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







Population And The American Future

The Report Of The Commission On Population Growth And The American Future

John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Chairman
March 27, 1972


Chapter 1. Perspective on Population

A Diversity of Views
The Immediate Goal


In the brief history of this nation, we have always assumed that progress and “the good life” are connected with population growth. In fact, population growth has frequently been regarded as a measure of our progress. If that were ever the case, it is not now. There is hardly any social problem confronting this nation whose solution would be easier if our population were larger. Even now, the dreams of too many Americans are not being realized; others are being fulfilled at too high a cost. Accordingly, this Commission has concluded that our country can no longer afford the uncritical acceptance of the population growth ethic that “more is better.” And beyond that, after two years of concentrated effort, we have concluded that no substantial benefits would result from continued growth of the nation’s population.

The “population problem” is long run and requires long-run responses. It is not a simple problem. It cannot be encompassed by the slogans of either of the prevalent extremes: the “more” or the “bigger the better” attitude on the one hand, or the emergency-crisis response on the other. Neither extreme is accurate nor even helpful.

It is a problem which can be interpreted in many ways. It is the pressure of population reaching out to occupy open spaces and bringing with it a deterioration of the environment. It can be viewed as the effect on natural resources of increased numbers of people in search of a higher standard of living. It is the impact of population fluctuations in both growth and distribution upon the orderly provision of public services. It can be seen as the concentration of people in metropolitan areas and depopulation elsewhere, with all that implies for the quality of life in both places. It is the instability over time of proportions of the young, the elderly, and the productive. For the family and the individual, it is the control over one’s life with respect to the reproduction of new life —the formal and informal pronatalist pressures of an outmoded tradition, and the disadvantages of and to the children involved.

Unlike other great public issues in the United States, population lacks the dramatic event —the war, the riot, the calamity— that galvanizes attention and action. It is easily overlooked and neglected. Yet the number of children born now will seriously affect our lives in future decades. This produces a powerful effect in a double sense: Its fluctuations can be strong and not easily changed; and its consequences are important for the welfare of future generations.

There is scarcely a facet of American life that is not involved with the rise and fall of our birth and death rates: the economy, environment, education, health, family life and sexual practices, urban and rural life, governmental effectiveness and political freedoms, religious norms, and secular life styles. If this country is in a crisis of spirit —environmental deterioration, racial antagonisms, the plight of the cities, the international situation— then population is part of that crisis.

Although population change touches all of these areas of our national life and intensifies our problems, such problems will not be solved by demographic means alone. Population policy is no substitute for social, economic, and environmental policy. Successfully addressing population requires that we also address our problems of poverty, of minority and sex discrimination, of careless exploitation of resources, of environmental deterioration, and of spreading suburbs, decaying cities, and wasted countrysides. By the same token, because population is so tightly interwoven with all of these concerns, whatever success we have in resolving these problems will contribute to easing the complex system of pressures that impel population growth.

Consideration of the population issue raises profound questions of what people want, what they need —indeed, what they are for. What does this nation stand for and where is it going? At some point in the future, the finite earth will not satisfactorily accommodate more human beings —nor will the United States. How is a judgment to be made about when that point will be reached? Our answer is that now is the time to confront the question: “Why more people?” The answer must be given, we believe, in qualitative not quantitative terms.

The United States today is characterized by low population density, considerable open space, a declining birthrate, movement out of the central cities —but that does not eliminate the concern about population. This country, or any country, always has a “population problem,” in the sense of achieving a proper balance between size, growth, and distribution on the one hand, and, on the other, the quality of life to which every person in this country aspires.

Nor is this country alone in the world, demographically or in any other way. Many other nations are beginning to recognize the importance of population questions. We need to act prudently, understanding that today’s decisions on population have effects for generations ahead. Similarly, we need to act responsibly toward other people in the world: This country’s needs and wants, given its wealth, may impinge upon the patrimony of other, less fortunate peoples in the decades ahead. The “population problem” of the developing countries may be more pressing at this time, but in the longer perspective, it is both proper and in our best interest to participate fully in the worldwide search for the good life, which must include the eventual stabilization of our numbers.

