Balancing Act

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Can America Sustain a Population of 500 Million — Or Even a Billion — by 2100?

Science fiction writer David Brin set his 1990 book Earth in 2038. Writing before the consequences of global warming were generally known, Brin imagined an overcrowded world of 10 billion people that had been inundated by rising sea levels. Holes in the ozone layer make any trip outside life-threatening, and even livestock wear eye covers. Siberia is tropical, and Bangladesh’s capital is underwater. The last wildlife is housed in zoo-like “arks,” and private cars have been outlawed in favor of bicycles. A glass of pure water costs as much as the monthly rent, and jail time is ordered for anyone throwing away a soda bottle.

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A fantasy, sure, but no longer such a far-fetched one. Our finite planet welcomed its six billionth citizen last year, and Brin’s 10 billion will probably appear right on time, give or take a few years. The Year of Six Billion received some long-overdue and generally sober coverage in 1999. In May of 2000, India was briefly in the news when it topped one billion on its own, and the poor milestone child, New Delhi resident Aastha (identified by the purest guesswork), was mobbed by reporters like a South Asian Elian.

Population activism, still a small movement around the world, tends to focus—laudably—on global growth. After all, no country can “solve” population problems on its own. But nation-states have no business lecturing the world if they haven’t made progress on the home front, and the United States is a prime offender. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States should get ready for a dramatic doubling of its population by 2100.

From 275 million Americans today, we can expect to grow to 571 million in the next hundred years. That’s actually a fairly conservative projection. The Census Bureau’s latest estimates actually go as high as predicting that there will be one billion Americans in 2100. This rapid pace contrasts starkly with the more leisurely population growth of the last 300 years. America had only one million people in 1700, and only a little bit more than five million in 1800. Even in 1900, when America’s doors were wide open to immigration and birth rates were accelerating, there were just 76 million Americans. (That number had doubled by 1950, when urban sprawl began in earnest.)

“The increasing number of potential parents and continued migration from abroad would be sufficient to add nearly 300 million people during the next century,” says Frederick Hollman of the Census Bureau. Legal immigration in the U.S., spurred by economic prosperity, is at its highest level since 1900. Foreign-born Americans, a tenth of the population, are at their highest level since 1930, and now constitute 40 percent of New York City residents. The United States today is the fastest-growing country in the industrial world, with an annual population increase of 1.2 percent or three million people.

A Dangerous Environment

In 1996, the President’s Council on Sustainable Development listed 10 goals, the eighth of which was moving toward stabilizing U.S. population. The report noted that U.S. population was growing at a rate double that of Europe, putting in peril both economic objectives and the quality of the environment.

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An environmental assessment that catalogued the problems America faces in the year 2000 (from loss of species and farmland to polluted air and water) could well conclude that the current 275 million is an unsupportable population for the U.S., a violation of the continent’s carrying capacity. Imagine, then, those problems magnified by a doubling of the population. According to Jay Keller, national field director for Zero Population Growth, “Such a huge increase could be tremendously damaging. Even with the current population we have a lot of environmental challenges.”

By some measures, U.S. population growth is not all that astonishing. Even with 571 million people, there would be a population density of 161.4 people per square mile—a quarter that of western European countries like England and Great Britain. But while those countries have many attractive features, they’ve also surrendered most of their wilderness regions, native forests and unique animal populations. England, for instance, was largely deforested by the 1700s.

“Some of the European countries have very high population densities, with the consequence that they have to import most of their food and are very dependent on the rest of the world,” says Keller. “The United States, by contrast, is still one of the great breadbaskets of the world.” But that isn’t likely to continue, as the U.S. loses 400,000 acres of farmland a year. Arable land is expected to be reduced from 400 million acres today to 290 million by 2050, when the population doubles. Among the threatened American assets are the $40 billion the U.S. makes through food exports.

And Europe, as Keller points out, has not only stopped its population growth but actually reversed it. European birthrates are now at their lowest level since World War II, and are in free fall. One-child families, often prompted by the desire for a better quality of life, are becoming common even in Roman Catholic countries like Italy. Italy’s population is expected to shrink from 57 million today to 41 million by 2050. Germany, at 82 million now, will shrink to 73 million by 2050.

