As journalists and environmentalists tuned up for Earth Day, held around the world in May of this year, population growth was blamed for every supposed ill.

For example, under the headline “People Pollution”, Ellen Goodman recently wrote what has become a commonplace: “The People Problem. It’s as if we talked about carbon-spewing cars without any drivers.” And she calls for solving the “problem” by throwing more U.S. money at “international family planning,” which is a euphemism for population control.

Another typical columnist, Hobart Rowen, weighed in with “Excessive peopling  of the world is contributing to major environmental trauma, including famine, rain forest destruction , global warming, acid rain, pollution of air, water, overflow  and even to the AIDS epidemic.”

The real problem, however, is not population growth but terminal ignorance, inadvertent or willful. I call this ignorance “terminal” because there seems no way that environmentalists and journalists will open their minds to the huge shift in the scientific consensus about these issues since the first Earth Day twenty year ago.

Enforced population control

Today there is solid scientific proof that population growth does not hinder economic development and does not cause resource depletion. As of 1990, there is also incontrovertible evidence that China and other countries have been using our money in programs that coerce people to have fewer children, including forced sterilization. And this coercion is done in the name of the now bankrupt intellectual doctrine that Ellen Goodman and others continue to purvey.

In 1958, Ansley Coale and Edgar Hoover published Population Growth and Economic Development in Low income Countries, a new twist on the original Malthusian theory of capital dilution. That book served as the manual for American foreign aid population policy from the 1960s until now.

By 1990, however, the economics profession has turned almost completely away from the previous view that population growth is a crucial negative factor in economic development. There is still controversy about whether population growth is even a minor negative factor in some cases, or whether it is beneficial in the long run. But there is no longer any support for the earlier view which was the basis for the U.S. policy and then the policy of other countries.

For many years the World Bank was the strongest and shrillest voice calling for reduction in the rate of population growth. In its 1984 World Development Report, though, the World Bank did a complete about face and said that natural resources are not a reason to be concerned about population growth.

In 1986 the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences issued Population Growth and Economic Development. This book almost completely reversed a 1971 report on the same subject from the same institution. On the specific issue of raw materials that has been the subject of so much alarm, NRC NAS concluded: “The scarcity of exhaustible resources is at most a minor constraint on economic growth.”

Even though this U-turn is scientifically “official”, there has been no public acknowledgment by the private and public agencies that have fostered population control activities abroad notably the Agency for International Development (AID), the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), The Population Council, and International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). AID has trimmed its population control sails as slightly as possible, finding ingenious new ways to justify the same old activities.

So the U.S. abetted inhumanity continues. In 1989 the Washington Post carried a report by physician Blake Kerr, who worked in Tibet and with Tibetan refugees in India, documenting that the Chinese are killing newborn Tibetan babies. And the Chinese government proudly brags about the tens of millions of couples in China whose human right to control their own bodies is abrogated by Chinese policies which include forced insertion of IUD’s, routine X-ray surveillance to ensure that the IUD’s have not been removed, banning childbearing among those said to be “psychotic,” and forced sterilization of couples who have more than one child. Repeated official statements in Chinese journals right up to the present day are irrefutable corroboration that these practices not only occur but are established policy.

Until the 1950s, the United States would have nothing to do with population control abroad. Then we got rolling with a vengeance. The U.S. pressure on less-developed countries to reduce birth rates began with India. Joseph Califano tells us that President Lyndon Johnson “repeatedly rejected the unanimous pleas of his advisors…to ship wheat to the starving Indians during their 1966 famine. He demanded that the Indian government first agree to mount a massive birth control program.”

Then came forced sterilization programs in India in the 1970s. For example, the government of India “motivated” employees with three children to undergo sterilization by threatening loss of subsidized housing, travel allowances, and free hospital treatment. Public outrage over these penalties largely contributed to the downfall of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1977.

Indonesia has been a showcase of group pressure techniques, sponsored by AID. Planned Parenthood brags about its propaganda campaigns in Mexico. And Africa is a major target for a variety of unsavory activities.

Please notice that we’re not discussing true “family planning” services. Helping people achieve the family size they desire is a great human work. Many truly voluntary U.S. programs are valuable and worthy of respect. But coercing couples to reduce fertility with force, bribery, or group pressure is something else.

It is time for population control organizations and U.S. government agencies as well as such prominent population activists as ex-World Bank head Robert MacNamara, President Faye Wattleton of (U.S.) Planned Parenthood, and scientist Carl Sagan to acknowledge their complicity in this tragedy. If they now renounce the faulty theories that they have promulgated, they can at least absolve themselves of further responsibility for the  continuing inhumane coercive population control programs in Africa and other continents.

Though their ideas and resources have helped bring about these horrors, most (though not all) of these U.S. individuals and groups are innocent of intention to promote forced sterilization and other coercive measures. But if they do not now renounce their previous positions, which have by this time been scientifically discredited, they cannot any longer claim to be innocent. Rather they will be more responsible for the continuing tragedy. And the victims certainly will blame the U.S. as a whole , as happened in India during Indira Gandhi’s first administration. Why is the United States promoting population control abroad? There are three main reasons: humanitarian concern; belief that lower birth rates in other countries are in the economic and political self interest of the U.S. ;racism.

It is difficult to determine which motive is operating in any particular instance, partly because racism is taboo nowadays and must operate in other guises. But only the three monkeys could continue to be unaware that skin color and intended (but misplaced) national self-interest are at the root of U.S. “family planning” activities abroad, along with misplaced humanitarian impulses.

It is long past time for those who hate coercion and who truly care about the rights of women to open their minds to the new scientific consensus that the doctrines on which these inhumane activities are based and justified are scientifically unfounded. If they fail to do so, they will have no ground for surprise if U.S. zeal comes back to haunt us in the future, just as the sterilization issue brought down Indira Gandhi’s government. Unless people like Ellen Goodman speak out, these disasters will be upon their heads.

Julian L. Simon teaches Business Administration at the University of Maryland and is the author of The Ultimate Resource and most recently of The Economic Consequences of Immigration.