Despite doom and gloom predictions that never came to pass, overpopulation alarmists continue to make their case that society must restrict the procreation of human beings. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s book Population Bomb said that hundreds of millions of people would perish as a result of an overpopulated earth.
The Weekly Standard‘s Jonathan V. Last’s new book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster discusses the overpopulation alarmists’ false predictions, their true intentions, and the consequences all of us will pay for the unnecessary panic.
Last points out that when Ehrlich wrote his book in ’68, the U.S. government and various interest groups were quick to respond:
Groups such as the Ford Foundation and the International Planned Parenthood Federation pushed to introduce birth control and abortion in developing countries. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Food for Peace Act he required USAID officers to “exert the maximum leverage and influence” on the countries we were helping so that they’d cut down on their baby-making.[i] In 1972, the Club of Rome published a tract, The Limits to Growth, echoing Ehrlich’s forecast. (Among other things, the Club of Rome predicted that the planet’s oil reserves would be exhausted by 1992.) The movement was in such a lather that in 1967, Disney produced a movie for the Population Council, titled Family Planning. The movie, translated into 24 different languages and featuring Donald Duck, lectured viewers that if families didn’t drastically cut back the number of kids they had, “the children will be sickly and unhappy, with little hope for the future.”[ii]
Interestingly, Ehrlich refused to admit he was wrong years after his initial predictions never happened. Last explains:
Undeterred by having his life’s work completely discredited, the octogenarian professor is mad about the perils of overpopulation, even to this day. In 1990, long after his initial thesis was disproved, he doubled down and published The Population Explosion, in which he claimed that overpopulation was more. Dangerous. THAN. EVER! “It’s insane to consider low birthrate as a crisis,” he said recently. “Basically every person I know in my section of the National Academy of Sciences thinks it’s wonderful that rich countries are starting to shrink their populations to sustainable levels. We have to do that because we’re wrecking our life-support system.”[iii] (Explaining the lack of mass starvation in the 1970s, Ehrlich says, “Repeatedly in my career it has turned out things I never would have imagined were huge factors.”[iv] No kidding.)
Although the United Nations has done considerable research on the downward spiral of falling fertility rates through its Population Division, it still sponsors a “World Population Day” to raise awareness about overpopulation.
The environmentalists have stepped up their game in the population debate, too. A group called Californians for Population Stabilization claims “population growth [is] wildly out of control” and is causing “further degradation of America’s natural treasures.” A 2008 report from the Australian government says that babies are hurting the nation’s economy. Oregon State University released a study recently that concludes children are detrimental to the environment because they contribute to global warming. The study suggests that couples should have at least one less child than they were planning on having. Last notes in his book:
In the London Independent, columnist Johann Hari worries that, “It will be easier for 6 billion people to cope on a heaving, boiling planet than for 9 or 10 billion.”[x] In Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Tom Friedman argues that overpopulation is one of the drivers of a coming global catastrophe and talks about the “steady population growth” the world will experience in the future as if he’d never seen a fertility chart.[xi] The group Earth First! went so far as to publish articles saying that “The AIDS epidemic, rather than being a scourge, is a welcome development in the inevitable reduction of human population” and if AIDS “didn’t exist, radical environmentalists would have to invent [it].”[xii]
Last states that despite a higher population, many environmental indicators in the United States are better in the present than they were in the ’70s, when Ehrlich’s paranoia ran rampant:
The environmentalist case against children doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The three main environmental population worries are (1) overcrowding; (2) scarcity of resources; and (3) climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions. Let’s take these in order. (1) Sure, America’s city centers and major highways are more crowded than ever. But on the other hand, it’s a big country. (Have you been to Montana–or even rural Maryland?) And it’s important not to let provincialism distort your understanding of the world. For instance, if you live in Manhattan, you might think that America is becoming overcrowded, because New York City is overcrowded. But there is more to America than our city cores. For instance, there are fewer people living in the Rust Belt today than there were in the 1930s. There’s still plenty of room out there. (2) As economist Bryan Caplan points out, population growth has historically lead to conservation through innovation. And as the work of economist Ester Boserup made clear a century ago, innovation is a byproduct of increasing population. That’s why commodities prices–a good measure of scarcity–have dropped about 1 percent a year since the Civil War. It’s why air and water quality are markedly better today–in both American and the rest of the West–than they were in the 1970s, when there were fewer people. (3) The only environmentalist concern that population might legitimately affect is climate change, a subject so fraught with theological division that I’ll leave it be. I’ll only say that even if you take climate change to be real, and serious, and man-made, you still have to reckon that the environmental impact of “overpopulation” is, at worst, a mixed bag.
Anti-procreationists who cannot scare people from having children are using other tactics. Activists promote a “child-free” life as a better way of living than traditional parenthood, authoring a slew of books which tout the concept. Last lists such titles like Madelyn Cain’s The Childless Revolution, Terri Casey’s Pride and Joy: The Lives and Passion of Women without Children, Nicki Defago’s Childfree and Loving It!, Laura Carroll’s Families of Two: Interviews with Happily Married Couples Without Children by Choice, and Laura Scott’s Two Is Enough: A Couple’s Guide to Living Childless by Choice.
The idea of being “child-less” can appear alluring to younger adults who want to maintain their freedom and take more financial risks, but Kelly Flynn, an older married woman with no children, wrote an October 17 piece last year in the New York Times explaining her main concern on being childless:
We joke about creating an old-age community, although there is a part of me that thinks: Let’s do it. Let’s plan it now. I’ll get some paper, and we’ll make a list…
Because now, as I help my parents navigate the trials and indignities of old age, I can’t help thinking, who will do this for me? Even if I can pay for top-notch care, it won’t come from a place of love and understanding of who I am and what is important to me.
When my father learned he had cancer, I became his primary caregiver. During those two years, I kept wondering, who will be there when my time comes? Whom can I count on to fill my pillboxes, get the stains out of my shirts, bring home my favorite ice cream? As he lost strength, I wondered, will there be somebody to cut up my steak?
Will someone step in and confront the hearing aid company that bilked my 79-year-old mother out of hundreds of dollars? Or the optometrist who pretended not to notice that her new glasses did not fit? She was always a formidable woman, and as I watch her nerve drain away, I think, who will speak for me when I lose my nerve?
Jonathan Last’s book is now available at Amazon.com.