An Overpopulation Library

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By Otis L. Graham, Jr., Ph.D.

Otis is an historian of modern America, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a CAPS Board Member. He is the author or editor of 19 books and numerous articles on the history of the United States, with a focus on American reform movements, political economy, environment and immigration.

The writer's views are his own.

October 11, 2013

A housing downsize forced me (and someday, perhaps, you) to accept the need to limit and thin my library. I arbitrarily allocated a yard of shelf space to the books that most educated me on the global “human overpopulation problem” of modern times.

I anchored my collection with Parson Thomas Malthus and John Stuart Mill, who soon seemed long ago and an ocean away. Browsing the shelves of the downtown Carnegie Library in Nashville, Tennessee as a teenager, I happened upon two immensely influential 1948 paperbacks, Our Plundered Planet by Fairfield Osborn, Chairman of the Conservation Foundation, and William Vogt’s Road to Survival. Both had a global perspective. In time I came upon an earlier and U.S.-focused book on the topic, Edward A. Ross’ 1927 book, Standing Room Only.

The 1960s nurtured Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s immensely influential The Population Bomb (1968), quickly followed by my nominee for the policy heavyweight among them all, the 1972 Rockefeller Commission’s Population and the American Future, conveying the conclusion that “no substantial benefits will result from further growth of the nation’s population,” with the Commission recommending that “the nation welcome and plan for a stabilized population.” It seemed in the ‘70s that the floodgates of “overpopulation” discussion were opening, encouraged by the huge readership of Limits to Growth (Meadows, Meadows & Randers, 1972) and Raymond F. Dasman’s The Destruction of California (1965).

Then my little collection took an unexpected turn.

In the Reagan political era, what might be called the neo-Malthusian outlook was embattled by political and moral counter-attacks condemning population growth worries as racist, unjustified or both. I made room on my bookshelf for the spectacularly wrong-headed books of advertising professor Julian Simon, most notably The Ultimate Resource (1981), journalist Ben Wattenberg’s Fewer (2004) and Matthew Connelly’s Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (2008).

This sharp turn toward minimizing or dismissing population growth as a serious global problem was critically appraised in a 2000 essay in the Journal of Policy History by Roy Beck and Leon Kolankiewicz and in a model monograph written for professional historians by Derek S. Hoff, The State and the Stork: The Population Debate and Policy Making in U. S. History (2012).

The books I acquired in the ‘80s and after – among them works by Harrison Brown, Walt Rostow, Hamish McRae, Garrett Hardin, Lester Brown, David Pimentel, Al Gore, Michael Tobias, Jared Diamond and Bill McKibben – found their own measured mix of demographic “overshoot” and avoidance of Ehrlich’s references to imminent famine. Some had to be turned over to the local public library or the annual Planned Parenthood book sale.

Beginning in the ‘90s my shelf of demographic/environmental writings unexpectedly grew from two relatively new sources of scholarship not likely to be silenced by charges of “racist underlying motives.” I discovered that eight American presidents in the modern era had commissioned reports on the national security hazards of global population growth (the Nixon-commissioned Population and the American Future, 1972, was the fourth), though only that one and the Jimmy Carter-sponsored Global 2000, 1980, were written for and reached a broad public audience. That volume concluded that the future held population-driven congestion, famine, deforestation and war across the globe.

The second source of demographic policy scholarship has been studies of the environment as a cause of war and civil unrest. This is a new field with far-reaching implications. In fact, this area of study led me to allot an extra yard of shelf space to demographic policy books and essays at my library, including the work of Philip Cafaro and Eileen Crist, editors, Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation (2012).

In closing his prescient book, The State and the Stork, Derek Hoff sees the likelihood that “some combination of climate change, higher energy costs, crippling traffic in America’s major cities and deteriorating national parks ... will awaken the population debate from its slumber.”

For more books on overpopulation, the environment and immigration, visits Books & Gifts at the CAPS Website. Additional books for suggested reading can be found here.

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