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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


The Rockefeller Commission Report March 27, 1972

Thirty Years Later

M. Boyd Wilcox, Founder*
March 5, 2002


Among its conclusions, two key phrases stand out: "...no substantial benefits will result from further growth of the Nation's population...[and] stabilization of our population would contribute significantly to the Nation's ability to solve its problems..." [1]

Thirty years after the Rockefeller Commission (the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future) issued it findings (March 27, 1972) with the implication that a National Population Policy should place the U.S. on the path to a stable population, our nation is still avoiding the issue!

It is reasonable to ask if the Commission was correct. What ARE our most serious problems and have they become more difficult to solve with 75 million more participants in the American Dream, with no end in sight to our population growth? Additional doublings are only 70 years apart, with projections beyond one BILLION likely in about 150 years.

The balance sheet is a mixed report of course, depending partly on who selects the criteria and finagles the data. Some categories of air and water pollution have been improved, while newer dangers are emerging (pharmaceutical products in domestic water systems, for example, which are now on the "cutting edge" of research in Environmental Engineering.) Urban sprawl continues to gobble up farmland while more jurisdictions are catching on to so-called "smart growth" which uses land and resources more efficiently. [2]

By contrast, many towns and cities are being forced to grow beyond reasonable limits, leading to citizen backlash with the resultant passage of more restrictive zoning and development laws. New research shows that growth does not pay for itself, and is supported by public subsidies heretofore unaccounted for. [3] Demands for more housing, education, jobs, health insurance, police and fire protection, transportation and infrastructure all continue unabated as our population grows. How can we even begin to think about the synergy of these issues, in a way that is useful?

As we attempt to resolve the population-growth-optimum-size conundrum, while asking what population range will most likely facilitate long-term security and sustainability, what fundamental concepts are most useful?

Two such mentalmarkers come to the fore: The Commons, and Scale & Complexity.

What is our National Commons, those natural and man-made resources to which all citizens are presumed to have equal access? If we begin with national parks and other outdoor recreation areas, few would dispute that these unique treasures have felt substantial increases in the public's desire for access resulting in noticeable impacts upon their collective ability to provide a "quality outdoor experience." Escalating user fees and a stricter application of rules and regulations (coupled with heightened conflicts among various users —the snowmobile fracas in Yellowstone, for example) are harbingers of a future that will see more of the same, as our population grows and more people seek access. (Do not the fees and rules & regulations already act as "screeners" limiting access, which is a technique for managing greater numbers of people?)

One could list other natural resources-air, water, forests, natural gas, minerals, etc., —and project what the future holds regarding demand, ultimate limits and societal repercussions. But one of the most important man-made resources, one seldom mentioned as such, is individual access to representative democracy.

Here is what the Rockefeller Report said:

Our political institutions were designed originally to govern a much smaller society ...They have demonstrated flexibility and adaptability, but they also have shown some serious inadequacies. Are they capable of accommodating still more population growth in the future? ...Representation at the national level is diluted by population growth...[and] the individual constituent's voice will be diminished... no increase of Congress's ability to communicate with constituents by mass media can disguise or make up for that diminution. [1]

To understand how far we have come since the nation's founding, and to integrate the concept of scale and complexity into this analysis, it is important to note that the original ratio in the House of Representative was 1/30,000. (The ratios in the Senate are much larger, of course and vary immensely from state to state.) Compared with the current ratio of more than 1 / 600,000, this reflects a 20-fold increase. Configured another way, it would take 20 x 435 = 8,700 members of the House to restore that original ratio. Imagine the probable success of any proposal to increase this number. Most would agree that the House is already unwieldy with "only" 435 members. Any larger scale is simply off the chart of possibility.

Our current and still-growing population cannot solve the problem of the dilution of democracy, especially at the Federal level. Alienation from the process is at an all-time high. Voting in national elections has plummeted since 1900, from around 807o to less than 50% . Attempts by individual constituents to have a meaningful, affective (yes, AFFECTIVE = the ability to influence the political process) relationship with his/her Rep are met with custom-computerized form letters and auto-responder e-mails (if any reply comes at all.) Computers talking to computers, with more and more citizens (those who haven't given up) resigned to an essentially powerless association with the Feds. From the standpoint of a member of the House, trying to manage the affairs of over 600,000 constituents, how much more complex could the system become? Furthermore, managing these huge numbers is only one, small part of the composite complexity now firmly entrenched in our political system. Campaign Finance Reform may be a small step in the right direction, but there is no credible argument for democracy being enhanced by a larger population.

