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Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.







National Optimum Population Commission-NOPC-proposal

U.S. Population Policy and Social Equity:
Optimal Overview

M. Boyd Wilcox, Founder
April 1995

Misdirected "Purism"
Carrying Capacity
Nature and Human Nature
Shortage or Increased Demand?


It has been 23 years since the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future reached the conclusion that no benefits would result from a larger U.S. population. Another key statement from the Commission is the following:

For our part, it is enough to make population, and all that it means, explicit on the national agenda, to signal its impact on our national life, to sort out the issues, and to propose how to start toward a better state of affairs. By its very nature, population is a continuing concern and should receive continuing attention. Later generations, and later commissions, will be able to see the right path farther into the future. In any case, no generation needs to know the ultimate goal or the final means, only the direction in which they will be found. [1]

President Nixon, more than any other recent president, understood the ominous potential of population pressure, and this recognition led him to establish the Commission. But the will of the public was overruled by politics, so instead of establishing a national population policy, the Commission's findings were not promoted. Readers who wish to pursue this misguided episode of national history should read The Life and Death of NSSM-200: How The Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy, by Dr. Stephen D. Mumford. [2]

The upshot of all this is that we are still avoiding engagement in a process that will put us on a more enlightened demographic path.

Meanwhile, among the growing number of citizens and groups that understand the primacy of population pressure, the debate rages on. It no longer encompasses solely a discussion of numbers, but a host of related, and some contend, more fundamental issues. Many of these concerns can be categorized as Social Equity (hereafter referred to as SocEq) issues. They include, but are not limited to: gender and racial equity, consumption and lifestyle patterns, health and education, empowerment of women, corporate and military power, equal justice, and the distribution of wealth.

Misdirected "Purism"

These issues are vitally important, not only as factors influencing fertility, but to the overall progress of civilization. But it must be understood that these are not the only issues attendant to population pressure. Furthermore, the proponents of SocEq issues who view these concerns to the exclusion of all others (the SocEq "purists") are making a fundamental error. They are confusing goals with mechanisms.

The search for optimum is not an effort to crank out a
"magic number" to be coercively applied.

The overall goal-to achieve an optimum, sustainable population, which in the long run will benefit everyone-remains unaltered. Modern populations have tended to maximize, and their numbers are supported by nonrenewable and unsustainable inputs.

The typical mantras of "slowing growth" or "stabilizing" should be seen only as transition states on the road to an optimized demography. Attention paid to SocEq issues will help get us there. But we must not lose sight of the desired end result, or at least a process that will take us in a direction different from our present one.

The search for optimum is not an effort to crank out some "magic number" to be coercively applied. Rather, it is a method for determining the criteria for judging sustainability that is most likely to ensure long-term success.

Carrying Capacity

Integral to the efforts toward optimization is the concept of carrying capacity. A second error being committed by some of the SocEq purists is the diminution, and by some the outright rejection, of the carrying capacity concept. It is a serious mistake to take this view, not only because it is incorrect, but because it serves to alienate a large and well-respected contingent of the scientific community.

Carrying capacity is a concept firmly grounded in biology and ecology. We all understand the basic requirements of living organisms vis--vis the ecosystems that provide for their nourishment and long-term survival. Poignant examples where carrying capacity limits have been exceeded are illustrated by the plight of the shellfish in Chesapeake Bay, the salmon of the Pacific Northwest, and all the endangered species, listed or proposed.

The situation with humans regarding carrying capacity is more complicated, not only because we require the basics (food, shelter, etc.) but because we have so many other needs and desires. This consideration takes humans beyond natural resource requirements, and into social, psychological and political realms as we search to define our carrying capacity limits.

Nature and Human Nature

Stark though this realization may be, we must not forget that Nature, of which human nature is a part, will have the final say regardless of which morality system we might wish were operant in the world.

Another method for judging the relative significance of SocEq issues compared with others integral to overall population pressure, is to imagine a "perfect world" where there are no substantial SocEq problems. Would such a better state of affairs have any bearing upon the tremendous dilution that has occurred in the U.S. regarding each individual's political effectiveness?

