Comment: Why was population boom report ignored for 50 years?

A 1972 report warned of a growing U.S. population. The numbers and impacts have only gotten worse.

By W.J. Van Ry / For The Herald

Apollo 11 wasn’t the only thing soaring higher and capturing Americans’ attention in July 1969.

That month, President Richard Nixon spoke to Congress about an issue causing alarm across the political spectrum: the country’s incredibly rapid population growth. In less than seven decades, the U.S. population had nearly tripled, rising from 76 million in 1900 to 203 million in 1969.

Environmentalists and politicians in both parties worried that, if that growth continued unchecked, it could result in rampant sprawl, pollution and a general decline in ordinary Americans’ quality of life.

And so, with congressional support, Nixon launched “The Commission on Population Growth and the American Future” and appointed Vice President Nelson Rockefeller as chairman. After years of extensive research and public hearings involving business representatives, scientists, politicians and religious leaders, the Rockefeller Commission, as it came to be known, issued its final report in spring 1972.

The commission concluded that “in the long run, no substantial benefits will result from further growth of the nation’s population, rather that the gradual stabilization of our population through voluntary means would contribute significantly to the nation’s ability to solve its problems. We have looked for, and 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.”

But then, President Nixon abruptly rebuked his commission’s work, claiming that its recommendations regarding family planning ran contrary to his Quaker values. Whether his objections were genuine, or simply motivated by the need to keep his conservative base happy, is debatable.

What happened next, though, isn’t debatable.

Business lobbies, sensing a commercial opportunity, started passionately defending the high-growth status quo. More people meant more customers, after all. Corporate interests fiercely opposed any attempts to restrict further growth; and in fact backed policies, such as an expansion of immigration, that increased the population and helped put downward pressure on wages.

Since 1972, the U.S. population has ballooned by more than 130 million people; a 65 percent increase. Urban life in America is now characterized by sprawling megacities riddled with congestion. Chronic housing shortages are causing skyrocketing real estate prices and rents and contributing to rising poverty and homelessness. And we’re rapidly losing open spaces and wildlife habitat, as human development stresses the ecosphere.

This growth shows little sign of slowing. The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts the population will rise another 70 million people by 2060, hitting the 400 million mark.

Washington state has seen faster growth than all but a few areas of the country.

In the Puget Sound Region, the population has more than doubled in the last 50 years. There has been a 125 percent increase in the number of residents rimming the Salish Sea, rising from roughly 2 million in 1972 to 4.5 million today, with another half-million expected in the next ten years according to state forecasts.

The main attraction for those migrating to the region is its beauty, particularly the Salish Sea with its many bays and tributaries. But paradoxically, this natural beauty is under threat from human development. Harmful toxicants are continuously discharged into waterways. Right now, the governor’s task force of marine scientists and experts are doing their best to mitigate the damage, hoping to save the threatened killer whale pods and the salmon runs that feed orca whales.

While once abundant, these runs have been dwindling because of polluted waters, construction in riparian zones, dam and culvert blockages and rising waterway temperatures. Yet, no matter the task force’s achievements in fixing these problems, they’re bound to be undone by the next drove of people. Unless regional growth is constrained soon, the likelihood of the magnificent orcas surviving along with other marine life indigenous to the Salish Sea diminishes with each passing year.

In the 50 years since the Rockefeller Commission’s report, the population has soared. It’s been a boon for corporations, but a bust for the average American, as the ensuing sprawl, pollution and crowding take a heavy toll on the quality of life.

It’s time for Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington’s congressional delegation to revisit that report. Its predictions and warnings were spot-on;- and its solutions are just as relevant today.

W.J. Van Ry is the founder of the Foundation for Human Conservation and a resident of Port Ludlow on the Olympic Peninsula.

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