Climate change’s malthusian moments

The last post makes a reference - almost in passing - to one of the founders of the World Wildlife Fund, Julian Huxley, being a massive eugenicist. It’s a topic worth picking up in a bit more detail, not least because it’s a knotty one.

Long before there were people who worried about climate change, there were people who worried about overpopulation. As worries about climate change grew, the concerns would sometimes intersect, and the argument that climate change should be addressed via birth control comes up every now and again. When it does, it tends to be controversial, managing to annoy the religious right, socialists, and a host of other ideologies between and around them.

Let’s start the in the 19th century, with the story of Francis Galton. Born in 1822 in Birmingham, his parents were ‘lunar children ’ - they met via their fathers’ membership of debating dinner club called the Lunar Society, so-called because meet on the full moon, which meant they had light to travel home by. As part of the extended lunar family, Galton shared a grandfather with Charles Darwin, and grew up in an environment steeped with science, invention, industry and politics.

Galton was a bit of a polymath. He invented the weather map, researched synesthesia and fingerprints, played all sorts of games with composite photography, and popularised the statistical term ‘regression toward the mean’. If you want to know how to scientifically cut a cake, he’s your guy. He also infamously produced a ‘beauty map’ of the UK secretly rating local women’s attractiveness, and declaring Aberdeen the ugliest (he had a special counting glove to study without being notice, the creep).

Galton started to obsess about the topic of hereditary after cousin Charlie finally got round to publishing Origin in 1859. For Galton, Darwin’s ideas of evolution via natural selection were a starting point for a programme of social selection, where people deemed ‘the fittest’ - be this because of their strength, intelligence, beauty or something else - would be encouraged to reproduce. As a former child prodigy, Galton was especially interested in intelligence as a form of fitness. In case you were wondering, he had no children himself.

He coined the word eugenics - from the Greek for eugenes for good in stock - in 1883 and soon after established a lab at the South Kensington Museum (now split into the V&A and the Science Museum). He also financed a eugenics laboratory and professorship at UCL, which still bears his name. UCL dropped the reference to eugenics in the early 60s but it continues to cause a fair bit of controversy.

Eugenics speedily became popular with a range of academics and social reformers. UCL wasn't the only university in the early 20th century where it was studied - see, for example, Charles Davenport, director of the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory in the US. There were international conferences, several states even developed sterilisation policies based on eugenics, and organisations like the Immigration Restriction League would draw on eugenics to argue particular groups should be barred from entering the US.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the growth of eugenics sometimes overlapped with fights for reproductive rights too - just one of the many ways white, middle class feminism has a history of being deeply problematic. Marie Stopes being one of the most prominent names in the UK (fact fans: she was also really into coal, but that’s a totally different story). In the US, there was Margaret Sanger (your largely irrelevant fact for Sanger - her niece was one of the inspirations for Wonder Woman, some say Sanger was an inspiration for it too).

Eugenics wasn’t simply a position of the extreme right wing, but of the centre right, centre left and some strands of socialism too, especially in the UK. George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, HG Wells, Sidney and Beatrice Webb - they all supported eugenics. The liberal economist William Beveridge - highly influential in the establishment of the British welfare state - was staunch eugenicist, for example. In 1909 he wrote that men who couldn't work should be supported by the state, but loss any right to fatherhood. There’s a fascinating bit in Hilary Rose and Steven Rose’s book Genes, Cells and Brains where they explain that, as junior academics at the University of London in the 1960s, they received an extra £50 a year for each of their children - a policy brought in by Beveridge, to encourage all those bright young academics employed at the university to reproduce. If you’re shocked by this, Sir Paul Nurse cracked a joke along these lines in reference to a new lab in London a few years back.

And it’s within the tradition of liberal, academic British eugenicists that we can circle back to Julian Huxley. As discussed in the last post, Huxley was a key player in the founding of the World Wildlife Fund, and the first director general of UNESCO. But he was also active in the British Eugenics society - their vice-president 1937-1944, and president 1959-1962. The latter of these two dates is worth noting - this wasn’t someone who dabbled in some liberal eugenics in their youth then clocked where the Nazis were taking things and came to their senses post-war.

I should stress, Huxley was a vocal critic of the more extreme ends of eugenics in the 1920s and 1930s, dubbing Nazi idea of race 'pseudo-science' and co-authoring an explicitly anti-Nazi book, We Europeans, in 1936. Still, he stuck to an idea that some people were better than others, and if we let inferior people breed without control, he worried, we'd all be doomed. As historian Paul Weindling points out, Huxley was a complex character, playing a sort of ‘bridging role’ between the old eugenics of the early 20th century and a newer, more molecularly-based and socially acceptable one. He reminds us that Huxley advocated restrictive immigration controls in the 1920s, and that although in his role at London Zoo in the 30s and 40s, he supported refugee scientists fleeing Nazia, this could be linked to his evolutionary agendas (i.e. save the brains)

Huxley was also clearly worried about the size of the human population in general - not just of specific groups. He wrote concerns about overpopulation into the 1947 founding manifesto he wrote for Unesco (Its purpose and its philosophy, pdf), arguing there is an optimum population size or the world, and that ‘man’s blind reproductive urges’ should be controlled. You can also see a worry about overpopulation in the essays which inspired WWF, the header of the first article crying: "Millions of wild animals have already disappeared from Africa this century. Does the wildlife of the continent now face extinction – threatened by increases in population and the growth of industry in the emergent nations? What, if anything, can be done to safeguard it?"

His emphasis on Africa is worth picking up. Maybe that was just where he was looking at, right then, and it wouldn’t be fair to think he was being a massive racist. He had just come back from a tour of the continent. But I personally can’t shake a sense that there was quite a lot of racism going on there - a worry about black bodies and, arguably, a romanticisation of a sense of wildness wrapped up in a very colonial idea of Africa. What was he trying to save in Africa, from what and who for?

