Straight Dope 1/20/2023: Have baby boomers wrecked the planet?

Have baby boomers wrecked the planet?

Eh, I’m not saying we didn’t scuff it up some. I feel bad about the Amazon rain forest, and the grandkids have been on my case about letting pollution in Asia get so gross. But give me a break. It turns out the last 50 years, far from being the disaster some millennials have claimed, have been, by objective measures, an era of global prosperity without parallel in history. So show some appreciation, you ungrateful pups.

I’m inspired to make these observations by the flurry of commentary attending the recent re-appearance of biologist Paul Ehrlich, one of the leading lights of the we’re-doomed school of futurology. The Population Bomb, the 1968 book Ehrlich co-wrote with his wife Anne, scared the bell bottoms off a generation of college students at the dawning of the modern environmental movement. Among the predictions one or both of the Ehrlichs made at various times:

None of these nightmare visions came to pass, of course. The capper was a famous 1980 bet between Paul, who figured the cost of basic commodities was sure to skyrocket due to scarcity, and business professor Julian Simon, who believed human ingenuity would come up with a way to compensate:

Simon challenged Ehrlich to choose any raw material he wanted and a date more than a year away, and he would wager on the inflation-adjusted prices decreasing as opposed to increasing. Ehrlich chose copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten. The bet was formalized on September 29, 1980, with September 29, 1990, as the payoff date. Ehrlich lost the bet, as all five commodities that were bet on declined in [inflation-corrected] price from 1980 through 1990, the wager period.

I’m always happy to see alarmists get their comeuppance, and am tickled to see the scary headlines switch from OMG, the population is going up! to OMG, the population is going down. Still, in the beginning I didn’t feel a personal stake in the matter. That was before boomers began getting blamed for everything from too much professional licensing to ruining the entire world.

At first one could only protest feebly – hey, don’t blame me for the war in Iraq. But now that definitive data is in, we boomers need take no guff from the younger generation. Setting aside bad apples such as the Butcher of Bosnia – and he was born in 1945 and so by some criteria isn’t a boomer – we’ve given humanity five decades of joy, or anyway considerable improvement. Evidence on this score comes to us from Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet by Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley, which I found out about while reading comments on the second coming of Paul Ehrlich.

The book, it must be said, requires some filtering. Tupy and Pooley are admirers of Julian Simon, Ehrlich’s nemesis, and, like Ehrlich, tend to take arguments over a cliff. For example, in a section about China’s now-regretted one-child policy, they make the remarkable claim that “without China’s birth limit, global resources would be almost twice as abundant today.” This gets into some math only a longtermist could love, but the implication is that the solution to any resource crisis = make more babies, an assertion we’ll quietly pass by.

Things calm down after that. The two persuasively argue that:

  • For an extraordinary range of goods and services, from wheat and aluminum to air conditioning and cosmetic surgery, prices have fallen substantially and in some cases astonishingly. They do this using a technique they call time pricing – in essence, how long you have to work to be able to buy something, thereby factoring in both the cost and how much you’re making. Using this metric, they make a plausible case that, far from facing the devastating shortages predicted by Ehrlich, we’ve entered an era of “superabundance,” in which resources in the broad sense outgrow population.

  • True, physical resources may be limited, but miniaturization, virtualization, and so on mean the universe of cool things – that is, resources broadly defined – is indefinitely extensible, a practical example being the smart phone, which “combines … a telephone, camera, radio, television set, alarm clock, newspaper, photo album, voice recorder, maps, compass, and more” into a gimmick that fits in your pocket.

  • They don’t literally mean more people automatically mean more wealth, notwithstanding earlier claims. Rather, more people plus a supportive environment – meaning personal liberty, free markets, access to capital, and so on – allows human ingenuity to flourish and generate enough innovation to support an ever better world. As evidence, they point out, global life expectancy, living standards, and literacy are up, while extreme poverty and other dire statistics are down.

So there you go. And it all happened – well, continued – on the boomers’ watch.

You may say: But what about global warming, species loss, and other looming catastrophes? T&P don’t have much to say about these things, other than noting we used to fret about global cooling. However, the thrust of their argument is we’ll figure something out.

And who’s to say we won’t? I see where Oliver Stone of all people is banging the drum for nuclear power. Meanwhile, your boomer columnist is still flailing away at ignorance – so far, he concedes, without much to show for it. But one wants to leave coming generations something to do.


After some time off to recharge, Cecil Adams is back! The Master can answer any question. Post questions or topics for investigation in the Cecil’s Columns forum on the Straight Dope Message Board,

The hatred towards baby boomers goes as follows: It’s a generation that could get a well-paying 40-hour job without going to college or university. With that job they could support a stay-at-home wife, have multiple kids, and own their own house and two cars. They used up all the cheap credit and saw their property values soar.

