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Environmentalism's Dirty Secret

“Conservation will never work. Recycling will never work. None of the stuff we’re talking about will ever work, because we are too afraid to talk about the thing that matters.”

This was the candid assessment, conveyed privately to me over dinner, by a biochemistry research scientist (who prefers his name not be mentioned). He has spent the last two decades touring the country, going to conferences related to sustainability and the environment, and speaking with other scientists and professionals invested in the topic.

“I meet people in all different fields at these conferences,” he told me. “They are coming at the same problem from different angles: water management, waste management, plastics and recycling, oil and energy… but no matter what field you come from, if you think about the question of long-term sustainability for long enough, you come to the same conclusion. The problem is people: there are just too many people. We have to reduce the population. And everybody is too scared to talk about it.”

The Radical 60s

Not everybody is scared to talk about population control; but the fear runs deep, and with good reason. The last time American scientists tried to initiate a serious national conversation about our planet’s population problem was the 1960s, and that did not go well.

Time Magazine

The world population reached 3 billion in the year 1960, and the headline on the cover of Time that January was: “That Population Explosion!” It set the tone for the entire decade: the environment, ecology, resources and consumption were on everybody’s mind. Scientists offered dire warnings about our continued existence on this planet, and the media couldn’t get enough of it.

The end of the ‘60s and the early 70s saw some of the most notable examples, from John Platt’s “What We Must Do” for Science magazine in 1969 to Richard Falk’s 1971 book This Endangered Planet: Prospects and Proposals for Human Survival. Both, and many others, cited the relationships among human beings, technology, and the planet as of paramount importance.

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But while that era was drenched in alarming predictions and warnings of disaster, none received both the attention and bile as The Population Bomb (1968), written by Paul and Anne Ehrlich. Reprinted 22 times between 1968 and 1971, the book’s success led Paul Ehrlich onto Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show" over a dozen times. It has been lauded as one of the most memorable and most controversial ecological books of the decade, as well as “one of the most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Like other ecological books from that decade, The Population Bomb made grim predictions for the future: some came to pass; others did not. The real source of its controversy, however, was its focus on population. As Paul and Anne Ehrlich admit forty years later in their article “The Population Bomb Revisited,” published in 2009: “Much of the negative response to The Population Bomb, from both the far right and the far left, was clearly a reaction to its main message--that it can be a very bad thing to have more than a certain number of people alive at the same time….”

The Basic Argument

From a purely abstract point of view, the argument is straight-forward: The population of our planet can’t grow forever. The earth has limited resources. At some point, be it 10 years or 1 million years from now, if we do not find a way to achieve zero population growth, our species will not survive. And if we look realistically at the resources available on earth, and the rate of human consumption, that number falls far closer to 10 than 1 million.

In a sense, all other environmental and ecological problems stem from the population problem, in that if we don’t solve the population problem, we will never be able to solve the problems associated with pollution, food production, waste management, or energy demand. Overpopulation itself may not cause those problems directly, but the more the population grows, the worse those problems become.

But what’s the solution? Find ways to decrease the population, according to some. Paul Ehrlich established the organization Zero Population Growth (ZPG) in 1968 to popularize and publicize the goal of voluntary birth rate reduction. However, his ideas did not end with voluntary action. In a recent book, The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future, Paul Sabin provides a colorful summary of some of the Ehrlichs’ proposals, and sets the stage for understanding some of the public’s more strident reactions:

"The primary focus of Zero Population Growth and the Ehrlichs on population sometimes mean that they took positions that risked making life more difficult for women. Their call for federal policies that would discourage larger families, including "luxury taxes" on diapers, baby bottles, and baby foods, could seem harsh. The Ehrlichs also called for tax reform to discourage reproduction, including a change from tax deductions to tax increases for children, and proposed lotteries and awards for childless couples. [...]

