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







[MFS note: Kirstin Dohrer was the Sierra Club's "Environmental Justice" committee chair; Ted Toal is a Sierra Club member from Nevada City, California.]


March 13, 1997

Re.: SC and NOPC

Dear Kirsten of the Sierra Club Environmental Justice (EJ) Committee:

[Ted Toal] I'm a Sierra Club (SC) member in Nevada City, California, who just received an email forwarded from a friend, written apparently by you or someone on the Sierra Club EJ committee, regarding Club involvement in a National Optimum Population Commission (NOPC). The email was obviously carefully thought out, yet I feel the conclusion reached was wrong and supporting points illustrate a lack of understanding, and I feel it is very important that I explain to you why I feel that way.

[Kirsten, EJC] The framework for the National Optimum Population Commission (and other efforts such as development of a National Population Policy) is flawed because it is limited in scope and fails to promote the primary components of global sustainability.

[Ted Toal] Are efforts by the SC to pass legislation in Congress designating park and wilderness areas flawed because they are limited to national scope? Of course not. Everything the SC does is limited in scope, yet taken together it works towards the goal of global sustainability. NOPC is the same.

[Kirsten, EJC]  Moreover, such an approach presupposes that population is an *independent* variable, when much evidence indicates that instead, population is a *dependent* variable, that is influenced by poverty and inequitable distribution of resources.

[Ted Toal] Of course population is not independent. Everything is interconnected, as our friend Mr. Muir said. Yes, poverty and inequitable resource distribution play big in the population picture. Nevertheless, population is properly described as being a root cause of many of our problems, because of the urgency it gives to the situation. If population isn't stabilized fairly soon, ALL IS LOST. Poverty, on the other hand, could go on and on and on, and tragic though that would be, by itself it would not destroy the planet.

It is only through its link with overpopulation that it does so, and thus takes on urgency. In other words, finding a solution to overpopulation is of paramount importance, and the NOPC concept is a way to move towards that solution. If part of the solution means finding ways to reduce poverty, which I think we all agree is the case, then NOPC can only further the cause of reducing poverty.

[Kirsten, EJC] Numerous EJ activists are extremely concerned that the well-financed campaign to promote a National Optimum Population Commission and National Population Policy is yet another salvo in a misguided campaign, by the rich and comfortable, to blame the poor and people of color for Earth's environmental problems.

[Ted Toal] An optimum population study would show the tradeoffs between population size, consumption level, and quality of life, including environmental quality. Eliminating overconsumption in the U.S. will solve neither our environmental nor poverty problems. It would help, for a while. If we are truly interested in a good quality of life for ALL people, and a high-quality environment for all organisms, we must recognize that population must be stabilized and eventually reduced. NOPC studies would give us a good idea just how much is to be gained by reducing consumption, how much by stabilizing and reducing population by varying amounts. It is not a campaign about BLAME, but a campaign about INFORMATION so all of us can work together towards a high-quality life for all.

[Kirsten, EJC]  In calculating an "optimum" U.S. population, will we assume that the U.S. continues its current inequitable importation of resources from beyond our own political borders?

[Ted Toal] I believe an optimum population study would have to look towards the somewhat distant future, when presumably the entire world has reached an equilibrium in terms of resource usage and quality of life. For a population to be optimum, it must be sustainable indefinitely, and that cannot be if it is importing large amounts of finite resources. Also, an optimum population implies that there are ample resources for all, which suggests a much smaller population than we have now. If your goal is to have the U.S. reduce its inequitable resource importation, you can't expect this to happen with a large, growing population.

 [Kirsten, EJC] The EJ Committee and affiliates question whether it is either ethical or effective to talk of limiting Population on a National basis, in the absence of moves to impose similarly enforceable limits on National Consumption, and on U.S. importation of carrying capacity from other countries.

