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Environmental Despair Springs Eternal, Part 3: Mentors of the Modern Environmentalist Movement


  Pierre Desrochers

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Discussions of the modern environmentalist movement typically begin with Rachel Carson’s (1907-1964) indictment of synthetic pesticides in her best-selling book Silent Spring (1962), Garrett Hardin’s (1915-2003) essay The Tragedy of the Commons on the unavoidable depletion of resources available to everyone and the pollution of freely accessible environmental sinks (1968), Paul Ehrlich’s (1932 -) neo-Malthusian The Population Bomb (1968) and the Club of Rome’s sponsored Limits to Growth report that predicted an impending shortage of critical resources (1972).

Left out of most accounts, however, is that these authors are more remarkable for their popular success than their originality. For instance, much of Rachel Carson’s research for Silent Spring was based in part on the previous work and long-standing connections of prominent organic food activists. As noted by several commentators, Ehrlich’s Population Bomb is best understood as “climaxing and in a sense terminating the debate of the 1950s and 1960s” for “throughout the sixties, it appears that everybody was concerned about overpopulation.” (Actually, The Population Bomb sales only truly detonated after Ehrlich appeared on the Tonight Show in 1970.) Hardin revived the overexploited commons metaphor from political economist William Forster Lloyd (1794–1852) to illustrate, as the Malthusian Lloyd had done over a century and a half earlier, the necessity of population control. And the team hired by the Club of Rome echoed countless pessimistic reports published since at least William Stanley Jevons’ (1835-1882) The Coal Question; An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines (1865)

Another fact not widely known outside of specialist circles is that much of the infrastructure created to promote (neo)Malthusianism in the post-World War II era was built upon a dubious legacy. As economist Jacqueline Kasun (1924-2009) and many others have documented, eugenicists, whose movement had been discredited by Nazism, regrouped, “renaming their organizations, forming new ones, and, above all, burrowing into the councils of power.” By the early 1960s their movement had re-emerged in various organizations and campaigns devoted to checking the population explosion. Some key figures in this transition include the sociologist and demographer Kingsley Davis (1908-1997), a man who, like one time vice-president of the American Eugenics Society Garrett Hardin, fathered several children while advocating limitations on childbearing worldwide. Davis commented in 1945 that “in the long-run, Earth’s population has been like a long, thin powder fuse that burns slowly and haltingly until it finally reaches the charge and explodes.”

In their 1947 book Human Breeding and Survival: Population Roads to Peace or War, sociologist Elmer Pendell (1894-1992) and Director of the American Eugenics Society Guy Irving Burch (1899-1951) argued that the land was already full “while our population is large and rapidly growing.” By 1951 one could see “forming for the American people, a future marked by conditions like those which prevailed in the times of scarcity and want which Europe used to know so well in past centuries and under which it now suffers.” As their title implied, overpopulation would again result in war. Peace, on the other hand, would only be secured through mandatory and systematic population reduction policies.

Post-war neo-Malthusianism really took off with the publication of two books in 1948. The first was Road to Survival by ornithologist William Vogt (1902-1968), a book that remained the biggest environmentalist best-seller of all time until the publication of Silent Spring. Vogt argued that humans had behaved worse than parasites whose destructiveness “is limited by the absence of intelligence,” as they had used their brains to “tear down” nature and compromised their very survival in order to enrich themselves. He deemed “drastic measures… inescapable” in light of worldwide environmental destruction. “Above all else,” humans needed to reorganize their thinking, especially “all thought of living unto ourselves” for, in a “direct, physical sense,” humanity forms “an earth-company, and the lot of the Indiana farmer can no longer be isolated from that of the Bantu.” As he saw it, an “eroding hillside in Mexico or Yugoslavia affects the living standard and probability of survival of the American people.”

Neither past beliefs in progress nor admonitions to be fruitful and multiply could provide useful guidance for the postwar era for such ideas, while “magnificent in their days,” had now become “millstones about [human] necks” and would most certainly turn out to be “idiotic in an overpeopled, atomic age, with much of the world a shamble.” Agricultural mechanization had been “of dubious value to the land, as it is more purely extractive than older methods,” had brought lesser quality land under cultivation, was too dependent on rapidly dwindling petroleum reserves and triggered a drift away from rural to urban areas, thereby reducing “the effectiveness of the self-contained rural population as an economic shock absorber” during future recessions.

Vogt had no qualms about devising and implementing coercive policies such as linking foreign aid to population reduction provisions. As he saw things, “irresponsible breeding” made improvements of the conditions of the Greeks, the Italians, the Indians and the Chinese “difficult, if not impossible.” He predicted imminent petroleum shortages and famines in the next three decades in countries such Great Britain, Japan and Germany. He also considered public health measures unadvisable and even argued that the “flank attack on the tsetse fly with DDT or some other insecticide” carried out by “ecologically ignorant sanitarians, entomologists, and medical men” was going to make things worse because there was no “kindness in keeping people from dying of malaria so that they could die more slowly of starvation.”

