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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


Letter to the League of Women Voters

Re.: League of Women Voters Presentation,
March 2, 1996

M. Boyd Wilcox, Founder

First of all, some special thanks are in order for ALL the sponsors of this event, for Marilyn Hempel of the LWV National Population Coalition for her enthusiastic support for my work, for the Oregon League of Women Voters, and to Jeanne Armstrong in particular for her wonderful communications in working out the personal logistics for me being here today.

As initial plans were being made, and the invitations went out to the speakers, I responded by giving a qualified acceptance and asked that, because I tend to be a morning person, that I be allowed to be the first speaker on the program. Jeanne wrote back saying, that because of the nature of the topics involved, the more natural flow would be to schedule me for the first speaker in the afternoon. So, I wrote back saying that would be fine, and I added, "Since I usually take a short nap at that time anyhow, I should be customarily very relaxed. We could just instruct the audience beforehand to clap loudly if my eyelids droop too noticeably."

The next letter I got from Jeanne was a revised schedule for today, with my presentation set for 10:30 this morning. "Were you really afraid I would fall asleep?"

I had also asked Jeanne what particular aspects of my work would be of most interest to you, and she suggested the following areas:

  • The term Optimum, and why it was chosen;
  • How I was motivated to pursue this course of action;
  • A focus on things of particular interest to politically-minded people, how access to certain political circles was gained;
  • How data from the Oregon Benchmarks/Oregon Values & Beliefs Survey is relevant to this discussion.

So, I will try and touch on all these areas as I share the story of this project and adventure with you.

Let us begin with the working document of the National Optimum Population Commission proposal, (hereafter referred to as NOPC) which is the double-sided, letter/petition to VP Al Gore. You all have a copy of this, and I assume you have had at least a few minutes to skim if not read it.

What you see is what you get. This letter/petition is a VERY broad sweep of the public-policy pen, designed to put this nation back on track to engaging an issue we came very close to resolving in the early 1970's. You might recall that the Rockefeller Commission concluded there would be no benefits to a larger U.S. Population. That was 24 years and over 50 million people ago, and we are still avoiding the issue.

Please do NOT conclude from this document that I am purporting to be an expert in the construction of Federal Commissions. I have no such expertise. This vehicle was chosen simply because Executive Commissions are the single-most effective way, that I know of... perhaps there are others equally useful... for focusing the nation's attention on very serious problems, for generating the kinds of discussion, analysis and debate required, and for being the impetus for transforming reasoned conclusions into changes in public policy.

It is important to keep in mind that NOPC is not an answer. It is, rather, a method for asking important questions and for attempting, in the most thorough and open way I can imagine, to forge a consensus regarding our common demographic future. It is also not isolationist in that it offers a model that any nation/ bioregion could emulate. Much support for NOPC has come from outside the U.S., as well as from local, regional and national sources.

Why was the term OPTIMUM chosen? Why could not the name have been the "National Population Policy Commission" or something similar?

I would call your attention to the 3rd paragraph under the "Why" section of the letter/petition: It says, "By focusing on the search for optimum, NOPC would not be computing a 'magic number' to be coercively applied, but rather determining the criteria for judging sustainability that is most likely to insure long-term success."

So what does this mean? Let us take a look at the only visual aid I have to show you. I hope it will help you to better understand the concept of Optimum, to be comfortable with it, and to feel that it is a way of freeing our minds from past restrictions as we look to charting our future. It also should be helpful in understanding where we find ourselves on the long, pathway of human history, and the unfolding of civilization.

*** This graph is a very simple one, with increasing Quality of Life along the vertical axis, and a continuum along the horizontal axis from Optimum to Apocalypse (or collapse, or total non-functioning). Please do not wrinkle up your faces in confusion just yet, like my wife did when I showed this graph to her. She took one look at it and said, "What are you trying to do; it just doesn't make sense to me."

With her long family and personal connections to science, she expected this graph to represent the plotting of data from a well-designed, scientific experiment. THIS graph is a completely different species, and contains multiple elements. Here is what it means to me, and I hope it will make sense to you in this context.

The Quality of Life axis can be interpreted from the standpoints of the individual, the group, the community or nation, and ecosystem or systems, and it could be actual as measured by well-defined criteria or perceptual reflecting deeply held beliefs. It is Quality of Life however you would like to think of it.