Now, even those with a college degree still struggle to survive, often working minimum wage for 60 hours a week, face an impossibly high financial barrier to get on the housing market - even if they are earning good money, and are faced with a climate crisis which many baby boomers seem to refuse to accept is real while actively working to deny it leaving the newer generation to clean up after them.

All the while people from the newer generations hear baby boomers calling them lazy and entitled.

In the UK the baby boomer generation overwhelmingly voted for Brexit denying the people in the younger generation (who generally voted to stay in the EU) the right to live and work in the rest of Europe - which felt like the ultimate “fuck you” and sort of typified to many people the lack of respect from one generation to the others.

The harshest take is that baby boomers are the generation that stole everything from their children after being given everything from their parents.

I personally think humans are all the same and the environment changes them so there’s no need to get personal. If Gen Z had been born in 50s and 60s they would have behaved in the same way.

Dear Cecil,

Please do not promote the global cooling myth. Even in the 70s most scientists were concerned with global warming. Thanks!


I have to second this strongly. The global cooling BS comes up far too often for the little traction it got in the 70s.

To the degree that a generation can be blamed for something, and to the degree that it “wrecks the planet”, I do think that denying global warming is the biggest way in which “boomers have wrecked the planet”. I don’t think you can blame them for consumerism, or energy-consuming and environmentally-destructive sprawl, or many other things that were started by previous generations. But they were in power for the decades when global warming was quickly becoming a reality, and many of them steadfastly denied it even existed.

The other global environmental problems, such as plastic pollution, and habitat destruction, were partly the fault of boomers, but there are plenty of post-boomers who are still making those a problem right now.

Let’s forget about what the Baby Boomers did or did not do. Let’s, instead think about what all of us CAN do NOW to solve the environmental problems threatening our civilization. We certainly know what they are, and we certainly know the things we can do to alleviate those problems.

Keep in mind that, back in that time, many things we realize now weren’t even known back then so, in a very real sense, today’s generation is MORE responsible for what’s going on.

You have to thank the Boomers for one thing; they declined to pump out babies at the same rate their parents did. As a child of the 70s, I can note with relief that the year Soylent Green takes place has just passed.

Nice job, Unc

Reducing the question to “Paul Ehrlich was wrong, we have tons of stuff actually!” is shallow, tendentious, and stupid. And this is the only line of reasoning in the column! Terrible, shoddy work all around.

Sure, some good things happened in the latter 20th century, but at every turn Boomers have done their best to ensure that the benefits flow mainly to them, while the negative externalities will fall on future generations.

This is really disappointing. My respect for Cecil dropped more than one notch today.

I would remind you that Boomers are still very much alive today, and are very much politically active, and choose to use their political power to avoid addressing anything whatsoever.

It’s pretty distasteful to suggest we should give the poor dears a pass because they didn’t know any better. They know better now, and have the political power to make a difference, yet are holding their thumbs on the scale to prevent action on the biggest problems facing the world. (See Cecil above with the bullshit “actually global cooling” claim).

Does it make any sense to speak of a “generation’s” responsibility for anything? The individuals in any given generation are not working in a coordinated way. In fact, many of them are working at cross purposes.

That was a weak column but at least Cecil did not quote Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, so it could have been worse.
And yes: I am a boomer and we will leave this planet in a worse shape than we received it. Not our fault, at least not exclusively, but the result is there for all to see. We are the generation that multiplied the most; because of us there are much too many people on Earth today and that will be bad and getting worse tomorrow.

Indeed, those of us in the baby boomer generation who are nominally on the side of “good” have been stymied, opposed, and regularly defeated, by the side of “bad”. We are as much victims as any ensuing generational cohort.

I’m Gen X but I remind all that the Boomers are the generation that really got the Environmental movement going. My generation doesn’t seem to be as activist and later generations even less so.

So many Environmental groups are in an aging crisis. The boomers who ran them for so long are disappearing and even the Gen X’ers are middle age now. We aren’t successful in replacing our lost members.

When I joined my group at 22 I was among the younger active members, but we were hundreds in numbers and ranged from kids to 80-somethings. Now our youngest active members are in their 40s and we number maybe 20-30 active members.

Hudson River Clearwater had to end their long running and very large Environmental Festival. Our smaller one is just barely carrying on.

Even Greenpeace has far less activists though at least their membership numbers are robust.

Many of the small groups have folded completely. Clearwater once had 8 sloop clubs. We’re the only ones left is my understanding and we’re hanging on by our fingertips.

