Holdren's Controversial Population Control Past

There's a conservative campaign against White House science czar John Holdren, and it seems to be ratcheting up. At the heart of it is a textbook book that Holdren co-wrote in 1977 with the famous neo-Malthusians Paul and Anne Ehrlich. Quotations from the book about coercive population control have been floating around the Internet for a while, but it's only in the last week or so that they've really broken through. They are indeed shocking, treading a fine line between describing and condoning outrageous proposals to curtail reproductive autonomy. They're a reminder of an ignominious chapter in American intellectual history. But they tell us very little about where Holdren stands today.

Holdren and the Ehrlichs were writing during a time of national, bipartisan panic about overpopulation. Such panic led to real human-rights abuses, spurring an international feminist campaign to replace the idea of population control with a focus on women's health and rights. There was a revolution in the field, and it seems to have led to a real shift in Holdren's views. The fact that the 1977 textbook sounds so shocking is a measure of how far we've come, and Holdren played a small part in that progress.

That said, it's not surprising that the right is jumping on this. On July 10, a Web site called Zombietime published scans of various offending passages from the textbook, Ecoscience. Reading them, it's hard not to conclude that the authors looked kindly on government-mandated limits on fertility. "In today's world, however, the number of children in a family is a matter of profound public concern," they wrote. "For example, no one may lawfully have more than one spouse at a time. Why should the law not be able to prevent people from having more than two children?

Elsewhere, the authors consider the possibility of adding a sterilant to "drinking water or staple foods." Ultimately, they decide that the risk of side effects "would, in our opinion, militate against the use of any such agent," though there's something disturbing about the equanimity with which they consider it. They also toy with draconian proposals for encouraging "responsible parenthood," including mandating that all "illegitimate" births be put up for adoption and requiring pregnant single women to marry or have abortions.

Soon after the writings appeared online, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, and various conservative pundits took up the issue. Syndicated newspaper columnist David Harsanyi published a piece titled "Obama's Science Fiction Czar." The Washington Times and The Catholic News Agency ran pieces about Holdren, forcing his staff to address it. "This material is from a three-decade-old, three-author college textbook," his office said in a statement. "Dr. Holdren addressed this issue during his confirmation when he said he does not believe that determining optimal population is a proper role of government. Dr. Holdren is not and never has been an advocate for policies of forced sterilization."

Few liberals paid much attention, and some of those that did dismissed the whole thing. At Scienceblogs.com, Nick Anthis argued that if the story sounds "just a bit too absurd to be true," that's because it is. He linked to a piece by Chris Mooney, a writer who has done invaluable work fighting right-wing attacks on science. "The book is three decades old; Holdren isn't its first author; it takes a stance against such policies; and neither Holdren nor the Ehrlichs support these policies today, either," wrote Mooney. "Couldn't we talk about something that's actually important and contemporary?"

These defenses seem a bit reflexive. No one, after all, is denying the authenticity of these quotations, and there's little point in pretending that they aren't morally outrageous. What's worse, hysteria over overpopulation in the 1970s did real damage to today's fight against global warming. Since the deadly catastrophes predicted by people like Ehrlich never came to pass, conservatives can argue that environmentalists cried wolf once before and are now doing so again.

Nevertheless, it's worthwhile to understand the context in which Holdren and the Ehrlichs were writing. It doesn't excuse them, but it does go a ways toward explaining how a decent person could have supported such awful ideas. In the 1970s, it was widely accepted by most serious people that overpopulation was a major planetary emergency. Many expected imminent widespread starvation, global upheaval, and mass death. "Success in the population field, under United Nations leadership, may, in turn, determine whether we can resolve successfully the other great questions of peace, prosperity, and individual rights that face the world," wrote George H. W. Bush in 1973. (Indeed, Bush was nicknamed "Rubbers" because of his obsession with family planning.)

And yet there was a growing sense that things weren't moving fast enough and that Malthusian disasters lurked on the horizon. In 1975, a then-classified National Security Council report outlined the dangers that rapid population growth posed to global stability. The report recommended expanding access to voluntary methods of family planning, but under the heading "An Alternative View," it broached the case for coercion. A "growing number of experts," it said, were predicting widespread food shortages and other "demographic catastrophes … in the words of [British scientist and writer] C.P. Snow, we shall be watching people starve on television." The conclusion of this view, it said, "is that mandatory programs may be needed and that we should be considering these possibilities now." It's not surprising that these ideas made it into a comprehensive textbook, since they were very much in the air.

Steven Sinding, a Columbia professor and the former head of both International Planned Parenthood and of the population division at USAID, knew Holdren during those years and shared his concerns.

The Ehrlichs, he says, "were among the leaders in this country of people who were sounding the alarm about the population explosion. Holdren was very much a part of that group. At the time, this was not regarded as radical. It was regarded as intellectuals who were really very serious about the threat of overpopulation and were speculating about alternative approaches to population control," a term then in vogue.

Of course, the fact that such views were taken seriously hardly exonerates those who espoused them. Nevertheless, it does help us understand why a young scientist might entertain them. More important, though, is the fact that Holdren seems to have changed with the times and that he went on to help those working against the population control paradigm.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a major feminist backlash against population control, spurred by numerous incidents of coercion, including widespread forced sterilization in India. Indeed, hard as it is to imagine now, at the 1993 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, some observers came away with the impression that the feminist movement was teaming up with the Vatican against family planning. Of course, for many feminists, that was nearly as bad as aligning with the neo-Malthusians. Eventually, as I describe in my recent book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World, a group of women who had come up through the ranks of the population movement organized in a systematic way to take it over from within, changing it to a movement that was devoted to reproductive health and rights.

The MacArthur Foundation provided significant support for the women who worked to replace population control with programs that took women's autonomy and human rights seriously. Holdren was a member of the foundation's board between 1991 and 2005. "At a time of youthful enthusiasm Holdren may have been associated with one side of the debate, but by the time he was on the MacArthur board, he was certainly closely associated very much with the other side of the debate," Sinding says. "It's fair to conclude on the basis of those associations that as thinking in this field has evolved, so have John Holdren's personal views."

To the right, this makes little difference, because conservatives don't generally recognize that there was a debate in the family planning field. They tend to see population control and feminism as closely aligned, rather than as mutually distrustful, sometimes openly warring tendencies. Feminism played a huge role in vanquishing the kind of vaguely totalitarian thinking that floated around the population field in the 1970s. If Holdren deserves blame for being part of the problem, he also deserves credit for being part of the solution.