Dr. John H. Tanton biography foreword by Richard D. Lamm

Biography: Mary Lou & John Tanton: A Journey into American Conservation by John F. Rohe.

This is much more than a book about two very talented people. It is also a book that articulately illustrates two powerful themes. First, it is an insight into how new viewpoints gain a foothold in the world of ideas (perhaps more specifically it is about the emergence of new and heretical ideas). Second, it is a lesson on how people from even remote parts of America can assert their ideas by the power of their message, the wisdom of their strategies, and the strength of their personalities.

The world of ideas is always in flux, but occasionally certain old, deeply established ideas are in need of revolution. "In every age there is a turning-point, a new way of seeing and asserting the coherence of the world," says Bronowski in The Ascent of Man. Copernicus caused a revolution in how humankind saw the universe, Darwin in how we viewed the human place in the natural order, Freud in how we think about the unconscious, and Betty Friedan in the way we view women's roles in modern society. All these individuals and many more were branded heretics. But John Rohe wisely reminds us of George Bernard Shaw's statement that "All great truths begin as blasphemies" when referring to the work of Mary Lou and John Tanton.

Giving birth to a new vision is one of the great challenges of history. These new ways of "asserting the coherence in the world," however logical, do not come easy. Reformers always face entrenched opposition from the status quo and more than a few have lost their lives trying to assert a new coherence. The status quo is always protected by an army of conformists blocking the door. James Joyce observed that "It's as painful to be awakened from a vision as to be born."

This is not true in the world of innovation or technology. Technological change usually forces itself on a competitive society. Technology does not wait for a consensus. It diffuses speedily through competition and the marketplace. Miss the latest technological advance and you could be out of business. Alvin Toffler describes the results of this process: "Western society for the past 300 years has been caught up in a fire storm of change. This storm, far from abating, now appears to be gathering force. Change sweeps through the highly industrialized countries with waves of ever accelerating speed and unprecedented impact." Consequently we have a great imbalance between change in the real world and how tradition and public policy react to that change.

The Tantons often ask cosmic questions, forcing us to see the consequences of present change. I remember well when John pointed out that the original U.S. Census in 1790 found four million. John observed that meant in our short two-hundred-year history that we have had six doublings of that original number (4, 8, 16, etc.) and that with only two more doublings, we would be a nation of more than a billion people. He asked, is that what we wanted for our grandchildren?

All his listeners knew the movement had a new metaphor. Typical of the type of questions the Tantons ask is "What is our nation's demographic destiny?" We define the world by the questions we ask and we have too few people like the Tantons asking long-range questions. These two creative minds saw twenty-five years ago that "how many" and "who" would soon become controversial issues in most of the world's nations. John, in his 1975 Mitchell Prize essay, recognized that these would be particularly painful questions in the United States, with its tradition of immigration. Yes, the United States could physically absorb more people, but what would that mean to our quality of life? Increasingly, citizens of this nation (and citizens of most states and regions) are asking the following questions: "Why do we want additional population growth?" "Who benefits?" "What public policy reasons are there to double the population of Michigan or Colorado?" "Why would America want to leave its grandchildren a nation of one billion people?"

The Tantons, years before most other environmentalists, saw that our nation's demographic future had shifted from an unalterable given to an alterable variable-from something we blindly inherited to something we consciously determine. Yes, earlier environmentalists had known that the world institutions atavistically promoted population growth and were starting to ask heretical questions about population limits. But most of us had not focused on how important immigration was to this challenge in the United States. Even today, most experts are uncomfortable about nation-specific population and look at population only from a worldwide viewpoint. In 1992, the U.S. Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London warned:

If the current predictions of population growth prove accurate and patterns of human activity on the planet remain unchanged, science and technology may not be able to prevent either irreversible degradation of the environment or continued poverty for much of the world.

In the same year the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a "World Scientists Urgent Warning to Humanity," signed by 1,600 of the world's leading scientists, including 102 Nobel Prize winners. It stated that the continuation of destructive human activities...

...may so alter the living world that it will be unable: to sustain life in the manner that we know. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.

These are not ordinary public policy questions. They are life-and-death questions about the future of the globe. But does it require a question of life or death before a nation considers population a threat and attempts to set limits? Does a nation or a region have to let its demographic situation deteriorate to intolerable limits before it acts?

In one sense, human history can be seen as asserting control over factors once thought immutable. Children were a "gift from God" until humankind discovered the fertility cycle. We either lived or died until we discovered the "miracles" of medicine and public health. We were stuck in the same social class as our parents until our institutions reformed to allow social mobility. Human history is constantly redefining the unacceptable and changing what was thought to be unchangeable.

This is clearly true of world and national population growth. For most of human history, the question of how many people the world or a particular nation should have was never asked-never thought of. Population growth was an asset, and the more population increased, the more blessed a country considered itself: France and Russia gave medals for large families, pre-World War 11 Germany had a variety of pro-natalist policies to encourage population growth, and Mussolini turned off the lights in state-owned housing at 9:00 p.m. so people would go to bed and conceive new Italians. "Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth" had its counterpart in all the world's religions, and public policy followed. The larger a country's population, the stronger the country was thought to be militarily, economically, and geopolitically. Towns equated size with success. "Watch Us Grow" was once the literal or symbolic slogan outside most of the world's cities and towns.

These conflicting visions are being played out in the United States today. Growth versus no growth. New ideas versus old concepts. Essentially, the Tantons have been confronting the implications of finitude. They think about the world from a different, but emerging, viewpoint. They ask: "Is a given human pattern ecologically possible and sustainable? Is it consistent with the integrity of the world's biosystem?" I suggest that these might well prove to he the ultimate twenty-first-century questions.

Increasingly, the whole world has started to ask the type of questions the Tantons have been asking for thirty years. For instance, the 1994 report of the Cairo Conference on Population and Development stated:

Population-related goals and policies are integral parts of cultural, economic and social development, the principal aim of which is to improve the quality of life of all people.

What should be the "population-related goals and policies" for America? Asking the question at this stage is more important than the answer. Politicians almost always confirm change after it has been brought about by others outside the political system. This is never more true than in contemporary America, where politicians base their campaigns on polls and focus groups and seldom take a very long lead from the safe second base of conventional wisdom.

That leads us to another virtue of this book. The only thing harder than changing the status quo is the attempt to change it from an obscure place. Universities, think tanks, and pressure groups all generate new ideas. Most people feel powerless to effect change, especially if they are not associated with one of the more conventional change agents.

Yet America often has found its leadership in obscure places. Dwight Eisenhower came from a small farm in Kansas, Harry Truman from a small town in Missouri, Ronald Reagan from an even smaller town in Iowa. Martin Luther King Jr. rose from a neighborhood church in Atlanta, Betty Friedan from the role of a frustrated homemaker with a wider vision. The challenge of any society is to be open enough to recognize talent and vision, even if they do not arise from the established order.

John Gardner, former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, stresses so well the need for excellence at the various levels of society:

Our society cannot achieve greatness unless individuals at many levels of ability accept the need for high standards of performance and strive to achieve those standards within the limits possible for them. We want the highest conceivable excellence, of course, in the activities crucial to our effectiveness and creativity as a society but that isn't enough. If the man in the street says, "Those fellows at the top have to be good, but I'm just a slob and can act like one," - then our days of greatness are behind us.

It is said that "Revolutions are started by one individual, but succeed through the efforts of many." So now it's our turn. Our turn to take the Tantons' creativity, passion, and sense of the future, and help give birth to a new world.

Copyright 2002-2018 Dr. John H. Tanton