Sustainability, Part II: A Proposal to Foundations

The Rockefeller Commission (the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, chaired by John D. Rockefeller III) was created at about the same time by President Nixon and Congress. (see  NPG Forum paper “Sustainability, Part I“).  It concluded in 1972 that further population growth would do more harm than good, and it offered suggestions as to how to stop that growth.  It was too controversial for the time.  The President did not accept it, and it is largely forgotten.  It deserves better.  The recommendations would be a good starting place even now for organizations seeking to make realistic proposals as to how to address the U.S. future.

Back in 1972, the Rockefeller Commission concluded that further population growth would do more harm than good, and it offered suggestions as to how to stop that growth.

The Global 2000 Report to President Carter in 1980 had two broad purposes:

  1. to present an integrated description of major world trends in resources and the environment and to relate them to population growth; and
  2. to evaluate the capability of the U.S. Government to conduct such integrated foresight on an ongoing basis.  In a three-volume report, it warned of the dangers posed by current trends.  It stated flatly that the government does not have the capability to make integrated cross-sectoral analyses.  That was 1980, and it is still true.

Global Future: Time to Act.  The Global 2000 Report offered no recommendations, but it was followed up in January 1981 at the very close of the Carter administration by a booklet of action proposals from the U.S. Department of State and the Council on Environmental Quality which included eight broad recommendations concerning U.S. population growth: “The United States should develop a national population policy which addresses the issues of:

  • Population stabilization 
  • Availability of family planning programs
  • Rural and urban migration issues
  • Public education on population concerns
  • Just, consistent, and workable immigration laws
  • The role of the private sector – nonprofit, academic and business
  • Improved information needs and capacity to analyze impacts of population growth within
  • the United States
  • Institutional arrangements to ensure continued federal attention to domestic population issues.”

Those last two proposals were expanded into extensive recommendations for foresight machinery, including a proposal for a “Global Population, Resources and Environmental Analysis Institute, a hybrid public-private institution ….”

The proposal for foresight machinery was unanimously endorsed in December 1981 by the non-governmental Global Tomorrow Coalition (GTC), which included all the major environmental and population groups.  (GTC itself was never able to make such a clear recommendation again, and it was dissolved in 1995; this is a warning that large coalitions tend to lose focus.)

The Global Issues Working Group (GIWG). The Global 2000 Report generated widespread public interest.  The Reagan administration responded by instructing Chairman Alan Hill of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to create an interagency group to “identify global environmental and resource issues of national concern, and recommend appropriate government action. … and to improve the U.S. national capability to gather information and to forecast future trends.”

The GIWG had a short and dispiriting history.  Chairman Hill seemed genuinely enthusiastic, but he was reined in by more powerful players in the White House Cabinet Council.  The GIWG lost its all-important bureaucratic “clout”; it was ignored by the powerful and it became mired in inter-agency disagreements over proposed papers.  Launched in 1982, it generated one harmless statement of “Global Environmental Principles” and two position papers for minor international conferences before it simply went dormant about 1985.

The moral is that the pursuit of foresight is doomed unless there are powerful advocates at the top.  The CEQ, technically part of the White House, has never had that sort of power.  Somehow, the President and his top advisers need to become convinced that this is a process they cannot ignore.

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce Oversight Subcommittee in May 1982 held hearings on various foresight proposals.  They were summarized in a Congressional Research Service report, but nothing else happened.

The Critical Trends Assessment Act.  During the ’80s, Representative and then Senator Gore repeatedly introduced variants of a bill to create a foresight process within the White House.  He did not press it, and the bill got as far as committee hearings only once.  Three Senate committees on April 30, 1985, held a Joint Hearing on the whole issue of foresight. Senator Gore presented his bill, but the committees took no further action.  (That bill could still be used as the basis for foresight legislation, perhaps as a way of giving force to NEPA.  See below.)

Blueprint for the Environment.  During the 1988 presidential campaign, a coalition of 18 major environmental organizations prepared a “Blueprint for the Environment” for the guidance of the incoming U.S. administration. Among dozens of recommendations on environmental issues, the Blueprint said that “U.S. population pressures threaten the environment all across our nation,”  and gave some examples. It said that family planning and the availability of contraceptives must be expanded worldwide. It recommended “an official population policy for the United States” and said that “We must assure that federal policies and programs promote a balance between population, resources, and environmental quality.”   It went on to propose better decision machinery in the government and a government-wide foresight process reporting directly to the White House Chief of Staff.

Nothing happened.  What is perhaps worse, the environmental organizations that sponsored the Blueprint have, with one exception, subsequently avoided addressing the two things that drive population growth: immigration and fertility.  One did not expect a strong environmental position from President Bush, but the timidity of the environmental organizations themselves is a shocking reminder how far the nation is from a population policy.1

The President’s Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD).  Like President Reagan and the GIWG (above), President Clinton saw that “sustainability” had a constituency; on June 14, 1993, he created the PCSD.  Its mandate was equivocal from the start. The President charged it with helping to “grow the economy and preserve the environment … ,”  objectives that may be expected to conflict. It was a mixed body with members from the Cabinet, environmentalists, labor leaders, industrialists and a mix by sex, race and ethnicity. Population and consumption — two of the critical elements of sustainability — were initially not even in its scope. They were introduced, over opposition, at the instance of Council member and Undersecretary of State Timothy Wirth.

The PCSD showed that even such a diverse group can recognise the need to stop population growth. They were not alone in their inability to face the tough decisione that would be needed to do it.

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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