Curiously, however, there is no record, neither in the literature nor in the social comment of the period, of any celebration of this development. No doubt the relatively sudden shift to a predominantly urban existence had created a widespread sense of social dislocation. In Britain and Western Europe, for example, simple crowding must have become palpable for people whose population had doubled and was in the process even more rapidly of doubling again. In 1798 Thomas Malthus had famously put it about that while population was increasing exponentially, the earth's food supply could at best be increased only arithmetically; thus should war and pestilence fail to contribute adequately to the limiting of population and thereby forestall universal famine, “moral restraint,” as he put it, would have to be applied. Moreover, especially in England, where it can be said that the industrial revolution was given birth, many people must have begun to shudder along with William Blake at the sight of their villages and towns giving way before the spread of all those “dark, satanic mills.”
But something else was also dampening any possible stray gratitude for the benefits of better health and longer life. Industrialism was proving to be frighteningly promiscuous in its bestowal of benefits: just as mere millers and brewers and manufacturers were overtaking the landed gentry in wealth and power, the increase in the number of the poor made possible by improved rates of survival was lending ever greater significance—political as well as social—to their presence in society. So significant had this presence indeed become that by 1883 Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, had grown gravely concerned about the genetic stock of the nation. In that year he published his Inquiries Into Human Faculty and its Development, and a movement to promote the science Galton named “eugenics” was born.
The eminent economist Peter Bauer, whose area of special concern has for many years been the economics of development, has noted a demographic phenomenon that might at a very careless glance seem to be anomalous. For reasons that Bauer himself does not attempt to explain, in developing countries the accession of wealth leads individual families and sometimes whole clans to limit family size. We can only imagine why this happens: that prosperity must give people, particularly those who have known poverty, a very different attitude to both the present and the future than is normally found among the very poor—some new sense of power over their destiny and of the standards of possibility for their progeny. In any case, by the early nineteenth century, first in France and somewhat later elsewhere, fertility control of one kind or another came to be practiced by the middle class on a scale large enough to have at least some influence on the trend and distribution of the birthrate. (Not surprisingly, the United States, with an empty continent to settle, would for a time be an exception to this tendency among the industrializing nations.)
In any case, as the wealthy grew fewer in proportion, Galton was concerned with how to undo the growing demographic imbalance that threatened to influence the genetic characteristics of future generations. He was worried by the consequences for the oncoming human stock of the fact that the prosperous classes were with such velocity and in such volume being outnumbered by the great unwashed. (We may hope that he was not including within the circle of his concern England's landed Tory aristocracy, who with few exceptions had remained just about as contentedly ignorant—not to mention unmannerly—as possible. It is valuable to remember from time to time that while the “masses” in England were reading, or being read to, from the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress, a goodly proportion of the “quality folk” spent their otherwise empty days riding to hounds.)
In any case, by 1923 Galton's worries had spread across the Atlantic. In that year, the American Eugenics Society was founded, and overnight became a highly fashionable cause. The American birthrate was—in keeping with Peter Bauer's notion, predictably—going down, and at the same time immigration was being cut off; the question for the Americans had now shifted to one of how to “improve” the population that remained. Soon courses in eugenics were being taught in a number of colleges and universities, and the issue was being taken up by people across the political spectrum. The young Norman Thomas, for example—displaying a certain sense of social propriety that his socialism would never totally enable him to overcome—spoke with passion of “the alarming high birthrate of definitely inferior stock.”
