Flashback 1969: Environmentalists Demand Compulsory Population Control

For those of you who enjoy reading a bit of (unofficial) green history, here’s a post on what the environmentalists were demanding during the last threat to “the future of the world” – overpopulation.

The year is 1969 and the place is the Aspen Meadows conference centre, where a new environmental group has been set up by David Brower, late of the Sierra Club. Their host is Robert Hutchins of the Ford Foundation and the Aspen Centre.

Called the John Muir Institute, the group consists of The League of Conservation Voters, a political pressure group, and Friends of the Earth, intended to push the borders of radical green action on matters such as overpopulation. The institute was funded by a $200,000 donation from oil tycoon, Robert O. Anderson, of Atlantic Richfield (equivalent to approximately $1.1 Million in today’s money). The institute is holding its first conference, and it’s a very serious affair.

This is no peace-and-love hippie gathering of well-meaning but ineffectual types who dance around campfires, but a substantial gathering of highly placed environmentalists, scientists and government officials. As a sign of how seriously the Nixon administration took the gathering, President Nixon had sent John Erlichman, Counsel to the President, to sit in on the conference for the whole two days, and report back personally.

The topic was the threat from overpopulation, and the assembled scientists and environmentalists told the president’s advisor that voluntary birth control was “insanity” and complusory population control was needed immediately:

ASPEN, Colo., Sept. 21 [1969] – A close advisor of President Nixon was told by scientists this weekend that the official Federal notion of limiting population by voluntary birth control was “insanity” and birth control would have to be made compulsory to avert the chaos of threatened global overpopulation.

New York Times, Sep. 22nd 1969. Scientists Tell Nixon Advisor Voluntary Birth Control is Insanity.

The scientists and environmentalists, realizing that this was perhaps a bit too dramatic a step to take in the free-loving 1960s, also pushed for the United States to “set an example” by marking the bicentennial of independence in 1976 with “as complete a suspension of reproduction as could be organized”.

As the New York Times article reported, many scientists, including Donald Aitken of the Union of Concerned Scientists were openly sceptical that a voluntary solution could avoid total catastrophe.

Also present was Dr Garrett Hardin, professor of biology at UC Santa Barbara who called for government to impose “penalties” on those who had more than two children (Hardin himself, of course, had five children. David Brower limited himself to four). The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on Hardin’s recommendations:

Dr Garrett Harding, a biologist and student of population problems, urged that children be indoctrinated from their earliest years with a sense of responsibility concerning the conception of unlimited offspring.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sep. 26th, 1969. The Coming Population Crisis.

But as the New York Times reported, that wasn’t Hardin’s only good idea. Aware that “Our natural reaction will be ‘We must save the starving Indians'” Hardin argued that instead of allowing further development, certain areas of the world should be fenced off from public use – but not for “selfish” reasons, obviously. Here’s what he said at the conference:

“I suggest that our big chance is to develop the idea of trust-for-posterity – to fence off certain resources as ‘posterity trust areas’ and tell the world that we’re preserving them not out of selfishness, but for our children and grand-children and the Indian Grand-children”

New York Times, Sep. 22nd 1969. Scientists Tell Nixon Advisor Voluntary Birth Control is Insanity.

The Pittsburgh Post-gazette article reported that President Nixon “acknowledged the gravity of the situation” and promised to make birth control information widely available to “all low-income American women of child-bearing age” (no prizes for guessing whom he had in mind there).

The only negative response to all of this that I can find came from the African-American civil rights leader, Ted Watkins, who had been invited to attend as he was (as the New York Times reported it) the leading figure in social development in Watts “the predominantly Negro section of Los Angeles”. Here’s how the NYT reports his contribution and the – very revealing – response from the assembled environmentalists and scientists:

After listening to several hours of generalizations by other conference participants he asked:

“Who of you in this room is ready to make a sacrifice to do what you say you are going to do?”

There were no responses.

That just about says it all really, doesn’t it? You can just imagine Brower and Hardin inviting Mr Watkins along, hoping they can talk him into supporting compulsory birth control, at least for “low-income American women” (of the sort found in Watts, no doubt). But he obviously knew them for what they were – eugenicists, who had plenty of their own children – and called them on it. What are YOU willing to sacrifice? he asked them. Their answer: Nothing.

Mr Ted Watkins (centre) – the man who managed to shut them up for one moment.

3 responses to “Flashback 1969: Environmentalists Demand Compulsory Population Control

  1. These trips down memory lane make one wonder how foolish many of the confident declarations being uttered today will look in a few decades.

  2. Pingback: Record High Gas Prices? - Page 33 - Fuel Economy, Hypermiling, EcoModding News and Forum - EcoModder.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s