The continuum from Optimum to Apocalypse simply implies a continual, transitional process. The shape of the line could have been drawn other ways, but I chose this configuration to indicate that most examples we might look at are the result of events that usually take a long time to unfold, and that we are not usually aware of what the most Optimum state is or was, and we also are not usually aware of impending Collapse until it is too late.

Now most of us would agree that we would like, or should strive to orient our lives, and the sum-total of our social, political-psychological-natural-resource environment as near to the top left as possible. We know it is a goal seldom reached, but is nevertheless the general direction we seek.

Next, try to imagine various aspects of overall Quality of Life, as they currently exist. Place them on this graph where you think their current status would indicate, and also assess what you believe to be the contribution to this status as imposed by population pressure; in other words, how does the number of people now existing figure into this assessment. There isn't time enough today to fully explore all the examples I would have liked to share, so let me take one in particular that, at least to me, seems most illustrative: You can apply the same analysis to many other areas of overall quality of life.

Think about the ability of each individual having the affective power to make the crucial decisions that most directly affect his or her life. Let's call this process "individual political effectiveness or IPA". If you were the only person in the world, or the only person in Oregon, for example, would we not agree that your IPA would bat or near the top left of the graph? In other words, no other people would be impacting your IPA.

What about the native Americans who lived here before the European invasion, especially the ones who governed their affairs by consensus wherein every person would have to assent before any course of action was taken. For each individual in such a group, it seems to me that their IPA would have been very high on the chart.

Think now about our own form of democracy. When this nation was founded, the ratio between a Federal Representative and constituents was 1/30,000. It is now 1/600,000 and still growing. This is a 20-fold dilution in each individual's affective political power. Where would you now place each US citizen's IPA on this scale from Optimum to Apocalypse? How do you think our numbers alone, have altered this most fundamental and cherished of national traditions?

In my opinion, there are so many of us now, here in the US, that at the national level and increasingly at the state level, our democracy cannot cope. Can the system be fixed, or have we gone beyond its affective limits? If we tried to recreate that original ratio of 1/30,000 with our current population we would need to have 8,700 members of the House of Representatives, instead of the current 435. Do you really think that more custom-computerized form letters, and autoresponder e-mail messages, and instant fax machines, and electronic balloting technologies are going to increase your and my IPA?

Where are we on the graph, and what direction are we moving simply because of our numbers? This was the lengthy example I wanted to emphasize. But take this same approach and apply it to any number of scenarios and situations: What about the Ogallala aquifer that is being depleted about 20% faster that its recharge-rate? The Colorado River that is but a trickle by the time it flows into the Gulf of California? What about the Tualatin River basin, (the recent floods notwithstanding) which, according to a conference held at OSU over a year ago, was billed as a "discussion about how to allocate an already over allocated resource". Look at the water supply for Corvallis, which up until 1949 came entirely from the pristine Mary's Peak watershed. But since this time, due to increased population and demand has had to draw ever more heavily from the Willamette River. Think of the quality differences between these two sources.

Think of the 40,000 phone calls registered recently in ONE hour by the new system set up to accept reservations for Oregon's state parks. Think of the Forestry issues, and the seemingly intractable conflict over these and other natural resources. Think of other conflicts as well, private versus public property rights; the proliferation of laws and rules and regulations and various forms of litigation. Is this all simply a manifestation of the currently-popular buzz-word that "the government is too big" or how much is due to increased interactions among more and more people? Think of your experience at Yellowstone or Yosemite National Parks, and compare them with what you remember from 10, 20, 30 or 50 years ago.

I could go on and on ad nauseam with more examples, but you can expand and finish this process to your own satisfaction. Think of three areas of your life that you consider top on your list as contributing to your overall quality of life, however you perceive it. Then ask whether or not you think our current population level impacts that judgment. Where would you put that assessment on the graph?

Before proceeding, I should make it clear that I do not share the views of some who suggest that, if we solve the population problem, all others will all into place. That is a very simplistic view, and it ignores very serious issues that are, in their own rights, worthy of tremendous support and effort. Many of them come under the category of what I call "social-equity issues"; and it includes areas such as the empowerment of women, healthcare, economic, racial and non-discriminatory justice, probably many of the issues Kappy Eaton will address in her presentation this afternoon, to name just a few. But I also wish to make it clear that many of these issues, like so many of the natural-resource conflicts we face, are also intimately tied up with population pressure. They are co-dependents, inextricably woven into the fabric of our society, enhancing, detracting, magnifying, causing, or correlating with one another. And because population pressure is, in my opinion, one of those critical issues fundamental to many others, it deserves special attention.

