Lecture #15: Strategic Resources and the Population Bomb

Suggested Readings:

Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974)
William Vogt, The Road to Survival (1948)
Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (1969)
William Petersen, Population (1969)
Michael S. Teitelbaum & Jay M. Winter, The Fear of Population Decline (1985)
Matthew Connelly, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (2008)
Thomas Robertson, The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism (2012)
James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State (1998)


I. Planning for City, State, and Region

The governing metaphor of this lecture: the power of the birds-eye view, which seems to offer an integrated vision of comprehensive social planning, but sometimes at expense of not being able to see things at ground level, and not always seeing human differences. Add to this the increasing scale of environmental challenges in the post-World War II, suggesting a changing form and scale of politics as well. The atomic bomb can be seen as a powerful expression of these trends, and we'll end by looking at its application to one of the major new environmental concerns of the post-war era, population growth.

The TVA stood as a model for whole new approach to earlier conservation concerns. Comprehensive planning sought an integrated vision of the entire watershed, managing all of its elements: river and tributaries; navigation; flood control; hydropower; forests; erosion; agriculture; recreation; transportation; cities; etc.

The planner was new kind of professional expert with skills to integrate disparate activities and functions into a unified, harmonious whole. Planning was proliferating throughout society, in governments, corporations, non-profit organizations, etc.

James C. Scott’s famous book Seeing Like a State (1998) links this birds-eye view to what he calls “high modernism” in twentieth-century governmental planning: the seductive power of the state seemingly to transform for the better almost everything that came within its field of vision.

"New towns" of the 1920s and 1930s became opportunities to explore utopian visions for planners: Norris, Tennessee as part of TVA; Radburn, New Jersey as Clarence Stein's best known exercise in comprehensive planning. Town and communita as tabula rasa, starting from scratch, avoiding all the dysfunctional legacies of the past. Greendale, Wisconsin, southwest of Milwaukee, which opened in 1938, was an example of New Deal project of creating new "greenbelt" towns in this way: https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS370

The original inspiration for the new town movement were Ebenezer Howard’s “garden cities” in England, described in his classic volume Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1902), which is available for free download here: https://archive.org/details/gardencitiestom00howagoog Howard's garden cities sought to combine agricultural and industrial labor in medium-sized towns where these activities wouldn't be in conflict with each other.

The earliest efforts at large-scale planning were generally in urban areas: 1893 Chicago World's Fair (also known as the Columbian Exposition) served as an especially influential model, designed by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. Burnham went on to a major career as a planner, ultimately producing the famous Plan of Chicago in 1908 as an effort to rationalize the urban landscape. Beautiful graphics (with numerous maps and birds-eye views) sought to see the city "whole" in order to reinvent it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Burnham https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burnham_Plan_of_Chicago

The 1920s saw the creation of the Regional Planning Association of America. Its leaders included Clarence Stein, Lewis Mumford, Benton MacKaye, Catherine Bauer, Stuart Chase, and Frederick Delano (FDR’s uncle, for whom he was named). Its goal was regional planning for New York City and its region, resolving transportation and other development problems by concentrating population in certain areas while limiting it in others. It mapped out alternative transportation routes, beginning the process of imagining how to redesign the city to accommodate automobiles and highways, a process that Robert Moses would seek to realize over the course of his long career as NYC's most influential planner.

II. Planning for Conservation, Planning for War

FDR's New Deal extended these earlier planning efforts to the nation as a whole, with planning at all levels, federal, regional, state, local.

One key early agency was the National Resources Board, which released its first report promoting large-scale planning in 1934. Here's the key passage from the Foreword of the report that I read in lecture, which echoes many of the themes of the Progressive conservation movement while suggesting the new national scale of planning that the New Deal to which sought to apply them.

The natural resources of America are the heritage of the whole Nation and should be conserved and utihzed for the benefit of all of our people. Our national democracy is built upon the principle that the gains of our civilization are essentially mass gains and should be administered for the benefit of the many rather than the few; our priceless resources of soil, water, minerals are for the ser\'ice of the American people, for the promotion of the welfare and well-being of all citizens. The present study of our natural resources is carried through in this spirit and with a desire to make this principle a living fact in America.

Unfortunately this principle has not always been followed even when declared; on the contrary, there has been tragic waste and loss of resources and human labor, and widespread spoliation and misuse of the natural wealth of the many by the few.

