Purdue University Graduate School
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posted on 2023-04-27, 20:59 authored by Caitlin FendleyCaitlin Fendley

This dissertation traces both professional and public concerns about the Earth’s environmental limits from the late 1960s to 1990s, at the intersection of reproductive rights and aerospace technology. It considers two rather ‘radical’ and opposing grassroots activist approaches for how to best address the environmental and population crises that gained public traction at the turn of the 1970s: zero population growth and space settlement. The current scholarship has examined the ‘era of limits,’ and modern environmentalism and population control activism from both U.S. and global perspectives, considering how policy, science, gender, politics, and the media shape public understandings and both local and state responses. Zero growth proponents, through both coercive and voluntary campaigns, sought to demonstrate and halt the damage that unchecked economic and population growth was causing the planet. Yet these histories rarely consider the rise of new spaceflight technologies and thought during the same period, which promised a pro-growth, technology-infused solution to the limits to growth, one that would not impose restrictions on consumptive, environmental, or reproductive behavior. Responding to recent scholarly efforts to better contextualize aerospace technology into social and cultural histories of the post-Apollo era, this dissertation focuses on the grassroots activism of two organizations: Zero Population Growth (ZPG), which advocated for zero growth, and the L-5 Society (including a student-run affiliate chapter called the Maryland Alliance for Space Colonization), which promoted space settlement and the manufacturing of clean, pollution-free energy and mining resources for Earth. In this dissertation, I argue that in order to fully understand the implications of ‘Earthly limits’ on American society, we need to look at the role of grassroots activists. How did their concerns form, persist, and change over the course of the late twentieth century? Using primary and archival material and oral histories of the members, it analyzes their dynamics, goals, and stakes in ideas about limits to growth and a finite Earth. Centering on the diverse personal stories and experiences of former activists reveals their unique motivations for joining their respective groups, why they advocated for such different approaches to the limits to growth, and how their drive for a better future continued long after popular enthusiasm for zero growth and space settlement waned by the late 1970s.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • History

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Wendy Kline

Additional Committee Member 2

Michael G. Smith

Additional Committee Member 3

Frederick Rowe Davis

Additional Committee Member 4

Rebecca Kluchin