Imagine, if you will, that all the social-equity issues are solved in the U.S. There is no more discrimination, no huge inequities in income, people are equally empowered in their lives and feel good about themselves, and have the resources to fully participate in the totality of American life.

Within this scenario, just imagine the impact upon our outdoor recreational and national park facilities if everyone was equally empowered to enjoy them? If you think the overuse and crowding at Yellowstone and Yosemite are unbearable now, which many agree is the case, just imagine what these places would be like under a more perfect "social equity" environment for all citizens. Now, this is not an argument for halting progress towards social equity. Quite to the contrary. But it presents one more view of how our currently reached population level is already a problem and how solving one dilemma, in this case that of social-inequities, can produce difficult ramifications.

You may think it strangely inappropriate to juxtapose the two concepts of social equity and outdoor recreation: to pit them against one another in some sort of no-win competition. But if my rudimentary understanding of mathematics is correct, is it not true that within any given finite system, it is not possible to maximize more than one quantity at a time? In other words, we cannot maximize both quality and opportunity. Something has to give. Yet our nation seems to pride itself upon a continual pursuit of these impossible goals. The key question becomes, is our already reached population level working against even a symbolic attainment of these ideals?

Consequences! Wisdom! Foresight! Perhaps we would have been better off stabilizing our population at 10 or 15 or at most, 75 million people? I don't have a definitive answer. Only the lingering question of where we find ourselves on that continuum from Optimum to Apocalypse, and what our direction ought to be.

So much for the term Optimum. It is time to touch upon the other areas of interest that Jean suggested be covered.

How did I become interested in population issues in general, and this project in particular?

Most of us can look to our upbringing as having sowed the seeds of later interests, and mine is no different in that respect. Being born and raised in a small Iowa town of 4000 had its influence, surrounded by corn fields, close friends and relatives and an abundance of quiet and solitude. Serving in the Peace Corps in the 1960's in the very crowded Philippine Islands also made and impression. Its population was about 32 million then, and it has more than doubled since my tenure there.

About 8 years ago I began to think much more seriously about the issue of population pressure. Along the way, I encountered the concept of OPTIMUM, (I can give references to those of you who wish to pursue this) and it initiated a major shift in my thinking.

With this exposure, I began to think beyond the usual mantras of "slowing growth, or stabilizing" into visioning a different direction and therefore an alternate future. Now coupled with this, as a member of several national population and environmental groups, I would often receive in the mail requests from a wide range of other groups, to support their organization.

But I grew increasingly frustrated as most of the literature from these groups showed no connection with the larger issue of population pressure. I was being asked, for example, to contribute to saving farmland, or protecting watersheds or forests, or to aid in environmental legal defense, or whatever... with no mention being made of how population pressure contributed to these specific issues.

So I began by writing my own form letter response to these form letter requests. In it, I would point out their omission, and ask them to include population pressure as one of the contributors to the problem their group was trying to solve. If they would do this, then I might consider membership.

I also became frustrated that, among those groups that DID recognize the primacy of population pressure, there was no concrete proposal that offered a political mechanism for engaging the issue. Their literature as simply "informational", with on proscription for action. So at this point in time, in August of 1992, I wrote the letter/petition and NOPC was officially born. Whenever I would get a request for support from a group, I would send the NOPC form back to them, and ask for their support first. If they would sign on to NOPC, then I would consider their request for support.

Usually, in the beginning, there would be no reply. From those that did, I got the following sort of response:

  • Thank you for your letter and proposal;
  • It is a very interesting idea, worthy of pursuing;
  • However, we are not able to sign on at this time;
  • But we wish you all the luck in the world;
  • Enclosed is a membership application for our group, which we would encourage you fill out and return.

Since this austere beginning, the work of NOPC has been largely my writing of letters, to people and groups wherever I thought that support for NOPC might be found. Additionally, some key people have really latched on to the concept, and have provided considerable energy and support. Keep in mind that NOPC is not an organization, there is no membership, no dues, no board of directors, no 501c status. It is a proposal slowly, steadily making its way across the social/political landscape as a reasonable method for helping us to chart a more enlightened demographic future.

