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The present article aims to analyse the role played by US neo-Malthusians in the construction of overfishing as a global environmental issue. Its main argument is that this group of thinkers and militants made decisive contributions, between the 1950s and 1970s, to the formulation and dissemination of the diagnosis of a global fisheries crisis threatening the planet's stocks. These warnings about a global fishing crisis paved the way for present-day concerns about a planetary decline of marine life. By assessing the role played by the neo-Malthusians, this article analyses the history of the post-Second World War debates on ocean productivity, ‘unconventional’ fisheries, and fisheries exhaustion, showing how they were marked by highly optimistic expectations regarding the exploitation of the ‘ocean frontier’. For the neo-Malthusians, it was crucial to discredit this cornucopian vision of the ocean as a horn of plenty, itself a result of contemporaneous euphoria in the world of industrial fishing. In conclusion, this article sheds new light on the history of debates about (over)population and world resources, and on the rise of an ‘environmentalism of the oceans’ in the second half of the twentieth century.

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Corresponding author

Centre de Recherches Historiques, EHESS, 54 Boulevard Raspail, 75006


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This research was supported by the French National Research Agency project GOVENPRO (ANR-14-CE03-0003). It is part of a long-term project on the rise of a ‘blue environmentalism’ in the second half of the twentieth century. I am grateful to Alison Bashford and Duncan Kelly for their helpful comments and suggestions.



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1 Bashford, Alison, Global population: history, geopolitics, and life on Earth (New York, NY, 2014), pp. 355–6.

2 Van Munster, Rens and Sylvest, Casper, eds., The politics of globality since 1945: assembling the planet (London and New York, NY, 2016); Warde, Paul and Sörlin, Sverker, ‘Expertise for the future: the emergence of environmental prediction c. 1920–1970’, in Andersson, Jenny and Rindzevičiūtė, Eglė, eds., The struggle for the long-term in transnational science and politics: forging the future (New York, NY, and London, 2015), pp. 3862.

3 Cloud, John and Reppy, Judith, eds., Social Studies of Science, 33 (2003), special issue ‘Earth sciences in the Cold War’; Cloud, John, ‘Imaging the world in a barrel: CORONA and the clandestine convergence of the earth sciences’, Social Studies of Science, 31 (2001), pp. 231–51; Hamblin, Jacob, Oceanographers and the Cold War: disciples of marine science (Seattle, WA, and London, 2005); Weart, Spencer R., The discovery of global warming (Cambridge, MA, 2003); Edwards, Paul, A vast machine: computer models, climate data, and the politics of global warming (Cambridge, MA, 2010).

4 This is the ‘great acceleration’ described by earth-science specialists: see Steffen, Will et al. , ‘The trajectory of the Anthropocene: the great acceleration’, Anthropocene Review, 2 (2015), pp. 8198. For a recent historical analysis of this change of scale, see McNeill, John R. and Engelke, Peter, The great acceleration: an environmental history of the Anthropocene since 1945 (Cambridge, MA, 2016).

5 Andersson and Rindzevičiūtė, eds., The struggle for the long-term; Andersson, Jenny, ‘The great future debate and the struggle for the world’, American Historical Review, 117 (2012), pp. 1411–30.

6 Jenny Andersson and Sibylle Duhautois, ‘Future of mankind: the emergence of the global future’, in Van Munster and Sylvest, eds., The politics of globality since 1945, pp. 106–25.

7 For an overview, see Weart, Spencer R., The rise of nuclear fear (Cambridge, MA, 2012).

8 Higuchi, Toshihiro, ‘Atmospheric nuclear weapons testing and the debate on risk knowledge in Cold War America, 1945–1963’, in McNeill, John R. and Unger, Corinna R., eds., Environmental histories of the Cold War (Washington, DC, 2010), pp. 301–22; Lutts, Ralph H., ‘Chemical fallout: Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, radioactive fallout, and the environmental movement’, Environmental Review, 9 (1985), pp. 210–25; Hamblin, Jacob, Poison in the well: radioactive waste in the oceans at the dawn of the nuclear age (New York, NY, 2008).

9 Dörries, Matthias, ‘The politics of atmospheric sciences: “nuclear winter” and global climate change’, Osiris, 26 (2011), pp. 198223; Masco, Joseph, ‘Bad weather: on planetary crisis’, Social Studies of Science, 40 (2010), pp. 740. For a popular treatment, see Jill Lepore, ‘The atomic origins of climate science: how arguments about nuclear weapons shaped the debate over global warming’, New Yorker, 30 Jan. 2017.

10 Bashford, Global population; Bashford, Alison, ‘Population, geopolitics and international organizations in the mid-twentieth century’, Journal of World History, 19 (2008), pp. 327–47; Bashford, Alison, ‘Nation, empire, globe: the spaces of population debate in the interwar years’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 49 (2007), pp. 170201. On interwar Malthusianism, see also Cushman, Gregory T., Guano and the opening of the Pacific world: a global ecological history (New York, NY, 2013), pp. 189204.

