The Overpopulation Myth and the New Morality

Many of us who lived through the 1960s will have vivid memories of the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The Population Bomb, which frightened the public and influenced media perceptions of demography. Ehrlich revived the long-discredited eighteenth-century theory of Thomas Malthus that world population will always outstrip food supplies unless population is drastically curtailed. He warned the world that massive famines would begin in the 1970s, and that by the end of the twentieth century hundreds of millions would starve, India would collapse, and England would disappear.

Ehrlich’s book was not the beginning of the general panic about overpopulation, but had been preceded by moves in the Johnson administration.  In a 1965 speech to the United Nations, Johnson advised that, “Five dollars invested in population control is worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth,” and insisted that sterilization programs be implemented in India as a condition for famine relief from the United States.

Population control finally became etched in stone when the National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) concerning the “Implications of Worldwide Population Growth for U.S. Security and Overseas Interests,” was formally adopted as U.S. foreign policy.  A 1976 follow-up memo “called for the United States to use control of food supplies to impose population control on a global scale.”

This policy still continues.  Funding designated for foreign aid is made contingent on population control. Contraceptives – rather than food and medical supplies – are often the main products delivered in strategic areas.  Stephen Mosher, author of Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits, cites the complaint of an obstetrician in Kenya:

Our health care sector is collapsed. Thousands of Kenyan people will die of malaria, the treatment for which costs a few cents, in health facilities whose shelves are stocked to the ceiling with millions of dollars worth of [contraceptive] pills, IUDs, Norplant, Depo-Provera, and so on, most of which are supplied with American money.

The widespread desire to reduce the world’s population is, on the face of it, rather strange. For it’s not as if the world is running out of space.  In 2007 the website published a map of the United States showing how the 6.5 billion persons then living on the entire planet could be fitted into each of the various states. Rhode Island didn’t come out very well, with only 4 square feet per person, but Texas would have 1,123 square feet per person.

More recently, the Population Research Institute ( followed up on the Texas example, posting a popular cartoon on YouTube showing that if all the 7+ billion people in the world were somehow transported to Texas, each family would have enough space for a house and a back yard (presumably the construction of multi-storey buildings would help increase the space allotments). An engineer-blogger at went even further and calculated how food and water could be supplied from the Columbia River and U.S. farmland after this massive hypothetical relocation.

So mathematical diversions aside, the problem is not a lack of space. What then is meant exactly by “overpopulation”?  Obviously, the problem is too many poor people, combined with the idea that if poor people would stop reproducing themselves, they would be able in some way to escape poverty.

But even if we successfully reduced the world’s population by a third, would this mean that the percentage of poor people would automatically diminish? Not necessarily.  The percentage might grow astronomically – elderly parents, no longer aided by a diminished number of children and relatives, dependent on the state; economies crumbling due to a lack of a labor force; rebels seizing power and creating new versions of slavery; political leaders aggrandizing themselves without any constitutional restraints; and so forth.

In other words, what is called “overpopulation” boils down to the perennial economic/political problem of a just stewardship of the earth’s resources.  This is a complex political and geopolitical problem which can never be solved by simplistic solutions like reducing the number of people in the world. In fact, the application of this “solution” has led to the danger of a “demographic winter” among Europeans, Russians, Japanese, and other political communities, which, because of plunging birth rates, are trending towards “non-replacement,” and relative non-existence in future generations.

Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae vitae, on contraception, was published in the same year as Ehrlich’s book. It immediately elicited a storm of protest among Catholics, beginning with the signed statement by over 200 Catholic theologians in the New York Times on July 30, 1968, assuring everyone with “undecided” consciences that dissent from the Magisterium was quite permissible when the Magisterium conflicted with the “sense of the Faithful.” Catholic consciences, relying on the “scientific” orthodoxy that the world was already extremely overpopulated, could justify their conscientious dissent regarding contraception on that basis.

