Environmentalism and Population Control

Author(s): Rajani Bhatia and Tom Reisz
Date Published: July 15, 2006

Recently, some elements within the mainstream environmental movement have proposed that the Clinton administration establish a National Optimum Population Commission to answer the following question: "How many people can we support in perpetuity under the most favorable circumstances with the highest quality of life?" The problem, they claim, is that "present-day human populations...are artificially supported by the unsustainable or nonrenewable resources and technologies." The Commission would determine an "optimum" population for the United States based "upon an assessment of the nation's climate, geography, renewable resource base, cultural preferences and other factors."

Efforts to determine "optimum" population size are not new, and it is imperative that we recognize the historical context of the present debate. At the beginning of this century, many economists tried to fit human reproduction into a rational model of the economy: they sought to determine the most economically desirable rate of reproduction just as they tried to determine the most profitable production level of industrial goods. At first, the population debate seemed to be about raw numbers of people, but advocates of eugenics and "racial hygiene" soon injected into the discussion a note of concern for the racial and ethnic demographics of reproduction. At the 1927 World Population Conference in Geneva, initiated by Margaret Sanger, participants deliberated not only upon the optimum size of the world's population, but upon optimum racial and ethnic composition as well.

The ideas of optimum population theorists motivated repressive repatriation laws, restrictive immigration quotas, and coerced sterilizations in many countries from the 1920s to the 1940s. Although these policies are usually associated with the European fascist movements of the early mid-century, eugenic sterilization programs also existed in many countries with democratically elected governments. In fact, the German eugenic sterilization laws of 1933 were based upon the Model Eugenical Sterilization Law developed by the US Eugenic Record Office. Our country's sterilization campaigns directed against Black, Latina, Native and mentally disabled women, many of which were still active through the 1970s, are not well known. In 1976 the US General Accounting Office revealed that the federally funded Indian Health Service had sterilized 3,000 Native women in a four-year period using consent forms "not in compliance...with regulations." In the famous Relf case in the early 1970s, when two black teenagers were sterilized without their consent or knowledge, a federal district court found that there was uncontroverted evidence in the record that minors and other incompetents had been sterilized with federal funds and that an indefinite number of poor people had been improperly coerced into accepting a sterilization operation under the threat that various federally supported welfare benefits would be withdrawn unless they submitted to irreversible sterilization.1

This century's history of national and international population control efforts contains no shortage of similar accounts of abuse. Just as before, the present effort to determine an "optimum" population implies that action-a body of policy that, as conservative environmentalist M. Boyd Wilcox puts it, will "place the USA on the path...to achieving an optimum, sustainable population." Just like the population debates of the 1920s and 1930s, this discussion assumes that the "optimum" population size has long been surpassed; any policy stemming from such a discussion must aim at shrinking population numbers in the United States and abroad. In a 1994 essay, noted "experts" in the field of population studies, Gretchen Daily from UC Berkeley and Anne and Paul Ehrlich from Stanford University wrote:
"To us it seems reasonable to assume that, until cultures and technology change radically, the optimum number of people to exist simultaneously is in the vicinity of 1.5 to 2 billion people. That number, if achieved reasonably soon, would also likely permit the maximum number of Homo sapiens to live a good life over the long run. But suppose we have underestimated the optimum and it actually is 4 billion? Since the present population is over 5.5 billion and growing rapidly, the policy implications are still clear."2

It is frightening to imagine the kind of policies that Daily and the Ehrlichs imagine will rid the Earth "reasonably soon" of 3.5 billion people. The only policy options for the United States, short of wide-scale extermination, are further restrictions on our already restrictive immigration laws and a further decrease of our already low birth rate.

The eugenics movement in the United States has not died out. The New York-based Pioneer Fund, which finances most of the major eugenics research in North America, has in recent years given grants to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the American Immigration Control Foundation, and "triage" advocate Garrett Hardin, a major figure in the population and environment movement who believes that "when one saves a starving man, one may thereby help him to breed more children." A National Optimum Population Commission will provide a dangerous opening to eugenic, nativist, and racist forces already working to undermine the environmental movement in the US through the "greening of hate." This anti-immigrant and anti-poor agenda does nothing to fight the right-wing backlash, threatening the victories that environmentalists have won to ensure cleaner air, water, food, and living conditions and to hold polluters accountable for their actions.

1 Rosalind P. Petchesky, "Reproduction, Ethics, and Public Policy: The Federal Sterilization Regulations," Hastings Center Report, October 1979.

2 Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies.Volume 15, Number 6, Human Sciences Press, Inc., July 1994.