Looking to the Past for Insights Into How to Predict Future Challenges

October 11, 2010 • Climate Change & Mitigation, Daily Email Recap

Thanks to John Rohe for this article published by the Chroincle of Philanthrophy.
Chronicle of Philanthropy
September 19, 2010

Looking to the Past for Insights Into How to Predict Future Challenges
By John F. Rohe

Philanthropy serves two realms: the present and the future. It responds to pressing needs today, and it strives to avert hardships tomorrow.

Tomorrow’s uncertain terrain, however, has never been a top priority. Philanthropists can be distracted from future needs by the pressing demands of the present. This is particularly true when a global recession inflicts intense hardship on so many.

For guidance on how to invest in the future, today’s philanthropists could look to donors and activists behind the population movement that started in the 1950s and culminated in the 1960s. They foresaw that quality of life today would depend on the success of their efforts to promote family planning.

They recognized the impact of a burgeoning population on ecological balance, a lesson we can profoundly see in today’s Gulf¬ of Mexico oil spill-an expression of the colossal consumer demand for energy inflicting damage to a vital ecosystem and national prosperity.

Early population activists, like other future-focused humanitarians, encountered uncertainty, skepticism, and even hostility. As they sought to prevent future harm to the planet, they practiced their charity humbly and expected no personal recognition.

Our quality of life today demonstrates both their successes and their failures.

Although well conceived, and noble, the movement needed more donors and public recognition of population pressures. Wider awareness of the urgency might have enabled yesterday’s pound of prevention to have been leveled against today’s ton of cure.

What if population activists of the 1950s had stabilized the number of people in the United States near 200 million? At that level, yesterday’s strategic philanthropy would have changed the course of history.

The nation would almost be energy independent today. The geopolitical global drama over fossil fuel would not dominate our news. Sustainability would have become an attainable national aspiration.

The United States could lead the world by example. Our soldiers would not be in harm’s way on remote oil fields. And a dignified quality of life would be more respectfully balanced with natural surroundings.

America’s population numbers have not only failed to stabilize at 200 million but they continue to steeply surge and have now surpassed 300 million. The nation is expected to increase its population size by another 50 percent near mid-century. Notwithstanding conservation strategies, our vulnerability and dependence on dwindling global resources will intensify with a higher population. The goalpost for national conservation retreats under the rush of more consumers.

Resource scarcities in the daily news press upon us with glaring severity. The United States confronts beach closings, water shortages, brimming landfills, congestion, gridlock, infrastructure decay, municipal overflows in rivers, groundwater contamination, airborne toxins, sprawl, emergency-room delays, and dwindling energy reserves, and our national parks are loved to death. In a growth-dominated culture, few people recognize the impact of overpopulation. Meanwhile, concerns of the 1950s population humanitarians are now marching into view with stunning clarity.

Our fragile yet resilient globe can accommodate all of us for a while, but it’s showing wear. Over 230,000 people are added to the earth’s population every day (that’s births minus deaths). In other words, almost one million additional people (net addition) arrive at the world’s table every four days.

It would be comforting to inhabit a world and a nation unconstrained by biological limits. Idyllic fantasy, however, is neither strategic nor philanthropic. Thoughtful, investment-minded philanthropists anticipate and strive to reduce the cause of future grief.

With a prod from the world of philanthropy, the United States can responsibly demonstrate sensitivity to the “multiplier” of all environmental degradation. Alternatively, we can ignore the numbers and be guided by the celebrated words of Lewis Carroll, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”

The multiplier driving consumption of resources in the United States remains a function of fertility and migration. The controversial nature of these topics can deter philanthropists. We might attempt to ignore future issues, but the issues will not ignore the future. Today we have become the intended beneficiaries of yesterday’s future-oriented humanitarians. As heretics of their day, their foresight endured controversy. Advocates of gender equity in the days of Susan B. Anthony, of civil rights in the age of Lincoln, and of modesty in the age of Galileo were also heretics. Their vindication would await the judgment of history.

Today’s loss is a symptom of yesterday’s lost prospects. Meanwhile, we can focus on tomorrow’s needs now. Environmental threats loom with increasing certainty. The case for compassion, foresight, and strategic philanthropy has never been more compelling.

John F. Rohe is vice president of philanthropy at the Colcom Foundation, in Pittsburgh.

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