The U.S.: A Population-Environment Imbalance

© Andy Sotiriou

The U.S. is the only industrialized nation with significant population growth, and a new report sees those burgeoning numbers as a factor in our unparalleled impact on the environment.

While Europe shrinks, U.S. population grows by just under one percent a year, which translates to 8,000 people a day, or three million per year. The 300 millionth American will either be born here (or move here) sometime this fall. According to Victoria Markham, executive director of the Connecticut-based Center for Environment and Population (CEP), the growth is magnified by a very high rate of resource consumption. "The U.S. has the largest per-capita environmental impact in the world," she says, "not only in terms of resource use, but also the pollution and waste associated with it."

The U.S. uses three times more water than the world average per capita, and (despite being only five percent of world population) consumes a quarter of its energy. Americans buy and use a lot of stuff, Markham says, but there’s more to it than that. Baby boomers, despite their relatively high level of environmental awareness, are also enjoying an unprecedented amount of wealth, living in larger houses on more land than any other generation in U.S. history. What’s more, she says, the nation’s number of households is also increasing dramatically as families fragment. (Average household size dropped from 3.1 persons in 1970 to 2.6 in 2000, according to U.S. Census figures.)

In what Markham calls an "aha moment," the CEP report also found that the southern and western U.S. are "population-environmental hot spots." They are leading the nation in per capita energy and water use, with not only the largest number of people but also the fastest rate of growth. The top 10 states for biodiversity risk are all in the two regions.

The U.S. has doubled in population since 1950, and is the third most populous country in the world. Increasing our burden on the land, American settlement patterns are very lopsided. Over half of U.S. population is in the south or west (although the Northeast remains the most densely populated region). Half of all Americans live within 50 miles of a coast, on just a fifth of the country’s land area. Only three percent of the population lives in the 10 least populated states.

Immigration accounts for 40 percent of U.S. population growth, CEP estimates, and California is a prime destination for immigrants. It’s not surprising, then, that the state added more than two million people between 1990 and 2000. But natural population growth is also higher in the U.S. than it is virtually anywhere else in the industrialized world.