11 Connelly, Matthew, Fatal misconception: the struggle to control world population (Cambridge, MA, 2010); Robertson, Thomas, The Malthusian moment: global population growth and the birth of American environmentalism (New Brunswick, NJ, 2012); Robertson, Thomas, ‘“This is American Earth”: American empire, the Cold War, and American environmentalism’, Diplomatic History, 32 (2008), pp. 561–84; Robertson, Thomas, ‘Total war and the total environment: Fairfield Osborn, William Vogt and the birth of global ecology’, Environmental History, 17 (2012), pp. 336–64. On post-war US Malthusianism, see also Perkins, John H., Geopolitics and the green revolution: wheat, genes, and the Cold War (New York, NY, 1997); Linnér, Björn-Ola, The return of Malthus: environmentalism and post-war population-resource crises (Isle of Harris, 2003); Locher, Fabien, ‘Cold War pastures: Garrett Hardin and the tragedy of the commons’, Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine, 60 (2013), pp. 736.

12 See for instance the contributions in the recent volume by Mayhew, Robert J., New perspectives on Malthus (Cambridge, 2016).

13 See Robertson, The Malthusian moment, pp. 4–12.

14 Garrett Hardin has even republished Malthus's texts in his volume Population, evolution and birth control: a collage of controversial ideas (San Francisco, CA, 1969), pp. 416, 137–8, 186–7.

15 Warde and Sörlin, ‘Expertise for the future’, p. 50.

16 One can find some elements, however, in McCormick, John, Reclaiming paradise: the global environmental movement (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN, 1991), pp. 7980, and in Simmons, Ian G., Environmental history (Oxford, 1993), pp. 111–14.

17 Rothman, Hal K., The greening of a nation? Environmentalism in the United States since 1945 (Fort Worth, TX, 1998), pp. 101–5; Rome, Adam, The genius of Earth Day: how a 1970 teach-in unexpectedly made the first green generation (New York, NY, 2014), pp. 33, 42, 67; John McCormick, Reclaiming paradise, pp. 57–9, 114–16; Hays, Samuel P., Beauty, health and permanence: environmental politics in the United States, 1955–1985 (Cambridge, MA, 1993), pp. 448–53; Robertson, The Malthusian moment, pp. 164–8.

18 Dorsey, Kurkpatrick, Whales and nations: environmental diplomacy on the high seas (Seattle, WA, and London, 2013), pp. 207–42; Hays, Beauty, health and permanence, pp. 113–15; Radkau, Joachim, Nature and power: a global history of the environment (New York, NY, 2008), p. 294; Nash, Roderick, The rights of nature: a history of environmental ethics (Madison, WI, 1989), pp. 172–82.

19 Finley, Carmel, All the fish in the sea: maximum sustained yield and the failure of fisheries management (Chicago, IL, 2011), and All the boats on the ocean: how government subsidies led to global overfishing (Chicago, IL, 2017); Payne, Brian J., Fishing a borderless sea: environmental territorialism in the North Atlantic, 1818–1910 (East Lansing, MI, 2010); Bolster, Jeffrey, The mortal sea: fishing the Atlantic in the age of sail (Cambridge, MA, 2012). A classic here is McEvoy, Arthur, The fisherman's problem: ecology and law in the California fisheries, 1850–1980 (Cambridge, 1986).

20 Paul R. Ehrlich, ‘The food from the sea myth: the natural history of a red herring’, speech presented to the Commonwealth Club of California on Friday, 21 Apr. 1967. Paul Ehrlich papers, box 7, folder 2, Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University. Thanks to archivist Tim Noakes for allowing me to access this document.

21 Ehrlich, Paul, The population bomb (New York, NY, 1968). On the history of neo-Malthusianism in post-First World USA, see Robertson, The Malthusian moment.

22 Robertson, The Malthusian moment, pp. 135–6.

23 Paul R. Erhlich and Anne H. Ehrlich, ‘The food-from-the-sea myth’, Saturday Review, 4 Apr. 1970, pp. 53–5, 64–5.

24 Ibid., p. 6.

25 Newbold, Heather, ed., Life stories: world-renowned scientists reflect on their lives and on the future of life on Earth (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, 2000), p. 19.

26 Swartz, Wilf et al. , ‘The spatial expansion and ecological footprint of fisheries (1950 to present)’, PloS ONE, 5 (2010), pp. 16.

27 Finley, All the fish in the sea.

28 (accessed 14 Mar. 2017).

29 Alverson, Dayton L. and Wilimovsky, Norman J., ‘Prospective developments in the harvesting of marine fishes’, in Modern fishing gear of the world 2 (London, 1964), pp. 583–9.

