Population Pressures: 60 Wasted Years

Population Pressures: 60 Wasted Years

Frank Graham Jr.
Published: 09/10/2008

"By excessive breeding and abuse of the land mankind has backed itself into an ecological trap. By a lopsided use of applied science it has been living on promissory notes. Now, all over the world, the notes are falling due."

A comment from a recent issue of  this magazine? No, it was written in 1948. Harry Truman was President of the United States, the Boston Braves were about to win the National League pennant, and the world's human population was approaching 2.5 billion. William Vogt, a former editor of AUDUBON, wrote those lines  in his controversial book, Road to Survival. As we mark his work's 60th anniversary, our planet struggles to support 6.7 billion people. Without a doubt, this overloaded sphere totters closer to catastrophe.

Bill Vogt was a feisty, intense, perceptive man. In the early 1930s he persuaded the young Roger Tory Peterson to publish his notes on bird identification as a field guide. Bingo! While at AUDUBON (1935-1938), he tried to have the society's CEO ousted, and soon found himself out of a job. The ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy stepped in and arranged for the deposed editor to conduct a study of seabird colonies on the islands off Peru, where their copious droppings fueled the big international trade in guano for fertilizers. As Vogt sailed off to his Elba, he remarked philosophically that he hoped to "help increase the increment of  the excrement." But his observations on humans in South America, rather than on its birds, gave him the ammunition for his environmental classic.

Vogt was shocked by the overpopulation, coupled with land abuse and waste of natural resources, he  witnessed in Latin America (and subsequently in the other parts of the world to which he traveled). In graphic detail, his book exposed poverty and hopelessness in densely crowded nations. As a counterweight to the disappearance of vital natural resources under the pressure of greed and political expediency, he suggested a series of science-based land management programs.

Everywhere he went, Vogt saw populations spinning out of control.He put forth specific remedies, including the public distribution of contraceptives and the creation of massive educational programs. To those who argued that populations would drop over time he replied, "There is not time." To those who argued that people could not be educated to accept birth control he replied that, in self defense, people "at extremely low cultural levels" had learned to boil their polluted water, even brush their teeth twice a day.

Vogt was seldom politically correct or sensitive to other's feelings. "One of the greatest national assets of Chile," he wrote, "perhaps the greatest asset, is its high death rate." He chided the U. S. government for providing sanitation, nutrition, and medical care to Puerto Rico's runaway population, but withholding effective birth control programs. This policy, he insisted, only brought an "appalling increase of misery for more people every year."

In more sugared words, Vogt continued his campaign against overpopulation as national director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1951 through 1961. Some of the catastrophes he predicted have not yet occurred, though localized wars and starvation, as well as widespread environmental blight, indicate his most telling cry rings true today: "All conservation measures are futile unless human breeding is checked."