The number of federal representatives is now, 1 for every 600,000 constituents.

When the nation was founded, the ratio of each federal representative to constituents was 1:30,000. That ratio is now 1:600,000 and growing. Would SocEq improvements ease the overcrowding in national parks and other public access lands? Would it lower the rate of draw down of the Ogallala aquifer which is being mined about 25% faster than replacement rate? Would it significantly ameliorate the ever increasing pressures for development of houses, schools, roads, and other types of infrastructure? Would it have the effect of lowering the price of land, water, open space, and all other resources we share in common that cannot be "manufactured" by humans? Would inflation decrease or even have the chance of being eliminated?

Inextricably intertwined as these issues are, at the risk of sounding too simplistic one could argue that achievement of SocEq goals is impossible unless we are, simultaneously, on the pathway to a sustainable, optimum population. Otherwise, and in spite of good intentions and efforts, the conflicts emerging from a nonoptimized population will continue to blunt progress made and to confound the analysis of "What went wrong?" or "Why aren't things getting better?"

To be fair, SocEq issues have long been given short shrift in the population pressure debate, and they must be given their day in the sun. So let them come to the table of the great debate, not with revenge for past exclusion, but as equal partners in a comprehensive search for solutions that will truly improve humankind. They carry a kernel of truth, but so do the ecologists, biologists, politicians, social scientists, religious leaders, and some of the harshest social critics. Let all these kernels sprout and develop as they should, in full view of public debate and analysis.

When humans press demands
beyond reasonable limits, we say
there are "shortages.

We must recognize that we have never been here before. Individual nations, and the world at large, have never before dealt with so many people. We must be prepared to face enormous failures as we look to totally new approaches, because the past may not always be the best guide in uncharted waters. How do we not only recognize this, but begin a process for stepping back from the abyss?

Shortage or Increased Demand?

The fundamental question returns to the search for optimum and how we chose to define those limits. Even our language has shielded us from a clearer perspective. If elk or deer herds have overgrown their habitat, we say they are "overpopulated," that the herds must be "thinned," and more hunting tags are issued. But when humans press demands beyond reasonable limits, we say instead that there are "shortages" (of jobs, land, housing, water, soil, food, etc.). We look to increase the supply of whatever is "scarce" rather than at the human-demand side of the equation.

In the final analysis, it does not matter whether one is discussing Somalia or Switzerland. Neither nation, as examples of most on the planet today, is on the pathway to an optimal, sustainable future. One is trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of overpopulation, clan warfare, and a degraded natural environment. The other is trapped in dependence born of the industrial revolution, and would need to reduce its population to 1/7 current levels to be locally self-sufficient.

All nations need to engage in the last, great, so-far-avoided debate as to what their respective optimum populations might be. Until they do, endless arguments over social equity will rage on as the more fundamental question languishes. How many people should the world carry, and how can each village, each nation make this determination and set a course for the future?

By beginning to validate the primacy of Optimum and establishing goals in this new direction, we will have made a paradigm shift in the ways we think and speak about the issue of population pressure. As time goes by -as social equity, natural resource, political-social-psychological components are integrated with long-range solutions to population pressure we will once again recognize that numbers do matter. And we will come to know, in a new light, what was pointed out in the beginnings of this long-festering demographic dilemma.

It is the raw, gnawing, mind-numbing, relentless onslaught of anonymity; it is the essence of one's being like a diminishing droplet in the sea of humanity; it is each snowflake in an avalanche pleading "Not Guilty."


[1.] "Population and the American Future, The report of the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future", Signet Special edition, March, 1972, page 8.
[2.] Mumford, Stephen D., 1994, The Life and Death of NSSM-200: How The Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy. Center for Research on Population and Security. P.O. Box 13067, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina 27709.

This is an accessory document to the official letter/petition proposal to establish the NOPC.
Copyright 1995 by M. Boyd Wilcox
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