Sustainability, Part II: A Proposal to Foundations

To its credit, the Council, in its report presented in March 1996, called for a “Move toward stabilization of U.S. population” (Goal 8) and said that “The United States should have policies and programs that contribute to stabilizing global human population …”  (Principle 12). It remained equivocal, however, as to the broader issue of growth itself. ” … some things must grow — jobs, productivity, wages, capital and savings, profits …”  It did not address the likelihood that more workers with higher productivity are likely to increase environmental stress, even with efforts at amelioration, and that growth itself is at some point unsustainable.  It did not, in other words, explore what sustainability really is.  It avoided the problem of how to stabilize population, by leaving fertility up to “responsible” individual decisions and avoiding positions on abortion or on immigration levels.

The President was “pleased … to accept” the report.2  This is a small footnote to history.  The report and the President’s acceptance of it, casual as it was, constitute the first explicit acceptance by a President of the proposition that U.S. population should stop growing.  Let it be said in its behalf that the Council showed that even such a diverse group can recognize the need to stop population growth.  They were not alone in their inability to face the tough decisions that would be needed to do it.  (The PCSD, in truncated form, has been extended through 1998, with a mandate to collaborate with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in sketching out a “new environmental management system for the 21st Century”, to address the climate issue, work on developing “sustainable metropolitan communities” and participate in “relevant” U.S. international delegations — but not to work further on the population issue.)

Presidents, one might conclude, prefer the appearance of action on sustainability to the substance — unless, perhaps, they are forced by sustained pressure and an aroused public.

The Science Advisory Board of EPA in January 1995 issued a set of recommendations titled Beyond the Horizon: Using Foresight to Protect the Environmental Future (EPA-SAB-EC-95-007). It started with the recommendations that

As much attention should be given to avoiding future environmental problems as to controlling current ones. … EPA should establish an early-warning system to identify potential future environmental risks.

First among the “forces of change” they listed was “The continuing growth in human populations, and the concentration of growing populations in large urban areas …” .

Nothing, so far, has come of the Advisory Board’s recommendation.

A principal lesson to be learned from this gloomy recital is that temporary groups or projects cannot move the nation on issues so vast and complicated as these.  Moreover, none of the projects had a specific “peg” — a current issue or pending decision to which they were relevant and which forced their conclusions into policy making.3  A report published in a vacuum tends to disappear, particularly if it calls for difficult actions.

Mobilizing for Action

Those initiatives have come and gone without perceptibly affecting national decisions.  Let us ask whether some other approach might fare better.

Several private foundations have been attempting with limited success to make population growth into a national issue.  I would propose a new and central focus for their approach:  that they consider creating and supporting a long-term, systematic foresight process outside of government.  It would call attention to the demographic consequences of proposed actions and warn of the effects of population growth on those proposed policies.  It would, in effect, be a “think tank” that would inform national decision-making on a continuing basis.  Most of its effort would be given to the analysis of current governmental policies and legislative proposals.

The project should probably hook into the environmental community’s current enthusiasm for “sustainability”.  It is a popular idea (see Forum paper “Sustainability, Part I”).  It is a good one-word summary of the goals of environmentalism.  It permits a somewhat broader focus and is probably a better slogan for mobilizing people than the words “population policy”.

As a convenient shorthand, I will refer to my proposal as the “Sustainability Project.”

Why a Private Initiative Is Needed.  In the face of governmental inaction, the situation cries out for such a project: a permanent, small, like-minded group of people with sufficient funding to call upon experts and assemble them to exercise the foresight function.

It would be, in effect, a continuing private foresight institute to hold the government’s feet to the fire, to point out the consequences for sustainability of

  • current trends,
  • proposed governmental initiatives, or
  • legislative proposals,

and to point the way toward sustainable policies.

Praise for “sustainability” is worthless unless it is translated into policy when new initiatives are afoot.  Speeches aside, Congress and the Administration do not address “sustainability” directly.  Rather, it is advanced or set back by policies or legislation that are ostensibly directed toward quite different ends: welfare; health; employment; trade; land use; agricultural price supports and the Conservation Reserve Program; immigration regulation; budgetary decisions.  Decisions in those areas are likely to affect the rate of resource use, the environment, or immigration, fertility and U.S. population growth.  Most of those issues, and many others, will come up for decisions in the next several years.  There must be a way of showing how each of them affects our future.

Such a project should be focused on the United States.  One issue might indeed be the level of U.S. support for third world population or environmental programs — in their interest and ours — but anodyne generalizations about other people’s problems are a popular way to avoid our own.  Sustainability is unachievable unless we focus on our own future.

