Vogt’s Warns of Overpopulation

William Vogt’s Road to Survival was the first post-World War II publication to awaken concern over the conflict between a rising world population and the availability of natural resources.

Summary of Event

William Vogt’s research as an ornithologist led him to develop a keen interest in ecology. Beginning in 1939, he traveled extensively in Central and South America and was struck by the realization that the burgeoning population in these countries would result in a shortage of food and natural resources. He was especially concerned that the local populations seemed unaware of the disaster that awaited them. Road to Survival (Vogt)
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[kw]Road to Survival Warns of Overpopulation, Vogt’s (1948)
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Road to Survival (Vogt)
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[g]North America;1948: Vogt’s Road to Survival Warns of Overpopulation[02320]
[g]United States;1948: Vogt’s Road to Survival Warns of Overpopulation[02320]
[c]Environmental issues;1948: Vogt’s Road to Survival Warns of Overpopulation[02320]
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[c]Publishing and journalism;1948: Vogt’s Road to Survival Warns of Overpopulation[02320]
Vogt, William
Huxley, Aldous
Huxley, Sir Julian

In 1943, as an acknowledged expert on land use and resources, Vogt was made chief of the conservation section of the Pan American Union Pan American Union (PAU). This was the forum he needed to make his views known to government leaders and to the general public. In 1944, he wrote El hombre y la tierra
Hombre y la tierra, El (Vogt) (man and the land) as an attempt to introduce Latin America to ecology. In this work, Vogt explained how humans related to the land and especially how large populations contributed to the depletion of productive soil.

In 1946, Vogt produced three reports under the auspices of PAU that specified the warnings contained in El hombre y la tierra. The reports focused on El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Venezuela, and each report emphasized that the populations in these countries were rapidly outstripping the capacity of natural resources to sustain these populations. The reports shocked and angered political and civic leaders in Latin America, but Vogt remained resolute in his position. He had been writing a general book on human ecology, which he intended for a broad readership. It developed into the stunning book Road to Survival (1948).

Road to Survival combined Vogt’s observations as a scientist with a passionate and occasionally caustic writing style. He challenged the clichés of modern life and succeeded in portraying people who were presumed to be doing good for the world, such as doctors, scientists, and clerics, as purveyors of human misery. Vogt’s method of communication, as well as his views on human ecology, made the book a best seller.

Vogt did not stand alone. His views were advanced on the international scene by biologist Sir Julian Huxley and by writer Aldous Huxley. In 1946, Julian Huxley became the first director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization UNESCO (UNESCO), and one of his principal undertakings was to convince the United Nations to give more attention to population control. The United Nations United Nations;overpopulation , still in its infancy, hesitated to promote the issue with much resolve. The United Nations found that it had to back down on some proposals for research in response to stiff opposition from the Roman Catholic Church. Aldous Huxley wrote several essays on the population topic in the late 1940’s, and in one of them, “The Double Crisis,” “Double Crisis, The” (Huxley)[Double Crisis, The] he contended that soil erosion was a much greater threat to human survival than was the atomic bomb. There were immediate rejoinders to this argument from a number of quarters. In fact, both Huxleys were subjected to intense attacks and believed their opinions were vindicated with the publication of Road to Survival.

Basic to Road to Survival was Vogt’s belief that humans have put themselves into an ecological trap by excessive breeding and abuse of land. He assigned responsibility to those whom he believed should be trying to correct the disastrous overpopulation problem. Doctors were infuriated when Vogt used the example of Puerto Rico, which he described as one of the most miserable places for human existence, to illustrate physicians’ ignorance of modern reality. In Puerto Rico, he wrote, physicians focused all of their energy on improving medical care and sanitation, thus guaranteeing that the population would grow beyond all ability to sustain itself. There was already less than one-half acre of land for every inhabitant on the island of Puerto Rico. Physicians, Vogt argued, should be less concerned about survival of patients and more concerned about slowing reproduction. Such arguments sounded crass and inhumane to many.

Vogt discusses overpopulation circumstances on five continents in Road to Survival and heaps criticism on policy makers and decision makers in all five. According to Vogt, the exhaustion of land will inevitably create unspeakable human misery in Africa, India, and Latin America. Somehow, Vogt argues, people and governments must understand the link that exists between the quality of human life and the preservation of arable land.

The industrialized countries do not escape Vogt’s rapier-like pen. It is a fallacy, he contended, that industrialization alone can create higher standards of living. This illusion has been maintained since the Industrial Revolution. In fact, excessive industrialization leads to great waste of natural resources through unbridled consumption. It gives people a false sense of security about the future and leads to irresponsible breeding. Worst of all, wanton industrialization gobbles up arable land.

Vogt ridiculed a claim made in 1947 by Winston Churchill that the earth provided enough for everyone. This argument minimized the demographic fact that industrializing countries typically experience declines in population growth. The United States, too, received harsh words from Vogt. The country as a whole, he said, was overly self-confident. Caught up in a post-World War II binge, there were very few Americans in government, or even in the scientific societies, who seemed to grasp the peril that lay ahead.

