by Michael Barker
(Swans - May 4, 2009) In March 2008, Sustainable Population Australia celebrated their 20th anniversary by organizing a two-day conference titled "Population, Peak Oil, Climate Change: their impact on the Millennium Development Goals." For most concerned citizens it is commonsensical that all three of the issues examined at this conference -- population, peak oil, and climate change -- are intimately linked: however, as I demonstrated within a recent Monthly Review Zine article, the longstanding focus on the population question by leading environmentalists is severely problematic.
To summarize my argument: simply put the modern-day birth of the environmental movement in the United States (and elsewhere) evolved in large part from the success of an increasingly powerful population control movement. With massive financial and technical support from ostensibly progressive liberal philanthropists, like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, by the late 1950s the population issue was adopted by the military-industrial complex, creating what has been referred to as the population-national security theory, a dubious theory that Professor Eric Ross notes, causally linked "overpopulation, resource exhaustion, hunger, political instability, communist insurrection, and danger to vital American interests." Here it is noteworthy that these same liberal philanthropists also played a key role in promoting the population control movements' predecessor; that is, eugenics.
The military's and public's fixation with overpopulation was helped along by influential books like Warren Thompson classic Population and Peace (1946), while other key works include Fairfield Osborn's Our Plundered Planet (1948), which along with William Vogt's book from the same year, Road to Survival, were -- according to a 1973 editorial in The New York Times -- largely responsible for the revival of the Malthusianism within the conservation movement. Not surprisingly, the latter two authors were intimately linked to other Rockefeller projects, as Osborn founded the Conservation Foundation in 1948, and Resources for the Future in 1952, while Vogt joined the Foundation in 1962 as their secretary. In addition, in 1952, Osborn's cousin, Frederick Osborn, founded the Population Council -- a Ford and Rockefeller Foundations-funded group that perhaps did the most to put the population issue on the public and political agenda. (See "The Philanthropic Roots of Corporate Environmentalism.")
Also active during this period of history was the population activist and businessman Hugh Moore, who in 1954 published a widely dispersed pamphlet called The Population Bomb. Consequently, it is little wonder that the ideas presenting in Paul Ehrlich's best-selling book The Population Bomb (Sierra Club, 1968) drew heavily upon the Malthusianism ideas already presented by America's leading population-control advocates. The importance of Ehrlich's work in adversely influencing the environmental movement has been highlighted by leading feminist writer Betsy Hartmann, who considers Ehrlich to be the scientist most responsible for "populariz[ing] the [false] belief that overpopulation is the main cause of the environmental crisis."
This brings us back to Sustainable Population Australia (SPA), a group that was formed in 1988 -- and formerly known as Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population Australia -- "by people who felt that the issue of population numbers was overlooked, or regarded as too contentious, by many of those striving to preserve Australia's ecological heritage." Despite the long-term support that the population movement has received from the mainstream media and philanthropic elites, with no hint of irony Sustainable Population Australia argue that: "The vested interests of the population-growth lobby -- which has billions of dollars invested in real estate and development projects -- were a taboo subject for the media; yet anyone who argued against this lobby was liable to be accused of being part of (or a stooge for) some unspecified rightwing conspiracy!" This statement merely serves to illustrate how misunderstood the population question is.
As might be expected, the activities of Sustainable Population Australia are intimately enmeshed with the more conservative parts of the environmental movement, as SPA's current president, John Coulter, presently serves a Council member of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF). Moreover, this link is strengthened through the presence of the ACF's president, Professor Ian Lowe, on Sustainable Population Australia's board of patrons, along with Frank Fenner, who served as the ACF's vice president from 1971 until 1973. Similarly two of their five-person strong executive committee include Gordon Hocking, who has served as the president of the Sydney Branch of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and Paddy Weaver, who has served three terms on the Western Australia Conservation Council executive, and as a convenor of Environment 2000.
Finally, another patron of Sustainable Population Australia's work who ranks among Australia's most influential environmental writers is Professor Tim Flannery, who wrote the recent bestselling book The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change (Text Publishing, 2005). Perhaps his link to the "population crowd" is understandable though, especially considering that Clive Hamilton's critique of his book, which was published in the Sydney Morning Herald in August 2006, noted that WWF-Australia's president Robert Purves "has drawn Tim Flannery into the orbit of conservative environmentalism by funding the preparation of Flannery's book on climate change, The Weather Makers." Hamilton adds that "Flannery's book ... sends the sort of message the Government wants us to hear"; as Hamilton correctly observes that "Flannery's 'firm belief' that we can be saved only if consumers take the initiative is one he shares with the ideologues of the right-wing think tanks who argue that environmental problems should be left to the unfettered market."
Yet the insidious nature of the population issue with regards to environmental politics goes far beyond the likes of mainstream voices like Professor Lowe and Professor Flannery, as even Hamilton himself has leant his support to Sustainable Population Australia's work: thus at the group's March 2008 conference, Hamilton gave his "after dinner speech," while the conferences keynote speech was given by Professor John Guillebaud -- a key British-based population control advocate who sits alongside Paul Ehrlich and Jane Goodall on the board of patrons of a "leading think tank in the UK concerned with the impact of population growth on the environment" known as Optimum Population Trust. (1)
The uncritical emphasis placed on the population issue is obviously highly problematic, but it is a predicament that is almost understandable given that to date so few researchers have questioned the detrimental influence of liberal philanthropy over the evolution of the environmental movement. This situation needs to change, and change it can; concerned citizens and environmentalists must begin to challenge the perverse logic of the population advocates, and offer alternative solutions to the climate crisis that deal with the real structural roots of inequality by challenging the legitimacy of capitalism itself, not people's right to procreate.
1. For criticisms of Jane Goodall's military connections see "Jane Goodall's Elite Monkey Business," and for further details about her population control work in Africa see "When Environmentalists Legitimize Plunder." (back)
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