30 Sprague, Lucian M. and Arnold, John H., ‘Trends in use and prospects for the future harvest of world fisheries resources’, Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society, 49 (1972), pp. 345A350A.

31 Donovan B. Finn, ‘L'essor mondial de la pêche’, Le Courrier de l'UNESCO (July–Aug. 1960), pp. 56–8.

32 Pariser, Ernst R. et al. , Fish protein concentrate: panacea for protein malnutrition? (Cambridge, MA, 1978).

33 Among the most enthusiastic authors, see Idyll, Clarence P., The sea against hunger (New York, NY, 1970), pp. 128–44.

34 See for example David Sturgeon, ‘The nutrition crunch: a world view’, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (Oct. 1973), p. 53.

35 Sprague and Arnold, ‘Trends in use and prospects’.

36 Hamblin, Oceanographers and the Cold War.

37 On the Sea Lab programme, see Hellwarth, Ben, Sealab: America's forgotten quest to live and work on the ocean floor (New York, NY, 2012).

38 Rozwadowski, Helen M., ‘Engineering, imagination, and industry: Scripps Island and dreams for ocean science in the 1960s’, in Rozwadowski, Helen M. and van Keuren, David K., eds., The machine in Neptune's garden: historical perspectives on technology and the marine environment (Sagamore Beach, MA, 2004), pp. 315–53.

39 Hardy, Alister, The open sea: its natural history (Boston, MA, 1956), p. 303.

40 New antibiotics; minerals extracted from the sea; fresh water produced through desalinization.

41 Osborn, Fairfield, The limits of the earth (Boston, MA, 1953).

42 Osborn, Fairfield, Our plundered planet (London, 1948).

43 Vogt, William, Road to survival (New York, NY, 1948).

44 Nothing either in the third classic Burch, Guy Irving and Pendell, Elmer, Population roads to peace or war (Washington, DC, 1945).

45 Cushman, Guano and the opening of the Pacific world, pp. 189–204.

46 Carson, Rachel, Silent spring (Boston, MA, 1962).

47 Carson, Rachel, The sea around us (New York, NY, 1951), p. 18.

48 Lutts, ‘Chemical fallout’, pp. 210–25.

49 This question is raised in the 1961 edition of The sea around us. See also Carson, Rachel, ‘The pollution of our environment’ (1963), in Lear, Linda, ed., Lost woods: the discovered writing of Rachel Carson (Boston, MA, 1998), section 30.

50 ‘The ocean and a hungry world’, unpublished draft, box 7, Rachel Carson papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University.

51 Osborn, The limits of the earth, p. 173.

52 Ordway, Samuel H., Resources and the American dream: including a theory of the limit of growth (New York, NY, 1953), pp. 19, 25.

53 Walford, Lionel A., Living resources of the sea: opportunities for research and expansion: a Conservation Foundation study (New York, NY, 1958).

54 We have consulted the French edition: Castro, Josué de, Géopolitique de la faim (Paris, 1952).

55 Ibid., pp. 312–14.

56 Resources for freedom (5 vols., Washington, DC, 1952).

57 Ibid., iv, pp. 115–26.

58 Francis Minot, ‘To increase food supply: improvement of world fisheries is believed a necessary step’, New York Times, 9 Jan. 1952; ‘World fish production: development of marine resources to augment food supply urged’, New York Times, 18 Jan. 1953.

59 Daniel, Hawthorne and Minot, Francis, The inexhaustible sea (London, 1954).

60 Ibid., p. 19.

61 Ibid., p. 92.

62 Meadows, Donella H. et al. , The limits to growth: a report for the Club of Rome's project on the predicament of mankind (New York, NY, 1972), p. 151.

63 William, and Paddock, Paul, Hungry nations (Boston, MA, 1964), pp. 313–14; Ehrlich, Paul R., Ehrlich, Anne H., and Holdren, John P., Global ecology: problems and solutions (San Francisco, CA, 1973), pp. 102–4; Brown, Lester, The twenty-ninth day: accommodating human needs and numbers to the Earth's resources (New York, NY, 1978), pp. 1920.

64 Brown, Lester et al. , Twenty-two dimensions of the population problem (Washington, DC, 1976), pp. 1314.

65 Ibid., p. 13; and Paddock and Paddock, Hungry nations, pp. 313–14.

66 Pauly, Daniel, ‘One hundred million tonnes of fish, and fisheries research’, Fisheries Research, 25 (1996), pp. 2538.

67 Erhlich and Ehrlich, ‘The food-from-the-sea myth’, p. 53; Ehrlich, Ehrlich, and Holdren, Global ecology, p. 97. Ehrlich also re-edited Ryther's article, Holdren, John P. and Ehrlich, Paul: Global ecology. readings toward a rational strategy for man (New York, NY, 1971), pp. 30–8.

