This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
Derek HoffBack to OpinionDerek Hoff

A modest proposal for a new population debate

The population of the United States is nearly 312 million, and projected to become 440 million by 2050. The U.S. has a higher fertility rate than such middle-income nations as Turkey, Chile and Brazil and is a demographic outlier among wealthy industrialized nations, many of which will see their populations decline in the coming decades. Arguments against population growth emanate from a few environmentalists and anti-immigration voices. And authors like Thomas Friedman worry about population in the context of high energy costs.

But a majority of American social scientists, policymakers and talking heads are celebrating the nation’s remarkable demographic enlargement. In fact, most commentators wish Americans would have still more babies – future workers – to pay baby boomers’ looming Social Security bill and avoid the economic stagnation threatening low-fertility nations like Italy and Japan. TV shows such as Kate Plus 8” celebrate large families. Conservative politicians dismiss environmentalists as the “‘people are pollution’ crowd.” When the U.S. population crossed the 300-million mark in 2006, The New York Times editorial page declared America’s “teeming immensity keeps us from going stale, and despite some people’s panic attacks, our population issues have mysterious ways of working themselves out. America has big problems, but it also has 300 million reasons to be hopeful.”
Blueprint America
Perhaps, but for too long, discussion of population growth’s possible harms has focused exclusively on dire warnings about human survival – the “panic attacks.” Americans should also consider whether a rising population might simply harm what used to be called, in gentler times, “quality of life.” The insistence on an invisible hand of childbirth that “mysteriously” solves population problems also reveals shifts in economic ideas that are shaping today’s population thinking.

The current celebration of population growth in the U.S. has a surprisingly recent lineage. Founders like Thomas Jefferson believed a larger population heralded the kind of crowded, commercial European society from which the colonists fled. The 19th century’s classical economists adopted the logic of Thomas Malthus, a British pastor who wrote in 1798 that population growth eventually swamps the supply of natural resources and drives wages to starvation levels. In the mid-20th century, Keynesian economics held that what matters is not the size of the population, but its saving and consumption patterns. Some Keynesians even argued that zero population growth would promote broadened consumption. And conservationists and intellectuals believed overpopulation created sprawl and reduced amenities like open space and quiet.

In the 1960s, surging population rates in the developing world, famine in India and a strengthening environmental movement instigated a radically Malthusian “zero population growth” movement. Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford biologist who wrote 1968’s “The Population Bomb” – “The battle to feed humanity is over,” it began – appeared on “The Tonight Show” several times. For a moment, the establishment jumped onto the doomsday wagon. William F. Buckley wrote in the National Review, “That old dog Malthus turned out to be very substantially correct in his dire predictions, and there seems to be no point in waiting until the United States is like India before moving in on the problem.”

The aesthetic critique persisted, too. In 1969, President Richard Nixon issued a special message on population, urging new polices to adjust to the additional 100 million Americans expected by the end of the century. “Food supplies may be ample,” he argued, but social supplies – the capacity to educate youth, to provide privacy and living space, to maintain the processes of open, democratic government – may be grievously strained.”

What caused the disappearances of not only “population bomb” rhetoric but also the milder quality of life critique? The causes include the bloated rhetoric of the Malthusians; the stagnation of the environmental movement and the breathtaking rise of climate change denialism; the ascendancy of evangelicalism (believers have more babies); the increase of immigration, which made liberals leery of the racial minefield always lurking on the edges of population politics; and post–Roe v. Wade abortion politics, which sucked population questions into “culture wars.”

The current dearth of meaningful dialogue about America’s unique demography also reflects the development of a bipartisan consensus celebrating the economic virtues of population growth. The disintegration of Keynesianism in the 1970s eviscerated the position that a rising population is entirely compatible with a growing economy. Around the same time, ascendant conservative economists reinvigorated the argument, traceable to Adam Smith, which insists that population expansion necessarily broadens the market, fosters innovation, creates efficiencies of scale, promotes liberty and simply produces more Mozarts and Einsteins. They also suggested an invisible hand of childbirth leads parents to rationally choose the right number of children in the interests of all.

