The Weight of Numbers

In a recent issue of Car and Driver, columnist Patrick Bedard opined that population growth had ceased to be an issue in the U.S. because we’d achieved a replacement-level fertility rate. So the U.S. population has stopped increasing, right?

Wrong! Bedard’s column is proof that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If fertility rates were all there was to population growth, he’d be right on the money. But because of other factors, chiefly high rates of both legal and illegal immigration, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that U.S. population could double—to an estimated 571 million—by 2100.

Is this an environmental issue? You bet it is. By 1970, when the first Earth Day was held and environmental teach-ins took place around the country, population control was fully integrated into the environmental agenda. Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb was a bestseller when it was published in 1968. David Brower, then executive director of the Sierra Club, said around that time, “You don’t have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy.” In 1970, President Nixon created a bipartisan Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, which declared bluntly that the U.S. would be unlikely to meet its environmental goals unless its population was stabilized.

It’s impossible to imagine a U.S. President creating a similar commission today. But the need is even greater. Since 1970, the U.S. has added more than 70 million people, an absolutely unprecedented increase. Along our coasts, where nearly half the population lives and where ecosystems are most fragile, we’ve already surpassed the human density of Haiti. Not surprisingly, we’ve seen the inevitable consequences in air and water pollution, traffic congestion, habitat destruction and loss of farmland.

Unfortunately, population growth—and especially the high immigration levels that fuel it—have almost disappeared from the environmental movement’s radar screens. Instead, we talk about the popular issue of “sprawl” as if it were wholly separate, somehow divorced from the weight of all that extra humanity.

It’s fairly clear why some environmental groups and most politicians don’t want to talk about population and immigration anymore. They’re polarizing subjects that can alienate supporters. Indeed, all forms of birth control have become entangled with the explosive politics of abortion. In dealing with immigration, elected officials worry about losing key voting blocs, even though immigrants themselves tend to oppose immigration once they arrive. (And environmental groups, the Sierra Club a prime example, know that immigration discussions can lead to divisive internal squabbles.)

There are, of course, completely legitimate reasons for immigrants to seek admittance into the U.S., including fear of political persecution, war, famine and deteriorating environmental conditions in their home countries. It would seem that strategic use of American development aid, coupled with family planning support, can help reduce these emigration pressures. That’s important, because even minor adjustments to immigration levels could have major impact on our environmental stewardship.

The environmental movement of 1970 was not afraid to face this issue squarely. In 2000, at a critical population turning point, we’re retreating instead of advancing. When we should be protecting our farms and dedicating new open space, we’re paving paradise and putting up a parking lot.