The conservation movement begun a quarter of a century ago marked the beginning of an organized national effort to protect and develop these assets; and this national policy was aided in many instances by the individual States. To some extent the shameful waste of timber, oil, soil, and minerals has been halted, although with terrible exceptions where ignorance, inattention, or greed has devastated our heritage almost beyond belief.

This report of the President's National Resources Board brings together, for the first time in our history, exhaustive studies by highly competent inquirers of land use, water use, minerals, and related public works in their relation to each other and to national planning. The report lays the basis of a comprehensive long-range national policy for the conservation and development of our fabulous natural resources. If the recommendations contained herein are put into effect, it is believed that they will end the untold waste of our national domain now, and will measurably enrich and enlarge these national treasures as time goes on.

In a section entitled "A Plan for Planning" (p. 83), the report offered a summary of planning's goals that illustrate many of key themes of this lecture:

Ill What is Involved in Planning?

Planning consists in the systematic, continuous, forward-looking appHcation of the best intelligence available to programs of common affairs in the public field, as it does to private affairs in the domain of individual activity. In every well-directed home, in every business, in every labor or agricultural group, in every forward-looking organization, social planning goes on continuously, and in the world of government is no exception.

Several considerations are important in looking at plans for planning:

(1) The necessity and value of coordmating our national and local policies, instead of allowing them to drift apart, or pull against each other, with disastrous effect.

(2) The value of looking forward in national life, in advance rather than afterward, of preventing the fire rather than putting it out.

(3) The value of basing plans upon the most competent collection and analysis of the facts.

The full report can be reviewed here: https://archive.org/details/reportonnational1934unitrich

One important new resource issue emerged for planners in the 1930s as concerns grew in the U.S. in other parts of the world about the possibility of another international military conflict: strategic minerals. The unequal distribution of key natural resources for industrial purposes (especially for military equipment, supplies, and armaments) gave nations differential power in the event of war.

The Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan) saw war as the best way to gain access to resources controlled by Allies (principally the British Empire, the US, and the Soviet Union).

The geopolitics of global resource economies became an increasing concern for US and allied planning, and were also at the heart of Hitler's geopolitical vision.

In 1943, the Brookings Institution a report entitled World Minerals and World Peace argued that "a modern war cannot be fought without tremendous quantities of a few minerals...."

The author of this Brookings study was UW-Madison’s Charles Kenneth Leith, a geologist hired by President Charles Richard Van Hise while Van Hise was serving as UW President (Van Hise had himself authored the first textbook on conservation of natural resources in 1910). The report was in many ways an expression not just of the newly global scale of planning, but of the Wisconsin Idea.

Report argued that the coordination of resource access was essential to the stability of the post-war world. This message was reinforced by the Twentieth Century Fund's America's Needs and Resources, published in 1947.

(It's worth noting that David Potter’s People of Plenty was published in 1954 with this ongoing discussion as one of its intellectual contexts.)

The convergence of Cold War anxieties with longer-standing traditions of conservation and planning had been emerging for the past half century and more.

III. The Bomb

The strategic thinking that characterized WWII carried on into the post-war world. Key influences on subsequent environmental thought included the collapse of European empires; the rise of Cold War competition between the US and the USSR; and the explosion of first atomic bombs (at Trinity in New Mexico on July 16, 1945; at Hiroshima on August 6; and at Nagasaki on August 9).

The atomic bomb in particular proved to be pivotal for subsequent emergence of environmentalism as a political movement derived from, but recognizably distinct from, the earlier conservation movement.

Invention and production of nuclear weapons necessitated whole new realms of coordinated planning: extremely complex production cycle geographically spread across country:

  • uranium mining in Southwest on Navajo reservation;
  • processing of Uranium green salt processing at Fernald, Ohio;
  • separation of U235 from U238 in gaseous diffusion process at Oak Ridge, Tennessee (using cheap hydropower from TVA);
  • plutonium production at Hanford in eastern Washington (with Columbia River hydropower contributing);
  • bomb assembly at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

All of this was intricately coordinated in top secret by the federal government as the Manhattan Project. Wikipedia has a reasonably concise summary of its organization and history: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manhattan_Project

Once the Russians revealed their own development of nuclear weapons, the possibility of a nuclear exchange between the two nations became an ever-present possibility, with growing concern that civil defense for such an event meant planning to protect national infrastructure and natural resources.

