough of him….
As The Tonight Show episode [Aug. 13, 1970] wore on, [Ben] Wattenberg ["a critic who had dismissed Ehrlich's dire population forecasts in a recent New Republic article" (p. 93)] vainly tried to point out that Ehrlich’s predictions were off base. “Sooner or later,” he said, “you suffer a credibility gap.” But this did little to abate audience enthusiasm. The crowd applauded wildly every time Ehrlich made a new point. To Wattenberg, meanwhile, audience members were cold, bordering on derisive. When the demographer suggested the U.S. could remain a nice place to live with 300 million people—a number we reached in 2006—they broke into peals of mocking laughter. A low point came when comedian Buddy Hackett, who had appeared earlier in the show, stumbled onstage in a dashiki, interrupting Wattenberg midsentence. (p. 96)
Hvistendahl, M. (2011). Unnatural selection: choosing boys over girls, and the consequences of a world full of men. New York: PublicAffairs.