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U.S. Population Boom, Consumption and the Environment

The United States is experiencing a population boom. We’ve grown by 100 million people in just the thirty six years since the first Earth Day. As illustrated in the attached Census Bureau chart, this population boom could worsen -- or be stopped -- depending on which population polices our Congress and our society adopt. We must adopt a national population policy on reproduction and immigration that is consistent with the Census Bureau’s ‘lowest series’ shown in the accompanying table.

Our 1990's growth of 33 million exceeded that of any other census decade in our nation's history. Population growth of thirty three million in ten years is equivalent to adding a state the size of California --

-- to an already crowded and stressed U.S. environment. Once would be bad enough, but this California size shoehorning will occur over and over, decade after decade after decade, until we adopt a national population policy on reproduction and immigration that is consistent with the Census Bureau’s ‘lowest series’ shown in the accompanying table.

 

Some economic interests with a short-term outlook welcome population growth. Environmentalists do not because we understand its true environmental, quality of life and economic costs. We've already lost 95% of our old growth forests and 50% of our wetlands. We have grown well beyond the energy supply within our borders. Water supplies are declining.

The state of Washington, as an example, (and a number of others) has been growing at about 20% per decade. Just like Bangladesh. We are fighting to save the last of our wild salmon runs from growth related sprawl, dams and deforestation. A task made all the harder as state and local governments unsuccessfully struggle with growth-caused traffic gridlock and a $40 billion infrastructure deficit for which there is no funding plan.

The direct relationship between population growth and loss of natural resources has been a mantra of the environmental movement for years. It is expressed by the formula: Impact = Population xAffluence x Technology or I=PAT for short

Accordingly, environmental organizations have called for stabilizing U.S. population for over 30 years. Some have advocated "…eventual decline in U.S. population since it has already reached levels that are not environmentally sustainable."

Population Growth, Reproduction, Immigration, and the Role of Congress.

Population has been a tough issue for environmentalists to deal with. We value children. We value all people of the world and immigration. We have a hard time reconciling these values with the knowledge that too much of a good thing is harmful.

But, although its not politically correct in many circles, we realize that both our rate of reproduction and rate of immigration cause population growth and must be addressed.

Reproduction: After a period of slow growth during the years of the Great Depression and World War II, U.S. population started booming due to a expansion in the fertility rate to about three and a half births per woman. The environmental movement of the day called for reduction in fertility and as a result of many factors, the rate had fallen off to below replacement level of 1.7 births per woman by the time of the first Earth Day in 1970. Our current fertility rate of 2.1 is at replacement level, but is still 50% higher than the 1.4 rate of the developed nations of Europe and Japan. The U.S. Congress does not seek voluntary reduction in fertility. To the contrary, it supports incentives for larger family size.

Immigration: For almost 200 years (1776 through 1965) immigration averaged about 250,000 per year. If we had simply continued at that rate we would now be in equilibrium with the approximately 250,000 people who emigrate from the U.S. per decade.

But Congress enacted legislation in 1965 and subsequent years that has more than quadrupled the rate of immigration. Legal immigration is currently set at about 1 million per year with illegal immigration estimated in the range of a half million per year. *

Intentionally or not, Congress created the current population boom. It replaced the "baby boom" of the fifties with an "immigration boom." The progress of the American people towards a stable and sustainable population and the sacrifices we made in voluntarily adopting replacement level reproduction have been undone by our government.

High American Consumption.

The average American consume 25 barrels of oil per year compared to the two barrels typical of developing nations such as China. That translates into more than ten times the impact on global warming per person. Add to oil our high consumption and importation of many natural resources necessary for human life around the globe and our production of carbon and other pollutants. Clearly this disparate consumption and impact on the natural world cannot be justified from a perspective of human rights and ethics as well as from a conservationist perspective.

Our level of consumption can and must be reduced and we support:

   •  Educational efforts aimed at voluntary change in life style.
   •  Legislation to implement full pricing of consumption including 'externalites'
      such as release of carbon to force better economic decisions.
   •  Legislation to protect special resources from economic exploitation.

Reduce U.S. Population Growth AND Consumption.

There has been ongoing debate within the conservation community about whether it is more important and feasible to reduce our consumption per capita(l) and otherwise conserve natural resources or to address population growth – as though it is an either or choice.

The leaders participating here reject that 'either or' approach and recognize that both need to be addressed in tandem to achieve conservation goals we all agree on.

While our special emphasis is on the U.S. population component of the I=PAT formulation because that is the part that no U.S. environmental organization currently addresses -- we personally support and encourage all visitors to this site to fully support the efforts of traditional environmental organizations globally, nationally and locally. The National Environmental Directory contains links to more than 13,000 such organizations.

Global Population and Consumption.

Of course population growth, consumption and resource depletion are issues around the globe as well as in this country – and should be addressed concurrently.

We strongly support increasing access to family planning and women’s empowerment and education programs, as well as the international conservation programs of many environmental organizations.

The Wikipedia section on ‘population’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population) provides an excellent source of information.

To learn more please peruse the essays and positions expressed by the conservation leaders on this site.

Bill Elder,
ATB Site Editor

* Despite conclusions such as those made by the chairperson of President Clinton's Population and Consumption Task Force that "…reducing current immigration levels is a necessary part of working toward sustainability in the United States" – Congress is more prone to expansion rather than contraction. A little publicized provision of the "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" legislation proposed by Senators Kennedy and McCain in 2007 would have doubled legal immigration to two million per year.