"While explicitly demanding higher taxes on larger families, the biologists skirted the edge of calling for direct government prevention of "extra" births.… Ehrlich rejected the idea that parents had an "inalienable right" to reproduce and said that perhaps an across-the-world limit of two children per family would be the most equitable approach. Ehrlich floated hypothetical ideas about mandatory sterilizations or temporary infertility imposed through pills or public drinking water. Yet he generally

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shied away from calls for direct government controls. [...]"

Ehrlich was trying to find ways to tackle head-on the very real problem of too many people, and it caused an immediate backlash. On one hand, plant physiologist and progressive political activist Barry Commoner lambasted Ehrlich for even proposing coercive measures. In a 1972 bulletin he wrote, “Population control (as distinct from voluntary, self-initiated control of fertility), no matter how disguised, involves some measure of political repression.” He argued that focusing on population is de facto racist and classist, and that we should focus on improving means of production and reducing poverty instead.

Arguing from a different perspective, Julian Simon, economist and professor of business administration, suggested that population increases are not a problem at all. He suggested that technological innovation would always find ways to exploit new resources in new ways, making material resources effectively unlimited in the face of technology and innovation.

Erlich gained some perhaps unwanted support from Garrett Hardin, an American ecologist known for his warnings about overpopulation. The same year that The Population Bomb was published, Hardin wrote the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all,” he cautioned. “The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon.”

Hardin took issue with Ehrlich, but on eugenics principles, unlike Commoner or Simon. As described in “Garrett Hardin, Ph.D. - A retrospective of his life and work,” published by the Garrett Hardin Society after Hardin’s death in 2003:

"Although Hardin's principal concern has been the growth of population numbers, he has also voiced concern about population quality and it is here that his writings have a eugenic dimension. He has criticized Paul Erlich's 1967 book The Population Time Bomb and the American organization Zero Population Growth (ZPG) on the grounds that Erlich and ZPG failed to take into account the issue of population quality."

According to Hardin, “low quality” populations, as he termed them, should not be allowed to outbreed “high quality” populations. Not surprisingly, people were outraged.

The Erlichs have never suggested that some populations should be given preference over others. Paul Ehrlich has openly renounced eugenics and written extensively to refute the idea that people are somehow “color-coded for quality.” They have both repeatedly warned in their writings that one of the great risks of coercive population control is that it has the potential to be abused by people with racist or bigoted agendas.

But because both Hardin and the Ehrlichs were vocal proponents of population control, their critics often lumped them together. And for many political activists, the mere fact that Paul Ehrlich mentioned coercive measures of population control meant

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that he was either a racist, or someone who wanted to “cleanse” the population of poor people.

Paul Erlich, today

I had an opportunity to chat with Paul Ehrlich earlier this month. He is one of the most active and energetic octogenarians I’ve ever met, and I asked him how he felt about being “lumped in” with eugenicists and racists.


“People say, ‘Oh my god, you’re a Malthusean!’”--referring to Thomas Malthus, a 19th century cleric who was one of the first to suggest that populations, left unchecked, will expand to use up their available resources. The elites of his day championed his views as an excuse for culling poor people, and since then “Malthusean” has equated to Social Darwinism and other attempts to use science to justify privilege.

“Malthus was 200 years ago,” continued Ehrlich, “But his basic premise—namely that populations can outgrow their resources—is correct and is supported by a mass of scientific evidence. But I’m used to being lumped in, I’m used to being attacked, I’m used to being called a fascist… or a communist. It depends on who’s attacking me at a given time.”

The incidents of protests, picketing and harassment were almost too many to count, and Erlich speaks of them as commonplace. “I’ve had people stand up and walk screaming out of my lectures. Once [even] striding not up the aisle but over the seats. I’ve had picketing… and nasty stuff left on the answering machine.”  He advises me to be careful, as a journalist, if I intended to keep writing about environmental issues. “There are some real nutcases around.”

The Backlash

Through the 1970s, people grew tired of these constant warnings of impending doom. Squabbles and debates among academics eventually gave rise to a full-blown anti-ecological backlash in the media and the general population, the cultural characteristics of which may feel eerily familiar with today’s climate change debate. “A substantial part of the ecology backlash comes from an uninformed constituency which has unjustifiably directed its criticism at certain ecologists primarily because they just do not agree with their conclusions,” wrote Richard Harriman in 1971, in his paper “The Ecology Backlash: How Close to the Brink Are We?”

