Date: 15 January 2013

This week on Ecotopia we’ll be returning to a topic that is of deep concern to environmentalists and activists everywhere, but we’ll be focusing on it from the perspective of U.S. history. Our guest will be Derek Hoff, professor of history at Kansas State University, who has written THE STATE AND THE STORK, which looks at population debates and public policy from colonial times to the present.

Listen to the Program

Our Conversation with Derek Hoff

You are listening to Ecotopia on KZFR, exploring ecosystems: environmental, social, technological. Tonight our topic is the intriguing one of “The State and the Stork,” taken from the title of our guest’s new book that explores “the population debate and policy making in US history.” On the phone with is Derek Hoff, who is a political and economic historian at Kansas State University.

–In the introduction to your book, you say that “a surprisingly large and varied number of Americans have perceived population trends as snakes in the garden.” Please explain that statement and how it lead to the focus of your book. which garden? which snakes? [Let’s emphasize in the discussion that you are focusing on American history, though we’ll no doubt talk about global issues along the way.]

–You also note early in the book that attitudes toward population—social, economic, and political—have fluctuated over the times. What are some of the major theories of population that you’ve discovered? [limiting growth, quality of life, people as a cash crop]

–In this first part of the interview, we thought we’d focus on more distant U.S. history. What, for example, were the attitudes of the founders toward population? How did views evolve in early Republic, especially after Thomas Malthus’s essay on population came out?

–How did population issues intersect with the slavery debate? [the demographics of slavery, the question of slavery, westward expansion, Reconstruction, voting rights].

–You write about agrarian America and the effects on the U.S. of Europe’s industrial revolution. With population growth and the development of the U.S. came cities, in some ways validating the Malthusian thesis … hotbeds of disease and poverty and crime. How did the growth of the cities fit affect population policy? How did immigration and cheap labor fit in?

–You trace “the birth of the modern population debate” to the late 19th century and the pre-WW II period. How did it come to be framed in the popular mind during those times? How about in the minds of economists? [Keynesian economic theory and influence.]

–Before we turn to the post-WWII era, we’d like to approach a subject that we could spend hours on: 20th century exclusion, racism, eugenics. We’d like to ask about just one element that particularly interests us: eugenics. Where did this movement come from and how did it affect public policy?

–In the first part of the program, you spoke with us about population and policy through the first half of the 20th century. Now we hit the baby boomers, a good many of them among our listeners (with their hearing aids turned up). The boom was linked to postwar prosperity and new views of the relationship between population and the economy. Please tell us about that.

–You write that the U.S. and global baby booms also raised fears of overpopulation here and abroad. This seems to have been a period of increased governmental efforts to control population via international organizations as well as such programs such as LBJ’s Great Society. What was happening, and how successful were governmental agencies in getting involved in family planning?

–In your chapter on “Diffusing the Population Bomb,” you discuss the Zero Population Growth movement as well as conservative and liberal views of population. Please tell us a little about the right and the left and their conflicting yet evolving views of fertility rates.

–Your closing chapter focuses on “Population Aged,” they greying of the baby boomers. What do you see as interconnections among population and aging issues, including such topics as Social Security and taxation policies?

–Near the end of the book, you note that “…emphasis on the aging of the population, however justified by spiraling deficits, has encouraged policy makers to think of babies as future taxpayers rather than as potential environmental or social externalities.” Our impossibly broad closing question for you: What do you think the next generation will say and do about population and public policy?

The State and the Stork is published by the University of Chicago Press. You can learn more about the book at <> and you can learn more about Derek and his work at the Kansas State history department website <>