Who Would Have Thought Richard Nixon a Visionary?


In 1960, Richard Nixon gave a speech on the country’s agricultural problems to a group in South Dakota (link) in which he noted that “population here and elsewhere is growing at a remarkable rate.”  He also noted that beef consumption per capita had increased by more than 40% in less than 20 years, from 56 to over 80 pounds per person per year, or about a quarter pound per day, a pattern very similar to what is seen in rapidly developing countries now (for meat, not necessarily beef).  This certainly sounds prophetic as, 48 years later, we watch improving standards of living in the developing countries combining with burgeoning overpopulation to produce a global consumption binge such as the planet has never seen before.

At the time of Nixon’s speech, U.S. farm prices were being depressed by huge surpluses, and Nixon was working on a number of programs to address the problem, including the development overseas markets to reduce the surpluses.  He cited in his speech that “the great majority of people on this globe are hungry or undernourished”, and would welcome the chance to buy American food.  He also pointed out that “we see the world population growing at an amazing speed. Some experts expect it to double in 40 years, going from 3 to 6 billion.”  and that U.S. population would was expected to grow from 180 million (in 1969) “by 30 to 50 million in the next 10 years and by 50 to 90 million in the next 20 years.”  While his speech was focused on measures to help the agricultural community, it is still significant that the population growth projections he cited were so accurate.  

In another speech, to congress in 1969 (link), Nixon spoke with impressive clarity about the risks to social and economic progress resulting from rapid population growth.  At that time the United States was providing family planning assistance to many countries around the world, and President Nixon detailed his orders to many parts of the U.S. government to place much greater emphasis on measures to deal with population growth.  In particular, he cited a report chaired by John D. Rockefeller, III, as stating that high rates of population growth “impair individual rights, jeopardize national goals, and threaten international stability.”  I believe this has since been proven out, except that the press, and perhaps culture, in North America at least, have continually swept it under the rug, keeping it from being part of the public knowledge and context.

The report to which Nixon was referring, “World Population, A Challenge to the United Nations and Its System of Agencies” (abstract), made it clear that population growth was even then an extremely serious problem in developing countries.  One example it gave of economic impact of population growth was that “if GNP is growing at 5%/year in a society with a stable population, it would take 12 years to double per capita income; if population is growing at 2.4%/year, it would take 27 years to achieve a doubling in income.”  This adds to the understanding of the success of China’s now-30-year-old “One-Child Family” law (link).  If China has actually avoided 300 million births since the law was put in place, as they claim, or even 60 million births, as skeptics estimate, it has certainly been a significant help in their economic success. 

Nixon also clearly stated that “pressing problems are also posed for advanced industrial countries when their populations increase at the rate that the United States, for example, must now anticipate. Food supplies may be ample in such nations, but social supplies–the capacity to educate youth, to provide privacy and living space, to maintain the processes of open, democratic government–may be grievously strained.”  I submit that our current issues with an administration that has established significant and undue influence on the judicial branch of government with the help of its political party’s long control of the legislature, are direct evidence of a “grievously strained” democratic process.   

Perhaps more importantly, Nixon was not afraid to talk about population growth, as politicians and the press appear to be today.  He also supported the idea that the U.N. should have a major role in efforts to reduce population growth rates worldwide.  It is unfortunate that our current administration has continued and intensified policies and actions that undermine the United Nations, undoubtedly influenced by conservative interest groups that have opposed the United Nations since its inception.  It is even more tragic that our current administration has systematically reduced, hindered, and limited family planning aid to developing and underdeveloped countries, and certainly done nothing about overpopulation in the United States.  As a blogger I read somewhere recently said, “If the U.S. isn’t overpopulated, then why must we rely on foreign nations for more than half of our energy supplies?”

In any case, I am amazed to find out just how much was brought into the politics of our country concerning the overpopulation by Richard Nixon.  It is troubling that so little action was ever taken, and how far in the opposite direction the current administration has gone.  I am amazed, however, at what a visionary Richard Nixon was, in spite of his many faults and problems.

interesting reading:
Richard Nixon’s Speech at the 1960 Soil Conservation Field Days, Sioux Falls, SD, Sept. 23, 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon
Special Message to the Congress on Problems of Population Growth, July 18, 1969, President Richard Nixon
World population: A challenge to the United Nations and its system agencies, abstract, 1969, the United Nations Association of the United States of America National Policy Panel 
Compilation of Recommendations of The Commission on Population Growth and the American Future,  The 1972 Rockefeller Commission Report on U. S. Population, announced by President Richard Nixon on May 5, 1972

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7 responses to “Who Would Have Thought Richard Nixon a Visionary?

  1. Since when energy resources are energy resources determined by population level?

    Energy Usage is increasingly not been related to population level since the amount of electronics the average household uses has generally increased over the past decades.

    I do give Nixon credit for starting the EPA but I suspect on the overpopulation issue he was perhaps one of those individuals who fell for the hype relating to overpopulation instead of looking at the reality that increasing population has not been a doom for the USA. I’ll have to check but soon was the food shortage (which hasn’t materialized to this very day and doesn’t appear likely to) written about in the Population Bomb predicted to arrive?

  2. I noticed that I had a typo in the first sentence which should have read “Since when are energy resources determined by population level?”

    Sorry about that, though I think it still is a good question to ask.

  3. I guess I don’t see overpopulation as hype. As I think I wrote in my “about” page, I noticed a surprising increase in population in my teens (the ’60’s), visible in the number of cities of 1 million or more. Understanding that humans have only been “civilizing” for a blink of an eye, in planetary terms, and that we’ve gone from a handful of cities of that size to over a hundred now with 3 million or more, and in less than two centuries … that’s scary, and reveals a rate of change that is simply staggering.

    I sometimes wonder if humans will flare and burn out in a completely uncontrolled way, like bacteria in a lab dish, or adjust but with very tough times like a population of lemmings, or if we’re really smart enough to manage our own population and move to sustainability.
    I’d prefer the latter, and am writing this blog to help.
    Thanks for your comments – Tim

  4. I hope I’m not harsh in the way I say it but I actually see overpopulation as being far from the most important issue.

    I’m not concerned if cities have of 3 million people in them. Those numbers don’t bother me. The question I have is what do those people do. The comparison between bacteria and humans doesn’t work because bacteria don’t have to the ability to choose to build highways, coal power plants, SUVs and a number of other things that have an impact on the environment beyond what the actual individual does him or herself.

    Something I think is of concern, especially in the USA (the current top polluter in the world) is that the ability to pollute is more defined by wealth and development level than the actual number of people. Both China and India have had more people than we (the US) for a long time and it is only recently that China is projected to pass the USA in terms of pollution output.

    How is China surpassing us…. they are industrializing at a rapid pace with little regard for the environment. The 1 child policy has effectively made it so China industrializes without the corresponding population boom that happened in other nations when they went through the same process. The pollution output has been shooting up because China is still building 1 new coal power plant a week to provide power to new Chinese factories and an increasing class of Chinese consumers and their toys (which are increasing like our toys). As I said before, this is happening without a major jump in population. In an odd way it is like society is exchanging new members for new trinkets and machines. And this is actually worse for the environment because those new trinkets and machines run on coal and oil. The carbon from these buried fuel supplies is then added to the Carbon cycle on the surface of the planet where it increases global warming and may even slowly be changing Ocean pH. It would have been better for the environment if China had kept having more people instead of more factories.

    Resource use and pollution output has stopped being related to the number of people there are and started being related to the number and type of devices people have (as they are sometimes the direct cause of pollution). And we don’t have to have alot of people to have devices-which goes to my reference to the increasing number of electronics in the average US home.

    If anything I’ll be most concerned with the environment when I hear of the world population leveling off or slowing declining as this will likely happen when a significant enough portion of the world will be developed enough that people living there will have tried to gain consumption levels, lifestyles, and workplaces that may mirror those of the US. And I’m pretty sure someone in Bangladesh doesn’t have as many things and the corresponding pollution output as someone in the USA. If it wasn’t for immigration our population in the US would be shrinking (like it is in Europe), but this doesn’t mean that we (or Europe for that matter) cannot pollute faster than before.

    Well, not you see why I think of overpopulation concerns as more of a distraction for environmentalists than anything else. Also I know that Malthus (who many supporters of population control view as visionary) talked alot about food shortages and the world has been proving him wrong for 200+ years. What I’ve mentioned in other blogs as a good topic is why, in world where we produce more than enough food to overfeed everyone on the earth, do we find that people aren’t getting enough food (the food that is there isn’t distributed).

  5. I appreciate your comments, Nathaniel, but I don’t think you can control what people do, which is why I promote education and consciousness-raising efforts. I don’t think it matters, either, if we are polluting our environment with “personal waste” like bacteria or high tech waste – we can still create population limiting circumstances I think you and I would both like to avoid. Certainly lower consumption reduces the environmental impact of individuals, but if the number of individuals continues to grow at a high rate, the results are the same.

    I think your point is unclear about “It would have been better for the environment if China had kept having more people instead of more factories.” In fact, people and their consumption, which has a lower limit, are what drives the number of factories. It is hard to have more people and less factories, especially for a fast growing economy like China’s.

    I don’t agree that overpopulation is a “distraction for environmentalists”, but see it rather as a root cause. With less population growth, we have more time to figure out how to limit our population ourselves rather than having mother nature do it for us, which could be quite a bit more unpleasant. In the end we all wind up being “environmentalists”, or we are part of the problem. As for food production, I don’t expect distribution systems to ever be equitable. It is certain, however, that at our current rate of population growth the point where we can’t feed everyone is very near, perhaps within three decades – not even a blink of the eye in historical time. Our ability to react in time and prevent famine on a larger scale than we’ve seen before is limited, and the long term, sustainable solution must involve stabilizing population at a growth rate of zero. That is a huge challenge, which is why I focus so much on it here.
    Thanks again for your comments – Tim

  6. …or maybe Nixon just had good speech writers.

  7. It is interesting that Nixon was apparently listening to his experts and taking their advice to heart, unlike the G. W. Bush administration. Nixon may have been widely hated, and he certainly went too far in the interest of partisan politics, but he must have wanted to do the right thing at some points.

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