By the 1930s, however, any idea of encouraging the better people to produce more children while “encouraging” the less desirables to produce many fewer—or, ideally, none at all—hit an enormous stumbling block, the Great Depression. How suggest that recently affluent people now suffering a sudden decline in prospects should expand their families for the common good? And meanwhile the second aspect of the eugenics project, i.e., controlling the birthrate of the undesirables, while legislatively highly successful—between the years 1907 and 1937 thirty-two states were to adopt legislation regulating the practice of sterilization for eugenic purposes—seems to have come up against certain difficulties of its own. For while the idea of forcibly sterilizing the undesirables may have been greeted with enthusiasm, the record of the actual practice of coerced sterilization bespeaks a certain timidity, or perhaps lack of stomach, on the part of the authorities appointed to carry it out: by the end of 1965, after more than half a century of practice, the total number of involuntary sterilizations numbered only around 65,000. (From a different point of view, of course, 65,000 is not so negligible a number. Still, in this connection the comparison with voluntary sterilization is instructive: beginning in the late 1950s, about 65,000 women were voluntarily undergoing tubal ligation, and about 45,000 men, vasectomy, each year. )
Meanwhile a very radical, free-thinking lady named Mrs. Margaret Sanger was traveling the wide world to find new and effective methods of contraception and to open birth control clinics. Her passion was essentially a feminist one, that is, to free women from the debilitation of excessive childbearing. (Her own mother, seriously ill with tuberculosis, had borne eleven children to a ne'er-do-well husband and lived an exceedingly harsh life ending in an untimely death.) And as an early radical—first as a friend and disciple of such figures as Big Bill Haywood and Emma Goldman, and later, of Havelock Ellis and H. G. Wells—she was also an impassioned advocate of sexual freedom, a freedom, as subsequent generations were to learn so well, indeed made possible by the widespread distribution of effective contraceptives.
Mrs. Sanger, too, was for a time an ally of the eugenicists, mainly on the strength of the fact that she and they shared a common bitter enemy, namely, the Catholic Church. The alliance was, however, an uneasy one: never known as someone overly concerned with the implications of her ideas, she for a brief period supported coerced sterilization primarily as an act of defiance against the religious conservatives rather than on the strength of her own aspirations, which lay elsewhere. Surprisingly, in view of what became of her movement, she was no ardent fan of abortion, coerced or otherwise. She did early on open a clinic in Brownsville, a Jewish slum in Brooklyn, that provided abortions—or what is nowadays called “abortion counseling”—but this was not what she really aspired to do, which was to obviate pregnancies in the first place. On their side, the eugenicists were uneasy as well, fearing for their respectability—which was in the 1920s and even in the early 30s still considerable—should the world come to associate them with the effort to disseminate birth control, then still frowned upon in many circles. In short, because Margaret Sanger could never quite overcome the anarchism of her early political education, her abiding instinct was to demand unlimited freedom, while that of the eugenicists was to impose control. (More than once in human history have the two inclinations found occasion to come together.)
The irony was that the rise of Nazism was soon to give eugenics a black eye, whereas the birth control movement was to go from strength to strength, mainly, it seems reasonable to suppose, because its declared aims were the health and freedom of women just as women were beginning to exercise a new degree of political power.
In the end, Sanger's success in forcing birth control out of the radical back alleys and into the mainstream of social action was to have unhappy consequences for her personally. By the early 1930s, she had managed to find more and more powerful support among men and women with names like Rockefeller, Duke, Scaife, Lasker, Sulzberger, Dupont, etc., and this very respectability would, finally, result in her own superannuation: following the leadership of a firebrand was held to be no longer the proper strategy. In 1939 the various groups dedicated to promoting voluntary birth control were brought together under an umbrella organization called the Birth Control Federation of America—and men had begun to take over its leadership. Finally, three years later, to Sanger's great disapproval and distress the organization changed its name to Planned Parenthood, thereby ostensibly placing greater emphasis on child spacing than on outright family limitation. The first director of the new organization was a man named D. Kenneth Rose, who was chosen on the strength of the idea that a man would have better access to the government bureaucracy.
Another special player on the birth control scene was John D. Rockefeller III, who had journeyed to Asia in the late 1940s and returned from there convinced that reducing the population in what came to be called the Third World took precedence over any Western efforts at economic development. He called a conference of population scientists and put together a group called the Population Council. (An interesting, and you might say prehistoric, sidelight is that Rockefeller had wanted his Foundation to take on the project, but the Foundation directors objected, on the ground that to do so would be offensive to the Church.) Meanwhile research into contraception was proceeding apace. Sanger, while not truly satisfied with it, had been pushing the combination of the diaphragm with spermicidal jelly, first devised by doctors in Holland. Then in l956 Gregory Pincus and John Rock published their first findings about the Pill, and in the following year International Planned Parenthood and the Population Council were cooperating on a study of pill-takers in Los Angeles and Puerto Rico. The Pill was soon to become the contraceptive of choice of Planned Parenthood, at least for a time, but Mr. Rockefeller's Population Council, engaged as they were with the backward of the earth, were very pessimistic about any techniques that required voluntary action on the part of poverty-stricken, downtrodden women. They were seeking to find some contraceptive method that would require little initiative and remain in effect for a long time. They were subsequently to find it in the intrauterine device (IUD), which they and many members of the medical community distributed plentifully in the 1970s and 80s—until it was shown that keeping a foreign object in the cervix carried a significant risk of pelvic infection. (The search goes on for passive contraception, the latest find in this direction, of course, being Norplant.) But in the end, like many other boons intended by the rich for the poor, birth control continued to find its most eager beneficiaries among the world's middle and upper-middle classes.