New concepts of virtue emerged.  Couples using contraceptives could feel proud that they were no longer contributing to a recognized world problem.  Having no children at all could be taken as the highest measure of social concern! Educators and politicians promoting “safe sex” could breathe a sigh of relief that at least they were doing their part in limiting the number of poor denizens of the cities. 

Pro-lifers could even extol contraception as the means of cutting down the number of abortions.  Dictatorial governments, like China, could enforce “one child” policies, while governments with more democratic traditions, like the United States, could simply require insurers to cover the cost of contraceptives and sterilization procedures, and hope to approximate something like the Chinese “one child” policy eventually, when it becomes more palatable to the citizenry.

The bane of monumental problems is the temptation to use simplistic solutions to overcome them. The concern about access to, refinement or cultivation of, and distribution of, world resources, is an ongoing and, indeed, perennial political and global problem. But it is a problem that cannot be solved, and can easily become worsened, by global movements to combat “overpopulation” through contraception.


Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Ib

    This post is so absolutely correct in face of the foolishness of both the United Nations and the United States, it makes me laugh out loud.

    Might I say “mutatis mutandis” with respect to global warming, er …, climate change ….

    Thanks, Dr. Kainz!

  • Jack,CT

    Dear Mr Kainz,
    My father was a bus driver who had nine
    children,we never felt poor but blessed! I remember
    “ccd” during the week and how wealthy that made me
    I have so much respect for my parents for respecting
    “Life”,as the Lords plan when we had so little
    Thanks for the reminder of all my Irish Catholic
    parents dicipline to our faith.

  • Sean

    The most reliable projection of the United Nations Population Database estimates that the world’s population will increase by about another billion people over the next 30 years — peaking at around 8.02 billion — and will then begin to decline. One would think that this would quell the fears of the zero-population growth crowd, but so far they have stuck to their dogma that the world’s population should be reduced to one billion. This is not quite as odd as their trick of talking about undesirable populations. It leaves me inclined to ask if they themselves are a part of the undesirable population — and if not, how do they know?

    In China, girls are coldly dismissed by their parents with remarks like “You are only a girl. You are spilt water.” The Darwinian legacy of that country’s efforts in human population control will probably net the following:
    * A war to cull the surplus males
    * A rise in organized crime
    * A huge expansion in the prostitution industry
    * A rise in homosexuality
    * Abducting women from other countries
    * Wide-scale kidnapping of children

    Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, president of the Institute for the Works of Religion (aka the Vatican Bank), said that the cause of the current world economic crisis is not bankers. “The true cause of the crisis is the decline in the birth rate,” he said in an interview on Vatican Television’s “Octava Dies.”

    Libera nos a malo.

  • Grump

    My wife and I live in a 2,500-square-foot house and it feels crowded. Our dogs use up most of it. : )
    Seriously, didn’t Jesus say the poor would always exist? Disease, poverty and death — the curses of the law — are humanity’s fate in this world. I hope there’s a better world beyond.

  • athanasius

    I am number 8 of 9 children. My mother used to say, “Better self-control than birth control.” Lucky for me that she did. Isn’t that what it really boils down to?

    Reserve the marital act for marriage, and even then only engage in it when you are ready to be open to love and life. A women’s cycle allows for intimacy in nonfertile times in a way that still leaves the door open for God to surprise us. When sex is truly an act of self-giving and not self-taking, it is the most beautiful thing two people can do. That is why this is the act that God has deigned for us to do to share in His act of creation. Animals reproduce. Humans procreate. I have never heard of anyone who raised a “surprise” child that regretted it.

    People look to simplistic secular answers, but the real answer is the simplistic theistic answer: Do God’s will. Ah, but this is hard to do in our fallen state, so we look for man’s answers, not God’s.

    I have been blessed with a good job and material comfort, but my greatest treasure in this world is my family, and my greatest prayer is that my daughters will live happy, healthy, and holy lives.

    God bless us, everyone (even Mr. Scrooge!).

