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The Malthusian Moment

The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 316
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  • Book Info
    The Malthusian Moment
    Book Description:

    Although Rachel Carson'sSilent Spring(1962) is often cited as the founding text of the U.S. environmental movement, inThe Malthusian MomentThomas Robertson locates the origins of modern American environmentalism in twentieth-century adaptations of Thomas Malthus's concerns about population growth. For many environmentalists, managing population growth became the key to unlocking the most intractable problems facing Americans after World War II-everything from war and the spread of communism overseas to poverty, race riots, and suburban sprawl at home.Weaving together the international and the domestic in creative new ways,The Malthusian Momentcharts the explosion of Malthusian thinking in the United States from World War I to Earth Day 1970, then traces the just-as-surprising decline in concern beginning in the mid-1970s. In addition to offering an unconventional look at World War II and the Cold War through a balanced study of the environmental movement's most contentious theory, the book sheds new light on some of the big stories of postwar American life: the rise of consumption, the growth of the federal government, urban and suburban problems, the civil rights and women's movements, the role of scientists in a democracy, new attitudes about sex and sexuality, and the emergence of the "New Right."

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5335-1
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science, History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
  6. Introduction. From Rubbish to Riots
    (pp. 1-12)

    During her college commencement, normally a moment of optimism, Stephanie Mills delivered an address so grim that it made headlines. In her short speech from the spring of 1969, “The Future Is a Cruel Hoax,” Mills declared that she was “terribly saddened that the most humane thing for me to do is to have no children at all.” Paradoxically, Mills was born in 1948, at the beginning of one of the most prosperous periods in American history. Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, she belonged to a generation of Americans more familiar with Cheerios and Schwinn bicycles than with breadlines and...

  7. 1 Malthusianism, Eugenics, and Carrying Capacity in the Interwar Period
    (pp. 13-35)

    After World War I, Malthusian prophets of despair and gloom appeared in large numbers. “There is at the present moment,” the biologist Raymond Pearl wrote in 1925, “a great recrudescence of public interest in the problem of population. Books and articles on population growth have been appearing in the last five years with an abandon which could fairly be called reckless if the protagonists were not so obviously in deadly earnest.”¹

    Several factors drove this “great recrudescence.” First was a sense that the world had grown smaller because of global integration. “The world has changed,” fellow biologist Edward Murray East...

  8. 2 War and Nature: Fairfield Osborn, William Vogt, and the Birth of Global Ecology
    (pp. 36-60)

    Malthusian worries about overpopulation-driven scarcities exploded in the United States after World War II, even more strongly than after World War I. “The ghost of a gloomy British clergyman, Thomas Robert Malthus, was on the rampage last week,”Timemagazine announced in November 1948. “Cresting a wave of postwar pessimism, it flashed through the air on the radio [and] rode through the mails.” Publishers,Timewent on, “opened their arms and presses to ‘Neo-Malthusian’ manuscripts prophesying worldwide overpopulation and hunger.”Timecould also have pointed to the hundreds of newspaper articles on Malthus and overpopulation, the references to conservation in...

  9. 3 Abundance in a Sea of Poverty: Quality and Quantity of Life
    (pp. 61-84)

    Paul Ehrlich openedThe Population Bomb(1968),the most famous of the environmental Malthusian books of the late 1960s, with a memorable line: “The battle to feed all humanity is over.” Then, drawing upon carrying capacity, the idea that Aldo Leopold had refined and William Vogt and Fairfield Osborn had globalized, he predicted that “nothing can be done to prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Less well remembered, but equally important was the vision of America’s role in the world that Ehrlich built this view upon. “Nothing could be more misleading to our children than our present affluent...

  10. 4 “Feed ʹEm or Fight ʹEm”: Population and Resources on the Global Frontier during the Cold War
    (pp. 85-103)

    As Lyndon Johnson’s concern about the “explosion” in population and “growing scarcity” of world resources illustrates, by 1965 the U.S. government had shifted emphasis from the early 1950s, when the Paley Commission had rejected Osborn and Vogt’s ideas about overpopulation and resource depletion. Johnson offered a similar warning in his 1967 State of the Union address: “Next to the pursuit of peace, the really great challenge of the human family is the race between food supply and population.” From 1965 to 1967, Johnson oversaw a revolution in federal policy toward birth control and population planning. Together with a supportive Congress,...

