Population Growth: The ‘Not’ in Not Sustainable

The end of the Cold War freed up more worry time for people inclined to ponder how both the global human and environmental condition might be improved. A report published in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union showed how many other things had careened out of control during the years that we had spent focused on nuclear annihilation as we practiced “duck and cover” in classrooms:

“Since 1900, the world’s population has multiplied more than three times … The consumption of fossil fuels has grown by a factor of 30 and industrial production by a factor of 50. Much of that growth … is unsustainable. Earth’s basic life-supporting capital … is being depleted.”

- Jim MacNeill, Pieter Winsemius and Taizo Yakushiji Beyond Interdependence: The Meshing of the World’s Economy and the Earth’s Ecology (1991)

“Unsustainable.” The word seemed appropriate and was drawn into the expanding global discussion of what to do about the planetary ecological crisis, human poverty and menacing population expansions. Much of this discussion took place during and in the intervals between United Nations conferences where the need for appropriate language to describe our predicament and paths to improvement was keenly felt.

In 1987 there emerged a definition meant to focus the discussion. The 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development published Our Common Future, often called the Brundtland Report, to acknowledge the role of the Prime Minister of Norway. The report defines “Sustainable development” as “development meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Few would have predicted an influential future for a sentence put together by a UN-sponsored body—though Our Common Future sold a million copies in 30 languages. Yet this somewhat opaque sentence has focused the efforts and energies of a widening global discourse. It has served as adequate common ground for action-oriented meetings of economic development experts, environmentalists and elements of the internationalist social justice left.

Its appeal was early evident when an estimated 110 heads of state leading 178 national delegations (depending on your source) and hundreds of economic development officials and NGO representatives met in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 at the UN Conference on Environment and Development, or Earth Summit. The meeting endorsed Sustainable Development, still an elastic idea, and adopted a “plan of action” (Agenda 21) to promote sustainability transformations, working through national and local governments and the private sector.

What followed was, and is, astonishing. Members of an international union of states (the UN), so often at odds on global problems of poverty and overpopulation, had agreed to a plan aiming at global, country-by-country social transformations vaguely defined as achieving Sustainability (henceforth to be capitalized). The official formula for change, Agenda 21, was a ponderous, 250-page (my estimate, since my downloaded copy was not paginated) plodding and unreadable reference manual. The music in all of this was the idea of a contest between “Sustainable” and “Unsustainable Development” in which the former came away from the 1987 and 1992 meetings on the moral high ground.

William Jefferson Clinton, inaugurated as President of the United States in January 1993, was told by State Department executives that he was essentially bound by the Rio agreement, unless he wanted to make one big fuss. He must launch governmental plans for aiming at and achieving Sustainability—however one did that—and complete this planning by 2002. Clinton is not on record as to what must have been his surprise at discovering that one of his presidential duties had been drawn up by a foreign mega-government, and also that many Americans were keenly interested in both Unsustainability and Sustainability, and not merely as analytical games.

But I get ahead of the story. In June 1993, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12852 establishing a President’s Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD). The group of some 25 citizens met that month and kept meeting for six years. Charged with clarifying Sustainability’s dimensions and advising the President, they delivered a final report to Clinton in 1999. Along the way, it was discovered that the topic had both unifying and divisive dimensions.

Task Forces (TFs) were formed in summer 1993 and began their work on climate change, environmental management, policies to foster U.S. leadership in sustainable development internationally, and metropolitan and rural strategies.

But no TF was assigned population growth, someone noticed months later. Apparently, some quarrels of the past were hovering around Clinton’s PCSD. The dramatic and unprecedented increase of the planet’s human population had been virtually ignored in the U.S. until the mid-century publication and large readership of books by ecologist William Vogt, author of Road to Survival (1948), and Fairfield Osborn, who served as president of the New York Zoological Society and penned Our Plundered Planet (1948).

Then came the large impact of Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb in 1967. Seven recent presidents—Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter—had either expressed personal concern over the problems that came with the tripling of world population since 1940 (Truman) or had commissioned reports on the subject (the other six).