A Diversity of Views

Ultimately, then, we are concerned not with demographic trends alone, but with the effect of these trends on the realization of the values and goals cherished as part of the American tradition and sought after by minorities who also “want in.”

One of the basic themes underlying our analysis and policy recommendations is the substitution of quality for quantity; that is, we should concern ourselves with improving the quality of life for all Americans rather than merely adding more Americans. And unfortunately, for many of our citizens that quality of life is still defined only as enough food, clothing, and shelter. All human beings need a sense of their own dignity and worth, a sense of belonging and sharing, and the opportunity to develop their individual potentialities.

But it is far easier to achieve agreement on abstract values than on their meaning or on the strategy to achieve them. Like the American people generally, this Commission has not been able to reach full agreement on the relative importance of different values or on the analysis of how the “population problem” reflects other conditions and directions of American society.

Three distinct though overlapping approaches have been distinguished. These views differ in their analysis of the nature of the problem and the general priorities of tasks to be accomplished. But, despite the different perspectives from which population is viewed, all of the population policies we shall recommend are consistent with all three positions.

The first perspective acknowledges the benefits to be gained by slowing growth, but regards our population problem today primarily as a result of large numbers of people being unable to control an important part of their lives —the number of children they have. The persistence of this problem reflects an effective denial of freedom of choice and equality of access to the means of fertility control. In this view, the population problem is regarded more as the sum of such individual problems than as a societal problem transcending the interests of individuals; the welfare of individuals and that of the general society are seen as congruent, at least at this point in history. The potential conflict between these two levels is mitigated by the knowledge that freedom from unwanted childbearing would contribute significantly to the stabilization of population.

Reproductive decisions should be freely made in a social context without pronatalist pressures —the heritage of a past when the survival of societies with high mortality required high fertility. The proper mission for government in this matter is to ensure the fullest opportunity for people to decide their own future in this regard, based on the best available knowledge; then the demographic outcome becomes the democratic solution.

Beyond these goals, this approach depends on the processes of education, research, and national debate to illuminate the existence of any serious population “problem” that transcends individual welfare. The aim would be to achieve the best collective decision about population issues based on knowledge of the tradeoffs between demographic choices and the “quality of life,” however defined. This position ultimately seeks optimize the individual and the collective decisions and then accepts the aggregate outcome —with the understanding that the situation will be reconsidered from time to time.

The second view does not deny the need for education and knowledge, but stresses the crucial gaps between what we claim as national values and the reality experienced by certain groups in our society. Many of the traditional American values, such as freedom and justice, are not yet experienced by some minorities. Racial discrimination continues to mean that equal access to opportunities afforded those in the mainstream of American society is denied to millions of people. Overt and subtle discrimination against women has meant undue pressure toward childbearing and child-rearing. Equality is denied when inadequate income, education, or racial and sexual stereotypes persist, and shape available options.

Freedom is denied when governmental steps are not taken to assure the fullest possible access to methods of controlling reproduction or to educational, job, and residential opportunities. In addition, the freedom of future generations may be compromised by a denial of freedom to the present generation. Finally, extending freedom and equality —which is nothing more than making the American system live up to its stated values— would go far beyond affecting the growth rate. Full equality both for women and ‘for racial minorities is a value in its own right. In this view, the “population problem” is seen as only one facet, and not even a major one, of the restriction of full opportunity in American life.

The third position deals with the population problem in an ecological framework, one whose primary axiom asserts the functional interdependence of man and his environment. It calls for a far more fundamental shift in the operative values of modern society. The need for more education and knowledge and the need to eliminate poverty and racism are important, but not enough. For the population problem, and the growth ethic with which it is intimately connected, reflect deeper external conditions and more fundamental political, economic, and philosophical values. Consequently, to improve the quality of our existence while slowing growth, will require nothing less than a basic recasting of American values.