There are of course other think tanks addressing one aspect or another of sustainability, but

  • they almost never address the population aspects;
  • they tend to be focused on one issue (e.g. energy, or mineral resources, or forests) rather than on the cross-disciplinary character of what we are doing to our society and the environment; and
  • they tend to have their own schedules and priorities, rather than engaging in true foresight — identifying the cross-sectoral implications of decisions currently contemplated.

What the Project Would Be.  It would consist of an ongoing secretariat directed by a small governing group.  It could be a new organization or perhaps be attached to an existing environmental or resource group if one can be found sufficiently courageous to sponsor a project that might be highly controversial.  If so, the project would still take its directions from its own governing board, not from the larger organization.

It should not be a broad membership organization, because servicing a national membership can be a distraction from the pursuit of focused policies.  It would be an action group dedicated to the proposition of sustainability, not a debating club.  There is no shortage of debates, elsewhere.  It will need to hammer away at its agenda: how does a proposed action affect demographic growth?  with what consequences?  how does population growth affect the prospects of success for a particular policy?  Simply stating the need for sustainability is not enough.

It would enlist academics from various disciplines, either in-house or on a cooperative basis with universities and research centers.  They would be organized to interact and thus provide the interdisciplinary input that is the soul of foresight.  Cooperatively, they would produce papers targeted to specific issues and longer periodic analyses.

This arrangement would have valuable byproducts.  Those academics would themselves become familiar with interdisciplinary research and might indeed promote it.  If they passed that knowledge and enthusiasm on to their students, it might help to build a new generation of leadership that is less afflicted than the present one with tunnel vision.  Academics concerned about present cross-sectoral trends would be introduced to the press and the general public and would get a better hearing for their views.

What It Would Do.  One can envisage several productive areas of activity.

  • Briefing Papers.  The most immediate product would be targeted papers discussing the likely consequences of specific trends and proposed policies.  The Project would need to promote and market those analyses, bringing them particularly to the attention of the media and to the congressional or executive offices involved.
  • Polls. The public is in many respects ahead of its “leaders” — who may be responding to money or power more than to public opinion.  This is certainly true of the immigration issue, where the public sees the impact of high immigration levels on its own well-being, but Congress does not respond.  If that public feeling is identified and mobilized, Congress cannot ignore it so easily.
  • News Conferences are a natural vehicle to mobilize the media, to call attention to the Project’s studies and polls, or to publicize more ambitious projects such as those below.
  • Periodic “State of the Nation Reports.”   Perhaps in time, as the experts develop their interactive capabilities, there could be periodic private “Global 2000 Reports” (briefer than the original, and centered on the demographic connections) assessing where the nation is heading and showing the interaction of trends and how they influence the pursuit of national goals.  In this as in its other work, the Project would presumably couch its conclusions in the language of education, not of advocacy.
  • The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). The law is not being enforced, because it gets in the way of decision makers.  Congress from the beginning exempted its own activities from NEPA.  While the strict application of the EIS process, as it has evolved, would have to be modified to deal with Presidential decision making, a determined private group might be able to force the application of NEPA to national decisions.  That in itself would be a long step toward institutionalizing the pursuit of sustainability.  Environmental organizations have used NEPA and the courts to force their viewpoint into more limited decisions; it is high time to make more ambitious use of the Act.
  • Governmental Foresight.  There may be a singular opportunity in the next few years to promote better foresight and more sustainable policies within the government.  I have described the Critical Trends Assessment Act which Representative/Senator Al Gore proposed to Congress from time to time but never pressed.  As Vice President he has been silent on it.  However, he understands the need for foresight and has educated himself in the issue.  To be of real use in influencing policy, the office he proposed should be placed more directly in the line of authority than it is in his bill, but that flaw can be remedied.  The remarkable thing about that bill — and the reason that the opportunity exists — is that Newt Gingrich sponsored it in the House when Gore sponsored it in the Senate.  Here is a wonderful chance for productive bipartisan statesmanship.  The Sustainability Project could urge that that bill be revived and passed
  • “The Coalition for Sustainability”.  It might be useful for the Project to organize the most diverse possible coalition to popularize the concept of sustainability, as coalitions have done for the environment.  It should go beyond statements about the social interest.  Most people must be convinced of the importance of sustainability in advancing their own interests.  Otherwise, immediate individual interest overrides long term social interest, and sustainability remains a platitude while the nation undermines it.

Such a coalition could support demands for improved foresight capability in government.  It might take positions on specific legislation.  It could support a general educational campaign on sustainability.

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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