How much more diluted can democracy become? If we depend upon the democratic process to solve our problems, what are the prospects for a peaceful, secure, sustainable and mutually-agreed upon future for this nation, when more people are competing for and being turned off by the inadequacies of an overburdened system?

Returning to the Rockefeller Commission, we should recall that it was established following Nixon's "Special Message" to Congress on July 18, 1969. This initiative showed a great deal of wisdom and foresight in contrast to the Watergate legacy for which he is notorious. In this presentation he outlined the national and global threats resulting from continued population growth.

A few direct quotes from Nixon's address to Congress indicate the depth of his concern:

For some time population growth has been seen as a problem for developing countries. Only recently has it come to be seen that pressing problems are also posed for advanced industrial countries when their populations increase at the rate that the U. S., for example, must now anticipate. Food supplies may be ample in such nations, but social supplies —the capacity to educate youth, to provide privacy and living space, to maintain the processes of open, democratic government— may be grievously strained. [1]

Nixon continued:

I believe ...the Federal Government does have a special responsibility for defining these problems and for stimulating thoughtful responses ...Perhaps the most dangerous element in the present situation is the fact that so few people are examining these questions from the viewpoint of the whole society ...In the governmental sphere ...there is virtually no machinery through which we can develop a detailed understanding of demographic changes and bring that understanding to bear on public policy. [1)

Why did our nation fail to establish a National Population Policy leading to stabilization, in spite of the Commission's arduous, 2-year + effort and the conclusions reached, as quoted at the outset of this article? This part of the story is a national nightmare, one that should be as recognizable as Watergate. As might be expected, given our collective conditioning from recent, secret-then-revealed episodes of the past, the momentum generated by Rockefeller was stymied by election year politics. President Nixon, who was very concerned with the implications of population growth, was forced to disavow his own Commission's findings, in order to get re-elected in the fall of 1972.

Readers who wish to pursue this tragic tale in more detail, should read The Life & Death of NSSM200; How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy, by Stephen D. Mumford. The book describes how Nixon, once re-elected, did not give up on pressing forward-secretly with a continued agenda to deal with population growth, and its national/international implications. A few modified excerpts from Mumford's book are instructive: [4]

On April 24, 1974, Henry Kissinger, on behalf of President Nixon, signed National Security Study Memorandum 200 [NSSM200.] It was directed to the Secretaries of Defense and Agriculture, Director of Central Intelligence, Deputy Secretary of State and the Administrator of the Agency for International Development. This study would look into the 'Implications of Worldwide Population Growth for U.S. Security and Overseas Interests.' Among the areas for study was 'the likelihood that population growth or imbalances will produce disruptive foreign policies and international instability.

President Gerald Ford, who succeeded Nixon after the Watergate scandal, continued to move forward in the population arena. On November 26, 1975, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft signed, on behalf of President Ford, National Security Decision Memorandum 314 (NSDM314) which approved virtually all of the NSSM200 recommendations and appeared to set the U.S. on a direct course toward development and implementation of a sophisticated National Population Policy (NPP). To this day NSDM314 has never been rescinded.

We should insist that President Bush revive NSDM314, particularly in view of the events of 9-11-01, and the associated national security implications therein.

It is unfathomable that our nation still has no National Population Policy (NPP) We overwhelmingly accept the need for national policy in areas such as transportation, commerce, health & welfare, defense, agriculture and natural resources, foreign affairs, labor, energy and education. They are deemed so important that they are assigned cabinet positions with a direct connection to the President. Why do we not have a cabinet post for an aspect of our national life that is AT LEAST as important as the others?

A U. S. Department of Population and Demographics, established to oversee an NPP, would be a start at rectifying this past discrepancy. To repeat what Werner Fornos (long-time President of the Population Institute) said recently, "...l …strongly and unequivocally endorse the development of a population policy for the U.S. The U.S. has long encouraged developing countries to establish such policies, yet our own country does not have an official population policy." [5]

An NPP cannot and should not avoid the hot-button issue of immigration, along with its other [perhaps more important] mandates, in particular those of public education, and the development of policy to stabilize population. Imagine if we had stabilized in the 1972 range of 210 million, which would have required, among other things, that immigration and emigration be equalized, to achieve "no net gain" in population The nation had, at that time, achieved a stable fertility rate, which flows from an average of about 2-children per family. Our current national population growth of about 2.5 million per year is dominated by immigrants and their descendants, who tend to have larger families. There is no way we can even begin to think about stabilization, without confronting immigration pressure.

Parenthetically, illegal immigration, and associated "amnesties" must be halted. They are a cruel slap in the face of all the people who patiently wait in line, and fill out the papers at U. S. Embassies around the world.