Though the impulse to control and reconstruct the population was never to die, Hitler had for a time succeeded in making it a shameful impulse to own up to. But in the fullness of time it would find its way, curiously disguised, back into public discourse. Effective contraception may have helped to smooth the way, for after all, birth control, even of the kind sought by Rockefeller, was clearly far more benign than the coercive medical practices associated with eugenics.
The year l968 is a convenient point to begin, for in that year two separate anti-natalist movements—perhaps the most wildly anti-natalist in history—announced themselves to the world, as it were, simultaneously: the radical feminists and the ecologists. Though their analyses, as well as their aims, were rather different one from the other, the combined force of their respective advocacies was enormous. The early radical feminists' most telling contribution was a loathing of sex, marriage, babies, and motherhood that, having seeped quietly into the atmosphere through the offices of their more moderate (or maybe just more uncertain) successors, helped to condition American society to the idea of a woman's right to government-funded abortion at any time during a pregnancy and for any reason. This conditioning was important not only in itself and as a catalyst for a more general moral erosion, but for its suggestion of the ambition to godlikeness: the underlying assumption of the demand to be in total control of the creation of babies from beginning to end being that only masculine bad will or a malevolent social system stands in the way of reorganizing the very constitution of human life. Why should women continue to be, in Simone de Beauvoir's immortal words from her feminist classic, The Second Sex, “subject to the species gnawing at their vitals”? Indeed, why should there not in the end be laboratories in which to breed babies and government institutions to bring them up as a newly just society wishes? As Shulamith Firestone put it in The Dialectic of Sex (1971): “Humanity can no longer afford to remain in the transitional stage between simple animal existence and full control of nature. And we are much closer to a major evolutionary jump, indeed to direction of our own evolution, than we are to a return to the animal kingdom from which we came.”
These radical feminists, the granddaughters, as it were, of Margaret Sanger—though prepared to go infinitely farther than she—have cast a long shadow over the succeeding quarter-century, longer than many people realize; but in the end, having contributed more than a mite to the sum of human misery, they have left behind them few adherents. The ecologists, on the other hand, seem to have attracted disciples, both witting and unwitting, in every nook and cranny of the civilized world.
It is difficult to date movements, for they grow out of long-gestating ideas, but again, it was in 1968 that Garrett Hardin's famous article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” appeared in the prestigious journal Science. What Hardin meant by “the commons” was the earth's natural resources, and he warned that given the freedom granted by a society like ours to make use of these resources, we would soon be facing a natural catastrophe: “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to us all.”
For old Malthus, the nonrenewable resource whose disappearance was so soon to bring worldwide famine had been farmland; for Garrett Hardin—though he would later prove to be more catholic in his worries—the main objects of his concern in 1968 were soil, water, and most particularly, fossil fuel. Malthus had not in his time been able to foresee the prodigies of mechanized farming and new systems of irrigation and fertilization, nor the possibility of creating whole new strains of grain, whose cultivation would be dubbed the Green Revolution. Hardin was naturally quite aware of all these developments, but as far as he and his confreres were concerned, such progress represented not a solution but was itself the very heart of the problem. For if the early industrial revolution had doubled the population of the world in two hundred years, the explosion of economic growth in the twentieth century, along with enormous advances in public health and medicine, had more than doubled it again. And meanwhile, said the ecologists, we were simply using up the supply of all those resources that had made growth and health and prosperity possible. We were, it came to be said over and over, “eating our seed corn.” Thus there were only two things to do: reduce both population and consumption.
