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A few years ago I attended a carbon tax panel in Manhattan, the goal of which was to brainstorm ideas for reducing the carbon footprint of Americans. After the event was over, I pressed one of the panelists, Denis Hayes, the coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970, who had alluded during the discussion to a troubling development in American environmentalism at the turn of the 21st century. On the matter of overpopulation, he said, a green silence prevailed. I asked Hayes whether he thought the United States was overpopulated. His reply was refreshingly honest. An American as a per capita unit should be defined, ecologically and environmentally, he said, as always having a rising footprint – and therefore we should have fewer Americans. “To be American is to be wasteful,” Hayes told me, and it’s “mighty difficult to get Americans to stop being wasteful.”

It is of course verboten today to discuss overpopulation, ecological footprint, and neoliberalism's pathological attachment to population growth. But in the context of the Democratic Party’s 2020 Environmental and Climate Policy Agenda and the Biden Administration’s wispy claims of a revived ecological conscience, there’s a chance – though it’s slim – that the unspeakable may get an airing. Among the 2020 agenda items, startlingly, was a recommendation to establish a presidential commission “similar to the [Clinton-era] President’s Council on Sustainable Development.”

This was surprising because Clinton’s 1993 Presidential Commission on Sustainable Development (PCSD) would be regarded by the progressive left today as a horrorshow. The PCSD’s Task Force on Population and Consumption reported that the first of “the two most important steps the United States must take toward sustainability” was “to stabilize U.S. population promptly.”

In what was apparently the more sensible time of the 1990s, the Clinton task force’s commissioners considered growth of the U.S. population squarely in terms of ecological impact. They warned that the number of Americans was growing at the alarming rate of “a Connecticut each year, or a California each decade” (which sounds awful if you’ve been to either state). “U.S. population is likely to reach 350 million by the year 2030; a level that would place even greater strain on our ability to…clean up pollution, alleviate congestion, manage sprawl, and reduce the overall consumption of resources.” (U.S. population is now set to surpass 350 million by 2030.)

A similar commission on population under Richard Nixon and chaired by his appointee John D. Rockefeller III came to similar conclusions. The Rockefeller commission on population growth, try though it did, could not find any convincing argument for having more Americans. The final report, published in March 1972, concluded that “in the long run, no substantial benefits will result from further growth of the nation’s population, rather that the gradual stabilization of our population through voluntary means would contribute significantly to the nation’s ability to solve its problems.” (Summed up another way, per filmmaker David Attenborough remarking in 2013 to the BBC: “I've never seen a[n environmental] problem that wouldn't be easier to solve with fewer people.”) The commissioners appealed to their countrymen to abandon the “ideological addiction to growth” and the pro-natalist biases of our institutions. “The health of our country does not depend on population growth, nor does the vitality of business, nor the welfare of the average person.” At the time, the US population was 213 million.

The Rockefeller commission was radical for its time, not least because of its prescriptions for female empowerment. It enraged social conservatives with the recommendation that women limit childbearing to two children. Public funding, the commission advised, should promote adoption, public provision for abortion should be available for all who seek it, and sex education programs should be made available in public schools along with universal access to contraception, including for minors. The commissioners also issued a full-throated call for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to enlist federal law in ending all sex-based discrimination in the U.S.

Commissions are fine and necessary, but people and corporations do what they want absent social pressure and legal regulation. Headlong growth, of the economy and of human numbers, did not stop in the 1970s, and growth isn’t stopping anytime soon. The United States has the dubious honor of being the third most populous nation after India and China. According to the latest census data, the U.S. is projected to grow by nearly 79 million people in the next four decades from roughly 326 million at present to 404 million as soon as 2060.

Given our ecological footprint – the per capita impact of hankering, striving, GDP-infusing, garbage-producing, crap-consuming, dreaming-the-dream Americans – it’s not surprising that the Sierra Club used to sell a bumper sticker that said, “The United States: The World’s Most Overpopulated Nation.” That it no longer offers to the public this commonsense observation is telling.

**

When Gaylord Nelson, the three-term U.S. senator from Wisconsin, conceived of Earth Day and coordinated with young activists such as Hayes to organize it, the “central theme,” as Nelson explained, “was the understanding that U.S. population growth was a joint partner in the degradation of our nation's environmental resources. [W]e could not reach the environmental goals being set at the time if the United States did not quickly start stabilizing its population.”

Population stabilization was in fact central to the U.S. environmental movement beginning in the 1960s and held a place of prominence for more than thirty years. The evolution of this advocacy at major green groups like the Sierra Club is worth reviewing. By 1965, for example, the club recognized that “the population explosion” had “severely disturbed the ecological relationships between human beings and the environment,” and that what was needed was “a greatly increased program of education on the need for population control.” In 1969, the club “urged the people of the United States to abandon population growth as a pattern and goal” so that the nation could “achieve a stable population no later than the year 1990.” By 1978, it had adopted the principle that “All developed nations, including the United States, being the countries with impact on the world development disproportionate to their population sizes, have an obligation…to end their population growth as soon as feasible.” Ten years later, the Sierra Club was openly calling for brakes on immigration, its platform stating:

Immigration to the U.S. should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization in the U.S.... The Sierra Club will lend its voice to the congressional debate on legal immigration issues when appropriate, and then only on the issue of the number of immigrants – not where they come from or their category, since it is the fact of increasing numbers that affects population growth and ultimately, the quality of the environment.