But let’s park that - you can make your own mind up - and wind back to the late 18th century to unpick some of the history of worries of overpopulation. Although eugenics and worries about population have sometimes travelled together, they do have their own, independent history.

Enter Robert Malthus. Born in Surrey, England, in 1766, he was the first professor of political economy in Britain and is most famous for a 1798 essay on the topic of population growth. This argued, loosely, that the growth of people can outstrip our ability to grow food.

Malthus was responding in part to his father’s interest in the French Revolution, and the work of William Godwin (aka Mary Shelley’s dad, fact-fans), who argued we could perfect society and diminish suffering. Contrary to more utopian political thinkers of the time, Malthus felt improvements in society would just mean more people, which in turn would mean more mouths to feed, and so at least some of the population pulled back into to poverty. So we couldn’t just make the world better, it’d always be pulled back into suffering.

As you might have guessed already, Malthus wasn’t massively popular with everyone on the left. Marx and Engels called him the ‘lackey of the bourgeoisie’, arguing the problem of overpopulation was really one of economic structure. Foreshadowing debates about the Limits to Growth a century later, Engels also emphasised the role science might play in help solve the problem of food supply. Still, Malthus was pretty influential, not least via his role as professor at the East India Company College - where apparently students would call him ‘Pop’, short for population - and public debate over the 1834 Poor Laws. Some people argue he was an inspiration for Dicken’s character of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Various flavours of neo-malthusian thought crop up throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Although Malthus himself wasn’t a fan of contraception, there are connections between Malthusian groups and those promoting/ offering forms of ‘family planning’, just as there was with eugenics. A contraception organisation named the Malthusian League was active from 1877 to 1927 (founded in part by Annie Besant who I wish had more to do with climate change because she is super-interesting). Julian’s little brother Aldus weaves a reference to it in Brave New World - there are ‘Malthusian belts’ for carrying contraceptives.

Wherever they cropped up, neo-malthusian beliefs would anger people, either because they don't like contraception, or they don't like the idea of controlling people’s bodies, or they find it pessimistic, counter-revolutionary in some way, or simply misanthropic. Attitudes to malthusianism didn’t simply fall along neat ideological lines. A belief in women's rights, for example, might draw you to malthusian groups, but equally might well mean you find them repellant. The same could be said for environmentalism, or conservatism, or socialism. Malthusian ideas aren’t simple, and neither are any of the groups which love or hate it.

The second half of the 20th century, saw a particularly strong neo-malthusian revival. In 1948 a book called Our Plundered Planet came out, authored by Henry Fairfield Osborn Jnr - conservationist and president of the New York Zoological Society (and son of eugenicist Henry Fairfield Osborn Snr). Fairfield was also a founder of the Conservation Foundation, a New York based organisation which ran one of the early international conferences on global warming (in 1963) and later, in 1990, merged into the World Wildlife Fund. Another member of the Conservation Foundation - and former director of Planned Parenthood - ornithologist William Vogt, also wrote a 1948 bestseller in the vein of neo-malthusian thought, Road to Survival.

In 1968, another book - the Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich his wife, Anne - was published, deliberately designed to bring neo-malthusianism to the mainstream. Written partly on the suggestion of David Brower (then executive director of the Sierra Club, just before he left and founded Friends of the Earth) the book made provocative, arguably alarmist claims, warning of imminent mass starvation and calling for immediate action to control population growth.

The mid 20th century has seen some rapid population growth, but that was only part of the reason why neo-Malthusianism was catching on. As Thomas Robertson's book, the Malthusian Moment, argues, population intersected with concerns over national security, race, and women's rights. Neo-malthusians caught on in parts of public attention because people weren’t just worried about population on a global level (even if this is what they talked about) they were worried about a threat to the American sense of self. The title Population Bomb might have simply been picked because they thought it’d help the book sell, but they did still go with the word bomb, and that’s revealing (about the market they perceived, if not the authors).

Reagan and the New Right managed to stop the neo-malthusians from gaining much power beyond the 1970s, but population control groups do still run on. Today, they range from the absurdist - like the Church of Euthanasia - to more conventional NGOs like Population Connection (founded in 1968 in the wake of Ehrlich's book), Population Action International (founded in 1965 as the Population Crisis Committee), or Population Matters (which has the darling of mainstream environmentalism, David Attenborough, as a patron).

Many of these groups have worked hard to shake the dodgier bits of population control’s past, presenting themselves as evidence based, with a focus on women’s empowerment.  Still, it’s wrong to simply file environmentalism under ‘progressive’ and imagine everyone involved also holds a load of other beliefs you might put under that umbrella - anti-racist, feminist, socialist, or otherwise. It’s way more complex than that. Immigration has been a particular sticking point for a few environmental groups - see, for example, fights in the Sierra Club, or the criticisms levelled at Population Matters when it comes to their stance on Syrian refugees.

Although there were a few headlines recently along the lines of ‘save the planet, don’t breed’ after a paper by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas on individual climate action (the actual paper’s very accessible if you want to read behind the news), very few mainstream environmentalists campaign on population. Some population control advocates argue this is because the topic is taboo, and climate campaigners need to be up for a fight - whether it’s with the catholic church, or just their supporters who have several kids and don’t want to feel bad about it. Still, there are campaigners who say similar things about veganism and flying.

Moreover, as Dave Roberts points out, yes, population is totally a factor in environmental impact, but some population units emit more than others. So maybe we should be working to avoid the creation of extremely wealthy people, rather than simply the creation of people. And, following this logic, rather that talking about population, maybe we should be asking more questions about income inequality?