All this is familiar by now, so familiar in fact that we are in danger of losing sight of what was very new here in the story of eugenics and population control. Anxiety about the birthrate of the masses of still-agrarian Asia and Africa had for a long time been a popular cause, intensified by the spectacle in these places of famine after famine attended by epidemic after epidemic. And though the American government had certain political difficulty in taking official part in any project to curtail population, such projects were being ministered to—to be sure, without notable success—by the combined forces of American private philanthropy and several agencies of the United Nations, such as the ILO, FAO, UNESCO, and WHO. But for the ecology movement the problem was not located among the peoples of the agrarian Third World but rather in the population of the industrialized West, with particular—indeed obsessive—reference to the Americans. The American people had in the 1950s and 60s grown rich beyond belief, and enjoying as they unfortunately did the freedom to do whatever they wanted with their wealth, had become a nation of little foxes spoiling the world's vines.
Not long after the publication of Hardin's article a group of European industrialists calling themselves the Club of Rome produced a study—later discredited scientifically—claiming to demonstrate that American industry, by maintaining the American standard of living, was making the planet unlivable for everyone else. Each and every American baby being born would in his lifetime consume so much of the earth's precious and dwindling resources—including its very air—as to be an ecological disaster.
Now, the wish to find America responsible for the world's ills, as well as to hinder the country's economic system, nowhere in those years found a more sympathetic hearing than in the United States itself. We need not rehearse here how and why this should have come to be the case, nor all the many and various forms in which this wish expressed itself. Suffice it to say that one of the major results of the campaign to “save the planet,” reinforced by the new angry resistance to motherhood of some of America's best-educated and most articulate young women, was a rebirth of the movement one way and another to exercise control over the country's population.
In time this movement would be expanded and enriched by the presence in our midst of the gravely disturbing population known in journalistic shorthand as “babies having babies.” But to begin with, it was distinguished from its predecessors in that its main targets were not the poor but the rich. Zero Population Growth, the name given to the enterprise by Paul Ehrlich, one of its most visible and vocal advocates, addressed itself primarily to the qualities and habits of the advanced middle class. While the postwar baby boom was over, and births and deaths were now beginning to stay more or less in balance, the rate of resource depletion that resulted from the American standard of living, said ZPG, was already intolerable and would become more so unless a new sense of responsibility were fostered among the young. For, it was said, the nation was in the death-grip of a false ideology, “growthism,” the belief that economic growth promotes well being, unable to recognize that growth is the disease not the cure.
And in case anyone might doubt that the United States, with its huge empty spaces, is overpopulated, Ehrlich instructs us that the impact of any human group on the environment has to be measured in terms of his formula, I=PAT, which says that impact equals population times affluence times technology. Overpopulation, then, does not mean crowding as such but rather the number of people in any given area relative to its resources. (In other words, no matter how deplorable the conditions in which they live, the poor of Africa make exemplary citizens of the earth, for they live on a continent immeasurably rich in resources and yet they avail themselves of very few of these.) Also, in Ehrlich's view, “The flow of immigration [into the United States] should be damped, simply because the world can't afford more Americans.” Several different kinds of disaster have been predicted to follow inevitably from the population explosion: hunger, leading to epidemics; ozone-depleting gases and acid rain leading to destruction of the ecosystems; and finally, because of increased international competition over scarce resources, the ever greater likelihood of a nuclear holocaust.
While nuclear holocaust seems to have receded from the catalogue of guaranteed woes, the other dire predictions continue to circulate through the country's consciousness—and continue as well to titillate all those, both at home and abroad, who share eagerly in the process of indicting America.* In any case, the result of the spread of the ecological mindset has been the imposition of a variety of regulations over the country's public institutions and industries, not to speak of the private conduct of its citizens, never contemplated and certainly never put up with before.
Much has occurred in recent years to assuage the earliest anxieties of Zero Population Growth: abortion has not only been nationally legalized but declared a constitutional right; contraception has become ever more effective and widespread—even school systems in the country's major cities, now with the most ardent blessings of the new Surgeon General, are distributing condoms among its schoolchildren (so far to no great effect); bribing young black girls to use Norplant is now at least under discussion as a possiblity to be taken seriously; and a significant number of the baby boomers, only just coming of age in the l960s, were induced through a heady combination of philosophy, ambition, and greed to put off having children until very late in the biological game, thus burdening the world with many fewer than they might have.
