September 10, 2010


Baby Freeze: Is Population Control the New Solution to Global Warming? (Robin Phillips, Autumn 2010, Salvo)

Population control is not just an innovation from the Orient, however; it also has an impressive pedigree among the sages of the West. In fact, until the early twentieth century, it was politically fashionable for liberals to talk about finding ways to reduce the “surplus population.” Twentieth-century advocates of population control often drew on the social theories of men like Thomas Malthus and Charles Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton, who, a century earlier, had argued that the poor were draining the world’s recourses. (One of Malthus’s solutions for reducing the “surplus population” was to introduce policies specifically designed to bring death to large numbers of peasants. For example, he encouraged poor people to move near swamps, so they would catch diseases and begin dying off.)

In the early twentieth century, Malthusian ideas on population control were linked to theories of eugenics and social Darwinism. It was not until Hitler tried to move these ideas out of the anthropology class and into the gas chamber that population control stopped being a politically correct topic—for a while.

But it didn’t take long for the specter of Hitler to wear off. Following the huge birth explosion that occurred in the decades after World War II, the issue of population control gradually returned to the national limelight. But this time, instead of being explicitly linked to theories like eugenics and social Darwinism, it was propelled by the emerging ideology of environmentalism.

While it was no longer politically correct to appeal specifically to social planners like Galton and Malthus, the basic concern of these men—namely, that because the resources on earth remain limited, there will be a demographic Armageddon if the human population continues to expand—was revived but packaged as ecological responsibility. Thus, it became politically correct once again to advocate population control. The American Eugenics Society (founded in 1922, as social Darwinism was laying the foundations for the Nazi experiment) jumped on this bandwagon but attempted to garner more respectability in 1972 by changing its name to the Society for the Study of Social Biology.

In & Out of Favor

As the twentieth century wore on, however, something happened to change the tide once again. Like the notorious beech dwellers in Dr. Seuss’s story “The Sneetches”—who kept changing their minds about wanting or not wanting stars on their bellies—in the 1980s liberals decided that it was no longer respectable to talk about population control.

The key factor this time was not that the world’s population had stopped growing, but that it had stopped growing in the West. (Many factors contributed to this. It became fashionable for women to marry late, while books like The Feminine Mystique helped make women feel guilty if their greatest ambition was to be a wife and mother. These things, together with the rise in abortion and homosexuality, meant that the birthrate in the West began to decline steadily.)

This fact alone would not have been sufficient to change the direction of the population debate, since population continued to grow worldwide (though at a significantly lower rate). However, by this time the specter of racism loomed large in the background of almost every debate. It did not take long before people began realizing that if Western populations were decreasing while non-Western ones were growing, and if the former are primarily white and the latter primarily brown, then calling for a lower international birthrate was equivalent to calling for fewer brown babies. And that left one open to charges of racism.

Thus did population control become politically incorrect once again. English journalist Anthony Browne lamented this shift in his 2006 book The Retreat of Reason:

Now that the population of the West has stopped growing, concern about overpopulation has become very unfashionable because, as Tony Benn put it, it means wanting fewer brown babies. The combination of Western guilt and fear of racism has all but killed off public concern about overpopulation in the last few decades.

But even as Browne was writing, the wheels of one more paradigm shift slowly began to turn. Thanks to the increased hysteria about global warming, talk about overpopulation has become politically correct once again. [...]

Inverting the Christian redemption story, the new religion of science sees mankind as the curse, and scientists as the prophets pointing out the path of redemption. Like the prophets of old, the modern scientist-prophets know that salvation can never occur without sacrifice. The sacrifice they are calling for is simple: We must become fewer and poorer. Only then will the world will be saved from the environmental Armageddon that is fast approaching as a result of “reckless breeding” (a term employed by Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger).

That is the message that China brought to Copenhagen last December, and it is the message that is increasingly being picked up by think tanks and activists throughout the world.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 10, 2010 5:47 AM
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