  • Sue

    Tedeschi is only half right – it’s the bankers and the births. Look who funded the many totalitarians of the last century and guided us to the eugenocratic world state we have become.

    Go to the Inter-American Institute webpage for some incisive articles on this subject.

  • Clement Williams

    The Lord has been providing for the population growth through people like Norman Borlaug and researchers in Agronomy and Agriculture throughout history and even now. Like everything else, there are many priesthoods of ‘science’ and the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. The only reason there is a lobby afraid of ‘over-population’ is that they believe that ‘Science’ is something they created but unable to realize that it is the Holy Spirit who has brought into each one of us His Gifts: Wisdom, Knowledge, Understanding, His Counsel/Inspiration and His Strength/Fortitude, the Basic Gifts. The ones who stop there, worshipping “Science” which is, in fact, these Basic Gifts cannot go further to the natural progression to the next Gift: Piety/Humility which leads to the Last Gift: Awe of and Reverence for GOD, The Creator!

    Why? Psalm 8 says it :”yet you have made us little less than gods” and Genesis says Three times: ‘ in His image and likeness’ and having received the first 5 gifts free of charge without our effort, we admire ourselves in the mirror (itself a gift from God) and make the error – probably part of the Original Sin – of mistaking the image for the Original having idolized/deified God’s Gift of Science!

  • diaperman

    Rip Van Winkle Catholic conservatism strikes again. I agree with the author of course, but who exactly today is making the arguments the author is arguing against? This is view that probably has a few defenders today somewhere, but it has lost steam ever since the 80’s.

    I have yet to hear even the global warming people argue that mass sterilizations and abortions are necessary to keep the planet from burning up.

    Most responsible world demographers agree that birth rates are falling pretty much all over the globe. Abortion and contraception are promoted mainly as a means of personal liberation and not as a means to control population. It’s only in very poor places like Africa where birth control is promoted as a (misguided) anti-poverty measure–though the bigger concern among world health agencies is the spread of AIDS. Africa is actually the most sparsely populated continent besides Antarctica.

    I mean, it’s good for people who were right about this 40 years ago to point out that Paul Erlich was wrong in his Malthusian predictions–but to what end? Who doesn’t know the outcome of the Erlich–Simon bet on world resources. It was a great intellectual triumph for the Right.

    But that was then..this is now…The huge economic growth in India and China has pushed up oil prices at least in the intermediate term. (Simon would have lost his bet if he had struck it 20 years later than he did!)

    But the bigger point is that intellectual energy would be far better spent trying to convince societies around the world to raise!! their birth rates to offset the aging of world populations–than reminding ourselves how bad Erlich’s predictions look today.

  • Charles

    I’ll consider the Malthusians’ data when they swear off their totalitarian attempts to control the distribution. They don’t sound like the type saying ‘sterilize others so my piece of the pie stays the same’ (which is offensive enough), they come off as even more dangerous: ‘allow me to impose my monopolies to ration resources so I may also direct them to myself and allies so that my piece of the pie can grow bigger’.

    Of course, any human being will notice the ultimate failure in both the less and more dangerous position. It is the dismissal of humanity and selfishness that limits the growth of resources. They waste resources attempting to destroy them and collecting their share of a pie they’re shrinking. Only a cooperative spirit that sees all humanity in their dignity that will succeed. We need to nurture our fellow human beings so they can produce and share.

  • Micha Elyi

    Such an appropriate column for this season in which Scrooge’s wish to “decrease the surplus population” will be oft-heard.

  • Matt

    According to the author the elite’s motive for promoting population control – as a solution for global resource distribution – is a benign desire that is flawed due to latching onto an oversimplified solution.

    The root of the motive is evil. The elite of the world scheme to manage human existence from womb to grave through governmental decree and ultimately force. The elite have the desire to control humanity while productive and will efficiently dispose of us when unproductive. They understand that global poverty decreases global consumption thus everyone, save the elite, should be equally poor and properly managed.