President Richard Nixon sponsored the influential report of the Rockefeller Commission on Population Growth and the American Future (1972) recommending that the U.S. “welcome and plan for a stable population.” These presidential warnings spurred some “family planning” additions to U.S. foreign aid and also significant controversy.

From both Third and First Worlds came objections that “overpopulation” critiques “blamed the victim” and diverted attention and resources away from the real problems of developing societies, which were primarily poverty and environmental pollution, along with other forms of “over-consumption” within and spilling out of the wealthy developed world.

Authors such as Julian Simon and Ben Wattenberg gained brief attention in the 1980s for their ecologically uninformed arguments that continued population growth was a good idea and should be welcomed and encouraged. This Cornucopian school collapsed, but the overpopulation position had somehow come under a stifling moral shadow. In the ‘90s there was an internecine fight among Sierra Club members and leadership with some urging a population stabilization policy, while others deemed the stance racist and anti-immigrant.

Given this history, some person (or persons) involved in assigning work to PCSD’s task forces—possibly Vice-President Al Gore, who was asked to assume informal oversight—decided to quietly dodge the population issue entirely by leaving it without a Task Force to put it into play. This lasted a year, when someone (rumored to be Timothy Wirth, the first Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs for the U.S. State Department) noticed and either complained or warned of future complaints. Without fanfare or (recorded) comment a final Task Force was formed and assigned “Population and Consumption.”

It began work a year after the others, but tackled its artificially matched two issues with zest and courage. When interim reports were requested in 1996, the population/consumption TF was ready with a decisive response. The Executive Summary stated, “The size of our population and the scale of our consumption are essential determinants of whether the U.S. will be able to achieve sustainability.

“Therefore, the two most important steps the U.S. must take are 1) to stabilize U.S. population promptly and 2) to move toward material and energy efficiency in all production. Goal #1 of the U.S. should be the stabilization of our population as early as possible in the next century. Since one-third of U.S. population growth comes from legal and illegal immigration, now at an all-time high, reducing immigration levels is a necessary part of population stabilization and the drive toward Sustainability. We recommend policies that reduce illegal immigration.”

“Stabilization of our population as early as possible …” This was too strong for the larger Council, which in the final report in 1999 sent Clinton ten “goals,” one being labeled with the word “Population,” followed by “Move toward stabilization of U.S. population.” Move toward? That could mean shrinking our national population by one person a year. There was no entity to guide the “move toward” and no timetable.

The media coverage of the Council’s 1999 report for Clinton was brief and not long-lasting. Conservative Republican George Bush moved into the White House within months, and the smart money as well as the not-so-smart must have been saying goodbye to this new cause—Sustainability. Here a great surprise began. President Bush was correctly judged to have no affinity for a UN-generated “strategic plan” along those (and any other) lines.

Yet, there was nothing for him to dismantle, as Clinton had created no structures but PCSD, which finally ended in early summer 1999. Through his two terms, Bush contented himself with presiding over an administration known to be hostile to Sustainability, and the term “largely disappeared from the Washington vocabulary during 2001 and 2008,” wrote Norman Vig and Michael Kraft in the 8th edition of their influential text on environmental policy.

It seemed time to usher in the scholars to write the obituary assessments. A law professor at Widener University, John C. Dernbach, working out of the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, undertook to edit a collection of articles assessing the American experience exploring and pursuing Sustainability and Agenda 21 during the years of Clinton’s Council. The resulting volume, Stumbling Toward Sustainability (2002), is immense—1004 pages—and illuminating.

As Dernbach wrote in his introductory essay: “The U.S. is now far from being a sustainable society” despite recent efforts in the ‘90s and before, and “in many respects is farther away.” There is “a lot of bad news” in the form of population growth, greenhouse gas emission increases, and the absence of a strategy for dealing with climate change.

Surely the gloomiest essay was “Population,” by Anne Ehrlich and James Salzman, which found the rapid, immigration-driven population growth of contemporary America “appear again and again as a root cause of poverty, desertification, and greenhouse gas emissions—a broad overshoot of the nation’s carrying capacity.”

