Billboards have begun to pop up throughout Portland with a surprisingly personal message: stop having kids. While the idea itself is a bad one, as I’ll discuss later, one interesting question to ask is, where did this sentiment come from?
I’m not interested in diving into the history of the particular organization behind this campaign. Instead, a more interesting question is where and when did this sentiment in the United States originate?
To understand the roots of this misanthropic movement, we need to meet the advertising expert who used his fortune and expertise for the primary purpose of decreasing the number of humans: Hugh Moore (1887–1972).
Hugh Moore Starts His Campaign
Although not all roads lead to Moore, a significant portion of anti-population activities are connected to him. Moore’s most well-known claim to fame is his founding of the Dixie Cup Company, but he was aided by years of working in advertising.
Moore worked as an advertising solicitor for various publications including The Reform in Kansas City and then for The Packer where he was promoted to ad manager while in his second year of attendance at Harvard. Moore left the advertising business to run the Dixie cup company, but he never gave up on his interest in advertising. In fact, he channeled it elsewhere: anti-population propaganda.
Moore was inspired by William Vogt’s book Road to Survival which convinced him population growth would lead to the spread of wars and communism, among other calamities. So Moore got to work using his money and power to influence population discourse and policy.
Moore Convinces the National Security Apparatus
Arguably, Moore’s most important influence was over Maj. General William Henry Draper Jr. General Draper’s influence on President Nixon was particularly important. Draper, a friend of Moore’s, was convinced of the dangers of population in part by Moore.
Moore’s influence through Draper began with the Draper Committee formed by then President Eisenhower. The committee itself was noted for being “top heavy with military men,” in the words of Senator William Fulbright.
The day after the committee was assembled, Hugh Moore sent his friend a lengthy wire which concluded, “If your committee does not look into the impact and implications of the population explosion, you will be derelict in your duty."
The Draper committee made three recommendations:
a) assistance to "developing" countries in establishing programs to check population growth
b) increased assistance to maternal and child health programs
(c) support for research programs on population, including research by other countries and the United Nations.
According to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), this report and the conclusions were central to USAID (the international aid branch of the US government) establishing an Office of Population under President Richard Nixon.
Nixon wasn’t the first president to be influenced by the newly forming population lobby. His predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, was also influenced by Draper. In 1965, Draper and other members of the population establishment began to work on changes to the “Food for Peace” law which would give additional funding to countries which utilized population policies.
Outside of government, Moore worked diligently to tie aid success to population control. In 1969 he sponsored newspaper advertisements with the heading, "Latin American Aid Nullified by Population Explosion.”
And throughout his presidency, LBJ was thoroughly convinced of the relevance of population to aid. In a call with an advisor on famine in India, Johnson argued the country should be withheld aid because of their population.
“I’m not going to piss away foreign aid in nations where they refuse to deal with their own population problems,” Johnson said.
Over the next decade, India would take on one of the largest forced sterilization campaigns in history. The UNFPA went on to give India (and China) an Award for the population program in 1983.
The National Security State Mobilizes
As previously mentioned, Draper’s report was extremely influential on Richard Nixon as well. During Nixon’s administration, a new report was commissioned which would become one of the most infamous pieces of US population policy history.
In the early 1970s Nixon commissioned a report later made national policy by President Ford—National Security Study Memorandum 200. The report is surprisingly candid. NSSM 200 states,
“The U.S. economy will require large and increasing amounts of minerals from abroad, especially from less developed countries… That fact gives the U.S. enhanced interest in the political, economic, and social stability of the supplying countries. Wherever a lessening of population pressures through reduced birth rates can increase the prospects for such stability, population policy becomes relevant to resource supplies and to the economic interests of the United States.”
In other words, the US government was interested in lowering foreign populations in order to increase US access to raw materials. The report recognizes this sort of policy sounds bad. The solution? Don’t get caught.
“We must take care that our activities should not give the appearance to the LDCs of an industrialized country policy directed against the LDCs. Caution must be taken that in any approaches in this field we support in the LDCs are ones we can support within this country. ‘Third World’ leaders should be in the forefront and obtain the credit for successful programs. In this context it is important to demonstrate to LDC leaders that such family planning programs have worked and can work within a reasonable period of time" (NSSM 200).
The report discusses in detail how non-government organizations and foreign organizations can be used to provide cover. Lastly, and most chillingly, the report offers no clear condemnation of involuntary programs.
"In these sensitive relations, however, it is important in style as well as substance to avoid the appearance of coercion” (Emphasis added).
The report recommends influencing external actors to create, “improved world-wide support for population-related efforts” through “increased emphasis on mass media and other population education and motivation programs.”
Population Explosion Propaganda
Moore’s influence wasn’t limited to his influence on Draper. Moore’s public propaganda campaign began with his 1954 publication of the proactively titled pamphlet, “The Population Bomb.”
Demographers concerned about population were initially surprised by his colorful tactics, but Moore trusted his own marketing savvy. He told one demographer, “[y]ou've been raised in academic halls. I've been raised in the market place. I'm used to presenting facts dramatically. Students of demography have talked for years and nobody listened.”