Even though populations are declining in Europe, immigration levels are a source of conflict for some sectors of the population. Germany, for instance, had seven million foreign-born residents in 1997, and 4.7 million unemployed. The scapegoating of immigrants for high unemployment was axiomatic.

Despite the contractions in Europe, world population overall grows by 78 million a year, approximately the combined populations of France, Greece and Sweden combined, or a city the size of San Francisco every three days. This great growth, driven in particular by high fertility rates (above seven children per family) in parts of Africa, is accompanied by the annual loss of 27,000 species of animals and plants.

According to Peter Ward of Washington University, “Every forest, every valley, every bit of land surface capable of sustaining plant life, as well as much of the plankton in the sea, will have to be turned over to crops if our species is to avert unprecedented global famine.” He adds, “In such a world, animals and plants not directly necessary for our existence will probably be a luxury not affordable.”

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Trouble at Home

Much of the environmental concern about deforestation has focused solely on tropical rainforests. But if the U.S. doubles its population, deforestation at home could reach equally alarming rates. What are the environmental consequences of such a large population increase? “Imagine every congested, sprawled part of the country right now, then double the number of people,” says population activist Roy Beck of Numbers USA.

“The new population projections—conjure images of twice as many cars jostling for position on the highways and twice as many shoppers crowding the aisles at Wal-Mart,” the Associated Press reported. And that’s one way of looking at it.


prospect of a billion Americans, however remote, is certainly alarming enough to take seriously. The environmental impact of a quadruple population increase is difficult to imagine, but imagine it we must. Bob Engelman, vice president for research at Population Action International, gives this discouraging scenario: “It’s very hard to even think about the flow of natural resources necessary to sustain a billion Americans living the way they live today. There would be severe and almost unimaginable strains. For example, each American generates five tons of the global warming gas carbon dioxide (CO2) each year, so that would mean five billion tons from the U.S. alone, with dire consequences for the climate. There would definitely not be enough water, particularly in places like southern California, Nevada and south Florida. Food security would be a major issue, because urban sprawl would take away much of our remaining prime farmland. Forests could not possibly be stable with that level of population. Major biodiversity would also be lost: 95 percent of the country’s endangered plants are in just three states, California, Florida and Hawaii, which have the highest population growth rates.”

Carl Haub, a demographer with the Population Reference Bureau, says that to imagine an America with a billion inhabitants, just look at India. “They’ve got more people than that, and even less space,” he says. “But if we went that way, we’d be a different country. The American Dream would have to be changed. Half-acre lot suburbanization couldn’t continue. We’d have to look at models like Hong Kong, where all the new development is straight up. And that’s a depressing prospect.”

Walking Tall

Adding population in the United States has a disproportionate impact on the rest of the world because, according to the United Nations Development Programme, the average American’s environmental impact is 30 to 50 times that of the average citizen in a developing country like India.

The richest fifth of the world’s population, including the U.S., consumes 86 percent of all goods and services and produces 53 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. Looked at another way, that same privileged fifth also consumes 80 percent of the world’s natural resources and generates 80 percent of the pollution and waste. The U.S. alone, with only five percent of the world’s population, gobbles up 30 percent of the natural resource base, using 20 percent of the planet’s metals, 24 percent of its energy (the highest per capita consumption in the world) and 25 percent of its fossil fuels.

Given these amazing statistics, it’s not hard to calculate the likely environmental impact of all those new Americans. Strangely, however, the American media continue to portray environmental problems—from climate change to urban sprawl, and from species loss to soil erosion—as if they were isolated phenomena, unaffected by factors like rapid population growth.

In her book, Population Politics, Virginia Abernethy asks if a politician can support open borders and, for example, preserving wetlands. “Not possible,” she writes. “These are mutually exclusive goals; clumping them together reminds us that every environmental cause is a lost cause if population growth continues.”