Harriman identified two types of environmental cynics: the “skeptics,” who simply believe that things aren’t as bad as the experts claim; and the “technoptimists,” who believe that science, technology and the free market will simply figure out a way to solve the problem once things get bad enough.

But over time, the public discourse simply wore itself out. The environmental alarmists had no solutions; or at least, they had no solutions that politicians or the media were willing to talk about. America’s attention wandered. By the time the 1980s arrived, environmentalism had fizzled, and what was left of it shifted toward concerns of pollution and regulation. The national conversation about population control was effectively over.

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it shifted toward concerns of pollution and regulation. The national conversation about population control was effectively over.

The New Millennial Endarkenment 

The new millenium brought with it new environmental concerns and new possibilities for solutions. The environment, consumption, and conservation make the headlines again. Some of the issues are unchanged: The Population Bomb made ominous predictions about India’s fate based on its problems with population and food scarcity, and though those predictions did not come to pass, current headlines suggest that disaster has not been so much prevented as delayed.

But there are new problems to add to the old, ranging from global warming to islands of plastic waste floating in the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, a host of new and promising technological solutions abound as well. Brazil is cultivating fields of algae for manufacturing biofuel and bioplastics. Ford is researching ways to transform the waste from ketchup manufacturing into plastic that can be used for car parts. Car manufacturers are racing to produce better electric cars every year, and more and more countries in Europe are turning to solar and wind power instead of coal and oil.

The Telegraph

Mirroring the earlier debate fifty years ago, the new millenium has its own anti-ecological backlash. As before, it comes from both sides of the political spectrum. The extreme left now brandishes an “all natural” agenda, opposing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or any scientific development that might help increase food productivity or reduce pesticide use. The extreme right refuses to believe that God would create a world where mere humans could change the climate, and aren’t interested in the mass of scientific data to the contrary.

The cultural shift is more anti-intellectual and anti-science than it is specifically anti-ecological, but ecological concerns top the list of issues most affected. North Carolina has banned science from being used in deciding climate policy, and in Ohio conservatives are trying to make it more difficult for women to get contraception. Florida has disposed of the problem altogether, by simply banning the words “climate change,” as if to not talking about it might cause it to cease to exist. Conservative radio personalities encourage their listeners to leave the lights on in their houses on Earth Day, and in Texas some truck drivers are modifying their vehicles to spew more smoke than necessary into the air as an expression of their liberty and freedom of choice.

There is a growing distrust for science and academia that Ehrlich has dubbed “The Endarkenment.” Environmentalists are once again being called “militant” and “radical,”

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as they were in the 1960s, and science is being dismissed for no better reason than the fact that non-scientists do not approve of its conclusions.

A much bigger problem

The population is now 7 billion and counting: more than twice what it was in 1960. Still, the politicians and the media maintain their studied silence.

U.S. and World Census Population Clock

According to Ehrlich, the problem is the media more than the scientists. “I have never had any scientist [here] at Stanford even suggest to me that I was wrong for pushing on the population issue,” he told me. “On the other hand, it’s clearly a no-no in much of the media. There are huge taboos against it. The left wing feels that it is strictly a racist approach. And they are correct in the sense that there certainly has been a lot of racism in the population movement, [people saying] that there are too many people with the wrong skin colors.” The right wing, on the other hand, is fixated on minimizing measures that would help lower the birth rate, opposing abortion, contraception, and even sex education.

Paul Ehrlich and Garrett Hardin both continued to talk about population control after the larger cultural discussion ended. In an interview with Skeptic magazine in 1996, Hardin still argued  that voluntary population control simply wasn’t enough. “I resigned from Zero Population Growth (ZPG) because I realized that the only people paying attention to ZPG were college girls who decided they'd have no babies. So ZPG was self-extinguishing. The only answer is that family size cannot be left to individual decisions. You don't have to be brutal about it. You can use incentives. But control of population will have to take the form of mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.” Hardin laid out the same argument for coercive constraints on reproductive rights in his 1999 book, The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia.

