30 Years of ZPG
Our History, as written in 1998

The_Population_BombThis year marks ZPG’s 30th anniversary. Looking back, what can we report? Well, ZPG has grown and grown! It’s been 200 years since Thomas Malthus wrote his famous First Essay on Population, and 30 years since Dr. Paul Ehrlich’s path breaking The Population Bomb. Both Malthus’ pamphlet and Ehrlich’s book were best sellers after their publication and people continue to request both books. The notion of overpopulation clearly attracted attention and ZPG’s long-lived growth proves that the interest in population and overpopulation persists. ZPG’s long life also proves that there are people willing to support a continually evolving movement that has always had a message of action and of hope: action to change the population trends and hope that these changes will not come too late.

The Original Message

ZPG’s early mission was relatively straightforward: raise public awareness of the link between population growth and environmental degradation and, in turn, encourage people to have smaller families. Thus, the corresponding message was simple: Stop at Two. ZPG’s focus concentrated on reducing desired family size and ensuring the means and rights of human reproduction.

In the late 60’s in America, “revolutionary” would be an apt description of someone daring enough to talk about reproductive rights. Large families were generally considered to be desirable and comprised the norm. But along came Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking and best-selling Silent Spring, which revealed the dangers of chemical pollution. Environmental disasters seemed to be on the increase; for example, Lake Erie was declared a “dying sinkhole.” Environmental awareness began to enter the public consciousness. In the summer of 1969, as the highly polluted Cuyahoga River near Cleveland burst into flames, there seemed to be an apocalyptic urgency to the soon-to-be-called “ environmental cause.” Bill Reyerson, founder of the first campus chapter of ZPG, described the reaction to the burning rivers and other catastrophes. “It sent shock waves through the country,” he remembered. “People realized that if the country was so polluted that rivers could burn, we had a serious problem.”

As many Americans became aware of environmental problems, ZPG activists worked to show the environment’s link with population. They sought to challenge and change prevailing attitudes toward family size using slogans ranging from the funny:

The pill in time saves nine!
This line is too long. Join ZPG!

To the confusing:

Stop Pop Hop Ergo Grow Zero

Bumper stickers, posters, public service announcements, and magazine advertisements urged people to adopt the ZPG philosophy and to join the organization. And, amazingly, the idiosyncratic campaign succeeded beyond all expectations. According to some reports, the years between 1969 and 1972 saw the membership of ZPG briefly blossom to more than 35,000 members.

But there was more to convincing people to choose smaller families than urging them to “just have two” children. Ensuring that they had access to the means to choose the size of their families was essential to this choice. Historically, until the 1965 Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut, married couples were not guaranteed the right to use contraceptives. Even after that decision, contraceptives continued to be illegal for unmarried people. The Comstock Laws of 1873, which prohibited the dissemination and mailing of contraceptives under federal anti-obscenity legislation, still held. Abortion was illegal in some states. Elective sterilization was almost impossible to obtain. To fight these problems, ZPG joined forces with other organizations such as National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood of America, the American Civil Liberties Union, and numerous others to convince politicians of the need for change.

Times Change

Legislative change came relatively quickly. Congress re-wrote the federal Comstock laws in 1970, formally removing the obscenity label from contraceptives. Two years later, the Supreme Court released the Eisenstadt v. Baird decision, extending contraceptive rights to the unmarried. In 1973, the critical Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion and elective sterilization and its companion opinion, Doe v. Bolton, declared policies designed to restrict access to abortion unconstitutional. With the help of such groups as ZPG, and with the leadership of “women’s liberation” organizations, the idea of “ reproductive rights” was now part of the national discourse. And politicians started taking a special interest in population issues.

Amazing changes resulted. The total fertility rate in the U.S. dropped from an average of 3.4 children per woman in the early 1960s to 1.8 in 1975. The doubling time of U.S. population rose by 14 years between 1968 and 1975, and natural increase dropped from an annual growth of 1.1 percent to 0.9 percent. In 1983, Paul Ehrlich pointed out that he had been stunned by the reproductive revolution of the 1970’s, of which the flowering of ZPG was both a cause and a symptom. If ever an organization was serendipitously founded, ZPG was.

Times changed and changed again. In the 30 years since ZPG was incorporated, bell-bottoms and disco went out of style and then returned. John Travolta found himself a forgotten star; twenty years later, he was rediscovered. And reproductive rights are again being challenged. From 1989 to 1992, state legislators introduced more than 700 anti-abortion rights bills. By 1992, 84 percent of U.S. counties lacked a doctor willing to perform abortions. Anti-abortion violence has escalated, and the influence of the Religious Right on the tone and content of political discussions is increasing. Political involvement in population issues has become a tricky matter. These days, ZPG National Field Director Jay Keller, a movement activist for many years, observed, “Many politicians wouldn’t come near a population policy if it was wrapped up in candy and gold.”

But ZPG changes with the times. From a tiny group of three original incorporating members, we have a membership of over 55,000. We no longer print newsletters on a basement mimeograph machine. ZPG is no longer a brash young organization. Yet in the current conservative political climate, an organization with a message like ZPG’s could never be considered “tame.”