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Take just one arena, energy demand. Even if you leave alone Americans’ status as the world’s worst energy gluttons, you could end U.S. dependence on foreign oil through a population shift alone. According to energy specialist John Holdren, if the United States still had 135 million people, the level at World War II, it could meet current energy demands without either importing oil or using coal at all. We would, in other words, achieve energy independence and end the massive damage caused by burning coal, all in one stroke.

Here’s another energy example, from Population-Environment Balance: If 92 million households in the U.S. switched just three lamps from 75-watt incandescent bulbs to 18-watt compact fluorescents, the savings would amount to 157 billion kilowatt hours over the seven-year lifespan of the bulbs. But in that same seven years, the U.S. would add 20 million new residents, and these additional energy users would soak up another 193 billion kilowatts of electricity in their compact fluorescent lamps. And that more than wipes out the savings.

Population-Environment Balance also reports that:

In the U.S., nearly 700 species of plants and animals are endangered or threatened from destruction of habitat directly linked to population growth. About 9,000 species are at risk of extinction, and at least 500 species have already vanished forever.

Every day we permanently remove 3.2 billion gallons more water from our aquifers than is replaced by natural processes. This is equivalent to half the water that flows through the mouth of the Mississippi River every day.

U.S. consumption of energy grows every day, despite efforts to conserve. Ninety three percent of the United States’ increase in energy use since 1970 can be attributed to our population growth.

To accommodate growth, we pave over an area equal to the state of Delaware every year.

Only five to 10 percent of old growth forests in Oregon, Washington and California remain—90 percent of all U.S. old growth forests have been cut down to meet the demand for timber.

The Immigration Factor

Talking about immigration makes many environmentalists nervous, as witness the recent Sierra Club vote against taking a stand on the matter. Jay Keller of Zero Population Growth, for instance, hastens to point out, “We’re not anti-immigration. We look at these problems globally.” But it’s impossible to talk about U.S. population growth without also discussing immigration. Together, annual legal immigration (about one million people per year) and illegal immigration (300,000 to 400,000) accounts for 70 percent of U.S. population growth. What’s more, descendants are a hidden multiplier. While 45 million immigrants will arrive in the U.S. between 1995 and 2050, because of their offspring the actual population addition will be 80 million.

Census Bureau figures indicate that, by 2050, more than 80 percent of the explosive growth then underway will be attributable to immigrants and their descendants who have settled here since the 1990s. Without immigration, the U.S. would basically achieve zero population growth. If there was no net immigration to the U.S., the population in 2050 would be 314 million, only marginally higher than it is today. If immigration had stopped in 1970, says demographer Leon Bouvier of Tulane University, today’s population would be holding at 250 million.

Instead, we’re growing rapidly on a rising tide of new Americans. Immigration between 1921 and 1970 averaged only 195,000 a year, a fifth of today’s level, and shows no sign of slacking. “A bustling economy, a growing demand for workers and a rising tide of Hispanic voters have created a whole new welcoming atmosphere for immigrants in America,” reported The Chicago Tribune last year. “The anti-immigration rhetoric of just four years ago has faded. And Congress, once a focal point for a more restrictive immigration policy, ha

s retreated from legislation passed in 1996 to limit the rights and benefits of legal immigrants.”

California, which receives more than double the rate of new immigrants of its nearest competitor, New York, is also not surprisingly the state with by far the biggest population increases, and could have nearly 50 million residents by 2025.

High immigration levels continue despite polling that consistently shows widespread opposition among voters—even among the ethnic groups benefiting from immigration. A 1998 Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll found an overall 72 percent opposition to high immigration, a number that closely tracks responses among immigrant populations themselves. For instance, a Hispanic USA Research Group survey from 1993 found that 89 percent of Hispanic Americans strongly support an immediate moratorium on immigration, and 74 percent feel fewer immigrants should be allowed and stronger restrictions should be enforced.

Despite all this, immigration remains a taboo subject for many environmental groups. Even many population groups don’t want to talk about it, though some long-time leaders (and especially gray eminence David Brower) are vocal on the subject.

