When he led the founding of the first Earth Day in 1970 the population of this nation wasn't seen as such a huge issue. Damage to the natural environment was seen primarily as being attributable to lack of regulation of industry. The 1960's were a time of careless use of DDT and a host of other chemicals and gross contamination practices culminated dramatically in rivers catching on fire and the Love Canal debacle.
The population of the U.S. in 1970 was 203 million. It had doubled from about 100 million in 1915 – a period of just 55 years. That growth of 100 million certainly had had a huge impact on the natural environment of North America. But the future looked hopeful. The 'baby boom' was over and our total fertility rate had dropped rapidly to replacement level of two births per woman. Immigration was at about 250,000 per year (which was the average at that time since the founding of the nation). In 1972 the Rockefeller Commission concluded additional population growth was not in the best interests of the people of the United States.
The landmark environmental legislation of the seventies was remarkable and effective in many ways. But Gaylord Nelson saw its effectiveness eroded by continuing population increase produced by the same Congress as it made changes to immigration laws that produce a quadrupling of legal immigration to more than one million per year plus high levels of illegal immigration.
Unfortunately, we lost Gaylord in 2005. But what would he have said in 2006 with all the publicity about America reaching 300 million souls? There are ample clues in his speeches and writings.
Writing on the 30th anniversary of Earth Day in 2000, here are the priorities as he saw them:
"Population, global warming and sustainability would be my suggestions for the three most urgent environmental challenges… Stabilizing U.S. population is a challenge that could be resolved in a relatively short period resulting in significant economic and environmental benefits. At the current rate of population growth the population of the U.S. will double from 265 million o to some 530 million within the next 65-70 years. If that happens the negative consequences will be substantial if not, indeed, disastrous."
Never one to avoid taking an issue head on, he continued:
"To stabilize our population would require a dramatic reduction in the immigration rate. That is opposed by some who ague we are a nation of immigrants and such reduction would violate our tradition. [I have to note that the nation’s tradition has been a fraction of the level of immigration than is currently authorized and tolerated by Congress.] Others insist such a reduction would be racist because about one fourth of all immigrants come from Mexico; and still others who claim we need the abundant cheap labor that immigration provides.
I don't think there is much merit to any of these arguments. But instead of just waiting until the population doubles and then doubles again, should we not have a national dialogue on the issue and try to reach some consensus that serves the best interests of the nation?”
Turning to sustainability:
"At his point in history, no nation has managed, either by design or accident, to evolve into a sustainable society, which can be described as “one that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." We are all pursuing a self-destructive course of fueling our economies by consuming our capital – that is to say, by degrading and depleting our resource base – and counting it on the income side of the ledger. That, obviously, is not a sustainable situation over the long term. The hard fact is that while the population is booming here and round the world, the resource base that sustains the economy is rapidly dwindling. It is not just a problem in faraway lands, it is an urgent, indeed, a critical problem here at home right now. We are talking about deforestation, aquifer depletion, air pollution, water pollution, and depletion of fisheries, urbanization of farmland, soil erosion and much more.”
A year later, he cited U.S. population as the number one issue. Answering an interview question: What is the number one environmental problem facing the earth today?
"If you had to choose just one, it would have to be population… The bigger the population gets, the more serious the problems become… We have to address the population issue. The United Nations, with the U.S. supporting it, took the position in Cairo in 1994 that every country was responsible for stabilizing its own population. It can be done. But in this country, it's phony to say "I'm for the environment but not for limiting immigration…" However, the subject has been driven out of public discussion because everybody is afraid of being called racist if they say they want any limits on immigration."
So what do we think Senator Gaylord Nelson the founder of Earth Day who helped pass the landmark environmental protection legislation of the last century would say about the 300 million Americans mark? Well, something like:
"Men and women of the U.S. Congress, were it not for legislation we passed, we could have, and we should have, stopped at 200 million. Don’t be cowed by the name calling tactics of the cheap labor lobby. The time is past due to put on the brakes and fix the population growth mess we have created."
Bill Elder, ATB Editor