Swans Commentary » swans.com October 24, 2011  



William Vogt And Malthusian Conservation


by Michael Barker





"It is imperative that business, intellectual and governmental leaders -- throughout the world -- understand the dependence of man on his environment, and the complex, ever-changing relationships within that environment."
—Bernard M. Baruch, 1948. (1)


(Swans - October 24, 2011)   Following the end of World War II, capitalist commentators all over the world began expounding self-serving diagnoses for the root causes of war. According to many leading writers of the day, human population growth was seen as the determining reason for the launch of wars -- a Malthusian argument that gained much traction with Guy Irving Burch and Elmer Pendell's book Human Breeding and Survival: Population Roads to Peace or War (Population Reference Bureau, 1945). Of course, such Malthusian mislogic had long been married to elite conservationist thought, and in 1948 when William Vogt published Road to Survival, he acknowledged his intellectual debt of gratitude to Guy Irving Burch. As it turned out, Vogt's book soon became extremely influential, and in the words of long-time presidential advisor Bernard M. Baruch (who wrote the introduction for the book) it was "the first attempt -- or one of the first -- ... to show man as part of his total environment, what he is doing to that environment on a world scale, and what that environment is doing to him." (2) This article will thus review some of Vogt's arguments in order to better understand how human population growth became such an unfortunate mainstay of so many parts of the modern-day environmental movement.

Adopting the kind of apocalyptic language that is now a mainstay of environmental narratives, Vogt, writing in 1948, envisages that "the Day of Judgment is at hand" as "man's destructive" methods of exploiting our planet "mushroom like the atomic cloud over Hiroshima." He observes that "Newspaper headlines" tell us "nearly every day" that people are starving, but this ongoing tragedy is a fact of life as there simply are not enough natural resources to be shared around. In Vogt's mind, anything contributing to human longevity should be considered to be part and parcel of this problem, and health care advances are singled out as a major culprit for enabling mankind -- or earth's "parasite" in Vogt's terms -- to spark this starvation-inducing global "population explosion." Indeed, Vogt's anger is piqued by "the Dangerous Doctor[s]" whose efforts to improve medical care and sanitation "are responsible for more millions living more years and in increasing misery." (3)

Starvation, apparently, need not be seen as all bad, and Vogt conjures up images of the global threat posed by Puerto Ricans who "reproduce recklessly and irresponsibly," and vistas of India and China's "spawning millions" and "degenerating lands." Moreover, in Vogt's discussion of China's geopolitical situation, he suggests that "extensive famines," which are apparently inevitable in the future, are -- "from the world point of view" -- "not only desirable but indispensable." This is no slip of the tongue, and as Vogt makes clear: "The greatest tragedy that China could suffer, at the present time, would be a reduction in her death rate." (4) Vogt has similar prescriptions for other countries, writing:

One of the greatest national assets of Chile, perhaps the greatest asset, is its high death rate. This is a shocking statement. Nevertheless, if one does not believe there is a virtue in having more people live ever more miserably, destroying their country with increasing rapidity, the conclusion is inescapable. (p.186)

Vogt's disdain for the lives of distant others is, however, wholly pragmatic, as he views mass starvation as one of the simplest means of controlling "one of the most powerful causes of war -- overpopulation." He also sees controlling global population growth as key to the US government's national self-interest, writing: "We, as the nation with the greatest total wealth, are, of course, the number-one victim." Halting the rise in global population levels is thus seen as a form of realpolitik. Likewise, he adds: "Hungry people are not likely to be willing to suffer the slow processes of democracy." (5) By which Vogt means that alternative political systems, like socialism, might take root if the US government does not strive to limit the world's total population.