We need a new and calmer conversation. There is little doubt that population growth both across the globe and in the high-consumption U.S. exacerbates climate change, species extinction and a lack of clean water. But we are a resilient species and we are not doomed. Instead of asking ourselves whether we can survive with continued population growth, we might return to the aesthetic discussion that resonated for much of the 20th century and ask ourselves whether we want to. Finally, we might confront the sacred cow that economic growth is dependent upon population growth. The time seems propitious to do, for few economists deny that ultimately it is ideas, not body counts, which drive economic growth in today’s information-based economies.

Derek Hoff is an assistant professor of history at Kansas State University and the author of soon-to-be published book “The State and the Stork: The Population Debate and Policymaking in United States History” (University of Chicago Press).


  • Anonymous

    Mr. Hoff, where have you been?  We have needed you.  Your article tells it all and the last paragraph summarizes the situation beautifully.  Thank you.
    Edward C. Hartman, Author: “The Population Fix”

  • Waymorestorage8

    Loved the article and interview!

  • Thenewtimes

    Interesting article. You should write a piece for Times!

  • rationalmom

    I can’t wait to read your book “The State and the Stork.” I hope to see you on the Daily Show.

  • Dell1

    Mr. Hartman, I’ve read your ‘Population Fix’ and it is far more reaching and important a work than the half-truth biased views of PBS’s population programming.

    As you indicate, only the final few Hoff sentences get to the point.

    Except for the introduction summarizing the past, the entire population program (Need to Be) appeared to be the Cairo-’94 script. Indeed, almost everything discussed in the introduction was downplayed or eliminated in the live segment.

    Why was an open borders increase fertility spokesperson and a feminist selected as guest?

    Wouldn’t Roy Beck or you, or me, or any number of other informed people denied a voice? You and Beck ought to have been guests on the program.

  • P Grant

    Thought provoking to say the least.  I’m looking forward to reading your book. 

  • Anonymous

    Dell 1, I found the choice–or perhaps I should say lack of choice–of interviewees somewhat surprising.  At the same time, I have come to hold population stabilizationists partially responsible for such situations.   They insist on applying the same tactics to advance the same strategies as they employed 30 years and the result has been another 30 years of U.S. population growth.  Eventually, mainstream, and not-so-mainstream media tune out.  And those who can explain are left to talk to each other.

  • Andrew Carvin

    Cutting down on the number of people alive WILL NOT solve the job pyramid problem because the job pyramid automatically adjusts for any given population. Less people just means that the job pyramid will be smaller, but it does not mean the job pyramid will cease to exist.

  • Andrew Carvin

    Unemployment will reach 25% to 50% in the next 20 years due to increasing population, technological advancement, job obsolescence, and a rapidly shrinking job pyramid. Human society cannot survive under these conditions without changing, and here is one example of how it can change for the better.

    The present money for debt exchange system with banks does not work, and would be abolished/replaced with debt free money. Under a debt free money system money would be printed as needed, and would have heavy oversight to make sure that the money being spent is actually going toward what is being bought. Wages, Education, Health Care, and Public Works are paid by the government that prints money as needed.

    An individual’s monthly allowance would be addressed as follows:

    Base Rate = ($1000 monthly) Alive, 18 years old, and has a high school degree.

    College Education = (+$250 for each level of education that does not contain cross pollination. Associates, Bachelors, Masters, PHD) = Base rate with extra $ a month for level of education.

    Working College Educated = Base rate with extra $ a month for level of education, and extra $ as determined by the education level required to do the work following the education formula. To qualify for this money a person has to at least work 20 hours a week.

    Kids: +$250 a month for each kid up to 2 until they turn 18, but no more after that. Only two caretakers can qualify for this benefit per child, and to qualify for this a caretaker must live in the same residence as the child, and actively participate in the child’s upbringing.

    Income is not taxed by state/local government, and no income is earned by people who are incarcerated.

