Minnesotans For Sustainability©
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
Optimum Population and the Search for Sustainability
M. Boyd Wilcox, Founder*
September 11, 1996rev.
The International Conference on Population and Development, held in September 1994, shows how far the world has come, and how far it still must go in addressing the issue of population pressure. Compared with the previous sessions of 1974 and 1984, the subjects of women's rights, education, health care, and overall development were given greater attention as factors influencing fertility. The most serious omission, however, is reflected in the use of the oft-repeated phrase "sustainable development," with no clear vision of what it really means or how we can attain it.
All would agree that we must do the best we can, realizing we will make mistakes, that there will be shortcomings as well as breakthroughs, that some "solutions" will fail as we push forward in seeking remedies to festering dilemmas. Development, broadly defined, is doing whatever we think is appropriate to improve people's lives, be it physical, mental, biological, or spiritual.
Sustainable development means being able to continue doing whatever we decide to do, in perpetuity. But can we know how things will turn out "in perpetuity"? Of course not, but again we are compelled to do the best we can, knowing our information is and will be incomplete. How do we put ourselves on the path of learning what "the best" is?
This is where the crucial concept of Optimum Population enters the picture. By integrating optimum with the analysis of sustainable development criteria, we can more clearly define what is or what is more likely to be truly sustainable.
Two brief examples illustrate this approach. The first is from the author's home town, which gives a local community perspective. The second incorporates a national view.
Keep in mind that the search for optimum will not yield a magic number, but rather an unfolding awareness of where we presently find ourselves and what our direction ought to be.
Corvallis, Oregon, is a university town with a population of about 45,000. Until 1949, the community was able to obtain almost all its water from the Mary's Peak watershed, a near-pristine wilderness area on the slopes of a 4000-foot mountain in the Siuslaw National Forest.
However, due to population increases and the resulting demand for additional water supplies, the town has since had to draw more heavily from the Willamette River. It is instructive to compare these two sources of water by asking several questions.
Which one flows to Corvallis without hundreds of point and nonpoint sources of pollution contributing to its composition? Which source requires the greater investment in technology, equipment, chemicals and filtration? Which is inherently more pure, of higher quality? Which would you rather drink?
Why is the federal government tightening its drinking water standards to reduce consumers' exposure to suspected carcinogens? Which of these two water sources is the government most concerned with? Why has the number of regulated contaminants increased from 22 to 81? Which water source is more likely to result in long-term public health problems? Which is more sustainable?
Would the Corvallis community need to address these issues if its population had remained at the "optimum water-source number" of approximately 16,000? The town has simply gone beyond its optimum number, and there is no easy or cheap solution to the increase in population that has and continues to occur, and the demand that places on the area's water resources.
The prior example was a local one, based on an analysis of a critical natural resource. The search for optimum sustainability must also include a careful scrutiny of the social-psychological-political ramifications of population pressure. This latter area of concern is crucial because it directly affects our ability to deal with natural resource conflicts and, as such, is an often unrecognized key factor in overall quality of life.
When the United States was founded, the ratio of each federal representative to constituents was 1:30,000. That ratio is now 1:600,000 and growing. Think of how this 20-fold dilution in each individual's effective political representation manifests itself in what we call "modern politics". Rarely is there a direct dialogue between and individual and his or her representative. Is it any wonder people feel so alienated from government and that only 50% vote in national elections? (This figure was about 80% from 1840 until the turn of the century, and has been declining ever since.) Is the rise in power and influence of PACs and other special-interest lobbying groups surprising?
For the individual, what will remedy this estrangement? More radio and TV call-in and talk shows? New and improved electronic balloting technologies? More custom-computerized letters from congressional representatives? Should we increase the size of Congress 20 fold? (Most would agree it is already too large and cumbersome to work well.)
Some would suggest we improve the situation by enacting election and campaign reforms, by reducing the influence that PACs and special-interest groups have on Congress, by instituting term limits, and by providing public financing of candidates. Others would assert we need to simply reduce the size and scope of the federal government, or even split the U.S. into smaller, more autonomous regions.