In the end, the road to survival could only be built on two foundations:  1) that renewable resources be used to produce as much wealth as possible on a sustained-yield basis; 2) that demand be adjusted to ‘natural’ supply, either by accepting less per capita (lowering living standards) or reducing population.

The other 1948 best-selling eco-catastrophist book was Henry Fairfield Osborn Jr’s (1887-1969) Our Plundered Planet in which imminent environmental collapse was considered “eventually [more] deadly” than the Second World War, for “man’s destructiveness has turned not only upon himself but upon his own good earth – the wellspring of life.” In this context, man’s “avoidance of the day of atonement that is drawing nearer as each year passes” implied that he had to quickly learn “to work with nature in understanding rather than in conflict.” Failure to change would not only “point to widespread misery such as human beings have not yet experienced,” it would also, in the end, threaten “even man’s very survival.” Humanity had “now arrived at the day when the books should be balanced.”

Osborn cautioned that the “miraculous succession of modern inventions” made it difficult to conceive “that the ingenuity of man will not be able to solve the final riddle – that of gaining a subsistence from the earth.” Yet the “grand and ultimate illusion” was that “man could provide a substitute for the elemental workings of nature.” For instance, “technologists may outdo themselves in the creation of artificial substitutes for natural subsistence,” but chemical fertilizers could never be thought of as “substitutes for the natural processes that account for the fertility of the earth” because, in the long run, “life cannot be supported… by artificial processes.”

Both Vogt’s and Osborn’s books became mandatory readings in several institutions of higher education where they shaped the thinking of a whole generation, including Paul Ehrlich and Al Gore. Their influence was perhaps best summed up in 1977 by progressive journalist Allan Chase who lamented that every “argument, every concept, every recommendation” made by Vogt became “integral to the conventional wisdom of the post-Hiroshima generation of educated Americans.” As he put it:

The postwar population explosion hysteria initiated by Guy Irving Burch and Elmer Pendell…, injected by Burch and Vogt into the body of Fairfield Osborn’s benignly intentioned books on natural conservation, and carried to full intellectual fruition by [William and Paul Paddock’s 1967 book Famine 1975], Ehrlich and Hardin, succeeded far beyond the wildest hopes of the oldtime eugenicists who started it all. Out of it came not only mass movements, such as Zero Population Growth, Inc., with chapters of active members in many American cities, but also new causes for older conservationist societies, such as the venerable Sierra Club.

Another influential individual at the time was industrialist Hugh Everett Moore (1887–1972), who, profoundly influenced by Vogt’s book, wrote, published (over one and a half million copies) and publicized a short pamphlet titled The Population Bomb in 1954 whose title Ehrlich’s publisher eventually borrowed with permission.

Pierre Desrochers is Associate Professor of Geography, University of Toronto Mississauga.


Andrew J. Smith
May 7 2022 at 10:19am

Very interesting to track from the historical ideologues and influencers but then observing now, still, their influence on Anglosphere and European politics and government.

Part of the synthesis is claiming fertility and/or immigration led population growth as environmental ‘hygiene’ issues, deflecting from environmental regulation and fossil fuels; supposedly based on ‘science’ but more to do with population obsessions of Malthus, the eugenics or social Darwinism of Galton and then Madison Grant in first decades of the 20th century.

However, one modern influencer was missed, deceased white nationalist John ‘passive eugenics’ Tanton a colleague of Ehrlich’s at ZPG, admirer of the white Australia policy (ended later ’60s), promoter of ‘the great replacement’, muse of Steve Bannon, alt right and Trump immigration policy; can also linked to think tanks and/or NGOs in Australia and the UK while 9/11 gave a boost.

SPLC, far right and many environment related researchers have become aware of Tanton Network and its relationship with Koch Network think tanks.

SPLC has file on John Tanton and description:

‘John Tanton was the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement. He created a network of organizations – the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and NumbersUSA – that profoundly shaped the immigration debate in the U.S.’


Pierre Desrochers
May 10 2022 at 1:33pm

For what it’s worth, I have a folder on Tanton, but I’ve always considered him an evil “doer” rather than an evil “thinker.” My key interest is intellectual history with a narrower emphasis on population growth and resource creation/depletion and environmental degradation. Eugenics is part of this, but eugenicists with an interest in these issues had nothing original to say on them. I guess the closest I got to Tanton and his network in recent years has been a short discussion of the split at the Sierra Club between immigration restrictionists and more mainstream Green types This is not to say the topic is not important, but rather than this is not my main emphasis.


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