The Rockefeller Commission concerned itself primarily with domestic population issues, while NSSM200 / NSDM314 integrated both national and international implications. With our hindsight set firmly upon the events of 9-1101, there were numerous prior warnings. In the cover story of the February, 1994 issue of the Atlantic Monthly , Robert D. Kaplan links anarchy around the world, including the U.S., to overpopulation. The most recent issue, March 2002, has Kaplan describing ("The World in 2005") the huge bulges across the Middle East and Africa in the populations of young males between the ages of 15-29; the age group that traditionally stirs up unrest.

The Fall, 2001 issue of the Social Contract provides an apt term for the same phenomenon, in an article by Don Collins entitled, "Overabundance of Rogue Males." He writes that "there are simply too many young men seeking mates, jobs, and recognition, creating conditions for great unrest and instability, particularly in the often weak and corrupt governments found in so many parts of the world." (By the way, Bin Laden was the 17th son in over 50 siblings.)

NSSM200 predicted terrorism, if national/global population pressure was not dealt with in a timely manner. It advocated monumental increases in aid and education for reproductive and health services, a process that nations were encouraged to adapt to their own particular cultural circumstances. The obstruction of NSSM200 by covert political power prevented the prevention of so much subsequent human suffering and stark terror, that its blockage is a civilizational tragedy with horrendous consequences, for which we are now paying a very heavy price —a burden projected to continue for years into a more perilous future.

We may be a proud and patriotic nation, fully poised to root out global terrorism. But we must also deal with one of our most significant in-house issues, that of population pressure. The longer we wait, the more difficult will be the process, because further delay increases the intractability of problems to be solved. Additionally, our leadership in this realm should be a stimulus for other nations to follow suit. We need to return to the drawing board, by rekindling the process begun by the Rockefeller Commission, add wisdom gained the past 30 years, and get on with the business of establishing a National Population Policy. Our collective future is simply uncontrollable without it.


[1] Population and the American Future, The Report of the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future; a Signet Special Edition, W5219, published by The New American Library, Inc., 1301 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY, March, 1972.
[2] Weighing Sprawl Factors in Large U.S. Cities, by Leon Kolankiewicz & Roy Beck, [published 3-19-01 by NumbersUSA.COM,] reports on research showing how over a 20-year period in our largest Urbanized Areas, population growth is responsible for about 50% of the usurpation of surrounding land. The other 50% is due to land-use and consumption choices that lead to an increase in the average amount of urban land per resident.
[3] Better, Not Bigger; How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community, by Eben Fodor (New Society Publishers, 1999) illustrates how each new single-family house requires $20,000-30,000 in public infrastructure subsidies.
[4] Mumford's book, published in 1996 by the Center for Research on Population and Security, [PO Box 13067, Research Triangle Park, NC, 27709] is meticulously written and documented. Among a long list of experts who have vigorously acclaimed this book are included: James H. Scheuer, U.S. Congressman, 1965-94, New York; Edward O. Wilson, Harvard U. Zoologist; Edgar Wayburn, M.D., Albert Schweitzer Award Laureate, San Francisco; Richard D. Lamm, former Governor of Colorado; Reimert T. Ravenholt, M.D., former Director [1966-79] of Office of Population, USAID; Philander P. Claxton, Jr., First Special Assistant to the Secretary of State for Population Matters; Werner Fornos, President, The Population Institute, Washington, DC; Dr. Virginia Abernethy, Editor, Population and Environment, Vanderbilt U. Medical Center, Nashville, TN; Dr. Hans Kung, Catholic theologian, Professor of Ecumenical Theology and Director of the Institute for Ecumenical Research, U. of Tubingen, Germany; Ruth Roemer, J.D., UCLA School of Public Health, Past President of the American Public Health Association; Garrett Hardin, U. of California, Santa Barbara; Gene R. La Rocque, Rear Admiral, USN [retired,] President, Center for Defense Information, Washington, DC; Fran P. Hosken, Editor and Publisher of WIN NEWS [Women's International Network,] Lexington, MA; Pravin Ki.ni, MD, Chief Investigator for South India International Federation for Family Health, Bangalore; Adolph W. Schmidt, U.S. Ambassador to Canada, 1969-74; John Paul James, Population Officer, USAID 1969-97 with tours of duty in six countries in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, plus three tours in Washington: the central Office of Population, the Africa Bureau, and the Europe & Newly Independent States Bureau. (No other person has had more experience in the AID Population Program.)
[5] Popline, Vol. 21, November-December 1999, published by the Population Institute, 107 Second Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.
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