Part of our problem is fighting Pollution, for Clean Air and Water were easier. People in the 70s to 90s saw how bad things were getting, rivers were catching fire, so many toxic waste dumps. Climate Change isn’t anywhere near as simple or visual and is far more easily ignored.

I think a lot of the Anti-War protesters of the 60s migrated to the environmental movement of the 70s. They were already activist and found a new thing to be activist about.

Later Generations didn’t have that as much.

Thank you. Anti-boomerism is nothing more than dressed-up ageism and is absurd as generations are, in the word of a writer rightly loved by boomers, a granfalloon.

Another entertaining column. I missed Cecil’s lugubrious wit. I’m happy it has returned.

Generational stereotypes have always been a bit problematic. Painting with a big brush usually removes a lot of important details. The experiences of a generation differ greatly from person to person, country to country, the beginning of some arbitrary ten or twenty year cutoff and its end. Perhaps these shared experiences are more relevant in the shadow of big events like World Wars or the global nature of commercial technology. Perhaps some of these things come from a tendency to take credit and pat oneself on the back for things outside one’s control and see oneself in a positive light by praising one’s contemporaries. Many older generations have been both jealous and critical of younger ones.

Despite doomsayers from Al-Ma’ari to Malthus, most people now spend less of their income on basic goods and services than at most times in history. The price of some items, like comically large televisions, has fallen up to 97% in a decade or two. Recent progress has lifted billions out of poverty, as Hans Rosling credibly reports (more so than the sources in the article). But it is too soon to herald the Age of Aquarius or finalize preparations uniting all of mankind under a banner of dignity and democracy.

Democracy has had a few really tough years on a global basis. Covid highlighted divisions between nations fighting for fixed resources, scientists and the self-righteous, isolation and intervention - and reversed some of the recent progress. Ehrlich’s mistaken bet is much less important than his successful work in immunology and chemotherapy, and relevant to fighting Covid. What is, in the end, more American than harnessing the genius of every field to quickly invent a successful vaccine, mixed with the steadfast refusal of millions of people to refuse to compromise their inalienable rights and self-determination to not benefit from this inspiring progress?

Not every young person is a hipster doofus, enjoys avocado toast or is obsessed with celebrities. The looming catastrophes that T&P don’t address matter to young people. Four out of five are very concerned with climate change and people like Thunberg have tried (not without hypocrisy) to hold institutions to account. Economists focus on economic considerations, of course. How can we sell more things to the most numerous group of customers? Because globally there are a lot more younger people than older ones, and if growth is the mantra, future markets matter most.

Phones may be superabundant. So are the problems social media magnifies - feeling others have more, depression, anxiety, lack of dignity, psychological manipulation and misplaced anger. Huge percentages of people now worry about food inflation even if less of their disposable income goes to procure it.

Housing is important to anyone, and hardly superabundant in many places due to poor planning and policy, perplexing prices and unrealistic expectations. It has had difficult moments before, such as during stagflationary interest rates. But not to mention housing when discussing superabundance suggests the economists are cherry-picking positive examples. It is true there is awareness of these issues and some, like the ozone hole, have been effectively addressed. To blame the young for being concerned about important problems is foolish. One might lionize older generations for some real achievements and positive prosperity measures, including real social progress. The best leaders tend to have more experience. They are older. Many genuinely want to address the problems concerning younger people and are sometimes putting their money where their mouth is, not always just saying what sounds trendy.

These rosy visions tend to ignore the problems caused by assuming more is always better, emphasizing commerce over all else, creating unrealistic material expectations given limited resources or ignoring the many downsides to technology and its unintended effects. Superabundance. Better than mere abundance. By definition. It’s super. Super for the environment, for consumer expectations, for resilience, for building better citizens, for all countries? More access to everything, yet 3 out of 4 Americans complain of being lonely.

Yes, we live in an era promising easy convenience. It is a wonderful time. But no generation really has things that easy, there are always more problems. May we again solve them by coming together as a people using our highest levels of problem solving and ingenuity. Not be divided by tchotchkes or not realizing the gifts of democracy and comfort and compromise before these things are no more.

I believe he was just mentioning that T&P cited that as part of their anti-catastrophism.

To blame the current mess either exclusively on boomers, or on all boomers in general including those who’ve spent their lives trying to avert it, is nonsensical. To claim that there isn’t any current mess because a lot of people were/are able to buy a lot of things is also nonsensical.

Some of y’all sure paint with wide brush. I would expect better from people who frequent this board. Good luck with dealing with how YOUR generation(s) are marginalized, derided and insulted in later years by your descendants.