Knowing that Ehrlich has always had a different perspective from Hardin, I asked him what his feelings are now about the need for coercive measures of population control. After all, many of the recent economic models show the populations in Europe and parts of Asia declining. Is it possible that voluntary birth rate reduction is happening? Is it possible that the problem will simply fix itself, without massive intervention or social change?

“Well, I think it will solve itself, but not in the way people hope. It will be solved by the death rates going up dramatically,” Ehrlich noted pessimistically. “It’s true that birth rates are dropping in most places, and in some of the rich countries they are likely to get population shrinkage soon. But, even with a couple billion people dying, there will still be the same number of people at the end of the century that we have today. The length of time that we would have to stay above carrying capacity just to allow lowered birth rates to bring us down to where we need to be, is too long. We will see the negative effects [of scarce resources] long before that happens.”

The usual estimates of the comfortable carrying capacity of the planet--how many people we can support sustainably in the long run--usually runs between 2 and 3 billion, Ehrlich told me, though he prefers a more conservative estimate of between 1 and 1.5 billion. Even generously, that means the long-term goal for the planet must be to cut the current world population by more than half. As Ehrlich points out again and again in his writings, that can be done in a planned and humane way… or it can

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happen by just allowing death rates to skyrocket on their own.

How might death rates skyrocket? “It’s easy to see that billions of people could die,” Ehrlich explained. “For example, there is a battle between India and Pakistan over the diminishing agricultural water coming out of the Himalayas. There are people in both countries, if you read the newspapers, who would love to have a nuclear war, and who have actually tried to start one. And in the scientific literature it is quite clear that a ‘small nuclear war’ between India and Pakistan could be enough to basically end our civilization because of nuclear winter types of effects. That’s a way to lose billions of people. But that’s the type of solution [to the population problem] you want to avoid.”

Beyond Growthmania?

Even setting aside the political and cultural fears that mire down conversations about population control with racism and religious freedom, there is another factor that may prevent our having a constructive conversation about population control: our addiction to growth as a measure of economic success.

We are used to hearing measures of economic health from our politicians framed entirely in terms of growth: How many new houses were built last year? How many new jobs were added? Many of us just can’t imagine what an economic system not based on continuous growth would look like.

“It looks like a much happier society,” said Ehrlich, with a laugh, when I asked him the question. “In which people aren’t defined by how much stuff they have. Where everybody cares for each other because we are social animals. If we’re not going to go back to hunting and gathering—which means we’d have to go back to 3 or 4 million people, since there is no way hunting and gathering can support a huge population—if we’re not going to do that, then we have to design a world in which caring for each other and caring for the environment, and paying a lot of attention to the environment, is what’s required.”

The book The Demographic Cliff (2014) by Harry S. Dent is an excellent example of gloom-and-doom prophecy that economists associate with falling population levels. Dent scours masses of economic and demographic data to demonstrate that recent economic crests and valleys in countries around the world can be attributed, at least in part, to the rise and fall of population sizes in different age brackets. The logic of the argument is easy: when there are fewer people in “high consumption age brackets,” demand relative to supply goes down, and prices stagnate and fall. Less demand leads to fewer jobs, an aging population leads to a smaller tax base for pensions and entitlements, and the entire economy suffers. With Baby Boomers aging into retirement and eventually exiting the United States population, warns Dent, the U.S. country’s economy is set to fall into a deep recession that could last, based on demographic numbers alone, into 2050 and beyond.

If our entire money-based economy has to go out the window in order to save humanity, there is only one obvious solution, so I offered it. “So what you’re saying is… we need to be contacted by Vulcans so we can transition to the Star Trek economy,” I suggested. “Is that basically it?”

Ehrlich responded with a good-natured laugh. “Absolutely.”