Public fear of this possibility hung over the 1950s and 1960s in ways that made nuclear apocalypse feel like an imminent possibility as never before.

Remember that the Interstate Highway System came into being in 1956 with passage of the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956: explicitly a civil defense initiative to help evacuate cities in event of nuclear attack. Although these new highways originated as a Cold War project, they would have immense implications on all aspects of American life during the second half of the twentieth century: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstate_Highway_System

IV. The Parson's Prophecy

The post-war years saw the emergence of a new genre of apocalyptic environmental writing: existential threats to American way of life, human civilization, even all life on earth. Never before had human life seemed so contingent. The bomb was ironically the greatest expression of human power...with the greatest potential to destroy both the human and natural worlds. Enormous power coupled with enormous vulnerability. Much of what separated post-WWII environmentalism from the earlier conservation derived from this sense of vulnerability.

Key texts here included two best-selling books published in 1948: Fairfield Osborn's Our Plundered Planet and William Vogt's The Road to Survival: both argued that human beings now threatened their own survival and that of all life on earth.

The atomic bomb taught conservationists to think globally, reflects shifting political tendencies of environmentalism, which tended to conceive of problems on larger, more systemic and abstract scale than had been typical of Progressive conservation movement with its more nationalist emphasis.

William Vogt (1902-1968) graduated with a BA in biology from Bard College, began his career as an assistant editor for the New York Academy of Sciences, then served as a field naturalist for the Audubon Society and as editor of Bird Lore from 1935-39. He worked in Latin America for the next decade, returning after the war with growing concerns about human-induced environmental change. The Road to Survival was the result of his reflections. More biographical information here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Vogt

Note, by the way, the growing importance of writers and journalists in shaping popular consciousness about the environment during this post-war era.

Vogt's argument: rising human population was increasingly impinging on global resources.

This claim had deep roots reaching all the way back to Thomas Robert Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), which argued that while resources increased arithmetically, population increased geometrically, creating the ever-present possibility of what has since come to be called a "Malthusian crisis."

Human population growth would always tend to press against the limits of the natural environment, especially food resources.

For more on Malthus and influence, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Robert_Malthus

The 1950s and 1960s saw growing concerns of this kind, though historical demographic patterns since the industrial revolution were complicated: exponential population growth during the modern era had tended to derive from falling mortality, but seemed eventually to slow when there was a comparable fall in birth rates as living conditions improved. This shift came to be labeled the "demographic transition," and became a major concern of modernization theorists looking to promote development in what was then called the "Third World" during the Cold War. (By this Cold War formula, the US and its allies were the First World, or the "Free World," whereas the USSR and its allies were the Second World.)

V. The Population Bomb

The post-WWII period saw major waves of neo-Malthusianism. A 1954 pamphlet entitled "The Population Bomb" showed nuclear weapons as best available metaphor for the apocalyptic dangers of unrestrained population growth.

The pamphlet was funded by Hugh Moore (1887-1972), inventor & president of Dixie Cup, who acted as major funder for publications promoting population control for the next 20 years.

Moore's friend Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) strongly supported his efforts at population control. She had fought for birth control since opening her first clinic in Brooklyn in 1916. Arrested many times during her public protests on behalf of women's reproductive rights, she published Birth Control Review and founded the organization that eventually became Planned Parenthood. Sanger convinced Katherine Dexter McCormick to underwrite $2+ million development funds to develop a birth control pill, which was released on US market in 1960. More on her life: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Sanger

Birth control was at center of population controversy during this period, generating much conflict with the Catholic Church.

There was, moreover, a potential racist underside to advocacy efforts on behalf of population control.

The movement culminated in 1969 with publication of Stanford biologist Paul R. Ehrlich's The Population Bomb: population as the single most important environmental problem. Ehrlich believed that Malthusian triage was the only solution, cutting off aid to the poor who were already doomed to starve to death. Further biographical details here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_R._Ehrlich

Review key themes of the lecture:

  1. planning as intrinsically a top-down, elite phenomenon favoring birds-eye view
  2. atomic bomb had consequence of increasing people’s awareness of global threats & vulnerability
  3. population as one of the most macro ways of conceiving of global environment: power & weakness
  4. analysis at global level tended to favor aggregates without much attention to distributional equity
  5. population one of first environmental concerns to be perceived on global scale...
  6. ...but its abstract birds-eye view made it hard to see individual people on the ground