But lest one forget, Vogt's book is not just concerned with population growth, and in fact the bulk of his text lays out a case for the urgent need for effective environmental management and conservation. Still, he admits that "All possible conservation measures are futile unless human breeding is checked." "Unless population increases can be stopped," Vogt continues, "we might as well give up the struggle." However, despite his fixation on Malthusian solutions, unlike many latter-day free-market environmentalists he does at least acknowledge that the roots of many of the problems he described have been caused by imperialism -- although he never mentions the word. For example, in the case of Latin America, he writes: "Their people have been exploited by foreign countries for many years, and some of their gravest difficulties incubated in this exploitation." Of relevance here, he draws attention to the problems caused by unequal "patterns of landownership," which mean that "the finest lands are generally held in large coffee fincas and ranches or by foreign corporations"; while the "mass of the population is forced" onto marginal lands that are more prone to environmental degradation. In fact, Vogt even goes so far as to fault the free market itself, although as will become clear he does so not to fundamentally challenge its legitimacy, but only in an attempt to make it more sustainable. As he points out: "If only in our own national self-interest, we should control American vandals abroad." (6)

He suggests that "the capitalistic system" is "[o]ne of the most ruinous limiting factors" to efforts to promote effective conservation, adding: "The methods of free competition and the application of the profit motive have been disastrous to the land." (7) Elsewhere he writes:

[L]and is managed on the basis of so-called economic laws and in very general disregard of the physical and biological laws to which it is subject. Man assumes that what has been good for industry must necessarily be good for the land. This may prove to be one of the most expensive mistakes in history. (p.37)

Yet much like other influential corporate environmentalists who would follow in Vogt's footsteps, Vogt is unable to recognize that it is capitalism's need to put profit before everything else that is the root cause of the problem of the free-enterprise system. Thus he seeks to encourage the impossible; that is, to make capitalism socially responsible and environmentally sustainable.

Those who would preserve what is left of free enterprise should sit down by themselves and thoroughly ponder the answers to two questions: Could free enterprise have made this country powerful and prosperous and democratically free if it had not been endowed with perhaps the world's greatest store of national treasure? And can free enterprise remain even partially free if we continue to waste our birthright like a sailor on a bender? (p.133)

Vogt thus carefully ignores capitalism's inherent inhumanity, warmongering destructiveness, and insatiable need to grow, and suggests that the free-enterprise system should be encouraged to be more responsible; while on the other hand, humans and their reproductive proclivities must be regulated. Futhermore, Vogt points out that "One of the great weaknesses of our civilization is the value we place upon things, and the abuse we feel as we are deprived of them." But, of course, it is no accident that capitalism places emphasis on the profit made from things before both the sanctity of life (human or otherwise), because the "waster's psychology" that Vogt is so derisive of, is in fact a central aspect of the free-enterprise system. (8)

Overpopulation, we are told, is the definitive issue, not capitalism; overpopulation is the cause of war, not capitalism. And so by channeling Malthus, Vogt reminds his readers that it is overpopulation that "has contributed so much to past European disorders" -- a problem that still presents "a continuing and growing threat" to European stability in the aftermath of the World Wars. Following this delusional line of thinking it is not hard to see why Vogt suggests that post-war reconstruction aid should be tied to population-control strategies, with aid being "made contingent on national programs leading toward population stabilization through voluntary action of the people." Aid, Vogt argues, should thus only be allocated on the understanding that it should not help increase European population levels, as any aid that serves to increase European population growth will only "increase Europe's difficulties and our own danger." (9)

Vogt has no time for so-called "Population 'experts' [who] say that, given time, populations will level off and stabilize themselves." The population crisis is allegedly already upon mankind, and he suggests that the only "obvious answer" to such experts is that "there is no time" to wait for populations to naturally stabilize, as "only extraordinary measures," can avert the coming crisis. (10) Action must be taken now. But despite the need for "extraordinary measures" Vogt attempts to shy away from authoritarian solutions, despite the fact that he has already suggested that desperately needed US foreign aid should only be distributed to countries whose citizens voluntarily comply with US mandates. Thus he writes:

Vigourous birth-control campaigns, using all educational and advertising techniques, should be organized by individual countries. Contraception should, of course, be voluntary. There is more than a little merit in the suggestion, made many years ago by H.L. Mencken, of "sterilization bonuses": small but adequate amounts of money to be paid to anyone -- especially the males -- who would agree to the simple sterilization operation. (p.282)

But who, one might ask, would be the most likely target of such population-control programs? The answer to this question is particularly interesting given the eugenic inspiration for budding population controllers, and Vogt observes that as the sterilization "bonus would appeal primarily to the world's shiftless, it would probably have a favorable selective influence." In the aftermath of Hitler's genocidal eugenic policies, population-control advocates deliberately avoided the use of inflammatory and racist rhetoric, and Vogt is no different in this respect, but it is clear that he still very much believed in the eugenic benefits that would be attained by a global sterilization program.

