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, 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.