Vogt traced America’s wasteful attitudes to the very beginning of the nation’s history. “Unfortunately,” he wrote, “our forefathers . . . were one of the most destructive groups of human beings that have ever raped the earth.” It took them only a few decades to turn millions of acres into useless land. Vogt, however, did hold out some hope for the United States. The country, unlike many others, still had time to conserve its vast endowment of natural resources. Vogt was not optimistic that this would happen, however, because agencies such as the National Science Foundation and organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science showed no interest in promoting the kind of research necessary to find solutions for the impending ecological disaster.

The solutions that Vogt offered for the dire conditions he described were dramatic and controversial. He called for a complete readjustment of the way humans think and live. People had to realize that resources were limited and that living well did not mean possessing more material goods. A change in attitude about the nature of progress had to be coupled with a determination to control populations and restore resources. To control populations, Vogt suggested that the United States and other highly developed countries use foreign aid programs to promote birth control. It was the responsibility of the wealthy countries to take the lead in trying to bring humans into reconciliation with their environment.


Road to Survival received considerable attention when it was published. Vogt’s contentious statements were intended to shock, and they did. The book was given a significant boost when it became the first of its type to be selected for the Book-of-the-Month Club. Reviewers were mixed in their comments, but some expressed the opinion that Vogt’s highly critical comments had weakened the impact of his legitimate concerns. Shortly after the book’s publication, Vogt was removed from his post as chief of the conservation section of the PAU.

There were many readers who charged Vogt with being an adherent of Thomas Robert Malthus, an early nineteenth century British economist who argued that population growth would eventually exceed food supplies. In Road to Survival, Vogt praised Malthus for his clearheadedness and generally considered him a prophet. He also agreed with Malthus that either the world must accept the imperative for birth control or population will be reduced through disasters such as famine, plague, or warfare for survival.

For a time, Road to Survival made Vogt something of a celebrity. He gave a number of lectures in which he reiterated the themes expressed in his book. Wherever he went, he created controversy. His stand on birth control made him quite popular with those who believed in family planning, and he was given a major award by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America Planned Parenthood Federation of America . In 1951, Vogt became president of Planned Parenthood, and on four occasions during the 1950’s, he was a leading participant at International Planned Parenthood meetings.

The primary impact of Road to Survival was to stimulate public discussion of the population question. After the book’s publication, the level of interest in the subject intensified. Vogt achieved his most important objective, which was to inform an uninformed public about the reality of overpopulation. During the 1950’s, however, Vogt’s position remained distinctly a minority opinion. Powerful opponents, especially the Catholic Church, were ready to oppose Vogt’s ideas whenever they were raised.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the West recognized the accuracy of Vogt’s fears. The creation of population councils, a spate of literature on the subject, U.N.-sponsored conferences, research on contraception, and support from many Protestant churches all testified to the new concerns about overpopulation. Many Catholics even began to challenge the official stand of the Vatican on this subject. Road to Survival (Vogt)
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Further Reading

  • Caldwell, Lynton K. In Defense of Earth: International Protection of the Biosphere. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972. A well-written account of environmental circumstances as they existed in the early 1970’s. Caldwell makes a strong case for an international approach to solving major environmental problems. Excellent notes, index.
  • Craven, Avery O. Soil Exhaustion as a Factor in the Agricultural History of Virginia and Maryland, 1606-1860. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1926. This foundational work of ecohistory greatly influenced Vogt’s thinking about population and soil erosion. Notes, bibliography, index. Highly recommended.
  • McKee, Jeffrey K. Sparing Nature: The Conflict Between Human Population Growth and Earth’s Biodiversity. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003. McKee explores the cause-and-effect relationship between human population growth and the squeezing out of animals and plants, all to the detriment of a healthy and sustaining life on Earth. Includes maps and other illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.
  • Osborn, Fairfield. Our Plundered Planet. Boston: Little, Brown, 1948. Published in the same year as Road to Survival, this work strongly complements Vogt’s writing. It received considerable attention but was somewhat overshadowed by Vogt’s book. Highly recommended.
  • Pearson, Frank A., and Floyd A. Harper. The World’s Hunger. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1945. Emphasizes expanding world populations and diminishing land and resources. Stops short of issuing dire warnings, but the implications in this study cannot be missed. Clearly written.
  • Sears, Paul H. Deserts on the March. 1935. New ed. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1988. An innovative study by a leading ecologist. In many ways, Sears presages the ideas of Vogt. Although lucidly written, it was published at a time when Americans were generally uninterested in Sears’s concerns about the future.
  • Symonds, Richard, and Michael Carder. The United Nations and the Population Question, 1945-1970. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973. A clear discussion of the United Nations’ concerns about overpopulation. The authors provide a history and an analysis of the issue and explain the reasons for the difficulties individual governments and the United Nations had in forcefully pursuing solutions. Superb footnotes, index. Highly recommended.

Osborn Publishes Our Plundered Planet

Leopold Publishes A Sand County Almanac

Rockefeller Founds the Population Council

Birth Control Pills Are Tested in Puerto Rico

FDA Approves the Birth Control Pill

National Council of Churches Supports Birth Control

Zero Population Growth Movement Begins

The Population Bomb Is Published

Hardin Argues for Population Control