The population bomb propaganda was a hit. The New York Times ran an article echoing the propaganda called The Population Explosion in May, 1961.
Moore’s phrase was also adopted by someone whose popularity overshadowed his own. Ecologist Paul Ehrlich asked if he could borrow the title for his 1968 book. Moore was happy to support Ehrlich’s book, which gained widespread popularity and even led to Ehrlich appearing on the TV show at the center of American television: Johnny Carson Tonight.
Hugh Moore paid for a slew of advertisements through his self-financed organization The Hugh Moore Fund. In a letter to Draper, Moore admitted to his intentional strategy of using mass marketing gimmicks.
“[W]e must gather the best and most clever public relations people, motivation experts, advertising specialists, sociologists…who can contribute to a no-fail campaign…There are geniuses in communications and selling who have sold the American public every gee-gaw and gimmick conceivable.”
The vehicle of paid space in newspapers was chosen. In his notes he wrote,
“[t]he Hugh Moore Fund has tried within its slender resources to meet this need by using paid space, for in paid space you can tell people what they should do, when they should do it and where.”
In 1967, Moore’s fund created “The Campaign to Check the Population Explosion” with Emerson Foote, the famous ex Tobacco advertising mogul, as the chair. The campaign created several advertisements. Here are two examples:
Many of these ads were published in paid space in the New York Times. This uses a favorite propaganda phrase: "the population bomb". pic.twitter.com/oxzwJYkbdc— Peter Jacobsen (@PeterPashute) March 29, 2022
The first ad, particularly heavy handed, suggests if population growth continues unchecked, you may be mugged! These are just two examples, but the ads targeted society, politicians, and even the Catholic church.
The Population Establishment, Established
Along with the Hugh Moore fund and the Campaign to Check the Population Explosion, Moore supported, headed, and founded several other anti-population organizations. Notably, Moore became the president of The Human Betterment Association and renamed the organization The Association for Voluntary Sterilization, to more boldly articulate its mission.
Moore also founded the Population Crisis Committee (with Draper), which later changed its name to what it is today—Population Action International. Moore was also Chairman of the Population Reference Bureau, a think tank dedicated to supporting “evidence-based policies'' related to demography and health. He also served as VP of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
Many of these organizations continue to exist today and attempt to influence public policy and public opinion in the same way Moore did during his lifetime. So although the billboard in Portland couldn’t be Moore’s personal handiwork seeing as he died in 1972, it’s likely that the legacy of Moore’s money, advertising strategy, and influence on ideas is somewhere at the root.
Less is Not More
In a recent Atlantic article, Derek Thompson explores why US population has cratered. The author concludes, "U.S. has too few births, too many deaths, and not enough immigrants" (emphasis added). One can't help but wonder if the millions of dollars spent on anti-population activity is to blame.
Unfortunately for the world, Moore spent the last years of his life promoting an idea that’s simply wrong. This ideology, which persists today (as seen in Portland) is an overly simplistic view of population.
Moore, Draper, Ehrlich, and the modern anti-natalists share an incomplete view of humanity. Anti-natalists generally share a modified version of the thesis of Thomas Malthus in his Essay on the Principle of Population.
The thesis is simple: human beings are consumers, and their consumption grows faster than their ability to produce with their laborer. Malthus argued that food growth is linear but population growth is exponential.
Another way to understand Malthus' fear of population is with the law of diminishing marginal returns (which Malthus originated). The law says that, beyond some point, the more of a homogeneous input (like labor) you add to the production process, the less productive each additional unit will become.
Since the addition is decreasing while consumption needs remain the same, eventually the population will outpace productive powers. Malthus’s concern was about food, although the same argument is occasionally made with reference to the environment, for example.
The problem with this argument is that humans are, in fact, not homogeneous blobs of labor. People are creative and entrepreneurial, and they use those talents to create new products and institutional systems which allow “finite” resources to effectively multiply.
This does not mean the law of returns isn’t true, only that it requires everything else to be held constant. But, in the real world, things are rarely held constant. Advances in technology and production processes can cause returns to increase.
For example, with the invention of more fuel efficient vehicles, a fixed supply of oil is able to produce more services than before. Likewise, anti-pollution technologies can actually cause environments to improve as countries grow richer. This logic has been confirmed empirically by Nobel Prize winner Simon Kuznets’ environmental Kuznets curve.
Not everyone was fooled during Moore’s campaign. Economist Julian Simon noticed that the data simply didn’t reflect the doom and gloom of these anti-natalists. Simon challenged and beat Ehrlich in a bet on improving resource availability, and poked fun at Moore’s “HAVE YOU EVER BEEN MUGGED?” propaganda in the first edition of his book, The Ultimate Resource.
The only source of solutions to the environmental problems we face today exist in the human mind. Future generations will be at the forefront of solving today’s problems, and more minds are better than fewer.
So don’t let a billboard in Portland based on decades-old propaganda made by advertising moguls deter you. Don’t stop having kids. If you want kids—have kids. The world will be better off for it.