Sharon Stein, executive director of Negative Population Growth, says many groups that worked in the 1960s and 1970s on domestic issues and immigration “got diverted to a global focus when they were attacked by the Pope and the Christian right as pro-abortion. And a tough stance on immigration can be a turn-off to liberal supporters as well.”

Stein acknowledges that a global approach makes a certain amount of sense in an interconnected world, “but doesn’t the U.S. need to be a world demographic role model? We don’t want to get to the point where we have a billion people and the government says, as it does in China, ‘You have to stop at one or two children.’”

The image of America symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, with arms open wide to the world’s huddled masses, remains powerful, says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). “But finally we have to deal with the contradiction between the avowed desire for population stabilization and the reality that immigration is a big obstacle to it,” he says.

Are groups like CIS tools of the radical right? That’s the charge made by left-leaning groups like the Political Ecology Group (which claims that anti-immigration organizations are “exploiting people’s valid fears about environmental degradation to foment a hateful anti-immigrant atmosphere”) and the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment. These groups also chide international family planning efforts as coercive and circulated petitions opposing the “demographic alarmism” of the Day of Six Billion campaign. A Political Research Associates report claims that “right-wing organizations have promoted immigrants as a target for blame.”

These arguments “betray a serious lack of political sophistication,” rebuts Krikorian, who admits to being a Republican himself. “There’s nothing about immigration that is conveniently right or left.” Indeed, both pro- and anti-immigration forces have strange bedfellows. In the high immigration camp are such diverse interests as the business lobbies, ethnic advocacy groups and libertarians (including the decidedly rightist Cato Institute). The anti-immigration coalition includes such diametrically opposed forces as Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, think tanks like CIS and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), as well as some racist fringe elements.

The right is hardly unified in opposing immigration. Columnist Ben Wattenberg of the American Enterprise Institute reassures readers of the Washington Times that world population is, in fact, shrinking. Even if the population is growing rapidly, Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute reassures us that biotechnology will so expand crop yields that we’ll have no difficulty feeding several billion more human beings. “There seem to be millions of people who are afraid of more people,” he says.

“I hope we’re rising above the name-calling,” says Krikorian. “We keep making the point that you can’t have population stabilization without immigration control. If you’re an environmentalist, population control is a crucial goal.”

In the face of what polls show is a growing sentiment to limit immigration, why do immigration numbers continue to swell? According to FAIR, the influx is supported by business, which needs a flow of fresh immigrants to suppress the high wages that would otherwise be demanded in a full-employment economy. Business groups continue to be a powerful lobbying force for an open door policy, and there is no comparable countervailing pressure. Politicians also largely support high immigration levels for fear of alienating large ethnic voting blocks. Also a factor, of course, is genuine humanitarian concern (see sidebar).

A Sane Course

The United States is actually well-positioned for slow, manageable growth. In the U.S., large families are becoming less common, and the fertility rate of the current population is 2.1, almost exactly replacement level. A reduction in annual immigration from the current one million between 200,000 and 300,000 would continue to offer an open door to the most deserving and neediest applicants, while responding to the expressed desire of the American people (70 percent of whom favor such a reduction, according to a 1996 Roper poll). Accompanying that should be a public education initiative that plainly links population growth with a list of environmental ills, and encourages small families (using arguments expressed in books like Bill McKibben’s Maybe One).

The U.S. government has to demonstrate that it actually believes its own rhetoric, as expressed in forums like the Council on Sustainable Development, that spiraling population is a deterrent to managed growth. During his Vice Presidency, Al Gore launched an ambitious campaign against urban sprawl, but refused to make the obvious connection to population growth for fear of alienating core election constituencies. In 1999, voters passed more than 70 percent of 240 local ballot initiatives governing preservation of open space, creating more than $7.5 billion in funding for land conservation. A record 1,000 state land use reform bills were introduced in legislatures last year, and over 200 of those were enacted into law. If there’s one thing that Americans can agree on, it’s that we need to hold onto our dwindling natural heritage. And what chance is there of doing that if, as predicted, the U.S. population doubles to 500 million by 2100?