What, then, continues to be the problem? The trouble, for Ehrlich and company, is twofold. First, family planning continues to focus on the needs of individuals and couples; we need population control, which will focus on the needs of society. Nor will this be enough: for second, while “the basic biological and physical science of the human dilemma is well enough understood to permit sound recommendations for immediate action . . . almost no work has been done on ways to make the needed conversions in the economic systems so that scientific recommendations can be implemented with a minimum of disruption.” In other words, the problem is still freedom, that damnable freedom about which Garrett Hardin had early on in the life of the movement waxed so eloquent. “So long,” as Hardin put it, “as power and responsibility are separated, population control is impossible.”
We know from historical as well as present experience that the only way people have actually come to impose upon themselves the kind of discipline needed for them to beget only as many children as they can feed and house and bring up benignly is the way described by Peter Bauer: help them, or even just permit them, to attain to a bit of wealth—property they can call their own or money in the bank and a situation that offers them some hope for more. But this is precisely what Ehrlich and Co. would have the world, for the sake of its future well-being, abjure.
Here, as an old Yiddish expression has it, is where the ecological dog lies buried: without the threat of world disaster, people privileged to live on a high standard might one way or another, whether unintentionally or in conscious aid of expanding business, help others to aquire this same standard, with its unfortunate concomitant freedoms, all over the world. The problem is not the resources at all—which wealth, in fact, helps to preserve and protect: breathe the air or drink the water in Lagos. Moreover, many of the resources whose depletion most concerns ZPG et al. were not resources at all until men made them so; who knows what might or might not be a “resource” in the future?
No, as Ehrlich himself said, the issue is control, not of the birthrate but of society itself. This is a sentiment that has been widely shared among the heads of state of the Third World who, while they attend conferences and there issue statements demanding in effect that the United States should somehow do something to stabilize the world's population, have not shown themselves notably eager to disperse whatever wealth comes their way to those in their own population who might use it to limit their own.
In forcing Chinese families to restrict themselves to one child (which has led not only to high rates of abortion but also to widespread reports of female infanticide), the Chinese authorities have really come close to having the right idea as far as ZPG is concerned. Garrett Hardin would be a drop kinder than they, for in the society governed by his new ethics, families would face just one restriction on the number of children produced: no more than one girl child per woman. In addition, it may not as yet have occurred to the authorities in China that to the extent they succeed with their policy, they may one day be faced with the problem of having a plethora of males. This is a problem that many societies, albeit on a rather smaller scale, have been forced to face before, often with unpleasant consequences. It is one, however, that Hardin at least has foreseen. For this, too, Hardin has the answer: polyandry.
In the new-ethics polyandrous society, it is true that we would have to give up a few personal freedoms, but as Hardin's associate Ehrlich hastens to assure us, the gains would be great. We Americans would learn to lead more enjoyable and relaxed lives, going back to handcrafts and small farming, which besides making life easier would also help to solve the unemployment problem.
It seems unbelievable that, say, a proposal to return to subsistence farming should be taken seriously as a boon to society except by someone who has never spent time on such a farm. Indeed, it seems unbelievable that so callow a set of ideas, so disconnected from human experience in all its quotidian reality, should ever have been taken seriously. And it seems now in hindsight that it even might have been greeted with the laughter it deserves were it not for the already lethal condition of the cultural ground in which it took root. The poisons in that ground were themselves contradictory ones, namely, the anarchy of free sex combined with the belief that something called “society” was responsible for everything in life. The noxious fumes from this clashing of opposite poisons led to an explosion of passivity combined with mindless rage and self-hatred that for a time nearly did in a generation of America's most advantaged kids and that has certainly come fair to destroying two generations of disadvantaged ones. Young men were declaring, as one rather famously did in the pages of Esquire magazine, that if he thought he would end up like his father, with a job, a nice house, and kids to support, he would slit his throat. About the young women we have already seen. In New York City the so-called “moderate” feminists were storming down the street demanding the legalization of abortion, on the grounds that a woman had the right to her own body, and when the New York State legislature gave it to them, they stormed down the street demanding that abortion be available on demand and that it be free of cost. And no matter how much society, especially the government, gave in to their angry demands, they still could find no satisfactory settlement between what they were being taught to regard as their desires and the actual constitution of their being. No wonder every hare-brained therapy anyone could devise was to find a complement of patients, no wonder gurus were enabled to buy Rolls Royces, and no wonder young men were proudly sporting ZPG lapel buttons announcing that to save the planet they had undergone vasectomy. In such a climate, friendly chat from the likes of Paul Ehrlich on how pleasant it will be to give up our freedom and live reduced lives may have sounded quite soothing.