    EX: Donna get’s $1000 a month for being alive, 18 years old, and has a high school degree. She has a master’s in engineering which gives her another $750 a month. She is presently employed in a job that requires her masters degree, she works 25 hours a week, and this gives her yet another $750. That would be $2500 a month, and $30000 a year.

    Under this system everyone is taken care of, is encouraged to obtain education/employment, and is encouraged to make responsible decisions about having children.

  • Malthus2

    Social scientists and economists have a differing point of view than ecologists do.  Most ecologist who deal with population ecology are thinking in terms of carrying capacity, overshoot and a population crash.  There is no way that we can come out of this overpopulation crisis without billions of people having a high risk of dying from wars, turmoil and mostly starvation.  We have jacked up the carrying capacity of the earth by draining it of natural resources and fossil fuels. When these are depleted, one can expect lower food production which will also be depressed by global climate disruptions from burning these same fossil fuels. We know this will not auger well for food production.  The wholesale erosion of arable land is also a downer.  Our first mistake was agriculture.   We will keep argueing about what to do right up until doomsday, because humans are their own worst enemy.  We can’t get our act together even when faced with a hopeless situation.  We can’t  even save children from a future of starvation.  Life will go on for some, but it is likely to be a hard life and not one based on Tweeting and Facebook.

  • Andrew Carvin

    I find your apathy sickening. Kill yourself if you find the future too bleak, and you don’t feel like doing anything about it.

    If you cannot offer solutions to problems then what really makes you different from all the other “death cultists” out there?

    The environment can be saved, humanity does not have to run itself into extinction, and nothing is set in stone. We can make for a better future, but it requires effort, and sticking our heads in the sand will help no one.

    Apathy is a small death of hopelessness leading to bigger real ones.

    We can all be heroes every day of our lives if we make the effort.

  • Andrew Carvin

    Hey do you want to save the world, and save a lot of money too? Here’s a list of things I have done that not only save me a lot of money, but also help save the planet I depend on. Most of these easy to do/inexpensive solutions are related to lowering your energy consumption.

    I used an inexpensive Black and Decker leak finder, and foam sealant to seal any leaks I found. Some of the leaks had a temperature difference of 10 degrees. So you know I was losing money through them right up until they were sealed.

    I have a dehumidifier that takes water out of the air inside my house. With less humidity in the air your AC/heat will not have to work as hard to control your house’s temperature.

    I have a garden which is fed from a rain barrel I made from 2 brass pipe fittings, a water hose, and an old trash can. The rain barrel is on top of a miniature water tower I built from an old car port frame thus enabling me to water the garden directly from it. I also water the garden from another trashcan in the garden containing the waste water from my dehumidifier.

    My garden is grown completely from seeds, and is already providing food to offset my families food budget. All of the plants are planted in $2.50 paint buckets from WaMart, and thus it only takes 10 minutes a day to take care of it.

    I have replaced every bulb inside/outside my house with long life LED bulbs. I might have to replace a few maybe in 20 years, but for now the cost of leaving them all on (30 bulbs) is not even half of the cost of 1 incandescent bulb.

    I have tin foiled most of the windows in my house, not only to help seal up the windows to prevent air/heat leaks, but to reflect incoming solar heat. This way I don’t have to run my AC as much in the summer, or my heaters as much in the winter.

    I rescue trees that have grown up in inconvenient places in my yard, and then replant them elsewhere in my yard. Not only is planting trees a way to save the planet, but eventually they will be large enough to give my house shade. This will also lower my AC consumption in the summer.

    I use green methods to control bugs. 1 part sugar + 1 part borax + 1 part water in a water bottle with a hole drilled into the lid will give you a very effective ant trap that you can use over and over. The same mixture with apple juice is being used to control ants, wasps, carpenter bees, and other flying insects that like to eat your house. My outside lighting is yellow which does not attract bugs anywhere near as much as the standard white. I also keep my house reasonably clean so there’s nothing to eat on the floor. ;P

    I use solar lighting to light up portions of my yard, and have a solar light attached to my shed such that I don’t need to run electric to it. I also use gyro lights so I never have to buy batteries for my flashlights, and solar charged lithium ion rechargeable batteries for other devices.

