There’s a narrative developing on the right about Barack Obama’s new Science and Technology czar, John Holdren, that posits him as a cross between Aldous Huxley, L. Ron Hubbard, and their own nightmare vision of Al Gore.
At issue are excerpts from a 1977 book, “Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment,” which was co-written by Holdren with Anne H. Ehrlich and Paul R. Ehrlich. Excerpts from the book are being touted by Michelle Malkin, and a host of other right-wing blogs. This is the “liftoff” phase of a new meme-let, part of the broader “WTF with all the czars?” narrative. (For now, I won’t get into why they decided to use “Czars” as the title. Why not “Pharoahs” or “Capos?” Both cooler.)
Moe Lane zeroes in in a passage that he says cuts at both sides of the aisle:
Moe Lane: This was written by John Holdren, Obama Science Czar, in 1977:
Individual rights. Individual rights must be balanced against the power of the government to control human reproduction. Some people—respected legislators, judges, and lawyers included—have viewed the right to have children as a fundamental and inalienable right. Yet neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution mentions a right to reproduce. Nor does the UN Charter describe such a right, although a resolution of the United Nations affirms the “right responsibly to choose” the number and spacing of children (our emphasis). In the United States, individuals have a constitutional right to privacy and it has been held that the right to privacy includes the right to choose whether or not to have children, at least to the extent that a woman has a right to choose not to have children. But the right is not unlimited. Where the society has a “compelling, subordinating interest” in regulating population size, the right of the individual may be curtailed. If society’s survival depended on having more children, women could he required to bear children, just as men can constitutionally be required to serve in the armed forces. Similarly, given a crisis caused by overpopulation, reasonably necessary laws to control excessive reproduction could be enacted.
It is often argued that the right to have children is so personal that the government should not regulate it. In an ideal society, no doubt the state should leave family size and composition solely to the desires of the parents. In today’s world, however, the number of children in a family is a matter of profound public concern. The law regulates other highly personal matters. For example, no one may lawfully have more than one spouse at a time. Why should the law not be able to prevent a person from having more than two children?
Moe Lane: This is, of course, appalling to any person who identifies as ‘pro-life’ – but it should be even more appalling to any person who identifies as ‘pro-choice.’ It is simply impossible to reconcile the position that the government may regulate the number of children with the position that a woman has a ‘fundamental right to choose’ whether or not to have an abortion.
As it happens, this book was already on my radar when I read Moe’s piece, and while I have some concerns, I like his approach much more than Malkin’s, which confers Holdren’s alleged positions on me and my kind.
If the excerpts outlined in Malkin’s and Lane’s source article are to be believed, Holdren would seem an unquestionably bad choice to run the country’s science policy. When this article was pointed out to me by a Twitter follower, my reaction was very similar to Moe’s, so I don’t doubt that he’s arguing in good faith. The author of the source article takes great pains to make it seem as though he is, as well, but that’s where my red flags go up.
My first concern is that the cited work, from 1977, is actually a later edition of a book published in 1972, of which Holdren was not a co-author. This calls into question whether any of these passages were even partially Holdren’s own words. Even if the cited passages are new to the 1977 edition, Holdren’s role is unclear, and may have been simply that of researcher rather than author of these conclusions.
That being said, even if Holdren didn’t write the cited passages himself, as a co-author of the 1977 edition, he certainly deserves to be asked if he agrees with them, and why he would put his name on the book if he did not. Unless…
My second major concern is the possibility that these passages, while cold, clinical, and even ghoulish to the layperson, are cautionary in nature. The author of the source article pretends to address this, by posting “extended quotes, but what he calls “hiding behind the passive voice” could very likely be the appropriate use of the passive voice to illustrate the consequences of failing to address the population problem. Nothing in the “extended quote” mitigates this concern. In fact, they support this notion:
Compulsory control of family size is an unpalatable idea, but the alternatives may be much more horrifying. As those alternatives become clearer to an increasing number of people in the 1980s, they may begin demanding such control. A far better choice, in our view, is to expand the use of milder methods of influencing family size preferences while redoubling efforts to ensure 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 against population growth, perhaps the need for the more extreme involuntary or repressive measures can be averted in most countries. (emphasis mine)
Additionally, in the book’s forward, the authors themselves sound a cautionary note about the context of their work:
We have tried throughout the book to state clearly where we stand on various matters of controversy. Our apprehension about the course of humanity expressed in Population, Resources, Environment and Human Ecology has deepened; if there is another edition of Ecoscience, we hope that events will then permit a more optimistic evaluation.
They are certainly setting a cautionary tone. The fact that the author of the source article provides full-page scans for the cited passages seems impressive, until you note that the book is 1,052 pages long. All it takes is a paragraph in the intro to a chapter to completely blow these excerpts away, at least in terms of assigning them to Holdren as policy beliefs.
This still leaves open the merits of the work as scientific prediction, a weaker cudgel against Holdren, especially given the context of the time. Stipulating that the guy was a lousy scientist in 1977 doesn’t make him a bad science czar.
I’m trying to get ahold of a digital copy of the book, so I can evaluate it for myself. If the passages cited aren’t disclaimed as cautionary, then this is at least worth asking about, notwithstanding the other objections I have. Until then, I’m going to reserve judgment, and keep my ear to the ground.