    The goal is the world-wide implementation of a centrally managed program of abortion, eugenics, communism and euthanasia under the cover of a Pantheistic belief system, environmentalism. That goal can only be rooted in evil.

    How can we rationalize the registration of handicapped people to a global governance body as benign or Agenda 21’s plan to forcibly move humans to high density living areas prepared for them? Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had pointed to how modern man would rationalize evil away by highlighting the work of Vladimir Sergeevic Soloviev.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Matt: I didn’t imply that elite managing of other people’s procreation is benign. You are right, it’s not.

  • beriggs

    Diaperman, above wonders who is making the over-population arguments these days. No one really has to, as the arguments have been completely assimilated. This topic came up at our family Thanksgiving gathering. Five young adults (20s) had never heard anything but that the world is almost ready to collapse due to the number of people alive today. They were incredulous when we attempted to present another view.

  • Chris in Maryland

    I attended grad school @ Harvard in 1991-92. We had a text book in my course on “Natural Resources and the Environment,” and the book contained a remarkable graph and discussion of the animal population recruitment curve, showing the standard bell-shaped population curve, and the various points of stable and unstable equilibrium. That graph was used to dramatize the plight of endangered animal species and illustrate how to ensure food stocks of fish must be managed to avoid population collapse. It was quite clear there were dire implications for “technological societies” with birth rates well below the replacement rate. The chart and related text were edited out in the revised edition in the spring semester…

  • Graham Combs

    I live in a state, or rather the south east portion of it, in which the politics and economics of scarcity continues to drag on development. In Detroit — a city once home to two million, is now edging a quarter of that many. And a recent poll suggested that 40 percent of the population has plans to leave in five years. And yet if you go downtown for a ball game or the autoshow, you have to pay fifteen or more dollars to park. Virtually all development is in downtown — when there is developement. And everyone seems to think that new bridge is the height of folly. But I have a personal experience — I’ve mentioned to several acquaintances the story of Norman Borlaug and his green revolution which saved from one half billion to one billion human beings in the sixties and seventies. They are always horrified that these people survived. I was horrified that they were horrified. But then Michigan has gone from a pro-life to a pro-choice state — and that includes half the Catholics at least from my experience recent exit polling during the last election. People continue to scramble for jobs and virtually all of the jobs are part time.

    I also like to say that Michigan should have a robust economy of fifteen to twenty million people. Again right-thinking people are horrified. People continue to leave. We are heading downward to 8 million.

    And now the politics/economics of scarcity starts a the very top of American society — with this president his own collusion with international organizations promoting population control. The HHS policies and the attacks on the Church often linked to these Maltusian fantasies. Ehrlich did his job — educated Americans are brainwashed and that now includes those without a college education — anyone who watches television or YouTube.

    No wonder there is no sense of urgency on the part of our political leaders and no pressure from below. It’s a form of cultural and economic suicide.

    And now wonder that Dr. Death — Dr. Kevorikian — who lived in my neighborhood could often be seen stopped on Main Street signing autographs. It’s a kind of personal sickness as well.

    Last week the president of the United States came to Michigan to announce that Detroit Diesel — owned by Mercedes Benz — is adding 150 union jobs. 150. The week before Awrys — a one hundred year old company — is shutting its bakeries and laying 150 unionized workers.

    That’s called a recovery. An it all comes down to this need to throttle down the population and control economic growth. It is what I now call the Green Poverty Program and you hear and see it everywhere — even in overhead announcement at several large department store chains. It is a green culture of death version of 1984. Nothing less than repeating the big lie until no one has the sense or will to challenge it.

  • Daniel Hudon

    The video talks about “doing the math” but you don’t need much math to find the statistics for the very high rate of unplanned pregnancies (perhaps 1/3 worldwide). Contraception is key here. So is a dialogue about the problems that a growing population causes. A dialogue about securing reproductive health and family planning options for the world’s women affects the entire future well-being of people both in developed and in developing countries. You can read more here: