The Big Picture


A Special Silver Anniversary

2021 and 2022 mark a number of anniversaries and near-anniversaries in the annals of political and scholarly endeavors to understand and oppose human population growth’s increasing encroachment on the environment. It marks about two decades since NumbersUSA began our long-running series of national, regional, and state-level studies investigating the role of our nation’s persistent population growth in accelerating urban sprawl.  It also marks approximately a half-century since the founding of Earth Day, when the population growth factor as a force multiplier of environmental impacts was virtually unchallenged – widely accepted by politicians, environmentalists, and scientists alike.

2021 also marked the quarter-century or silver anniversary of the last high-profile, official government recognition that halting U.S. population growth (population stabilization) needs to be an integral part of any successful policy to safeguard and sustain America’s environment and natural resources.  The year 1996 is when the Clinton White House released the findings of the Population and Consumption Task Force, part of the efforts of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD).

President Bill Clinton established the PCSD early (1993) in his first term because he was inspired by the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 1992, when Clinton was still a candidate. Dubbed the “Earth Summit,” this landmark gathering was attended by 38,000 people, including, famously, the leaders of 130 countries (among them U.S. President George H.W. Bush) – more heads of state than any prior event in world history.

United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (dubbed the “Earth Summit”), 1992

The Earth Summit and the earlier (1987) Brundtland Commission (named for its chairwoman, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway, 1981, 1986-89, and 1990-96; and later Director-General of the World Health Organization, 1998-2003.) popularized the concept of “sustainable development,” which was defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future to meet its own needs. In other words, it was unacceptable for our current generation to mindlessly deplete natural resources and pollute the planet in the here-and-now, while thoughtlessly leaving future generations to fend for themselves on a depleted, polluted planet. 

President Clinton’s PCSD was a bipartisan group of 25 leaders appointed from government, industry, and NGOs, organized into eight task forces.  Each task force addressed various facets of the broad sustainability agenda and drafted recommendations for a National Sustainable Development Action Strategy. The Population and Consumption Task Force, created in 1994, was one of those eight subgroups and its final report was part of that Action Strategy.

Nine members of the Population and Consumption Task Force also served on the wider PCSD.  Two of these nine were prominent Democratic officials:  Tim Wirth, a former U.S. Senator from Colorado, and then Under-Secretary for Global Affairs in the State Department, and Ron Brown, Secretary of Commerce.  Among the other seven were other high-ranking government officials and senior representatives from industry and prominent environmental NGOs, namely the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, and Zero Population Growth.

Another 14 members of the Population and Consumption Task Force were not members of the wider PCSD.   These additional members hailed mostly from academia and other NGOs.  

In late 1994 and early 1995, the Task Force convened roundtables, soliciting both expert presentations and public comment in Washington, D.C.; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and New York City.  It issued its final report and findings in 1996.


The Population and Consumption Task Force’s 1996 report concluded that:

“The size of our population and the scale of our consumption are essential determinants of whether or not the United States will be able to achieve sustainability. U.S. population and consumption trends demonstrate that a great deal of work needs to be done.”

In addition, the 1996 report stated unequivocally that:

“the two most important steps the United States must take toward sustainability are: 1) to stabilize U.S. population promptly; and 2) to move toward greater material and energy efficiency in all production and use of goods and services.” [emphasis added]

More germane to the mission of NumbersUSA, the Task Force report also noted:

“…legal and illegal immigration [are now] at an all-time high. This is a sensitive issue, but reducing immigration levels is a necessary part of population stabilization and the drive toward sustainability.  [emphasis added]

When the Task Force released its findings and recommendations in 1996, the U.S. population was estimated at 263 million; today in 2021 it stands at 331 million, an increase of 68 million Americans, each a user of natural resources and maker of environmental wastes, by the mere act of living and consuming in a modern, affluent society. 

In the quarter-century since the Task Force admonished America to stabilize its population, U.S. population growth has averaged 2.7 million per year, or 27 million per decade.  Clearly its findings and recommendations fell on deaf ears. Indeed, two of the national environmental community’s leading voices on population – the Sierra Club and Zero Population Growth, both of which actually participated in the Task Force – were making it abundantly clear they wanted nothing to do with calls for lower immigration levels, even when those calls emanated from a Democratic administration.