Sustainability, Part II: A Proposal to Foundations

The nation grows, but public and political interest in the consequences is close to negligible.  That inattention makes the issue more, not less, important.  What is here proposed is the use of a systematic foresight process — a “Sustainability Project” — to bring population growth back into the national debate by publicizing the consequences of ignoring it.

Football heroes and TV stars have little trouble getting their opinions heard, but serious discussion of serious issues is usually not self-supporting in this distracted and media-hyped society.  For better or worse, it is subsidized by universities, corporations or the government.  At least two of those three sources are not usually inclined to take adventurous positions on public issues.

The non-profit sector is a key player in promoting perspectives that may not accord with the conventional wisdom.  Private foundations dispense millions of dollars annually.  Several of them, through their assistance to non-governmental study or advocacy groups, have been critically important in getting a hearing for major issues such as the role of demography in shaping our future.  Without that support, those who are not otherwise subsidized could not have afforded to spend their time on those issues.

Without sustained pressure from advocacy groups, our lawmakers’ attention turns to other, more immediate and perhaps less difficult matters.  The issue of population growth, worldwide and in the United States, became a matter of widespread public concern in the late ‘sixties but soon became “stale news.”

That decline was hastened, in the case of U.S. population growth, by the dawning recognition that there are only two accessible variables driving our demographic future: fertility, and migration.  U.S. fertility dropped dramatically in the ‘seventies, remaining above replacement level only for the poor, the uneducated and particularly the minorities.  To suggest the need for further decline thus came to be seen by many idealists as veiled elitism or racism.  At the same time, immigration was growing rapidly and has become the driving force in U.S. population growth, but many of those same people see any proposal to limit immigration as xenophobia.

The population comminoty is preaching to the choir, without enlisting the sort of coalition that will be needed if the country is to change its present demographic behavior.

Population restraint is central to achieving long term environmental sustainability, but those charges frightened away people who should be proponents of a population policy.  In the face of those fears, demographic arguments are rejected by many environmentalists, valid as the arguments may be.  The politicians follow suit.  Witness the complete silence about population in the recent election campaigns and the almost total silence about the demographic consequences when Congress debated and gutted the immigration reforms proposed in early 1996.

The population community is preaching to the choir, without enlisting the sort of coalition that will be needed if the country is to change its present demographic behavior.  Polls show that the public is concerned about U.S. population growth, but that concern is not being focused and brought to bear on the politicians.

We are not getting to those who are most fertile or — more important — to those who make policy.  If we cannot reach them by simply reiterating the population arguments, perhaps it is time to take another tack: persuade them that there will be disastrous consequences for the things they hold important, if they don’t address population growth.  Make the appeal, not as an abstraction, but by showing what will happen to their interests.  Enlist the rich in the preservation (or restoration) of social tranquillity, the urbanite in the avoidance of urban disintegration, the middle class in the preservation of a decent standard of living, the poor in the hope of finding a job and a role in society, and the environmentalist in the pursuit of sustainability.

Enter foresight.

Lindsey Grant

Lindsey Grant is a retired Foreign Service Officer; he was a China specialist and served as Director of the Office of Asian Communist Affairs, National Security Council staff member, and Department of State policy Planning staff member. As Deputy Secretary of State for Environmental and Population Affairs, he was Department of State coordinator for the Global 2000 Report to the President, Chairman of the interagency committee on Int'l Environmental Committee and US member of the UN ECE Committee of Experts on the Environment. His books include: Too Many People, Juggernaut, The Horseman and the Bureaucrat, Elephants in Volkswagen, How Many Americans?

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