The Magazine

Two Miserable Decades

Don’t worry, it was even worse in the 1970s. Or was it?

Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Mind you, the kids had a lot to be angry about. During the 1970s their families were falling apart. Cohabitation, which only a few years before had been looked down on as “living in sin,” began migrating upward from the lower socioeconomic rungs during the 1960s. In the ’70s it became so commonplace that by the end of the decade nearly half of all couples who got married had lived together first. Of course, lots of couples never bothered to marry at all—during the ’70s the percentage of men and women tying the knot dropped by roughly 10 percent. And marriage was becoming an increasingly frail institution. In 1960 there were about 400,000 divorces annually. By 1979, the number was just shy of 1.2 million.

(All of this leaves aside abortion. In 1974, the year after Roe v. Wade made it every woman’s right, there were 900,000 abortions in America; five years later the number was 1.5 million, a 66 percent increase.)

The prevailing sense one gets is of a civilization unspooling. Even the environment seemed on the brink of calamity, with smog descending on Los Angeles and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River catching fire, not to mention the toxic waste scandal at Love Canal, or the floating garbage barge outside of New York City, or the scare at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. This witch’s brew conjured the return of neo-Malthusian thinking about the dangers of “overpopulation,” which came to dominate both public discourse and public policy. (More on this in a moment.)

If people weren’t worrying about overpopulation, it was something else; a constant cloud of eschatological alarm loomed over the decade. A new Ice Age was coming to end our way of life—that is, if the comet Kohoutek or the killer bees that were en route from Mexico didn’t wipe us out first. On the New York Times op-ed page, editorial board member William Shannon wrote about “a new spirit of nihilism” and observed—with only a slight flourish—that “there are fleeting moments when the public scene recalls the Weimar Republic of 1932-33.”

Yet the most disconcerting aspect of the ’70s was the degree to which elite thinking suggested that the world had temporarily lost its mind. For instance, in 1972, the Supreme Court heard a case in which the Sierra Club attempted to prevent the Forest Service from allowing development of a valley near Sequoia National Park, which hinged on the technical question of whether or not the plaintiffs had standing to sue. Having liberalized standing in several cases, the High Court finally drew a line and denied it to the Sierra Club.

In a dissenting opinion, William O. Douglas offered not only that the Sierra Club should have standing, but that legal standing ought to be granted to inanimate objects, too:

The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it. The people who have a meaningful relation to that body of water .  .  . must be able to speak for the values which the river represents and which are threatened with destruction.

This was legal reasoning by a justice of the Supreme Court in the 1970s.

For another example, consider the sudden stardom of Paul Ehrlich. In 1968, Ehrlich, a Stanford University entomologist specializing in butterflies, published The Population Bomb, a book claiming that overpopulation would cause worldwide cataclysm, the deaths of “hundreds of millions,” and the end of human civilization—all within a year or three.

Ehrlich pitched all sorts of public policy ideas. He worked with legislators in the California state assembly to engineer a bill outlawing the internal combustion engine. (This bill actually passed the assembly before the senate killed it.) He proposed eliminating Monday holidays, so as to discourage people from traveling on long weekends and conserve precious resources. He said that the “freedom to breed is intolerable” and advocated coercive government measures to prevent people from having children. Some of these measures were soft—he proposed a luxury tax on diapers, bottles, and other baby paraphernalia. Others were firmer—he suggested the government should quietly add antifertility drugs to the water supply to prevent couples from conceiving.

Paul Ehrlich wasn’t some rogue crackpot; he was a notable personage. His book sold millions of copies, and he appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson at least 20 times. He was routinely courted by politicians and had the ear of three presidents, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter—all of whom crafted policies around his ideas.

In the 1970s, the public square became indistinguishable from an asylum.



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