The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism

The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism

The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism

The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism


Although Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) is often cited as the founding text of the U.S. environmental movement, in The Malthusian Moment Thomas Robertson locates the origins of modern American environmentalism in twentieth-century adaptations of Thomas Malthus's concerns about population growth. For many environmentalists, managing population growth became the key to unlocking the most intractable problems facing Americans after World War II--everything from war and the spread of communism overseas to poverty, race riots, and suburban sprawl at home.

Weaving together the international and the domestic in creative new ways, The Malthusian Moment charts the explosion of Malthusian thinking in the United States from World War I to Earth Day 1970, then traces the just-as-surprising decline in concern beginning in the mid-1970s. In addition to offering an unconventional look at World War II and the Cold War through a balanced study of the environmental movement's most contentious theory, the book sheds new light on some of the big stories of postwar American life: the rise of consumption, the growth of the federal government, urban and suburban problems, the civil rights and women's movements, the role of scientists in a democracy, new attitudes about sex and sexuality, and the emergence of the "New Right."


In the months before the first Earth Day in 1970, as an explosion of environmental activism was reconfiguring the American political landscape, Time magazine, looking for a way to explain the concept of ecological interconnection, turned for an analogy to the realm of international relations. the ecological process by which chemicals like ddt worked their way through—and up—the food chain, it wrote, mirrored the Cold War political-economic system in which an outbreak of communism in one niche of the world could spread quickly through and up the global food chain. “The ‘domino theory,’” the magazine explained, “is clearly applicable to the environment.”

Later that year, at a rally on Earth Day, the massive series of demonstrations that signaled the arrival of the American environmental movement, a woman held up a sign based on a well-known Pogo cartoon: “I have met the enemy and he is us.” the famous line crystallized a common sentiment of the postwar environmental movement, that humans were to blame for recklessly interfering in nature. But by turning the lower-case word “us” into the uppercase initials “US” during the height of protests about the U.S. war in Vietnam, the Earth Day participant added an extra layer of meaning to her message about nature: the capital letters suggested that the enemy of the environment was not just human beings but, more particularly, the United States. Like Americans in Vietnam, human beings were arrogantly making up their own rules and deploying technological tools of horrible power to inflict massive destruction upon a defenseless enemy. Human beings were to nature as the United States was to the rest of the world.

The early 1970s was not the first time that war, international relations, and ideas about America’s connections to the rest of the world had shaped environmental thought and politics in the United States. the Romantic writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau retreated to Walden Pond and put to paper some of the most influential words about nature an American has ever produced as the United States was headed to war with Mexico, something we know he thought deeply about because of his essay on civil disobedience. the naturalist John Muir experienced one of his most important epiphanies about nature while in Canada after fleeing the draft during the Civil War.

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