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2016 Explanatory Reporting, Small Newsroom finalist

The Population Bomb?

About the Project

Retro Report’s short documentary “The Population Bomb?,” illustrates how critical and powerful it is for a story to question and reinterpret accepted beliefs, especially when they affect social policy with worldwide ramifications.

Over 4 million women in India are sterilized every year, often in mass operations at makeshift camps where they are herded like cattle through the procedure before being given a few rupees for their time. And every year, women die — including more than a dozen at a single temporary camp in 2014.

But why do these camps exist? They trace their history to an old fear, one that, as Retro Report reveals in “The Population Bomb?” reached a zenith in the late 1960s with the apocalyptic prophesy of a single idealistic American. His name was Paul Ehrlich, a charismatic young biologist whose chance drive through the crowded slums of New Delhi left him consumed with a disturbing thought — what if the world’s population was a ticking time bomb?

This is the beginning of a unique and important journey, and our digital documentary goes on to challenge viewers to re-think long-held views about the relationship between human population and some of the most intractable problems in the world.

Many of these problems are the same as those that led Ehrlich on his path toward population control more than 40 years ago, with sometimes dire results. He saw poverty, environmental degradation and famine around the world, projecting a cataclysmic end brought on by the hubris of man. His theme struck a cord. Ehrlich became a sought-after expert on population control, rallying the world into action through a best-selling book and a media blitz that included more than twenty appearances on The Tonight Show.

In the United States, his group, Zero Population Growth, blossomed into a powerful voice, while overseas the fear of overpopulation led to sometimes draconian measures — such as forced sterilizations — to control against it. “The Population Bomb?” sharply traces this rise in population control policies through Ehrlich’s own words, as well as those of former protégés’, like Stewart Brand, the founding editor of The Whole Earth Catalogue. Mixed with rare archival showing their youthful fight for Ehrlich’s cause, the reflections of such former true-believers become poignant visual moments as they recall how many of Ehrlich’s predictions about population proved terribly wrong. On-the-ground reporting from India, highlighted by a poignant photo essay, adds unique context to the story, showing how overpopulation fears reshaped the country’s family planning program and continue to influence it today, even as social and economic shifts have placed downward pressure on family size.

Upon its release on our own site, as well as The New York Times, “The Population Bomb?” so reawakened the debate around population issues that it prompted a “Room for Debate” series of essays, a heated discussion on social media, and was referenced by both sides of the political spectrum — from Bill Gates to Glenn Beck. In the end Retro Report’s “The Population Bomb?” weaves together a far-reaching story that highlights the problematic nature of prediction, the cost of losing sight of individuals in the name of the broader social programs, and the surprising adaptability of the human race.