22 July 2009

Much Ado About Very Little

Conservatives are going after John Holdren, President Obama's science advisor, based on some things that he wrote more than 30 years ago. In a nice overview of the controversy, Michelle Goldberg writes at The American Prospect,
On July 10, a Web site called Zombietime published scans of various offending passages from the textbook, Ecoscience. Reading them, it's hard not to conclude that the authors looked kindly on government-mandated limits on fertility. "In today's world, however, the number of children in a family is a matter of profound public concern," they wrote. "For example, no one may lawfully have more than one spouse at a time. Why should the law not be able to prevent people from having more than two children?

Elsewhere, the authors consider the possibility of adding a sterilant to "drinking water or staple foods." Ultimately, they decide that the risk of side effects "would, in our opinion, militate against the use of any such agent," though there's something disturbing about the equanimity with which they consider it. They also toy with draconian proposals for encouraging "responsible parenthood," including mandating that all "illegitimate" births be put up for adoption and requiring pregnant single women to marry or have abortions.

The political right predictably seized on the opportunity -- for instance, at Fox News James Pinkerton goes way over the top,
That's right, there's a genuine big shot inside the White House who has advocated the sort of population-control policies that we associate with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and power-drunk mad scientists in science-fiction movies. And President Obama appointed him . . .
The attacks on Holdren have motivated a formal response from Holdren's office, seeking to distance him from the comments in the book with the Ehrlichs:
This material is from a three-decade-old, three-author college textbook. Dr. Holdren addressed this issue during his confirmation when he said he does not believe that determining optimal population is a proper role of government. Dr. Holdren is not and never has been an advocate for policies of forced sterilization.
Again, writing at The American Prospect Goldberg is right on the mark when she warns liberals against reflexivly trying to rewrite history, calling out in particular Chris Mooney, who implausibly and somehwhat laughably seems to think that the Ehrlichs and Holdren were against coercive population control policies. (Mooney increasingly seems to have trouble with simple facts.) Goldberg's reasoned views are worth quoting at length:
Few liberals paid much attention, and some of those that did dismissed the whole thing. At Scienceblogs.com, Nick Anthis argued that if the story sounds "just a bit too absurd to be true," that's because it is. He linked to a piece by Chris Mooney, a writer who has done invaluable work fighting right-wing attacks on science. "The book is three decades old; Holdren isn't its first author; it takes a stance against such policies; and neither Holdren nor the Ehrlichs support these policies today, either," wrote Mooney. "Couldn't we talk about something that's actually important and contemporary?"

These defenses seem a bit reflexive. No one, after all, is denying the authenticity of these quotations, and there's little point in pretending that they aren't morally outrageous. What's worse, hysteria over overpopulation in the 1970s did real damage to today's fight against global warming. Since the deadly catastrophes predicted by people like Ehrlich never came to pass, conservatives can argue that environmentalists cried wolf once before and are now doing so again.

Nevertheless, it's worthwhile to understand the context in which Holdren and the Ehrlichs were writing. It doesn't excuse them, but it does go a ways toward explaining how a decent person could have supported such awful ideas. In the 1970s, it was widely accepted by most serious people that overpopulation was a major planetary emergency. Many expected imminent widespread starvation, global upheaval, and mass death. "Success in the population field, under United Nations leadership, may, in turn, determine whether we can resolve successfully the other great questions of peace, prosperity, and individual rights that face the world," wrote George H. W. Bush in 1973. (Indeed, Bush was nicknamed "Rubbers" because of his obsession with family planning.)

And yet there was a growing sense that things weren't moving fast enough and that Malthusian disasters lurked on the horizon. In 1975, a then-classified National Security Council report outlined the dangers that rapid population growth posed to global stability. The report recommended expanding access to voluntary methods of family planning, but under the heading "An Alternative View," it broached the case for coercion. A "growing number of experts," it said, were predicting widespread food shortages and other "demographic catastrophes … in the words of [British scientist and writer] C.P. Snow, we shall be watching people starve on television." The conclusion of this view, it said, "is that mandatory programs may be needed and that we should be considering these possibilities now." It's not surprising that these ideas made it into a comprehensive textbook, since they were very much in the air.

Steven Sinding, a Columbia professor and the former head of both International Planned Parenthood and of the population division at USAID, knew Holdren during those years and shared his concerns.

The Ehrlichs, he says, "were among the leaders in this country of people who were sounding the alarm about the population explosion. Holdren was very much a part of that group. At the time, this was not regarded as radical. It was regarded as intellectuals who were really very serious about the threat of overpopulation and were speculating about alternative approaches to population control," a term then in vogue.

Of course, the fact that such views were taken seriously hardly exonerates those who espoused them. Nevertheless, it does help us understand why a young scientist might entertain them. More important, though, is the fact that Holdren seems to have changed with the times and that he went on to help those working against the population control paradigm.

If anything, the episode is a minor embarrassment for Holdren, whose long and distinguished career has resulted in a change in perspective over time, but also leaving evidence of formerly held views in the academic record. It shows that conservatives are pretty desperate for slime, but also perhaps smelling blood in the water with the ongoing legislative stumbles over health care and cap and trade. But while it is of some minor interest, it is pretty much a non-issue from the standpoint of contemporary policy debates.

In researching this issue I came across an article by Ehrlich and Holdren on population growth and technology from 1969 in which they suggest that investing in vasectomies rather than building nuclear power plants might be a better investment. Sounds kind of silly 40 years later (though surely some will write in the comments that their ideas remain sound;-) Here is how they end that article:
The decision for population control will be opposed by growth-minded economists and businessmen, by nationalistic statesmen, by zealous religious leaders, and by the myopic and well-fed of every description. It is therefore incumbent on all who sense the limitations of technology and the fragility of the environmental balance to make themselves heard above the hollow, optimistic chorus-to convince society and its leaders that there is no alternative but the cessation of our irresponsible, all-demanding, and all-consuming population growth.
Holdren (and his colleagues) turned to to be wrong on this issue. So what? It is an occupational hazard in policy analysis. The important thing is that Holdren seems to have learned from that experience and now holds different views. Good for him.