As I write this, America's population reportedly has passed the 300 million mark. The most remarkable aspect of this landmark event is how unremarkable it really is.
"If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly, and then I'd go out in back streets and main streets and bring them all in, all the sick ... the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks ..."
That was D.H. Lawrence daydreaming about population control. He was hardly alone. During the so-called Progressive Era, "enlightened" social planners were convinced that overpopulation was the gravest problem facing Western society. That's why Lawrence gave "three cheers for the inventors of poison gas."
George Bernard Shaw, a thoroughgoing eugenicist, believed that the "the majority of men at present in Europe have no business to be alive." H.G. Wells smiled at the prospect that the "swarms of black and brown and dirty-white and yellow people" will "have to go." In America, Wells' onetime girlfriend, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, argued that birth control was essential to stem the rising tide of the unfit. Leading feminists, Progressive economists and legal theorists shared a similar vision. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who concluded in the case of Buck v. Bell that the state had the power to forcibly sterilize "defectives," believed that forced population control was at the very heart of Progressive reform.
The Holocaust diminished the popularity of eugenics, but the panic over overpopulation endured. Paul Ehrlich, author of the scaremongering "The Population Bomb," predicted in 1970 that between 1980 and 1989, roughly 4 billion people, including 65 million Americans, would starve or otherwise meet their doom in the "Great Die-Off." Inspired by such fears, Alan Guttmacher, the former president of Planned Parenthood, was a champion of coerced birth control - i.e. "compulsory sterilization and compulsory abortion" - throughout much of the world.
Today, overpopulation anxieties pale by comparison to years past. But simply because people aren't proposing mass murder and forced sterilizations - or predicting that twice the population of California will starve to death in a country where obesity dwarfs hunger as a health concern - hardly means current anxieties are reasonable.