There was activity everywhere—as educated citizens and especially environmentalists knew—strides toward energy efficiency, water and air pollution monitoring, hazardous waste management—old news. And there was new, “breaking news” that Dernbach and his authors almost buried in the book’s heft—Sustainability programs and projects on university and school campuses, among civic groups, at every governmental level.

Viewing it all, Sustainability in America was not close or even getting closer, but it was politically and socially “hot,” and the action was not mostly in Washington. “In virtually every area of American life, a few people and organizations are exercising leadership for sustainability,” Dernbach wrote. This could be seen in federal agencies, state and local governments, corporations, universities and high schools. While Stumbling Toward Sustainability did not use these words, it seemed that a social movement was emerging across the nation, borrowing from environmentalism, but somehow distinctive.

In a 2009 book of essays, Agenda for a Sustainable America, Dernbach and his authors once again had mixed news. “The United States is not on the verge of actually becoming sustainable. Far from it. Since 2002, we have most often moved in the wrong direction.” The good news is that “we are at least reaching a point where decision makers understand issues within a sustainability framework.” Moreover, “the pace, scope and intensity of sustainable development activity has increased in the U.S. since 2002. In virtually every area of American life the number of people exercising leadership toward sustainability … has greatly increased.”

Towns, states, corporations, universities and churches declared that they were Sustainable, or intended to be by some certain date. My campus of the University of California, Santa  Barbara boasted 35 student organizations working on sustainability. Sustainablizing high schools in Oregon built haybale-lined classrooms to control air quality. Mayor Greg Nickels of  Seattle invited mayors elsewhere to join the

effort to reduce greenhouse gases. By 2006 some 250 cities had joined, many—like Seattle—establishing an Office of Sustainability and the Environment. The “new idea” in urban/suburban development, Smart Growth, now marched under the Sustainability banner, and builders sought LEED awards at Sustainability conferences.

Washington, when Obama replaced Bush, was rushing to catch up with the grassroots. On October 5 of his first year in office Obama signed Executive Order 13514 requiring federal agencies to set goals and make “improvements in environmental, energy and economic performance.” A Director of Sustainability now operates out of an office in the Department of Agriculture, for example.

A new social movement with both domestic and international roots seems to be stirring in the country, and is already attracting criticism from part of the American Right. Talk show host Glenn Beck tracks the Sustainability activity as a sort of sinister foreign-born force that Marxism once represented, as does Henry Lamb of Sovereignty International, the Republican National Committee and doubtless others.

Environmentalists who welcome the “sharing” element in Sustainability are sometimes uneasy with its ambiguities. Sierra Club Chairman Michael McCloskey welcomed “the high hope and fine aspiration represented by the concept.” But today, we need a line of thought that can be extended rationally “into research (and) planning,” when Sustainability seems “no more than a boon to publicists,” wrote Marc Allen Eisner in Governing the Environment: the Transformation of Environmental Regulation (2009).

A more fundamental problem is intellectual intimidation. Nothing can be made Sustainable that is endlessly growing in numbers, least of all that most environment-disturbing element—human beings. The literature on Sustainability shuns discussion of the need for population stabilization, doubtless cowed by the need to advocate immigration reduction.

The need for that discussion was a reality bravely faced by the Population and Consumption Task Force and in an essay in Stumbling Toward Sustainability by Anne Ehrlich and James Salzman. Sadly, “immigration reform” moves through the political system in 2013 without a serious debate over the population-expanding implications of a new amnesty for illegals and larger guestworker flows.

Sustainability leaders are as silent on human numbers as the overlapping leadership of environmentalism. They have forgotten the truth well stated by Paul Ehrlich:

"Whatever the cause, it's a lost cause without population control."


Selected Sources:

  • Clinton, Bill, Executive Order 12852, President’s Council on Sustainable Development, http://clinton5.nara.gov/PCSD
  • Dernbach, John C., Stumbling Toward Sustainability (2002) and Agenda for a Sustainable America (2009)
  • Eisner, Marc Allen, Governing the Environment: the Transformation of Environmental Regulation (2009)
  • The WorldWatch Institute, State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?
  • Worster, Donald, Nature’s Economy, A History of Ecological Ideas (1977)