A Changing Message

So what exactly is ZPG’s message? Pete Seeger summed up the original message in an early public service announcement when he told people about the “two positive steps” that would protect the environment. “First,” he informed the audience, “Don’t have more than two children … Second, tell others what you’ve decided.” By now, however, ZPG realizes that population is more than that. Now we deal with both the causes and effects of overpopulation, from supporting international family planning, to suburban sprawl, to contraceptive coverage by insurance policies. ZPG’s mission is much more complex and is more complicated than telling people to “just have two.” The message of the early days was certainly unique, but we now know much more about the dynamics inherent in stabilizing population.

Even the simple power of the early message was questioned. A 1970 article in the ZPG National Reporter asked, “Is ZPG a Cop- Out?” The author answered, “Yes, because the message was too simple.” Paul Ehrlich, though less vehement, said as much in 1989: “Solving the population problem will only buy you a ticket to solve the other problems. It won’t solve them in itself.” In other words, you could not then, and you cannot now, save the world just by having fewer babies. That was, however, the solution ZPG originally presented as the magic bullet: Stop at two and you have done your good deed. We now realize how that message just didn’t work for everyone.

Since then, ZPG has branched out. We work extensively with other groups concerned with this message, and we get our message out as much as we can. We encourage cities to implement growth plans so they can avoid the problems of urban sprawl. We lobby the U.S. Congress on both international and domestic family planning funding, ensuring that it isn’t cut. ZPG’s Population Education Department has developed an award- winning school curriculum that incorporates environmental and population issues in standard classroom fare that educates hundreds of teachers and students every single year. ZPG tries to bring attention to the benefits of childless and single child families and is focusing on the environmental impact of a growing population, rather than only on numbers.

In the 1970’s, ZPG opened vasectomy clinics. Today, ZPG hands out condoms with the wrappers embossed, “Save the world: Use a condom.” ZPG is currently working on a National Population Policy, but it is based on choice and education—as it should be. We have found that our message works much better when people are given a choice and can make that choice for themselves. As Jay Keller noted, “You can have a powerful message that leads you in the wrong direction. The process which leads you to ZPG is as important as reaching zpg.”

In the final analysis, no one is concerned about population because of numbers alone. The numbers are interesting only in the context of quality of life—as an indicator of how things have changed and as an answer to why they have changed. Reducing the world population to three billion would not automatically cause a vast improvement in our quality of life; it would, in fact, most certainly have a detrimental effect if the population declined through famine, pestilence, or coercive government practices. ZPG’s goal is to improve people’s quality of life now and in the future, not to sacrifice the present.

Another facet of the changing message is its audience. Originally, ZPG specifically targeted the white middle class. As Paul Ehrlich wrote in 1970 in the ZPG National Reporter,

Overpopulation in the United States is essentially a white middle- class phenomenon because the white middle-class majority use up more than their share of resources and do more than their share of polluting. [ZPG’s] literature speaks to this reality by making an urgent plea to members of the majority white middle-class society to voluntarily limit their families to two children.

ZPG now speaks to an increasingly diverse audience. We must extend our message to reach all. The message must appeal to the rich, the poor, and the middle class. Today’s message may not lend itself as well to catchy slogans, but as ZPG’s Director of Communications Tim Cline commented, “One thing we’ve learned is that for a message to pop out at today’s audiences it must move beyond slogans.”

Selling the Concept

The popularity of the Ehrlichs’ book, The Population Bomb, which dealt specifically with the impact of U.S. population growth on the environment, gave ZPG a head start in its own marketing. Americans knew that the developing world might have population issues to deal with, but the argument that the U.S. also had population problems was a shocking concept to most readers. Richard Bowers, a Connecticut lawyer, found the issue particularly interesting and suggested forming an organization a round it. Professor Charles Remington, the third of ZPG’s founding trio, recalled, “We decided that we would not let this organization handle what we called gringoism in which North Americans tell people in other parts of the world what they ought to do. We decided that it would be officially only linked to the United States.” An organization was born.

The next step was choosing the organization’s name. Zero population growth was used by demographers and had been coined by Kingsley Davis in 1967. Bowers, Remington, and Ehrlich understood the concept, but felt that it was not necessarily an obvious name choice.

Ehrlich recalled, “I wanted to call the organization something like Study of Population and Resources.” But Bowers insisted, “No, I want to call it Zero Population Growth.” And I said, “It’ll never catch on. People will think that it means ‘no people.’ Bowers obviously won out, and … ZPG really caught on.” The name was a brilliant choice. It’s confrontational, direct, and intriguing. The name in and of itself continues to lead to discussion, so the choice of name was the first selling point.

A year after its founding, in another lucky occurrence, the group got a boost when Ehrlich appeared on the popular Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Ehrlich deftly seized the opportunity of his appearance, describing ZPG to the viewing audience and giving out its address and telephone number. ZPG’s membership and visibility rose dramatically as a result.