68 Ryther, John H., ‘Photosynthesis and fish production in the sea’, Science, 166 (1969), pp. 72–6.

69 Gulland, John A., ‘Summary’, in Gulland, John A., ed., The fish resources of the ocean (West Byfleet, 1970), pp. 246–55.

70 Sprague and Arnold, ‘Trends in use and prospects’; Idyll, The sea against hunger.

71 The first volume was published in 1948: Yearbook of fisheries statistics, 1947. Production and fishing craft (Washington, DC, 1948).

72 Brown, Lester, The interdependence of nations (New York, NY, 1972), p. 28; Brown et al., Twenty-two dimensions of the population problem, pp. 11–12; Brown, The twenty-ninth day, pp. 17–18.

73 Finley, All the fish in the sea, pp. 118, 123–8.

74 Borgström is Swedish but taught at the University of Michigan. For his career path, see Linnér, The return of Malthus.

75 Borgström, Georg, The hungry planet: the modern world at the edge of famine (New York, NY, 1970), pp. 31–5.

76 Borgström, Georg, The food and people dilemna (North Scituate, MA, 1973), pp. 34–6.

77 National Staff of Environmental Action, ed., Earth Day: the beginning (New York, NY, 1970).

78 Hardin, Garrett, ‘The tragedy of the commons’, Science, 162 (1968), pp. 1243–8.

79 Among the solutions excluded de facto: community governance – a conclusion that was challenged, in the 1970s, by anthropologists, historians, and political scientists at the origin of the contemporary ‘commons paradigm’. Locher, Fabien, ‘Third World pastures: the historical roots of the commons paradigm (1965–1990)’, Quaderni Storici, 1 (2016), pp. 303–33.

80 Locher, ‘Cold War pastures’, pp. 7–36.

81 Hardin, ‘The tragedy of the commons’, p. 1245.

82 Hardin, Garrett, Exploring new ethics for survival: the voyage of the spaceship Beagle (New York, NY, 1972), pp. 120–2.

83 Locher, ‘Cold War pastures’, p. 29.

84 Gordon, H. Scott, ‘The economic theory of a common-property resource: the fishery’, Journal of Political Economy, 62 (1954), pp. 124–42.

85 Rymes, Thomas K., ed., Welfare, property rights and economic policy: essays and tributes in Honour of H. Scott Gordon (Ottawa, ON, 1991).

86 Gordon, H. Scott, The fishing industry of Prince Edward Island (Ottawa, ON, 1952).

87 Scott, Anthony, ‘The pedigree of fishery economics’, Marine Resource Economics, 26 (2011), pp. 7585.

88 Turvey, Ralph and Wiseman, Jack, eds., The economics of fisheries (Rome, 1957).

89 Smith, Vernon L., ‘Economics of production from natural resources’, American Economic Review, 58 (1968), pp. 409–31.

90 Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H., Population, resources, environment (San Francisco, CA, 1970), p. 315.

91 Ross, William M., ‘The management of international common property resources’, Geographical Review, 61 (1971), p. 337.

92 There are also other rarer variants such as ‘earthly commons’. Brown, The twenty-ninth day, p. 17.

93 See notably Caldwell, Lynton K., In defense of Earth: international protection of the biosphere (Bloomington, IN, and London, 1972), pp. 134–40, 180–4.

94 The bibliography on this theme is huge. For a good introduction, see Oda, Shigeru, Fifty years of the law of the sea (The Hague, 2003).

95 Borgese, Elisabeth Mann, The ocean regime: a suggested statute for the peaceful uses of the high seas and the sea-bed beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (Los Angeles, CA, 1968).

96 World Commission on Environment and Development, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: our common future (Oxford, 1987), ch. 10.

97 Cleveland, Harland, ed., The global commons: policy for the planet (Lanham, MD, and London, 1990).

98 Cosgrove, Denis, Apollo's eye: a cartographic genealogy of the Earth in the Western imagination (Baltimore, MD, 2001); Jasanoff, Sheila, ‘Image and imagination: the formation of global environmental consciousness’, in Edwards, Paul and Miller, Clark, eds., Changing the atmosphere: expert knowledge and environmental governance (Cambridge, MA, 2001), pp. 309–37; Grevsmühl, Sebastian, La Terre vue d'en haut: l'invention de l'environnement global (Paris, 2014).

99 Harrison, Harry, Make room! Make room! (New York, NY, 1966).

This research was supported by the French National Research Agency project GOVENPRO (ANR-14-CE03-0003). It is part of a long-term project on the rise of a ‘blue environmentalism’ in the second half of the twentieth century. I am grateful to Alison Bashford and Duncan Kelly for their helpful comments and suggestions.

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