Jean asked me to relate how I have been able to gain access to political circles. That may be over complimentary, as there is no inside story to tell here, no special, secretive, underground methods for grabbing the attention of those in power. For the individuals who have endorsed NOPC, it was simply a conclusion they reached, on their own, after reading the letter and accessory materials I sent to them.

For the groups that have signed on, it usually happened because one or several group members were convinced that NOPC was worthy of support, and they studied the materials and brought forth the request from within the organization. The same is largely true for those jurisdictions that have written resolutions in support of NOPC. A particular councilperson, or commissioner learned of NOPC, recognizing that population pressure is integral to many of the local jurisdictional dilemmas being faced, and asked that a resolution be drafted and passed.

So I depend very heavily upon the energy and support of others to carry this out. My own work is primarily as an initiator for the work of others. A partial listing of official endorsements is on the display board. Many of the people listed are working to secure NOPC endorsements from other groups and jurisdictions.

Let me finish this part by relating some facts regarding the local, Oregon situation, a topic that Liz Frenkel will doubtless expand upon in her presentation today.

During the 1973 Regular Legislative Session, then Rep. Vera Katz sponsored HB 2931, which would have established the Population Growth and Advisory Commission. It left the Environment and Land Use Committee with a do-pass recommendation and was then table in Ways and Means.

Fast-forwarding 22 years, during the 1995 Regular Session, Senate Resolution 1, sponsored by Senators Trow, Bradbury, Cease, Dwyer and McCoy, which would have put the Oregon Senate on record in support of NOPC was not even given the light of day, as it died in Randy Miller's Rules committee. Now this is not an unusual thing to happen, as most bills proposed never make it out of committee. But at the risk of tooting my own horn too loudly here, I think the Oregon Senate really goofed on this one.

Here is why. Overpopulation is of great concern to Oregonians.

How great? Well, it is our greatest fear. Those are not my words, but the results of the Oregon Values and Beliefs Survey. This survey was commissioned by the Oregon Business Council, and was designed to reveal the CORE values of Oregonians... values not likely to change over time. I could quote you much longer portions of this survey, but the short answer is that we fear overpopulation and its effects upon the state of Oregon above all other concerns, and about 62% of us find the state's growth undesirable.

Back to the Oregon Senate. I don't think the Senators knew of these results. If they had, isn't it reasonable to assume that the most overriding fear of this state's citizens would be given a chance to be explored in the state's highest public forum? If SR1 had passed, it could have been a key catalyst in rekindling the nation's efforts towards a national population policy. I know for a fact that the Rules committee received numerous calls, faxes and letters from Oregonians, from residents of other states and other countries, all in support of SR1, but this overwhelming support fell on deaf ears. The nation is still waiting, and waiting and waiting.

Golda Meir, a former Prime Minister of Israel once said to somebody, "Don't be humble; you're not that great!" Well, NOPC is not yet great enough, to assume humble status, and there is much you can do to help it achieve this level of prominence. First off, I would invite each of you to sign the letter/petition and leave it on the table. If you need more time then take it home for further deliberations.

Secondly, SR1 or some similar version will be re-introduced during the 1997 Legislative Session. Be alert to providing whatever support you can at that time, which will probably include contacting your state senators and representatives on behalf of this legislation.

Concurrently, I would ask each of you, especially those who belong to any of today's sponsoring groups or others as well, to sign up for a packet of NOPC materials and once received, take these back to your organization, or to your local jurisdiction, explore the topic and proposal and do what you can to secure an official endorsement. In addition, I would also urge those of you who belong to national organizations, to consider forming a broad-based coalition that would push for the establishment of the National Optimum Population Commission. For example, if the national offices of Rotary, Sierra, LWV, University Women, United National Association, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society would agree to coordinate this effort, I think we would see almost immediate results. It would be very difficult for the Clinton/Gore administration to ignore this kind of support.

Well, this has been too long already, but I thank you very much for your kind attention, and would like to end with a quote from one of the NOPC position papers.

In the final analysis, it does not matter whether one is discussing Somalia or Switzerland. Nether 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".
(c)1996 by M. Boyd Wilcox
1070 SE Denman Avenue
Corvallis, OR 97333


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