Eventually, as we have lately had ample opportunity to witness, young ladies of the middle class did find a way to say no to casual sex. Many of them still seem to be somewhat out of sorts and their various demands on society have not much quieted, but at least the poison of sexual anarchy has been rapidly draining from their systems. Nor are they so cavalier about pushing the idea that motherhood is merely an “option.” (Now they must face the young men who once so willingly accommodated to their anti-natalism, and we can only wonder about what kind of explosion we will witness next.)
But the true victims of that polluted soil remain in our midst. They are the boys and girls of the underclass—blacks in particular—who, having had no margin of the kind provided to its young by the middle class in which to horse around with their lives, are left behind with the detritus of those ideas of yesteryear. They, too, are angry, boys and girls together, but this time the community that has long put up with their anger seems less and less of a mind to excuse it, and there are no loving arms for them to come home to.
Among the things they are doing out there knee-deep in the poison is breeding babies that too many of them have little time or use for, and don't know what they want to do about it. But for the girls' passivity in the face of what their lives are becoming, they would be perfect targets for Planned Parenthood and the abortionists. So far they are not, because so far the process is still voluntary and however one explains their reason for it, most of them still seem just to go along having the babies—having the babies, and in turn becoming grandmothers at thirty. But the population controllers, like the famous nine-lived cat, are surely gathering force for yet another rebirth. The opportunity is too ripe. For the girls of the underclass, abortion, or at least contraception, may not long remain voluntary: first they will be bribed to use Norplant and should the bribery not take—which seems likely, because why would a few dollars overcome a sloth so profound they permit themselves to be destroyed by it—they may be forced to do so. America, in short, will have become the land of Francis Galston's dream.
Peter Bauer would know what to tell those kids: go to work, and save, and be responsible enough to become self-sufficient, then work some more and quit listening to anyone who preaches to you either about the government or the racists—you don't need to depend on either—and you will see how soon all of you will begin to prize your babies and how soon after that they will be prizable. Of course, they would not listen to Peter Bauer; things have gotten much too corrupted for that. But they might listen if it were Faye Wattleton or Marian Wright Edelman or Spike Lee or some rap star: any of the people who have achieved their own success and might care enough for these objects of their ideological benefactions—soon otherwise to become the objects of this decade's Francis Galton—to explain the real truth of how you go about it.
Meanwhile, the compulsion to be godlike, and the enormities that follow from it, we may expect to have around in one form or another for quite a while. William Hazlitt, the great British essayist might easily have had the population controllers in all their various guises in mind when he wrote, in A Reply to the “Essay on Population” by the Rev. T. R. Malthus:
It is astonishing, what a propensity Mr. Malthus has to try experiments, if there is any mischief to be done by them. He has a perfect horror of experiments that are to be tried on the higher qualities of our nature, from which any great, unmixed, and general good is to be expected. But in proportion as the end is low, and the means base, he acquires confidence, his tremours forsake him, and he approaches boldly to the task with nerves of iron.
*Serious astronomers maintain that the so-called depletion of the ozone layer has nothing to do with “gases” and is not in fact depletion, but rather the tracing of a natural solar cycle from its peak to its lowest point; and as for acid rain, the count is still far from in on what its actual effects are, what causes it in the first place, or what is responsible for its recent decrease (see New York Times, September 12, 1993).
Midge Decter is a Distinguished Fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life. An earlier version of this essay was presented in early October at a conference on World Population Issues sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.