But we all share this continent and we will continue to be bonded in a geopolitical union, whether we like it or not.
Most attempts to "make things better" only highlight the depth of the overall problem. Primarily because of our present and growing population pressure, national politics has evolved, tragically, into a numbers game. The individual is buried beneath an avalanche of spin-doctors, wealthy and powerful shadows that operate behind congressional members, and a system that cares less about a person's ideas than their vulnerability to manipulation.
We are like rats in an overcrowded maze, trying to adapt by learning more clever ways to negotiate the pathways, not realizing the maze itself is the problem. And some of those in government want out, desiring a different quality of life. We should be alert to the stories they could tell.
Searching for the optimum gives us a direction in planning for the future and
a benchmark by which to judge the likelihood of success. We must begin by asking
important questions: What are our national water, soil, forestry, fishery, and
energy resources? How many people can each support when used in a way that will
not diminish its potential for future use? What population level will give us
the freedom and solitude we need, and allow us to escape from continued
development pressures and increases in land and housing prices that never seem
What ecosystems have we squandered in our quest to conquer the continent, and which ones must not only be preserved, but restored, in order to re-create a sustainable balance between humans and the rest of Earth's inhabitants? How can we even begin to deal with the intense conflicts that lie ahead as population pressure and the resultant demand for "development" has us fighting over the last 51 miles of the free-flowing upper Columbia River, or the entire Chesapeake watershed that has gone beyond its carrying capacity? How can we alter our economic priorities so they reflect what is really important for survival?
What is our optimum population, and under this banner what is our optimum agriculture, or optimum use of water resources, our optimum industry, our optimum definition of a workable democracy? If we cannot discuss and come to a consensus concerning our population future, then that future will be decided by default - and likely not one we would have chosen.
Whether the world can feed 6 or 8 or 12 billion people is perhaps debatable, but it is a minor point in the consideration of overall quality of life, and in the debate over sustainable development. If this is the only argument, then we have missed the point entirely. This "feedlot mentality" implies that, if all are well fed then we have no problems.
It is time to begin planning for the next UN Conference on Population in 2004. Perhaps it should be held on a small island, such as Easter Island, where the delegates are directly faced with the implications of limits.
The conference should be titled, "Seeking the Optimum: A Blueprint for a Truly Sustainable Future." Ten years before the conference, each nation or bioregion ought to engage in a 5-year analysis and debate to determine their respective optimum populations, followed by a 5-year implementation plan of non-coercive educational, legislative, and public-policy initiatives designed to place them on a long-term, multigenerational path to achieving an optimum. The conference would then be an opportunity for national to share experiences, to look at successes and failures, and to make mid-course corrections in the process of reaching their respective goals.
If the next conference chooses not to embrace the search for optimum, then it will end much as the last one did. Some progress will have been made, but with an interminably long distance yet to travel. That distance could be greatly shortened by opting for the optimum. It is simply the best we can do. We ought not to do less!
A political cartoon by "Oliphant," which appeared in national newspapers during the Cairo Conference, depicted the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (War, Famine, Pestilence, and Disease) with the caption, "Why do they need a conference on world overpopulation when they have us?"
These are the extremes, of course, and we see them unfolding in numerous places around the globe. But we must also direct our awareness to the perception of conditions that precede these horrible and obvious tragedies. The water resource example from Corvallis, Oregon, is a distant but related symptom. The national alienation and disgust with politics is another. Each community, state, and nation should examine where it resides in the continuum from optimum to apocalypse, and make plans to move in the direction of optimum.
With this perspective, searching for the optimum becomes not an idle,
luxurious academic concept full of ambiguities and uncertainties, but rather the
unifying principle most likely to ensure a sustainable future. Struggling with
the contentious debate that optimum will provoke should be viewed as a sign that
an adolescent culture is approaching adulthood, and is therefore willing to
confront issues too long ignored. We will finally be discussing what
contributes, in a meaningful way, to national and global security. Isn't this
what we all want for ourselves and our descendants?
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