[Ted Toal] First, of these three forms of limits, only the first has much chance of succeeding in the near term, and we desperately need action in the near term! If three unethical things are happening, is it unethical to stop one of them? Must one stop all three to be ethical? I believe that stabilization and reduction of U.S. population would lead, in the long run, to reduction in our importation of carrying capacity from other countries, as I suggested above. As to limits on consumption, please consider this carefully. If we were to somehow eliminate overconsumption in the U.S. right now, what would be the effect? Immediate, drastic improvement in a variety of environmental problems, for one. Great, right? Well, think about it. What would happen to the overpopulation movement? Already tiny, it would die, because people would have the impression that there is no population problem, it has been solved by reducing consumption.

Has it? Of course not. In fact, the situation has been made much worse. When, some time down the road, population has increased until once again it is a problem, and the overpopulation movement starts anew, where do we stand now? We have no built-in safety margin. People are now living close to the edge. They cannot reduce consumption much further. A disaster, such as a couple years of bad climate and crop failures, would lead to massive famine. No one would be eating much meat, so we wouldn't have the option of switching to grain consumption to feed more people. And many other safety margins would also be gone. In other words, I am saying that overpopulation must be dealt with, and it is much safer to do so now, while we are at a high consumption level.

We are already very late in the game. It seems very likely that disasters such as crop failures WILL befall us, and our overconsumption will be our salvation, giving us the margin we need to continue to provide for people's needs in the face of disasters. Reduction of overconsumption is improperly thought of today as a cure. It is not. Stabilization and reduction of population is the cure. Reduction of overconsumption is the icing on the cake, the way in which we will be able to save this planet once we have gotten ourselves on the long road towards a sustainable population.

[Kirsten, EJC] To adopt a piecemeal, nationalistic approach to population runs the risk of cutting us off from constructive dialogues with those we must unite for global stewardship.

America's overconsumption has immense negative environmental impacts on the people living in transitional countries.

[Ted Toal] Most every other country of the world has already adopted their own nationalistic approach to population. I believe they would WELCOME ours. A U.S. population policy can only help those in other countries. It will help by leading us towards population stability and reduction, which will stabilize and then reduce our dramatic negative global impact. It is a sin that the one country with the most per-capita impact on the world is the one with no population policy!

[Kirsten, EJC]  To achieve a sustainable population with sustainable patterns of consumption will require international efforts based on mutual trust, support, and justice between all peoples.

[Ted Toal] Absolutely, but this does not preclude efforts by individual nations to stabilize their own populations. Indeed, I believe that each nation must take responsibility for itself in this matter, while at the same time working cooperatively on an international basis.

[Kirsten, EJC]  It is both unjust and ineffective to limit population inside U.S. borders, while we continue to export the costs of overconsumption (pollution, resource depletion, inequity, poverty, population growth and climate change) across our borders. By treating population as an independent variable, a National Optimum Population Commission and similar endeavors would focus primarily on symptoms, while ignoring —and exacerbating— the systemic causes of overpopulation.

[Ted Toal] It is unjust and ineffective not to limit population inside U.S. borders, given the high per capita consumption within them. I've discussed overconsumption above. I don't believe an NOPC would focus on symptoms - when one decides that population is too large and needs to be reduced, he looks at what causes population to keep growing, and attacks there. I think an NOPC might, contrary to your concern, actually focus MORE attention on the systemic causes, such as poverty and inequitable resource distribution.

[Kirsten, EJC] Only when women are treated as equals, when racial and class barriers are eliminated, when health care, education, economic independence and political freedom are shared equally, will populations become stable and environments protected.

[Ted Toal] These lofty ideals towards which we as a world strive will not be reached before population peaks. There is much work to be done to accomplish these goals. Much more time will be needed than is available before the population peak. At this time, our work on population can only shift the time and height of that population peak a bit —a few years sooner or later, a few billion more or less. Inaction may very well lead to a peak followed by a crash, a terrible, apocalyptic crash. Action, NOW, may prevent such a crash, and give us the opportunity to eventually achieve these ideals.

Thanks for listening.
Ted Toal


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