On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb ever used against humans on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Temperatures at the site of impact reached 7200°F, producing a huge firestorm that engulfed most of the city. A flash of light brighter than the sun caused serious burns from ultraviolet radiation and blinded many people who survived the blast. Between ninety thousand and one hundred sixty-five thousand people died either from injuries or radiation poisoning. Three days later, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing approximately seventy-five thousand more people. On August 15, Japan, appalled at this devastation, surrendered unconditionally to the United States.
The atomic bomb brought Victory, but it also brought Fear. “Physically untouched by the war, the United States at the moment of victory perceived itself as naked and vulnerable,” historian Paul Boyer wrote in his 1985 book By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age.1 “Sole possessors and users of a devastating new instrument of mass destruction, Americans envisioned themselves not as a potential threat to other peoples, but as potential victims.”
The atomic bomb brought, for the first time in history, the fear of an anthropogenic (manmade) apocalypse. It seemed that humanity had broken out of some limit, had finally seized the reins of nature, and now had the power to destroy all life on earth, either purposefully or accidentally. Never before had this seemed possible on a global scale, only a local one. The result, Boyer explained, was an intense “bone-deep fear” that “pervaded all society” for the remainder of the twentieth century.
“The celebrated middle-class affluence of postwar sprawling suburbs, backyard barbecues, electric appliances, and gigantic cars decked out in shiny chrome was accompanied by an underlying awareness that it might all end in an instant,” said historian Thomas Jundt in his 2014 book Greening the Red, White, and Blue: The Bomb, Big Business, and Consumer Resistance in Postwar America.2 “With the advent of the Bomb it seemed dreadfully clear to many that human technology had dangerously outpaced humanity.”
Fear of the atomic bomb led to other fears. Perhaps a nuclear war wasn’t the only form of anthropogenic apocalypse. What if resource degradation, pollution or overpopulation could end life on earth, too?
One major fear during the Cold War—which led to the changes in global agriculture commonly known as the Green Revolution—was the Malthusian belief that world population would soon outstrip food supply and cause massive famines, perhaps even triggering a nuclear war. To understand why the Green Revolution was regarded as a miracle by its promoters, we must first look at the fear that was behind it.
OUR PLUNDERED PLANET
“Man’s conflict with nature contains potentialities of ultimate disaster greater even than would follow the misuse of atomic power,” Fairfield Osborn warned in 1948.3 Osborn (1887-1969) was interested in zoology, natural history and evolution. He designed exhibits at the Bronx Zoo and was president of the New York Zoological Society.
Before and during World War II, Osborn was not a leading figure in the conservation movement. This changed in 1948, when he published a book entitled Our Plundered Planet.3 “The impulse to write this book came towards the end of the Second World War,” Osborn wrote in his introduction. “It seemed to me, during those days, that mankind was involved in two major conflicts.” One, of course, was the war itself; the other was “man’s conflict with nature.”
In the “long” view of space and time, Osborn argued, what was man? With skillful, poetic prose, he wove together a narrative that portrayed humans, for most of evolutionary history, as an insignificant part of the grand scheme of nature. But such was no longer the case, Osborn claimed. With the aid of modern technologies and knowledge, humans had become a “large-scale geological force,” turning formerly lush natural areas into “man-made deserts—sterile, barren, beyond reclamation.” As human population increased, the amount of arable land in the world was actually decreasing—and was already below the 2.5 acres per person that Osborn, like others at the time, believed was necessary to provide an adequate diet.
“Blind to the need of co-operating with nature, man is destroying the sources of his life,” Osborn wrote. “Another century like the last and civilization will be facing its final crisis.” Yet there was still hope, Osborn believed. “There is only one solution: Man must recognize the necessity of co-operating with nature. He must temper his demands and use and conserve the natural living resources of this earth in a manner that alone can provide for the continuation of his civilization.”
Our Plundered Planet was a good summary of the state of the American conservation movement in 1948, and it was an immediate bestseller. Most people agreed with the book’s premise that humans should learn to work with nature rather than wantonly destroying natural resources, and many people—including the famous author-farmer Louis Bromfield—hoped that the “New Agriculture” after World War II would be founded upon natural principles.
But just a few months later, concerns about resource degradation took a darker, often misanthropic turn when another little-known conservationist, William Vogt, published his own scary book about the possibility of an anthropogenic apocalypse. While fear of overpopulation was only a small part of Osborn’s book, it took center stage in the chilling situation that Vogt portrayed.