That same year, but on a much smaller scale, Bill Reyerson was working on his own marketing scheme at Yale University. He and a few other students made miniposters with ZPG printed on them in big block letters. That was all: No explanation. No telephone number. Just ZPG—and nothing else. The fliers went on every bulletin board on campus. Reyerson recounted, “For two weeks, those posters sat there. And they got written up in the Yale Daily News, as something of a mystery: Who is ZPG? Is this some invasion?… People wrote on one of the posters, ‘Does this mean Zany Poppy Growers?’” After two weeks, they put up new posters with an explanation of what ZPG was and a meeting time and place. Within a week, the chapter boasted 200 members.

Another successful marketing tool in those days was the bumper sticker, and ZPG printed thousands of them with messages reading:

The Population Bomb is Everyone’s Baby
Stop Heir Pollution
Control Your Local Stork

Bumper stickers became mobile advertising. “There were at least eight versions of the bumper stickers flying around the country on the highways,” pointed out Charles Remington. And where they traveled, ZPG’s name and message hitched a ride.

It is probably within the world of the mass media that the biggest changes have been felt in the thirty years since ZPG was founded. The “Information Age” gives the media far more stories than it can use, and it has become much more choosy. In the 1990s, a story with a message must stand out among stories with a punch line or with shock value. A non-profit organization must somehow manage to seem appealing among the computer enhanced, jingle-addicted for profits. ZPG offers the chance to make a difference, and that doesn’t sell as easily as striped toothpaste or color-coded freezer bags.

Still, ZPG more than holds its own. The ZPG PETNet, an extensive network of activists and educators, trains thousands of teachers each year to incorporate population and environmental issues in the classroom. The World Population video has been seen by people throughout the world. The Sprawl Attacks poster adorns the wall of many a campus dorm room. The 1997 Children’s Environmental Index received unprecedented attention in cities across the United States.

Population Education

The year 1973 was momentous: the Roe v. Wade decision, Watergate, and the first viewing of the ZPG video, World Population! The now famous “dot video,” updated in 1990, was the first, and has remained the most popular, educational tool that ZPG offers. In fact, it is the most popular population video anywhere. The CEOs of both National Geographic Society and Monsanto have used the video in boardroom presentations. It recently opened as a permanent display in the Biodiversity Hall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It is part of a Monterey Bay Aquarium show, and will be traveling until 2000 in an exhibition put together by the Smithsonian and the National Geographic Society called “Earth 2U.” Pamela Wasserman, Director of ZPG’s Population Education Department, estimates that the video has been shown in two dozen zoos and museums in recent years.

Founded in 1975, the Population Education Program was comprised of a staff of one person who worked on a single column in the ZPG National Reporter. Today there’s a staff of four, two newsletters, and the coordination of the presentation of over 250 teacher training workshops each year. The PopEd Program also publishes the classroom texts, Earth Matters, Counting on People, and People and the Planet, which together cover the full range of K-12 curricula.

One of PopEd’s most successful endeavors has been the Population Education Trainers Network (PETNet). Instituted in 1987 with thirty volunteer activists and educators, the PETNet’ers were trained by PopEd staff to present workshops on how to incorporate environmental and population issues into classroom materials. That first year, PETNet members presented nine workshops. Since those humble beginnings, the PETNet has increased to 212 members, and the number of workshops they present has grown to 165. Professor Bill Baird, who teaches Science Education at Auburn University, first joined the PETNet because another PETNetter was driving four hours to give presentations to Baird’s classes. Professor Baird told us, “I would travel longer distances than that because I like the materials, and I believe in the message. I’m a happy PETNet presenter.”

The Volunteers

National Field Director Jay Keller explained, “When you have a group of people who work for an organization, not because they are paid for it, but because they want to support the organization, that’s a pretty special thing.” In that case, ZPG has a pretty special thing going. ZPG currently has 18 chapters comprised of volunteers giving ZPG their time and energy to various projects. For example, the Sonoma chapter developed Project Educate Sonoma County, sending speakers to local schools to give presentations and hand out ZPG educational materials. This project won the first annual Christopher Reeve Environmental Award in 1996. Another twenty-year-old initiative is The Rubber Tree, a chapter-run store in Seattle which sells condoms at reduced prices. Among ZPG’s many other committed members are Dan Miller, a retired marine biologist who chairs the Santa Cruz chapter and gives countless presentations in local schools; Scott Vance, of the Seattle chapter, who masterminded the permanent display, Touch the Earth … Gently, at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo; and Bonnie Walters, of the Central Coast chapter, who organizes a ZPG information table every month at a local farmers’ market.

In addition, ZPG is lucky to have helping hands join us in the national office. Volunteer Night—which is every Tuesday—gives volunteers the singular satisfaction of stuffing envelopes and gluing them shut. Dean Oman, a five-year volunteer, noted, “After I’ve been thinking intensely all day, I like something easy to do. It’s a social gathering.”

ZPG has student volunteers, retired volunteers, Roving Reporters, and the Speaker’s Network. ZPG has been blessed with many dedicated, vigorous volunteers, and that’s a pretty special thing.

Researched and written by Nina Rao

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