Concerns over U.S. population growth date back to Nixon era

Published on April 27th, 2012

April 1, 2012
By Tom Horton

"One of the most serious challenges to human destiny in the last third of this century will be the growth of the population."

Richard M. Nixon, July 1969.

President Nixon’s words launched a bipartisan commission that spent more than two years considering a question radical today even for most environmental groups – should the United States keep growing?

Had the conclusions of "Population and The American Future," the remarkable report released 40 years ago this spring, been heeded, it’s possible that the Chesapeake and the U.S. environment would have been substantially healthier.

Environmental protection when Nixon spoke was scant compared to today’s assemblage of laws, regulations and dedicated organizations for protecting air, water and land.

Yet it was thinkable then to debate limits on the U.S. population and economic growth, the two major drivers of so many environmental pressures.

Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich’s 1969 book, "The Population Bomb," was outselling Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring," and Ehrlich appeared on Johnny Carson. In 1972, a group of MIT scientists issued the landmark "Limits to Growth" report that began the debate, still ongoing, about whether humans are living sustainably on the planet.

The first Earth Day, in April 1970, carried a clear message that slowing population growth was key to environmental protection.

From President Lyndon Johnson to Martin Luther King, Jr., public figures in the 1960s began to acknowledge the need to pay attention to population.

"As president, I thought birth control was not the business of our federal government, but as the facts changed my mind I have come to believe that the population explosion is the world’s most critical problem," said Dwight Eisenhower in 1968.

These themes echoed through "Population and the American Future." Known as the Rockefeller Commission after its chair, John D. Rockefeller III, the panel included doctors and lawyers, academics and union officials, sociologists, economists, bankers, politicians, students and a "housewife."

It concluded: "no substantial benefits will result from further growth of the nation’s population," The U.S. population then was 206 million. The panel envisioned it peaking by 2030 at around 280 million, 30 million fewer than today.

That would have meant that the Bay watershed population, which roughly tracks national growth, peaking at a couple of million less than it is already. No peak for the U.S. or Chesapeake population is currently being sought.

Projections show close to half a billion residents and 24 million residents, respectively, for nation and Bay shortly after mid-century, and continuing upward.

The 1972 report continued: "We have not found any convincing economic argument for continued population growth. The health of our country does not depend on it, nor does the vitality of business, nor the welfare of the average person."

In fact, there was "hardly any social problem confronting this nation whose solution would be easier if our population were larger…our country can no longer afford the uncritical acceptance that more is better…we should concern ourselves with improving the quality of life for all Americans rather than merely adding more Americans."

The report was sober about the fundamental value changes that would be required; and made it clear that reducing growth was no substitute for social, economic and environmental policies. But reducing population pressures would give all other measures "breathing room" to work and "more options."

For the Chesapeake Bay, whose oxygen levels and seagrasses were beginning to crash about the time of the report’s publication, it is not hard to imagine environmental policies of the last few decades bearing more fruit in the absence of rapid population growth.

On the Patuxent River for example, one of the Bay’s most troubled tributaries, and also recipient of some of the most intensive and expensive pollution controls, the population has risen since the 1960s by nearly 16-fold.

His group was unsure initially whether slowing population growth would harm the economy, recalled Charles Westoff, a Princeton University population expert who was executive director of the Rockefeller Commission.

"Economists then and now are all over the place on the connections between population and economic health. But as we began to look at the differences between a nation averaging two kids per family and three, we realized (fewer children) wasn’t going to have serious implications on per capita income, and would probably improve it," Westoff said in a recent interview.

Three conclusions emerged from their study of population stability and the economy: There would be overall benefits to the average citizen; growth would continue for decades under even a stable population policy, giving time for adjustment; and the adjustments businesses always make in response to changing tastes, technological innovation and competition far exceed anything demanded by adapting to slower growth.

Immigration in 1972 was not the major force causing the United States to grow that it is today (See "Reports say reducing immigration crucial to restoring environment," on page 5.); but it was growing – around 400,000 entrants a year, up substantially from the 1960s; and illegal immigration seemed to be picking up, too.

What to do about immigration caused the most controversy among commission members, Westoff recalled. They reached consensus to cap it at 400,000 a year, more than some members wished.

When the commission report appeared, Nixon was running for re-election and the nation’s Catholic Church leaders "were against everything in it," Westoff says. Nixon never signed off on it. In addition, births to native-born Americans by then were at a low level (less than two children per woman, on average).

The Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision the next year made abortion a more heated issue. Leaders in the womens’ rights movement like Congresswoman Bella Abzug came to see population control as counter to reproductive rights, Westoff said. Another setback came with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, which began a right-wing challenge to environmentalism that continues today.

Calls for slowing U.S. population growth and for capping immigration were raised periodically: by a 1978 commission chaired by Notre Dame President Theodore M. Hesburgh; by yet another commission chaired by Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan in the 1990s; and by a 1996 presidential commission on sustainable development. But growth ruled.

The Rockefeller Commission had written in 1972 that: "We can cope with population growth for another half century if we have to…the question is whether we want to (because) in so doing we shall pay a cost reckoned not in dollars but in our way of life."

"Most of the consequences we predicted, socially, environmentally and economically have happened," said Marilyn DeYoung. Mother of five, she was the "housewife" on the commission and was then the wife of the late Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler and a friend of the Nixons in California.

She eventually left the Catholic Church over their opposition to population controls, DeYoung said. She is now chairwoman of Californians for Population Stabilization and is writing a history of the Rockefeller Commission.

Westoff still works on population, but mostly in Africa. He sees little chance the commission’s message will be heeded soon. "I think business drives things now, and they see more people, more customers. They’re supported by economists who at best regard population as an extraneous variable, not really central to any problems."

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