” . . . Ahaz . . . did not that which was right in the sight of the Lord . . . he . . . made his son to pass through the fire . . . he sacrificed and burnt incense in the high places, and on the hills, and under every green tree.”
—II Kings 16:2-4

“The problems of feeding ever-growing populations” are leading to “tropical forests . . . being cleared at the rate of between 50 and 100 acres per minute,” according to the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), which lobbies for and administers the foreign aid of the United States. At this rate, “today’s forests could be cut in half by 2035 and gone entirely by the end of the next century,” the agency quotes a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, which is also supported by the federal government, as saying.

The deforestation crisis is spawning other environmental crises, according to the agency: “The burning of tropical forests pumps nearly 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year . . . causing . . . global warming . . . [and] a rise in the sea level . . . because of the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps.” Global warming will raise sea levels, so that “most U.S. coastal lowlands . . . would be flooded. . . . The . . . nation of the Maldives would be entirely submerged.” Moreover, “deforestation . . . causes soil erosion” which will affect “half of the world’s population” and will lead to “desertification and spreading wastelands.” And, as if all this were not enough, in these tropical forests which “are home to more than half the world’s plants and animals . . . each day as many as 140 species of plants and animals may be disappearing.”

Believing that these catastrophes result from trying to feed “ever-growing populations” makes it easier to believe in the wisdom of AID’s efforts to control population growth in the countries receiving U.S. foreign aid. Requiring a foreign government to promise (as, for example, in the 1988 contract between AID and Costa Rica) that it will try to reduce its crude birthrate to 28/1000 might seem to be a tad nosy, were it not for the exigencies of the environment. Requiring the government of Costa Rica to provide sex education to its population of school-age children and to achieve a “contraceptive prevalence rate at 70 percent by 1992” might seem a bit officious, did we not know that this is saving the polar ice caps.

In a word, the environment is proving to be the best excuse yet for imposing population control. And just in time, too, since the earlier threats of resource exhaustion and economic stagnation and starvation that were supposed to result from population growth have not materialized. AID is only one of many government-funded agencies that are now gathering at the altar of Mother Earth. Right alongside AID and the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, Zero Population Growth, and the National Wildlife Federation at the new holy mysteries are, to name a few of the organizers of the typical environmental event, representatives of Planned Parenthood, the Population Reference Bureau, and the World Bank.

However, the promoters of this belief make two errors—their claims about the state of the environment are highly questionable, and their claim that “overpopulation” is the cause of environmental degradation has no basis in fact.

Forests still cover almost a third of the earth’s land surface, the same share as in 1950, and there is no statistically verifiable trend in the temperature of the atmosphere or the number of species or the much belabored stratospheric ozone layer, although a multitude of voices insist that cataclysmic changes will soon overcome us. This is not to deny that pollution and traffic jams are not big problems in many places, but this is not global climate change.

One reason it has been so easy to argue that the earth is “overpopulated” is that now, as always, most people live in crowded conditions, not because of lack of space—we actually occupy only about 1 percent of the earth’s area—but because we need to work together, to buy and sell, to give and receive services from one another.

Urbanization is, of course, increasing throughout the world, as rising agricultural productivity has made it possible for a smaller proportion of farmers to feed a growing proportion of city workers. Increasing urbanization makes us feel more crowded at the same time as it discourages the raising of large families. Unlike a farm wife, a city mother cannot raise her children while she works. She has to sacrifice income in order to raise them. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the developed countries, zero or negative population growth is already at hand, while in the less developed world it is approaching at a rate that will bring it about well before the end of the next century, if present trends continue.

Knowing this, the more forthright of the environmentalists frankly admit that they are aiming for a substantial reduction in world population. Paul Ehrlich, for example, has called for world population to be reduced to “perhaps” one-fifth its present size. Herman Daly, who works for the World Bank, has called for government licensing to limit births to levels consistent with a stationary or, better yet, declining population. The U.N. Fund for Population Activities gave an award to the Chinese one-child family program that features compulsory abortion.

Wild stories (and frightening pictures) of “deforestation” appear regularly in the media. Making my home in northern California, I meet people who are worried about “cutting down the last redwoods” wherever I go. The fact is, there are two million acres of redwoods in California. More than two hundred thousand acres are in public parks and forests where they will never be cut. This includes ninety thousand acres of so-called “old growth”—that is, the oldest giant trees.

Forty percent of the land area of the state is in forest, and the growth of timber in the state is 27 percent greater than the amount cut. A redwood tree will grow out of its own stump, and when it is 30 years old it will be 80 feet high and 16 inches in diameter. What the public doesn’t understand is that when the environmentalists talk about saving the “last of the redwoods” they mean the last of the dwindling number of trees that are still available for logging, a number that is, indeed, rapidly declining as more and more of the trees are taken into parks.

Several years ago environmentalists announced that the spotted owl can only live in “old-growth” redwoods and that therefore all such forests should be off limits to logging. When several biologists showed that the owl was nesting in all kinds of coastal forest, the environmentalists insisted that this was no excuse for logging old growth but rather an argument for preserving trees of all ages. Accordingly, in April of this year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its plan to protect the spotted owl by placing 11.6 million acres of Pacific Coast forests, an area as big as Massachusetts and Vermont, under draconian restrictions. Not only does this threaten to destroy the coastal timber industry and its many supporting communities in California, Oregon, and Washington, but it will impose significant costs on lumber users throughout the nation. In June of 1990 the Sierra Club and other environmentalist groups were opposing the logging of dead trees that had been killed by the drought in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Not only do the new defenders of nature fail to acknowledge that trees and owls grow and reproduce, but they misconstrue the relationship between population growth and environmental stress. People in many places in Africa pull up young trees without replanting, not because of overpopulation in that largely empty continent (which has one-fifth the population density of Europe), but because no one owns the trees and therefore no one can expect to benefit in the future from a tree that he plants now. Industrial pollution in Silesia darkened the sky and caused cancer not because of Polish “overpopulation” (there are half as many Poles per square mile in Poland as Germans in western Germany), but because factories could meet their centrally planned output quotas more easily by not using pollution control equipment. The Chernobyl nuclear accident could not have been prevented by providing more and better condoms to the Russians, in whose vast and empty country levels of pollution are 10 to 100 times as high as in the West. The problem was, in all cases, one of behavior in response to incentives, not one of numbers.

Governments that have a sincere interest in protecting the environment can do so whenever they choose to provide the appropriate incentives, regardless of the size or rate of growth of the population. But the environment now serves a number of purposes that have little to do with saving the trees or the air or the whales. There are fortunes to be made in reporting and combating the various crises. Apparently no threat or proposal is too fantastic to generate hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in government grants. Above all, no better excuse for denying basic civil rights has ever appeared. If it’s a question of the ozone layer, who cares about liberty?