From the point of view of society, it would certainly be preferable to pay permanently indigent individuals, many of whom would be physically and psychologically marginal, $50 or $100 rather than support their hordes of offspring that, by both genetic and social inheritance, would tend to perpetuate the fecklessness. (pp.282-3)


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Bernard M. Baruch, "Introduction," In: William Vogt, Road to Survival (Victor Gollancz, 1949 [1948]), p.x.  (back)

2.  Bernard M. Baruch, "Introduction," In: William Vogt, Road to Survival (Victor Gollancz, 1949 [1948]), p.x.

For an earlier and highly critical review of Vogt's book, see Allan Chase, The Legacy of Malthus: The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism (Random House, 1976), pp.377-82; or alternatively for a review from a free-market environmentalist position, see Pierre Desrochers and Christine Hoffbauer, "The Post War Intellectual Roots of the Population Bomb. Fairfield Osborn's Our Plundered Planet and William Vogt's Road to Survival in Retrospect," (pdf) Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development, 1 (3), Summer 2009.

Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb (1968), "traces his interest in what he helped make known as the American Population Explosion to his reading of Vogt's book during his freshman year." Likewise, influential population control activist Hugh Moore, who published a pamphlet in 1954 called The Population Bomb, was also first drawn to the population issue by Vogt's Road to Survival. "Thus, in 1954, when Guy Irving Burch... told Moore that the Population Reference Bureau he had headed since 1929 had gone broke, Moore reorganized it. He advanced seed money 'through which it could embark upon public fund-raising campaigns,' and 'by 1966, Moore had helped raise the Bureau's annual budget to $400,000.'" Chase, The Legacy of Malthus, p.382, p.383.

It is significant that Hugh Moore went on to become an influential supporter of the activities of Planned Parenthood (see "Planned Parenthood for Capitalists"); and that from 1951 until 1961 William Vogt served as a National Director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. At the time of writing his book Vogt had been the chief of the Conservation Section of the Pan American Union (which was the forerunner of the Organization of American States), and prior to that (in 1942) he had worked as an advisor for the US War Department, and as a member of Nelson Rockefeller's Office of Inter-American Affairs. Later, in 1962, Vogt became the Secretary of the Conservation Foundation (see "The Philanthropic Roots of Corporate Environmentalism"). Vogt subsequently also served as a representative of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources to the United Nations.  (back)

3.  Vogt, Road to Survival, p.78, p.31, p.21, p.59, p.61, p.48.  (back)

4.  Vogt, Road to Survival, p.76, p.236, p.238, pp.224-5.  (back)

5.  Vogt, Road to Survival, p.239, p.209, p.207.  (back)

6.  Vogt, Road to Survival, p.279, p.151, p.162, p.164.  (back)

7.  Vogt, Road to Survival, p.34.  (back)

8.  Vogt, Road to Survival, p.150, p.67.  (back)

9.  Vogt, Road to Survival, p.210, p.211, p.210. Vogt writes: "The British must largely bear the responsibility -- not, perhaps, to be interpreted as culpability -- for the present situation of India. Before the imposition of the Pax Britannica, India had an estimated population of less than 100 million people. It was held in check by disease, famine, and fighting. Within a remarkably short period the British checked the fighting and contributed considerably to making famines ineffectual, by building irrigation works, providing means of food storage, and importing food during periods of starvation. ... By 1850 the population had increased over 50 per cent; by 1950, according to the State Department estimates, the population of India will be over 432,000,000." (pp.226-7) Later Vogt adds: "British withdrawal from India may well result in the reversal of the population trend that this country so badly needs if her people are ever to achieve a reasonably decent standard of living. The spectacle will not be pleasant to watch. ... How much better would it be to reduce population by the humane, relatively simple prevention of human fertilization, rather than the agonies of war, starvation, and disease!" (p.237)  (back)

10.  Vogt, Road to Survival, p.282.  (back)


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Published October 24, 2011