Lesson Plan

Human Geography: The Population Bomb


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.


  • 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.
  • Environment
  • Social Studies
  • Geography
  • World History
  • AP Environmental Science
  • Cultural and Social Change
  • Domestic Policies
  • The Environment and Natural Resources
  • 1960s America
  • 1970s America
  • The Postwar Era (1945-1980)
For Teachers

Introducing the Lesson

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.

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?

Lesson Procedure

  • Why didn’t the most extreme predictions by Paul Ehrlich come true?
  • Paul Ehrlich said the idea that women should be allowed to have as many children as they want is comparable to someone saying they should be able to throw as much garbage into their neighbor’s yard as they want. Do you think this is a fair comparison?
  • Based on your level of concern about overpopulation, what policies (if any) would you support to reduce population growth? Would you support government policies limiting family size? Tax incentives for families with fewer children or none? Increased taxes on toys or diapers? Sterilization programs?
  • At the end of the video, Stewart Brand says a problem in the future might be that we’re “running out of people.” Why are some countries facing a problem of too few babies, and too many aging citizens?

Additional Resources

Transcript for "Population Bomb: The Overpopulation Theory That Fell Flat"Retro Report 
“The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion”Retro Report/ 
Audio Interview: "The Population Bomb That Wasn't"WNYC 
Photo Essay: “A Journey through India: The Legacy of Population Fears” Retro Report 

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.

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.

Evaluate how political and economic decisions have influenced cultural and environmental characteristics of various places and regions.

Skill 1.D: Describe a relevant model in a specified context.

Questions? Tips? Concerns? Reach out to our Director of Education, David Olson: dolson@retroreport.com