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The Malthusian Moment

Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism

Thomas Robertson

Publication Year: 2012

Although Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) is often cited as the founding text of the U.S. environmental movement, in The Malthusian Moment Thomas Robertson locates the origins of modern American environmentalism in twentieth-century adaptations of Thomas Malthus’s concerns about population growth. For many environmentalists, managing population growth became the key to unlocking the most intractable problems facing Americans after World War II—everything from war and the spread of communism overseas to poverty, race riots, and suburban sprawl at home.


Weaving together the international and the domestic in creative new ways, The Malthusian Moment charts the explosion of Malthusian thinking in the United States from World War I to Earth Day 1970, then traces the just-as-surprising decline in concern beginning in the mid-1970s. In addition to offering an unconventional look at World War II and the Cold War through a balanced study of the environmental movement’s most contentious theory, the book sheds new light on some of the big stories of postwar American life: the rise of consumption, the growth of the federal government, urban and suburban problems, the civil rights and women’s movements, the role of scientists in a democracy, new attitudes about sex and sexuality, and the emergence of the “New Right.”

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: Studies in Modern Science, Technology, and the Environment

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xv

In the months before the first Earth Day in 1970, as an explosion of environmental activism was reconfiguring the American political landscape, Time magazine, looking for a way to explain the concept of ecological interconnection, turned for an analogy...

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pp. xvii-xix

While I was finishing this book, every time I went out running I reopened a wound on my foot. That’s a little like what working on this project felt like. Of course, it was not always like this: there were also those gleeful moments I thought I could...

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Introduction: From Rubbish to Riots

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pp. 1-12

During her college commencement, normally a moment of optimism, Stephanie Mills delivered an address so grim that it made headlines. In her short speech from the spring of 1969, “The Future Is a Cruel Hoax,” Mills declared that she was “terribly saddened...

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1. Malthusianism, Eugenics, and Carrying Capacity in the Interwar Period

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pp. 13-35

After World War I, Malthusian prophets of despair and gloom appeared in large numbers. “There is at the present moment,” the biologist Raymond Pearl wrote in 1925, “a great recrudescence of public interest in the problem of population. Books and articles...

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2. War and Nature: Fairfield Osborn, William Vogt, and the Birth of Global Ecology

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pp. 36-60

Malthusian worries about overpopulation-driven scarcities exploded in the United States after World War II, even more strongly than after World War I. “The ghost of a gloomy British clergyman, Thomas Robert Malthus, was on the rampage last...

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3. Abundance in a Sea of Poverty: Quality and Quantity of Life

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pp. 61-84

Paul Ehrlich opened The Population Bomb (1968), the most famous of the environmental Malthusian books of the late 1960s, with a memorable line: “The battle to feed all humanity is over.” Then, drawing upon carrying capacity, the idea that Aldo Leopold...

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4. “Feed ’Em or Fight ’Em”: Population and Resources on the Global Frontier during the Cold War

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pp. 85-103

As Lyndon Johnson’s concern about the “explosion” in population and “growing scarcity” of world resources illustrates, by 1965 the U.S. government had shifted emphasis from the early 1950s, when the Paley Commission had rejected Osborn and Vogt’s ideas about overpopulation...

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5. The “Chinification” of American Cities, Suburbs, and Wilderness

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pp. 104-125

As international concerns about population growth were developing in the mid 1960s, concerns were also mounting about population growth within the United States. In the same 1966 article in which he stated that population growth in India and other...

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6. Paul Ehrlich, the 1960s, and the Population Bomb

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pp. 126-151

In the opening of The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich famously wrote, “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970’s the world will undergo famines— hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked...

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7. Strange Bedfellows: Population Politics, 1968–1970

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pp. 152-175

Although Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb is remembered as a classic of the environmental movement, few signs of a movement existed when it appeared in 1968. By the spring of 1970, however, Americans could hardly pick up a magazine or newspaper without seeing...

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8. We’re All in the Same Boat?! The Disuniting of Spaceship Earth

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pp. 176-200

Ten days before the first Earth Day celebration, on April 13, 1970, an explosion aboard Apollo 13 put its three-person crew at risk and forced the American spacecraft to abort a mission to the moon. Four days from reentering the Earth’s atmosphere but with only...

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9. Ronald Reagan, the New Right, and Population Growth

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pp. 201-220

The controversies about population growth in the 1970s show the complicated concerns, interests, and divisions that surrounded the environmental movement in the wake of Earth Day. These debates had fascinating political fallout in a decade that, although often...

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Conclusion: The Power and Pitfalls of Biology

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pp. 221-229

Three questions have driven this study: What caused the wave of Malthusian concern about population growth and environmental problems that swept over the United States in the twentieth century, especially after World War II? How large a role did this wave play in postwar...

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pp. 230-232

Since peaking in the late 1960s, the growth rate of the world’s population has dropped steadily. In 1987, the number of people added each year to the population reached its greatest point, and each year since then the population has grown by a smaller and smaller...


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pp. 233-283


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pp. 285-291

E-ISBN-13: 9780813553351
E-ISBN-10: 0813553350
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813552712
Print-ISBN-10: 0813552710

Page Count: 316
Illustrations: 12 illustrations
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Studies in Modern Science, Technology, and the Environment