The numbers of people and the material conditions of human existence are limited by the external environment. Human life, like all forms of life on earth, is supported by intricate ecological systems that are limited in their ability to adapt to and tolerate changing conditions. Human culture, particularly science and technology, has given man an extraordinary power to alter and manipulate his environment. At the same time, he has also achieved the capacity virtually to destroy life on earth. Sadly, in the rush to produce, consume, and discard, he has too often chosen to plunder and destroy rather than to conserve and create. Not only have the land, air, and water, the flora and fauna suffered, but also the individual, the family, and the human community.

This position holds that the present pattern of urban industrial organization, far from promoting the realization of the individual as a uniquely valuable experience, serves primarily to perpetuate its own values. Mass urban industrialism is based on science and technology, efficiency, acquisition, and domination through rationality. The exercise of these same values now contains the potential for the destruction of our humanity. Man is losing that balance with nature which is an essential condition of human existence. With that loss has come a loss of harmony with other human beings. The population problem is a concrete symptom of this change, and a fundamental cause of present human conditions.

It is comfortable to believe that changes in values or in the political system are unnecessary, and that measures such as population education and better fertility control information and services will solve our population problem. They will not, however, for such solutions do not go to the heart of man’s relationship with nature, himself, and society. According to this view, nothing less than a different set of values toward nature, the transcendence of a laissez-faire market system, a redefinition of human identity in terms other than consumerism, and a radical change if not abandonment of the growth ethic, will suffice. A new vision is needed —a vision that recognizes man’s unity with nature, that transcends a simple economic definition of man’s identity, and that seeks to promote the realization of the highest potential of our individual humanity.

The Immediate Goal

These three views reflect different evaluations of the nature of the population problem, different assessments of the viability of the American political process, and different perceptions of the critical values at stake.

Given the diversity of goals to be addressed and the manifold ramifications of population change throughout society, how are specific population policies to be selected?

As a Commission and as a people, we need not agree on all the priorities if we can identify acceptable policies that speak in greater or lesser degree to all of them. By and large, in our judgment, the policy findings and recommendations of this Report meet that requirement. Whatever the primary needs of our society, the policies recommended here all lead in right directions for this nation, and generally at low costs.*

Our immediate goal is to modernize demographic behavior in this country: to encourage the American people to make population choices, both in the individual family and society at large, on the basis of greater rationality rather than tradition or custom, ignorance or chance. This country has already moved some distance down this road; it should now complete the journey. The time has come to challenge the tradition that population growth is desirable: What was unintended may turn out to be unwanted, in the society as in the family.

In any case, more rational attitudes are now forced upon us by the revolutionary increase in average length of life within the past century, which has placed modern man in a completely different, historically unique, demographic situation. The social institutions and customs that have shaped reproductive behavior in the past are no longer appropriate in the modern world, and need reshaping to suit the new situation. Moreover, the instruments of population policy are now more readily available —fuller knowledge of demographic impacts, better information on demographic trends, improved means by which individuals may control their own fertility.

As a Commission, we have come to appreciate the delicate complexities of the subject and the difficulty, even the impossibility, of solving the problem, however defined, in its entirety and all at once. But this is certainly the time to begin: The 1970’s may not be simply another decade in the demographic transition but a critical one, involving changes in family life and the role of women, dynamics of the metropolitan process, the depopulation of rural areas, the movement and the needs of disadvantaged minorities, the era of the young adults produced by the baby boom, and the attendant question of what their own fertility will be —baby boom or baby bust.

Finally, we agree that population policy goals must be sought in full consonance with the fundamental values of American life: respect for human freedom, human dignity, and individual fulfillment; and concern for social justice and social welfare. To “solve” population problems at the cost of such values would be a Pyrrhic victory indeed. The issues are ethical in character, and their proper solution requires a deep sense of moral responsibility on the part of both the individual family and the national community: the former in considering another birth, the latter in considering appropriate policies to guide population growth into the American future.

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 further 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.

A separate statement by Commissioner James S. Rummonds appears on page 164.

[Return to Rockefeller Table of Contents. Go to Chapter 2.]

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