Today marks the 45th anniversary of the first Earth Day, “the first National Environmental Teach-In.” Back then, its organizers were proud of its association with the radical student politics and protests of the late 1960s. And, while there’s some disagreement about whether this was intentional, the original Earth Day just happened to occur on the 100th birthday of Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin. If it was a coincidence, it was an oddly fitting one.
There’s more to the cultural conflict between the environmental movement and the rest of American society than the cliché of tree-hugging hippies derided by dour-faced conservatives. The theorists and activists who laid the groundwork for “mainstream” environmentalism had some very radical ideas about the direction American society should take and what interventions government should undertake in the spirit of saving the planet.
Many conservatives like to point out Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s advocacy of eugenics laws and forced sterilization. Yet, far fewer realize how the early environmental movement was similarly obsessed with population control.
From Stanford University Professor Paul Ehrlich’s thoroughly debunked 1968 screed, The Population Bomb, to the work of groups like Zero Population Growth — first rebranded as “ZPG” and currently known as “Population Connection” — the specter of unsupportable population growth has been one of the environmental movement’s greatest bogeymen. It’s the kind of all-encompassing disaster narrative that was supposed to be impossible to ignore. Even if you didn’t care about the environment, the pitch goes, you have to be worried about overpopulation — you don’t want millions to starve or see wars fought over food and natural resources, do you?
In preparation for the first Earth Day, Friends of the Earth and Ballantine Books published The Environmental Handbook: Prepared for the First National Environmental Teach-In, a tome riddled with melodramatic claims about the evils of overpopulation and authoritarian recommendations for countering it. It featured essays from acclaimed environmental thinkers like Ehrlich and the staff of the Berkeley Ecology Center, which at the time called for reducing the world’s population by half. The Handbook’s authors were startlingly honest about how to get there. Garrett Hardin, then-professor of biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, gave one of his chapter sections the bracing title, “Freedom to Breed is Intolerable.”
This mindset was partly motivated by a legitimate worry that overpopulation would lead to a Soylent Green-style dystopia, but there were more troubling influences as well. Some of the most revered environmental theorists and authors have, for decades, pushed a worldview that sees environmental protection as incompatible with human flourishing. The ecologist James Lovelock, the creator of the “Gaia Hypothesis,” theorizes that all organisms on Earth have co-evolved are part of a single, complex system — a single “living” organism with its animal and plant components existing in a harmonious balance, with only the unsustainable burden of human civilization causing trouble.
Today, environmentalists who subscribe to this kind of thinking are apt to describe human beings as a “plague” or “parasites” infecting the natural world. From this perspective, modern environmentalism isn’t about making sure our grandchildren will be able to breathe clean air, but about reducing the number of grandchildren we have. If human beings really are a plague upon the rest of the natural world, there can be no balance between human beings using some natural resources to succeed and flourish and leaving others to be conserved. The moral imperative is always to use less, grow less, build less, and reproduce less. Greater human flourishing, improved health outcomes, and longer lifespans are an affront to that agenda in this zero-sum game: If humans get what they want and need, the planet, by definition, suffers.
Of course, not all who call themselves environmentalists hold such an anti-life ideology. Lots of people simply enjoy donating to the Audubon Society, planting trees, or going hiking on the weekends. But there are still plenty of influential people in the environmental movement who do endorse such ideas.
Earth First co-founder and former Sierra Club board member David Foreman has clearly stated his belief that “the optimum [human] population of Earth is zero,” and that “phasing out the human race will solve every problem on earth, social and environmental.” Sea Shepherd Conservation Society director and Greenpeace co-founder Paul Watson has informed us that he “reject[s] the idea that humans are superior to other life forms … Man is just an ape with an overly developed sense of superiority.” And there’s always famed animal rights activist Ingrid Newkirk, who has simply stated that “Mankind is the biggest blight on the face of the earth.”
Anyone who wants to see human society grow and prosper in the future needs to be willing to confront these ideas and challenge the assumption that the leaders of the environmental movement are merely harmless idealists with a penchant for hemp clothing and organic produce.
Richard Morrison is Program Manager for the Center for Advancing Capitalism, a project of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.