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
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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