Zero Population Growth Movement Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Kingsley Davis’s journal article calling for zero population growth crystalized and focused growing concerns about the effects of population growth in the United States and elsewhere. It helped give rise to a social and political movement that addressed those concerns. To achieve zero population growth, a number of organizations worked together in an attempt to increase public awareness and bring about policy changes and regulatory legislation.

Summary of Event

By the mid-1960’s, many Americans were expressing concerns about the social, economic, and environmental impacts of continued population growth: The post-World War II “baby boom” had swelled the U.S. population to 200 million, and all projections indicated further significant increases. High-profile population-control and environmental organizations and widely read publications by impressively credentialed academics and research teams alarmed the public with dire predictions of imminent disasters due to uncontrolled population growth in both developing and industrialized nations. Surveys showed that a majority of Americans believed that population reduction should be a domestic policy priority. Zero Population Growth movement Overpopulation Environmentalism [kw]Zero Population Growth Movement Begins (Nov., 1967) [kw]Population Growth Movement Begins, Zero (Nov., 1967) Zero Population Growth movement Overpopulation Environmentalism [g]North America;Nov., 1967: Zero Population Growth Movement Begins[09470] [g]United States;Nov., 1967: Zero Population Growth Movement Begins[09470] [c]Environmental issues;Nov., 1967: Zero Population Growth Movement Begins[09470] [c]Organizations and institutions;Nov., 1967: Zero Population Growth Movement Begins[09470] [c]Social issues and reform;Nov., 1967: Zero Population Growth Movement Begins[09470] Davis, Kingsley Ehrlich, Paul R. Brower, David Hardin, Garrett

The origin of the Zero Population Growth movement can be found in the work of sociologist and demographer Kingsley Davis. In a journal article published in November, 1967, Davis critically examined governments’ population policies and offered suggestions for addressing their shortcomings. His basic thesis was that what governments called “population control programs” were based on“family planning,” or the provision of contraceptives, and would not result in the reduction of population size. Davis questioned the assumption that distributing contraceptives would reduce population growth, because the stated goal of all such programs was to allow couples to have the number of children that they desired. Individuals’ reproductive decisions, according to Davis, were often not in the best interest of society as a whole. Moreover, other factors affecting fertility and population growth rates were being completely ignored. Davis pointed out that industrialized nations, which had allowed married women access to contraceptives for generations, were still adding significant numbers to their populations.

Davis asserted that the stated objective of population programs should be what he called “zero population growth,” because even relatively low rates of population growth would destroy the environment and deplete Earth’s resources. Population programs, moreover, would have to be multidimensional and could not avoid being politically and culturally controversial. He suggested that, while legislating compulsory fertility reduction was not feasible, governments could supplement family-planning programs by initiating measures designed to increase the average age at marriage, reduce the average number of births within marriage, and negatively sanction premarital births.

Davis’s less sensational suggestions included legalizing sterilizations and abortions; making most contraceptives available without prescriptions; changing tax laws to benefit single people, couples with few or no children, and couples in which both members worked; favoring small families in assigning public housing; and eliminating special financial aid for married students. Davis also asserted that overcoming generations of pressure upon women to bear children and encouraging equal treatment of both genders in the workplace and elsewhere would help prevent overpopulation while expanding the range of lifestyle options available to women in American society. Toward this end, he suggested that the educational system could resocialize girls and young women regarding alternatives to traditional sex-role expectations and open up educational opportunities to them, and the economic system could, similarly, eliminate career opportunity restrictions.

Biologist Paul R. Ehrlich expanded on Davis’s assertions in a December, 1967, article in which he predicted global famines, with hundreds of millions of people starving because of uncontrolled population growth. David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, convinced Ehrlich to develop his article into a book, which was published in 1968 as The Population Bomb Population Bomb, The (Ehrlich) (the term “population explosion” was coined by Davis). That same year Ehrlich cofounded Zero Population Growth (ZPG), an organization that sought to raise public awareness of the dangers of overpopulation and to lobby the government to make population-growth-reduction initiatives a policy priority in the United States.

The Zero Population Growth movement emerged very quickly. Every major environmental organization began to emphasize population control among its goals, and scores of renowned scientists’ research and publications supported Ehrlich’s assertions. Among these scientists was Garrett Hardin, author of “The Tragedy of the Commons” "Tragedy of the Commons, The" (Hardin)[Tragedy of the Commons] (1968), one of the most widely read scientific journal articles in history, which cited Davis’s 1967 essay and voiced the same concerns as did The Population Bomb. Hardin and Ehrlich are credited with being developers of contemporary neo-Malthusianism Neo-Malthusianism[NeoMalthusianism] , a theoretical perspective based, in part, on the work of Thomas Robert Malthus Malthus, Thomas Robert (a late eighteenth century population-control advocate). Feminist activist organizations embraced the movement in the name of “reproductive rights,” and religious organizations—including the Presbyterian Church and the Methodist Church—declared that the government had a moral obligation to achieve zero population growth in the United States.

