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Liberal Philanthropy and the “Birth” of Population Control Environmentalism

Many environmentalists can rightly claim that they (as a social movement) have made valiant efforts to temper the relentless destruction wrought on Planet Earth by its human inhabitants (those luxuriating in their consumer lifestyles in the ‘developed world’ have waged the war against life most relentlessly).  Environmentalists can even claim to have successfully prodded many governments into grudgingly paying lip service to the rhetoric of environmentalism, as evidenced by many governments’ adoption of the principles embodied in the omnipotent concept that is ‘sustainable development.’

However, what many environmental groups are loath to discuss, especially the largest ones, is their (ongoing) cooption by political and corporate elites.  While the elitist foundations of the conservation and preservation movements are commonly acknowledged, the elite sponsorship that the environmental movement received during the 1960s is less well understood.1  This article aims to correct this deficit and to contribute to the growing literature on the cooption of social movements by examining the role of liberal philanthropic foundations (and some of their most influential proponents) in facilitating the rise of environmentalism.

Liberal philanthropists have had a profound effect in shaping the contours of civil society, actively influencing social change through a process alternately referred to as either channeling or co-option (for further details see Green Left Weekly #752).  Indeed, by institutionalizing their philanthropy in liberal foundations, leading capitalists have funded all manner of progressive social causes in an attempt to preempt potentially revolutionary social change and maintain the status quo.

Perhaps the first environmental historian to critique the influence of foundations on the environmental movement was Professor Robert Gottlieb: he noted in 1993 that foundations “[a]s much as anyone else . . . had become part of the process of creating the environmental policy system of the 1970s,” creating a “new breed of environmental organization, with expert staff, especially lawyers and scientists, and a more sophisticated lobbying or political presence in Washington.”

This article will focus specifically on the role of the two liberal foundations which provided the environmental movement with the most monetary support during its early days — that is, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations — by critically examining the ways in which their longstanding population control interests have crucially influenced the development of the environmental movement.

An important area of foundation funding that is now explicitly linked to the environmental agenda — arguably to its detriment — is population research, and one of the most influential groups initially involved in this field was the Population Council, which was founded in 1952 with a US$100,000 gift from John D. Rockefeller III (JDR3).  In 1954 the Ford Foundation started funding the Population Council’s work, and during the Council’s first 23 years they provided it with a staggering US$94 million.

Such a massive investment paid substantial dividends to both the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations — which during this time had also been working hand-in-hand with the CIA in waging the cultural cold war against the Communist ‘threat’ — and, by 1959, population issues had begun to “assume the weightiness of a major geopolitical force on the world scene, soon to be adopted as a cherished cause by the ‘military-industrial complex’.”  This led to the creation of what was referred to as the population-national security theory (PNST), a dubious theory that causally linked “overpopulation, resource exhaustion, hunger, political instability, communist insurrection, and danger to vital American interests.”  As JDR3 explained in a lecture to the United Nations in 1961, “population growth is second only to control of atomic weapons as the paramount problem of the day.”

With the backing of the broader population lobby, shortly after the 1964 elections, JDR3 was able to exert pressure on President Johnson’s Secretary of State Dean Rusk (head of the Rockefeller Foundation from 1952 to 1960), to encourage the President to mention the overpopulation issue in the forthcoming State of the Union address — which President Johnson went on to do, making him the first American President to highlight population in such an address to the nation.  By the end of January 1965, an Office of Population was created within the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which initially obtained about $10.5 million a year: USAID funding ‘exploded’ thereafter, and by 1972 their annual budget was $123 million.

Around this time, the population question also gained support from other quarters, and in 1968, the new Ford Foundation trustee, Robert McNamara, in his inaugural speech as the World Bank’s new president, “emphasized the central importance of curbing population growth.”  Thus McNamara was firmly following in the steps of his predecessor at the World Bank, Eugene Black, who had recently joined the board of the population control group, Planned Parenthood, and sat with him on the Ford Foundations board of directors.

Needless to say, the mass media also played a crucial role during this period, helping thrust the population issue onto the public and political policy agendas.  The logical end result was, as Steve Weissman noted in 1970, that “[e]nvironmentalists, along with their enemies, ‘the industrial polluters,’ found the chief cause of every problem from slums to suburbs, pollution to protest, in the world’s expanding numbers.”

It was in the midst of this population-fixated period that the now celebrated environmentalist Paul Ehrlich released his bestselling book The Population Bomb (published by the Sierra Club in 1968).  The message contained in this influential book was essentially a crude Malthusian argument, reiterating the earlier work of other Rockefeller- and Ford-linked popular authors like Fairfield Osborn, Frederick Osborn, and William Vogt.

However, with the publics’ interest in the population issue already primed by years of propaganda, the arguments presented were accepted as commonsensical, and, in less than two years, Ehrlich’s book sold more than one million copies and went on to become the most popular environmental book ever published.  Maximising the public interest generated around the sale of his book, in 1968 Ehrlich created the Zero Population Growth (ZPG) group, whose stated goal was to “place the population issue at the center of environmental policy.”