  11. 5 The “Chinification” of American Cities, Suburbs, and Wilderness
    (pp. 104-125)

    As international concerns about population growth were developing in the mid 1960s, concerns were also mounting about population growth within the United States. In the same 1966 article in which he stated that population growth in India and other third-world nations “jeopardized the existence of civilization,” General William Draper also blamed population growth for two pressing problems within the United States. The first was poverty, especially urban poverty. In many American cities, poverty and public welfare had become “a way of life” because both white and black migrants from the countryside “brought higher birth rates which are characteristic of all...

  12. 6 Paul Ehrlich, the 1960s, and the Population Bomb
    (pp. 126-151)

    In the opening ofThe Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich famously wrote, “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970’s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Ehrlich rejected Lyndon Johnson’s solutions to the world food crisis as too little, too late. Because the experts had overlooked environmental concerns, he argued, even their worst-case scenarios were overly optimistic. Massive food shortages had already started and even worse shortages were on their way.

    Ehrlich called for some measures that struck many as...

  13. 7 Strange Bedfellows: Population Politics, 1968–1970
    (pp. 152-175)

    Although Ehrlich’sThe PopulationBomb is remembered as a classic of the environmental movement, few signs of a movement existed when it appeared in 1968. By the spring of 1970, however, Americans could hardly pick up a magazine or newspaper without seeing mention of ecology and the environment. Seemingly overnight, several concerns converged into a movement with the power to bring about new forms of thinking and even shape public policy. As historian Donald Fleming put it two years later, “an extraordinary diverse concatenation of impulses suddenly flashed together.” Nothing signified the movement’s arrival better than April 22, 1970, when...

  14. 8 Weʹre All in the Same Boat?!: The Disuniting of Spaceship Earth
    (pp. 176-200)

    Ten days before the first Earth Day celebration, on April 13, 1970, an explosion aboardApollo 13put its three-person crew at risk and forced the American spacecraft to abort a mission to the moon. Four days from reentering the Earth’s atmosphere but with only two days of electricity and water,Apollo 13hung above the earth, and the fate of its passengers hung in the balance.

    To a Texas doctor writing to President Richard Nixon, the incident provided a compelling analogy for the planet’s environmental crisis. “Apollo 13, following an environmental disaster, is in peril with its finite supplies...

  15. 9 Ronald Reagan, the New Right, and Population Growth
    (pp. 201-220)

    The controversies about population growth in the 1970s show the complicated concerns, interests, and divisions that surrounded the environmental movement in the wake of Earth Day. These debates had fascinating political fallout in a decade that, although often overlooked, continues to shape the contemporary political landscape. Overall, the population and limits-to-growth issue hurt Democrats and helped Republicans. Nothing shows this better than the varied fates of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s. Carter came to the Oval Office determined to find a way to help the United States live within its limits. “Dealing with limits,” he recalled...

  16. Conclusion. The Power and Pitfalls of Biology
    (pp. 221-229)

    Three questions have driven this study: What caused the wave of Malthusian concern about population growth and environmental problems that swept over the United States in the twentieth century, especially after World War II? How large a role did this wave play in postwar American society and especially the birth of the environmental movement? What impact did Malthusianism leave on the environmental movement and the way Americans today understand interactions between humans and their natural surroundings?

    From a historical perspective, it’s remarkable that so many Americans ever grew so concerned about population growth. Although Europeans had often blamed poverty and...

  17. Epilogue
    (pp. 230-232)

    Since peaking in the late 1960s, the growth rate of the world’s population has dropped steadily. In 1987, the number of people added each year to the population reached its greatest point, and each year since then the population has grown by a smaller and smaller number. In 2003, the median woman worldwide reached replacement fertility, another sign that population will eventually, perhaps not too long from now, begin decreasing. Two other demographic developments from the last decade began to steal the spotlight: globally, older people began to outnumber young people, and urban residents to outnumber rural residents. Both of...

  18. NOTES
    (pp. 233-284)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 285-292)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 293-294)