    I am far from being rich. So when it comes to saving money it’s not a question of whether I want to make the effort or not. All of the things I just mentioned cost me either close to nothing, or nothing at all. If we all began doing what I have already done we would be making serious progress towards saving the planet.

    I intend to eventually move off the grid entirely through use of solar, and try to offset my electricity enough such that the electric company PAYS ME for electricity on a monthly basis. 10 years ago this would have been a serious endeavor, but these days they have easily accessible high quality consumer level products that you can buy cheap, and then set up with a minimum of effort.

    I’m doing my part to save the world, and saving a lot of money while doing it.

    So I have two questions for you:

    Do you love your planet?

    Do you like to save money?

  • Malthus2

    I have no intension of killing myself, because I have lot’s to do.  I give as much money as I can to Planned Parenthood, Pathfinder, EngenderHealth and others who supply family planning and abortion services.  I am not apathetic.  I am merely realistic about the human condition and the factors that got us where we are today.  I was more optimistic back in the days when the Population Bomb was first published but now here we are with doulbe the population in the world compared to 1968.  Ehrlich pointed out the problem in a rather hastily written book that has been written over and over by first Malthus, then Fairfield Osborn’s Plundered Planet; Nature and Man’s Fate by Marston Bates; Road to Survival by William Vogt and no doubt they were all discounted by foolish optimists and ignorant clergy.  So thanks for catergorizing me with other Cassandra’s of doom.  They are right and you optimists will be proven wrong.  The world is nearly bankrupt financially, but more importantly bankrupt in terms of natural resources to maintain the world’s economies.  Mean while I am going to continue to speak out about the population problem and fund those organizations that are at least trying to reduce birth rates by helping women. 
    I just read you other post. yes, I do just about all the things to reduce my impacts on the planet as you do so you needn’t be a sanctamonius braggert about conserving energy and water etc. and think you are saving the planet. Have you only one or two children. That is a must to save the planet. While you and I  are helping prolong civilization by growing food and conserving, don’t expect an eventual better outcome. In the end overpopulation will be resolved by higher death rates.  Take a look at the population growth curve over the last 10,000 years.  It is a straight line going up in geological time measured in millions of years and it will go straight back down someday.  It is just a question of when and how.

  • AML

    “Americans should also consider whether a rising population might simply harm what used to be called, in gentler times, “quality of life.” ”

    Excellent!  I cannot wait to read your book.

  • Adam Reilly

    Great stuff, Derek. But as you suggest, the challenge in getting people to think differently about population growth is that they’ll have to think differently about economic growth, too. And in the current political climate, any attempt to discuss the merits of either type of self-restraint–however sober and sophisticated–will likely be met with cries of socialism, fascism, etc. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the conversation–just that it won’t be easy.

  • J7t14r

    Planet Earth is not growing to accomodate a relentlessly growing human population. Instead, it is slowly shrinking with each volcano and earthquake. But our male-dominated species is driven by its growth instinct to expand forever onward and outward to the stars, regardless of environmental consequences, which we see in the growing garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean, now the size of Africa, and the massive climate change that is killing millions of people in floods, tornados and especially drought. But the addiction to growth is so strong, these disasters are ignored in favor of intended new investments in every square mile of land and sea around the World. Thus, it appears the human race will commit self-extinction long before it finds another living planet somewhere out there in cosmic space.

  • ProfAJFM

    Excellent article, and nice work in the interview. You were made for prime time.

  • Anonymous

    Derek, thanks for sounding off on this. I cannot wait to see your book. I hope you’ll get me a pre-publication copy so I can review it on my blog at

    Dave Gardner
    director of the documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  • Steven Earl Salmony

    yes, definitely yes.  many voices, many more voices are needed. so many are speaking with one unifying voice.