This was not controversial stuff. The Rockefeller commission on population had recommended the imposition of an immigration ceiling of 400,000 a year, given that population growth in the U.S. was then, as today, driven mostly by influxes from overseas. (U.S. birth rates since 1975 have averaged 1.9 children per woman, a little below the replacement level, but at roughly 1.2 million per year, legal immigration is three times the level that would ‘top up’ to replacement.) As late as 1993, the Clinton PCSD noted without caveat that “reducing immigration levels is a necessary part of…the drive toward sustainability.” The commission was optimistic about the nation’s capacity to “stabilize its population by addressing the determinants of growth with the sensitivity and forthrightness these issues deserve.”

**

A proper diagnosis

A proper diagnosis

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Underpinning the concerns about the explosive growth of the human race was that it had the characteristics of a pathology. On the global as on the local scale, habitat loss, deforestation, biodiversity crash, and ecosystem simplification and depauperacy seems to always follow in the wake of massive increases in human numbers. (Large numbers also provide a petri dish for more infectious diseases more widely spread and mutating faster, as we’ve recently learned to our delight.)

In his 1993 paper, “A Theoretical View of Population Growth as a Sign of Pathology,” epidemiologist William Hern made explicit the cancer analogy. Hern posited that the “human species as a whole now displays all four major characteristics of a malignant process.” Population-growth-as-cancer has been routinely argued and dismissed. But consider Hern’s thesis. 

We can see there has been rapid, uncontrolled growth; invasion and destruction of adjacent normal tissues called ecosystems; metastasis, the colonization of remote regions by a species that seems always ready to jump into new places and take hold; and dedifferentiation, defined as the loss of distinctiveness in individual components -- which aptly describes the physical uniformity of the typical modern human habitat of concrete, glass and metal, as seen from New York to Tokyo to Dubai to Sao Paulo. (Beyond our cities, dedifferentiation applies to the natural world wherever there are humans, with wild habitats transformed to accomodate a limited suite of agricultural crops and domesticated animals.)

Hern believed that Homo sapiens’ intelligence, inventiveness, and ingenuity was the earth’s undoing: elastic adjustment to varying ecological conditions, warping those conditions to meet human needs; complex social arrangements that allow specialization and interdependencies among specialist groups; the brilliant technics that results from specialization; the development of trade, markets, commodity capitalism, especially fossil capitalism, as our big brains have been applied to the plundering and burning of ever more carbon – all of these enabled the pathological takeover of earth.

This genius for culture that sets us apart from other animals “plays the principal role in the transformation of human activities from noninvasive subsistence of a skinny primate in the late Pleistocene to a truly malignant process disrupting the planetary ecosystem.” Observing a map of London’s growth from 1800 to 1955 others might see a complexifying society that was becoming more rich and more dynamic but to Hern it looked “like nothing so much as an expanding, invasive, metastatic, malignant tumor.”

Take a look for yourself:

London as cancer cell

London as cancer cell

Advancing human culture, he tells us, has been nothing but a long death march for other-than-human lifeforms and ecosystems that had to make way for what he called Homo ecophagus, “a rapacious, predatory, omniecophagic species engaged in a global pattern of converting all available plant, animal, organic, and inorganic matter into either human biomass or into adaptive adjuncts of human biomass.” The cancer, assured Hern – and as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are now intending to prove – would likely spread extraterrestrially, with the 1969 moon landing an “anticipatory metastasis.”

**

Despite all, Hern maintained an optimistic view. There is a difference between us and cancer, he remarked in his 1993 paper: “we can think, and we can decide not to be a cancer.” The obstacle to having such agency consisted in “pro-natalist forces,” which (so he charged) were “in control of most human institutions.” 

It’s tempting here to trot out the usual suspects: the Vatican and its opposition to contraception, relevant to the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics; the billions of Muslims and Hindus whose religions see women as vessels for baby-making and subordinate always to men; the tens of millions of Christian and Jewish fundamentalists who similarly view women as mere instruments of reproduction and home-making; the generally male-dominated societies in many developing countries, where cultural norms favor patriarchy; and so on. But let’s not discount the demands of profit-seeking capital to see a perpetual rise of population. More people means more consumers and also more available workers to keep wages low and put labor in cannibalizing competition with itself in the global race to the bottom. For humans to not be a cancer may be bad for big business.

And then of course there’s the broader speciesist context in which all culture is embedded. Thus celebrated books such as “Humans” – a kind of masturbatory anthropocentrism – sell because it’s easy to get the greatest species on earth to buy the fiction that we should continue to spread our greatness, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. 

In this vein, liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias, a favorite of Biden White House staffers, has suggested with a straight face that the U.S. should aim for one billion Americans, all living the dream of high consumption, to serve as the massed fleshy bulwark in the struggle for global dominance against rising China. He makes no mention that barring a magical dematerialization of Americans’ outsized ecological footprint (more on the delusion of dematerialization in future posts) such an increase in our greatness would be catastrophic for earth.

Wilfully stupid or unconscionably ignorant, Yglesias seems to have learned nothing from past inquiries into the matter of U.S. population growth, apparently unaware that even during the Cold War, when concern about our slipping great power status in competition with the Soviets had reached its high point, an entire commission of Nixon appointees dismissed as primitive nonsense the notion that we should pack into the country as many bodies as possible. That Biden staffers are drinking the pro-natalist kool-aid from Yglesias and his ilk suggests that any sensible update of the Rockefeller commission of 1972, or of the 1993 Clinton commission, will not be forthcoming.

  • Funding for this piece was provided by the Institute for Sound Public Policy.

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