Population Control Redux?

Population control was once a vital component of the environmental movement. The logic was straightforward and hard to refute - fewer people would result in less stress to the Earth's fragile ecosystems. This position was championed by Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb (1968) and co-founder of Zero Population Growth (ZPG). In the late-1960s and early 1970s most environmental organizations supported policies that would limit population growth, particularly in the form of financial incentives for having two or less children. In time the concept lost popularity, in large part due to the negative image it developed. No matter how hard its advocates tried, they couldn't shake the perception that it was an elitist, xenophobic, and racist concept. The fact that ZPG changed its name to Population Connection in 2002 shows how unpopular this idea had become.

(You can read more about the rise and fall of population control advocacy in Roy Howard Beck and Leon J. Kolankiewicz's "The Environmental Movement's Retreat from Advocating U.S. Population Stabilization (1970-1998): A First Draft of History," which appeared in the Journal of Policy History back in 2000.)

In recent times it seems that few are willing to broach this topic. Radio personality/podcaster Adam Carolla occasionally addresses the idea in his rants (for an example, click here), but that's about it. However, this month has seen the concept addressed in editorials appearing in two of Canada's most prominent newspapers. The first, "The inconvenient truth? Overpopulation," was written by Diane Francis and appeared in the Financial Post on 7 December 2009. In it, Francis argues that "The 'inconvenient truth' overhanging the UN's Copenhagen conference is not that the climate is warming or cooling, but that humans are overpopulating the world." She goes on to state that "A planetary law, such as China's one-child policy, is the only way to reverse the disastrous global birthrate currently of one million births every four days." Anything short of this, she argues, would lead inevitably to the destruction of all life on Earth. Sounds like a return to the golden age of Ehrlich and ZPG, doesn't it?

Eleven days later, in a Globe and Mail op-ed called "Planetary birth control gone mad," Lysiane Gagnon called Francis's support of a global one-child policy "odious." Noting that China's much-touted adoption of this policy has turned it into a rapidly aging society, Gagnon points out the deleterious effect it has had on the "social and cultural fabric of the country." Once a land renowned for its strong sense of family, "it has become a country of single, often obese and egocentric children, who've grown up without siblings and nephews and who have been idolized by two sets of siblings and nephews and who have been idolized by two sets of grandparents frustrated in their desire for grandchildren." Clearly, Gagnon rejects the idea of following China's lead.

This all leads me to wonder whether debate concerning population control is about to make a comeback, or if this is merely an aberration. I suspect that the former is more likely, as people continue to scramble for solutions to our ongoing degradation of the environment.

In case you missed it: Diane Francis appeared on Fox News to discuss her idea on 11 December 2009. You can watch it here.