Another well received Malthusian tract that has successfully linked population and environmental issues is Professor Garrett Hardin’s The Tragedy of the Commons (1968).  Professor Eric Ross has undertaken a valuable task in tracing the evolution of Hardin’s work and suggests that when his work is considered in its entirety one can see how this book “embodies all the cardinal qualities of Cold War Malthusian thinking: it is anti-socialist, anti-democratic and eugenic.” Unfortunately, although the myth of the tragedy of the commons has now been discounted, it still remains popular, no doubt in part because of its compatibility with elitist concepts of environmental management.

The increasing focus of liberal foundations on the population issue — or more precisely the high birth rates among the poor in the Third World, throughout the 1950s and 1960s — led many New Left activists to be highly suspicious of the foundations’ motivations, suspecting that their population fixation was closely wedded to US imperialism.  In a special Earth Day issue of Ramparts magazine in 1970, Katherine Barkley and Steve Weissman explained “Why the Population Bomb Is a Rockefeller Baby” born of the foundations agendas tied to elite interests more concerned with devising way to minimize the increasing Third World upheavals than with protecting the environment.

Another article in the same issue described the liberal foundations’ favorite groups, the Conservation Foundation and the Population Council, as the Eco-Establishment, a coalition whose aim was to protect and conserve natural resources for the benefit of big business interests.

In fact, the summer after the first Earth Day celebrations in 1970, a classified National Security Council memorandum, signed by President Nixon’s security advisor Henry Kissinger, “elevated population control to a ‘top priority item’ on the multilateral agenda.”  This population policy supported the United States’ already brutal foreign policy, and, in 1972, in an effort to deal with the so-called ‘population emergency’ in India, the World Bank funded a $21 million project which “resulted in millions of involuntary sterilizations and thousands of deaths.”  The inherent contradictions of these policies were clear to many, and as early as 1970 it was obvious — to Steve Weissman at least — that waging a “war on people” would “not eliminate the need for each nation to determine how best to balance resources and population.”

Not coincidentally, the chief public rationale for the so-called Green Revolution (which, too, was generously financed by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations) — which has often naively been associated with Western humanitarianism — was also Malthusian.  As Professor Ross points out, “The Green Revolution was an integral part of the constellation of strategies — including limited and carefully managed land reform, counterinsurgency, CIA-backed coups, and international birth control programmes — that aimed to ensure the security of U.S. interests.”  As Professor Ross continues, such Malthusian ideas have always “tended to flourish in times when capitalism has been most severely challenged,” providing an “essential ideological weapon against popular reform . . . by dismissing any alternative to capitalist relations of production as hopelessly utopian.”

In summary, the strategic grant-making practices of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations played a crucial role in shaping the early evolution of the environmental movement so that it maintained focused on issues that were compatible with elite interests.  Because this issue of elite manipulation has never been seriously addressed, liberal foundations have continued to exert a large (for the most part undocumented) influence over the evolution of modern-day environmentalism.

Nowadays, foundation funding for environmental groups usually lags behind membership fees.  Yet, despite the fact that the proportion of an environmental group’s income derived from foundations is typically relatively small, such funding has a disproportionate influence on policy decisions (compared to membership dues) because (1) it is usually tied to specific environmental projects, (2) foundation board members are often offered influential positions sitting on the boards of the organizations they aid, and (3) foundations utilize proactive grant making, whereby experts associated with the foundations guide environmental groups to concentrate on projects identified by the foundations themselves.

Understanding how liberal foundation have historically worked to coopt progressive social movements is perhaps the first step environmental activists will need to take to enable them to work towards finding a collective solution to the problems raised in this article.  However, organizing truly sustainable means of social movement support needs to become a priority for all activists, especially in a political climate where corporations are rapidly extending their philanthropic tentacles into all corners of the non-profit sector.  Therefore, the task that lies ahead for all citizens committed to a participatory and ecological democracy is to develop alternate funding mechanisms for sustaining grassroots activism.  Only then will they be able to break free from the guiding hands of liberal philanthropists, and begin to devise ways of supporting radical activism that can present a serious challenge to the injustices that are daily perpetuated by capitalism and its liberal capitalist elites.


1  Despite the relevance of investigations into this subject to the development of sustainable environmental activism, though, only a handful of researchers, to date, have critically examined how liberal foundations have affected the evolution of the environmental movement.  (For example, see the work of Mark Dowie, Brian Tokar, Robert Brulle, and Daniel Faber.)  None of these authors, however, provides more than a cursory examination of the involvement of foundations in shaping environmental developments throughout the 1960s.

Michael Barker is currently co-editing a book with Daniel Faber and Joan Roelofs that will critically evaluate the influence of philanthropic foundations on the public sphere.  His other work can be found here.  This article is based on an article published in the June 2008 issue of the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism.  For further details, email the author at <>. 

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