The Zero Population Growth movement’s lobbying efforts produced immediate results. President Richard M. Nixon Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;environmental policy , in 1969, warned the nation of the dangers of population growth, and, shortly thereafter, Congress passed and the president signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act National Environmental Policy Act (1969) , which activists called “the environmental Magna Carta.” The first section of the act recognized the connection between population growth and environmental degradation. In 1969, Nixon also established the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, U.S. to assess the impact of continued population growth and suggest policy initiatives. However, since the commission’s suggestions for achieving zero population growth—such as adding an amendment to the Constitution prohibiting sex-based discrimination, legalizing abortion, and including sex education in public schools—were not politically feasible for Nixon, he rejected the report.

Although Congress declined to endorse a resolution stating that achieving zero population growth should be official U.S. governmental policy, the movement made real political gains in the 1970’s. The first of what became numerous environmental-protection regulations was established. The requirement that contraceptives Contraception Reproductive rights be labeled as “obscene” under the Comstock Law of 1873 was repealed by Congress in 1970. In 1972, single persons’ access to contraceptives was guaranteed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Eisenstadt v. Baird. Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) Two 1973 Supreme Court decisions, Roe v. Wade Roe v. Wade (1973) and Doe v. Bolton, Doe v. Bolton (1973) legalized abortion and elective sterilization, respectively, and stated that laws restricting access to abortion were unconstitutional. As the less controversial goals of the Zero Population Growth movement were achieved, many mainstream environmental groups backed away somewhat from the more politically incendiary elements of the movement’s agenda. Neo-Malthusians continued to press for zero population growth, however, as the key to securing a future for humankind.


The Zero Population Growth movement raised public awareness of environmental issues, which gave impetus to the growth of the global environmental movement. Its lobbying efforts and publicity campaigns contributed to population-growth reductions in both industrialized and developing nations. In the United States, for example, the average number of children per woman dropped from 3.4 in the early 1960’s to 2 in 1972 (below “replacement level fertility” for the first time).

In the industrialized world, by the 1980’s, the focus of concern had shifted from reducing population growth rates to the challenges of supporting growing elderly populations and stimulating economic growth with dwindling labor-force-age populations. This was particularly true in Europe, where average fertility was down to 1.4 children per woman by the 1990’s, resulting in a shrinking rather than growing population. The efforts of several governments, such as those of France and Japan, to use economic incentives to encourage women to have more children met with failure. Similarly, the People’s Republic of China quietly softened its “one child policy,” because it had been too effective. Russia’s government initiated an aggressive policy involving education and economic incentives to raise its fertility rate and decrease its death rate in the face of the loss of hundreds of thousands of people per year, which devastated its national economy.

The United States’ population continued to grow, however, largely as a result of a staggering rate of immigration. It officially surpassed 300 million people in October of 2006. Globally, in 2000, 1.3 billion of the world’s 1.6 billion women of childbearing age lived in developing nations with relatively high fertility and growth rates. Neo-Malthusians and their organizations deplored the human suffering, negative impact on economic development, and ecological destruction caused by uncontrolled population growth, and insisted that the most daunting question facing humankind was whether the world’s population would stabilize before environmental degradation and resource depletion rendered the globe uninhabitable. Zero Population Growth movement Overpopulation Environmentalism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olson, Mancur, and Hans H. Landsberg, eds. The No-Growth Society. New York: W. W. Norton, 1974. Fourteen essays addressing the population growth/economic development/environmental debate, including Kingsley Davis’s “follow-up” to his milestone November, 1967, article.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schoen, Robert, and Kim J. Young. “Momentum Under a Gradual Approach to Zero Growth.” Population Studies 52, no. 3 (1998): 295-299. Points out that populations with young age structures will continue growing even at “replacement level” average fertility, and that delays in achieving that average fertility level result in even more substantial population growth.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilmoth, John R., and Patrick Ball. “Arguments and Action in the Life of a Social Problem: A Case Study of ’Overpopulation,’ 1946-1990.” Social Problems 42, no. 3 (1995): 318-343. Posits that the movement to reduce population growth was prompted by contraceptive technological advancements, arguments by the contraception industry, and media articles that promoted family planning and increased governmental and public acceptance of family size limitation.

Osborn Publishes Our Plundered Planet

Vogt’s Road to Survival Warns of Overpopulation

Brower Becomes Executive Director of the Sierra Club

Rockefeller Founds the Population Council

Mumford Warns of the Dangers of Growing Cities

Green Revolution

The Population Bomb Is Published

Hardin Argues for Population Control

National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 Is Signed

Categories: History