Does President Barack Obama believe economic and population growth ought to be stopped because they imperil the planet and that wealth should be redistributed both within the United States and among nations? Or does he think such a view is ludicrous?
He does not think it is ludicrous; a man who has promoted zero growth and global wealth redistribution for years is now one of Obama’s top advisers.
In December, Obama announced he was naming John P. Holdren, director of the Woods Hole Research Center, to run the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Obama expressed admiration for Holdren’s work and said, "I look forward to his wise counsel in the years ahead."
So, what wise counsel had Holdren given in the past?
His curriculum vitae lists as one of his "Recent publications" an essay entitled "The Meaning of Sustainability: Biogeophysical Aspects." Co-authored by Paul Ehrlich and Gretchen Daily of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford, this essay served as the first chapter in a 1995 book — "Defining and Measuring Sustainability: The Biogeophysical Foundations" — published by the World Bank.
The book is posted as a PDF on the World Bank’s Web site.
"We think development ought to be understood to mean progress toward alleviating the main ills that undermine human well-being," Holdren, Ehrlich and Daily wrote in this essay.
Table 1-1 of the essay lists both "excessive population growth" and "maldistribution of consumption and investment" as "driving forces" behind these "ills."
"Excessive population growth," the authors assert, is "a condition now prevailing almost everywhere."
Table 1-2 of the essay lists "Requirements for Sustainable Improvements in Well-being." These include "reduced disparities within and between countries."
"The large gaps between rich and poor that characterize income distribution within and between countries today are incompatible with social stability and with cooperative approaches to achieving environmental sustainability," the authors explain.
Table 1-1 lists among the "underlying human frailties" causing the ills of mankind "greed, selfishness, intolerance and shortsightedness." These vices, they say, "collectively have been elevated by conservative political doctrine and practice (above all in the United States in 1980-92) to the status of a credo."
The authors present a formula for understanding ecological "damage," which they say "means reduced length or quality of life for the present generation or future generations." This doomsday formula is: "Damage = population x economic activity per person (affluence) x resource use per economic activity (resources) x stress on the environment per resource use (technology) x damage per stress (susceptibility)."
Their application of this formula rejects the notion that man, through his wit, can not only increase individual productivity and technological efficiency but also find new resources to fuel them.
For example, how much potential water lingers in the universe? Well, how much hydrogen and oxygen did God create?
Holdren and co-authors claim to "know for certain" such thinking is folly.
"We know for certain, for example, that: No form of material growth (including population growth) other than asymptotic growth, is sustainable," they say. "Many of the practices inadequately supporting today’s population of 5.5 billion people are unsustainable; and at the sustainability limit, there will be a trade-off between population and energy-matter throughput per person, hence, ultimately, between economic activity per person and well-being per person.
"This is enough," they write, "to say quite a lot about what needs to be faced up to eventually (a world of zero net physical growth), what should be done now (change unsustainable practices, reduce excessive material consumption, slow down population growth), and what the penalty will be for postponing attention to population limitation (lower well-being per person)."
By the time Holdren and his co-authors wrote those words, he had been sounding the same alarm for more than two decades.
"Compulsory control of family size is an unpalatable idea, but the alternatives may be much more horrifying," Holdren, Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich wrote on Page 256 of their 1973 book, "Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions."
"A far better choice, in our view," they wrote, "is to begin now with milder methods of influencing family size preferences, while ensuring that the means of birth control, including abortion and sterilization, are accessible to every human being on Earth within the shortest possible time. If effective action is taken promptly, perhaps the need for involuntary or repressive measures can be averted."
Within this apocalyptic vision, curbing economic growth and redistributing wealth become duties.
"A massive campaign must be launched to restore a high-quality environment in North America and to de-develop the United States," Holdren and the Ehrlichs wrote in the conclusion of "Human Ecology." "The need for de-development presents our economists with a major challenge. They must design a stable, low-consumption economy in which there is a much more equitable distribution of wealth than in the present one. Redistribution of wealth both within and among nations is absolutely essential, if a decent life is to be provided to every human being."
Those are the words of a man who now serves in the White House, providing "wise counsel" to a president seeking to restructure the entire U.S. health care system.