ROAD TO SURVIVAL
William Vogt (1902-1968) grew up on Long Island. After becoming an ornithologist, he spent several years working for the Peruvian government to figure out why the population of guano-producing birds on Peru’s guano islands was decreasing. During World War II, he worked for the Pan-American Union in South America, where he observed soil erosion, poverty and overcrowded cities.
While other observers might have concluded that soil erosion had caused poverty, Vogt came to the less typical conclusion that overpopulation had caused the destruction of natural resources. And when the new publishing company of William Sloane Associates asked him to write a book about environmental degradation, Vogt jumped at the chance. His book, Road to Survival, came out in August 1948.4
The central theme of Vogt’s book was the ecological concept of carrying capacity—that a given environment could only support so many of a given species. Like many other conservationists of his era, Vogt illustrated the concept of carrying capacity by telling the tragic tale of the deer on the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona.
Deer had been living on the Kaibab Plateau for thousands of years, their population naturally kept in check by mountain lions, wolves and other predators. But conservationists in the early twentieth century, appalled by such “waste” of their trophy hunting animals, launched a predator eradication program.
The protected deer flourished, especially since hunters didn’t keep the population as low as the predators. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough food for a lot more deer. They stripped the forest bare to a height of eight feet above ground level, and then they starved. In the spring of 1925, the ground was littered with the bones of deer who had died from starvation. The conservationists and hunters were shocked and started to reconsider their predator eradication program.
While the story of the Kaibab deer was most directly applicable to wildlife management, Vogt used it as an illustration for his contention that humans also had a carrying capacity. Vogt was a very strong believer in neo-Malthusianism: the idea that birth control was the only humane way to keep population from outstripping food supply. Otherwise, famines, wars and pestilence would do the job. (See my article, “Feeding the World,” for the origins of this idea.5) Vogt be lieved that the world was already over carrying capacity and that overpopulation was the root cause of all environmental problems.
Vogt blamed the world’s overpopulation problems on the capitalistic economic system, an industrial civilization that emphasized an unrealistically high standard of living; he also blamed misguided humanitarian efforts to provide medical care to developing countries to lower the death rate without decreasing the birth rate. In Vogt’s view, it was better to let people die or keep them from being born than to have them live in anything less than what he considered ideal circumstances. He took the fatalistic view that conservation efforts would be ineffective “unless human breeding is checked.”
Because Vogt wrote so many negative things about South American countries, he was forced to resign from the Pan American Union after his book was published. He worked as the national director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1951–1961 and in 1960, published another book entitled People! Challenge to Survival.6 In this depressing book, he concluded that “it is better to let human beings die than to let the earth die.”
“Without birth control the world cannot possibly escape disaster,” Vogt concluded pessimistically. “The population explosion is both more dangerous and more immediate than the H-bomb. The population explosion has already been triggered off.” Vogt was so depressed about the future of the world that he committed suicide in 1968, convinced that “all of his efforts had been futile.”
Not surprisingly, Vogt’s provocative Road to Survival aroused a huge response from many different groups of people. Some, like the Catholic Church, found Vogt’s emphasis on birth control objectionable. Others, even if they weren’t opposed to birth control, were shocked by Vogt’s callous belief that it was better to let people die of preventable diseases than for their population to increase.
All of Vogt’s calculations about the earth’s human carrying capacity were based on the assumption that 2.5 acres of good agricultural land were required to provide a “minimum adequate diet” for each person. This statistic was already outdated by 1948, as agricultural yields began increasing at a faster rate than population growth. By the mid-1950s, food surpluses were piling up and the prices paid to farmers were so low that they could hardly stay in business.
Yet so strong was the fear appeal used by Vogt and other neo-Malthusians—so close did it strike to the unspoken but always present fear of nuclear war—that to many people, the fear of overpopulation was more powerful than the reality of abundance. By the mid-1960s, the overpopulation rhetoric had changed from “if we don’t act now, it will be too late” to “it’s already too late and catastrophe is inevitable.”
Such was the view taken by William and Paul Paddock in their 1967 book Famine—1975! America’s Decision: Who Will Survive?7 “The famines which are now approaching,” they wrote, “will last for years, perhaps several decades, and they are, for a surety, inevitable.” The Paddocks believed that it was too late even for birth control to stop population growth in time to prevent worldwide food shortages.
When the “time of famines” that the Paddocks predicted around 1975 arrived, the United States would have to decide which countries to save by sending them food and which to let starve. They proposed a concept of “triage,” in which some countries would be dismissed as “can’t-be-saved” because their population had already surpassed agricultural production. Others, the “walking wounded,” didn’t need food aid to survive. Food aid should, they argued, only be sent to “nations in which the imbalance between food and population is great but the degree of the imbalance is manageable.”
“During the coming Age of Food the nation which has the most food will be, if it uses that food as a source of power, the strongest nation,” the Paddocks concluded. “This will be, then, clearly an era [in] which the United States can dominate.”
THE POPULATION BOMB
One man who read the Paddocks’ book and took their predictions very seriously, dates and all, was an evolutionary biologist named Paul Ehrlich at Stanford University. Ehrlich’s main research involved studying the coevolution of butterflies and flowering plants, and he was dismayed to see many of his collecting areas disappearing under new subdivisions and freeways as the population of California mushroomed in the 1950s and 1960s.
Ehrlich had also read Vogt’s Road to Survival as a young man, and he viewed overpopulation as the root of suburban sprawl, pollution, wilderness destruction and the other serious environmental problems he saw around him. Heavily influenced by Vogt and the Paddocks, Ehrlich believed that the only hope lay in an immediate, extreme birth control program. Even so, he thought it might be too late—but in hopes of winning more people over to his cause, he published a provocative book in 1968 with the title The Population Bomb.8
“The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” Ehrlich argued. “In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” To help illustrate his point, Ehrlich included three scenarios about what the world’s future could look like. These ranged from a worst-case scenario where fighting over food led to a nuclear war that killed every human on earth to a “more realistic” scenario where “only” half a billion people starved before draconian population control measures stabilized the world’s population at two billion people—which, like Vogt twenty years earlier, Ehrlich believed was all the world could support.
Because of its sensational quality, The Population Bomb, too, became a bestseller. In fact, many historians regard it as one of two main books, along with Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, that started the modern environmental movement. Not that all environmentalists agreed with Ehrlich—some, like Barry Commoner, pointed out that pollution and natural resource destruction had increased at a much faster rate than population growth and that the real problem was new technologies developed since World War II. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that environmentalism in the 1970s had a strong neo-Malthusian component, thanks largely to Paul Ehrlich.
ERRONEOUS NEO-MALTHUSIAN PREDICTIONS
Were Vogt and Ehrlich right? Was the carrying capacity of the earth really only two billion people, and was it impossible for more people than that to live sustainably without degrading natural resources? While these questions are impossible to answer objectively, it is now obvious that the world’s agricultural land is capable of feeding far more people than any of the neo-Malthusians predicted.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, world food production actually increased from 2196 kilocalories per capita in 1961 to 2884 kilocalories per capita in 2013, despite the fact that the world’s population increased from three to seven billion people during that time period. While there are still hungry people in the world, malnutrition today is mostly caused by socioeconomic and political factors, not by an absolute shortage of food.
Despite the increased food production, population growth has followed a logistic curve, not an exponential curve. The United Nations now predicts that the world’s population will level off at ten or eleven billion people around 2100.9 Current agricultural methods are sufficient to feed that many people without any new technological breakthroughs.
Usually, the worldwide adoption of American-designed chemical and machinery-intensive agriculture, often known as the Green Revolution, is given credit for preventing the famines predicted by Ehrlich. Whether that was the best or only way to feed the world is still a matter of debate. But one thing is certain—a global anthropogenic apocalypse, whether caused by the atomic bomb or the population bomb, did not happen in the twentieth century.
- Boyer P. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, second edition. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press; 1994.
- Jundt T. Greening the Red, White, and Blue: The Bomb, Big Business, and Consumer Resistance in Postwar America. Oxford University Press; 2014.
- Osborn F. Our Plundered Planet. Little, Brown and Company; 1948.
- Vogt W. Road to Survival. New York, NY: William Sloane Associates; 1948.
- Abbott A. Feeding the world: Malthusian ideas in American agriculture. Wise Traditions, Fall 2020;21(3):82-86.
- Vogt W. People! Challenge to Survival. Sloane Associates; 1960.
- Paddock W, Paddock P. Famine—1975! America’s Decision: Who Will Survive? Little, Brown and Company; 1967.
- Ehrlich PR. The Population Bomb. Ballantine Books; 1968.
- United Nations. “Population.” https://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/population/index.html.