To 300 million and beyond
The population of the United States will pass 300 million this month, says the Census Bureau. Only about 220 more years, according to my deeply unscientific extrapolations of United Nations population projections, and we'll pass China!
China will start losing population towards the middle of this century, predicts the UN's Population Division. Japan and Europe will begin shrinking well before that. The most dramatic population losses will be in Eastern Europe, which already began its decline in the 1990s and is expected to lose another quarter of its current 295 million inhabitants by 2050. The world's population should peak sometime in the latter half of the century, at around 9 billion.
Meanwhile the U.S. will keep chugging along, barring of course a major crackdown on immigration or a mass loss of interest in making babies.
Some worrywarts, like the group Negative Population Growth, see this as cause for great alarm. NPG is launching a "Wake Up America" ad campaign keyed on the 300 million milestone to warn us of the dire consequences of population growth:
Productive farmland is being paved over, fragile wetlands are falling victim to population pressures, urban sprawl is suffocating our cities and suburbs, and we are fast depleting the limited water and energy supplies we will need to survive as a strong and productive nation.
Given how sparsely populated the U.S. is by the standards of much of Europe and Asia, I tend to think this kind of talk is nonsense. If we are in fact depleting our resources and letting sprawl suffocate our cities, it's because we're profligate and stupid, not because there are too many of us.
Five people driving Priuses use up less gas than one in a Hummer H2. City apartments take up a lot less space and use lot less energy than exurban McMansions. And as this article in today's New York Times (registration required) points out, we're actually getting pretty good at controlling urban water use. Population growth isn't in and of itself an environmental disaster--and population loss certainly isn't turning Eastern Europe into an environmental paradise.
Rapid population growth in poor countries usually involves a collision between tradition and medical advances that allow more children to survive childbirth, and is a temporary phenomenon. There's some of that at work in the United States among poorer immigrants. But this country's continued growth seems mainly to be a product of the optimism and economic opportunity that reign here and not in much of the rest of the developed world. Which is something to celebrate, not bemoan.
Posted by Justin Fox 9:46 AM 17 Comments | Add a Comment
Dear Mr. Fox,
Thank you for your insightful commentary on population. My take is that the problem we face is the growing population of stupid profligates. With most interested only in being entertained, and few concerned with building a future for themselves and their progeny, anything but population stability means that public schools will continue to be behind the curve regarding issues like student:teacher ratios driven by unfunded mandates. This will result in even more ignorance among the general population, thereby creating an ever widening gap between the rich (read educated), and poor. Once the middle class reaches critical mass (on the shrinking side), the stage will be set for the next "American Revolution". I hope our system of government can surpass the longevity of ancient Rome, but I wouldn't bet on it...
I agree with population growth being linked to prosperity under the right conditions. Those conditions existed in Japan and China leading to growth. When Japan's population started declining, that growth faded away. The same will happen with China when their one-child policy causes a burden for that one child to support both parents. While the US has a negative savings rate with the large percentage of retirees, that can change if the population increases with young, healthy, and educated individuals. Indeed, the median age of America is forecasted to drop below the median age of China in my lifetime. The question is how to induce policies that create the "right conditions".
Mr. Fox, I read your "To 300 million and beyond" article with great interest. You state that our problems are not solely caused by too many people but because we are profligate and stupid. You believe that going beyond 300 million is just fine if we would just become smarter. Do you really think that will happen? The reason why the group Negative Population Growth sees this as cause for alarm is that they believe we won't get smarter and neither do I. As proof, just notice all the idiots on the road during your daily commute. Most people don't look beyond the immediate future or have any idea how their actions affect the future. Negative Population Growth may be advocating the only way we can reduce stupidity.
Let me try to make a point with you, even though you seem to be firmly entrenched in the more is better group. You indicated that 5 Priuses use less gas than one Hummer. I agree and I have bought two of the former. But, the important thing is not that Priuses are available, it is that we are being forced into a situation where we really should drive Priuses instead of Hummers, or Mustangs. I, for one, would really like to drive a Mustang instead of a Prius, but the cost of gas, due to all of the people in the US and all of the gas that they consume, is making me not drive a Mustang. So there you have it - 300 million, drive a Prius, eat a soyburger, live in a plastic box, force the carrying capacity of our environment to absurd levels - 100 million, drive a Mustang, eat a hamburger, live in a real house, don't make the environment suffer more than it can easily tolerate! Here is another suggestion. Ask a recent Chinese immigrant to the US why they don't go back to participate in the expanding Chinese economy. They will say that they like it here because there are too many people in China.
If you mention NPG (one of the most well-researched single issue non-profits out there), you should also mention that their studies on the long-term sustainability of various populations indicate the following: the maximum desirable US population is 50-150 million, while the maximum desirable world population is 1-2 billion. Since we are well past those numbers and getting farther along all the time, governments should investigate NPG's claims and develop real policies based on their own resource and population situation.
As you mention, we in the US are profligate and stupid (in many ways), but that doesn't mean we are not also overpopulated. You are ignorant indeed (and willfully so) if you can't see any signs of overpopulation in the US. Try looking at NPG's website, where their claims that we (US and the world) are overpopulated are substantiated in overwhelming, non-partisan detail.
"Five people driving Priuses use up less gas than one in a Hummer H2"
And 7 people in an Excursion use less gas per person than each individual driving their own Prius. Driving Priuses isn't going to solve our problems, it is just going to prolong them.
Why waste gas driving when you can ride a bicycle? A bicycle gets an equivalent of about 900 mpg, based on the number of calories in a gallon of gas v. the number of calories burned riding a bicycle.
Instead of spending millions/billions to lower emissions, spend some money to improve mass transit and add bicycle and pedestrian routes to accommodate our growing population. This could also help our expanding waistline problem.
I grew up in Wisconsin and now live in Arizona. America, take a drive between these 2 points and really what you see is a whole lot of land, and very few people. Of course everyone can't live in Malibu or Miami Beach, but the US has millions of rural acres waiting for great people to move.
You never heard of global warming? If the ice caps at the poles are starting to melt now with 6 1/2 billion people on the planet, what effect do you suppose 9 billion people would have? I would like to refer you and your readers to populationconnection.org for a better understanding of why we should NOT celebrate exponential population growth.
We share the planet with 5.7 billion people. If one could stand all the people in the world, men, women and children two feet apart, how much of the world would they take up? All of Africa? All of North America? New York state? If every person alive today stood two feet apart they would fill less than the area of Dallas County! And there would still be room for all the buildings! If the world's people were put together into families of four living on 50' by 100' lots, they could all live in the state of Texas, with more than seven thousand square miles left over. So the total number of people is not the real problem, at least at this point.
This is from
If this is true then I think we have plenty of space for every in the world to live...even if the ice caps were to melt.
Mike in Phoenix is off the mark. I also grew up Wisconsin, and now live in Arizona. A giant, looming 'quality of life' issue is being ignored here: I didn't move here 20 years ago because of the higher wages or better jobs (southern Wisconsin does quite well on that score) but because of the natural beauty of the area. Now that it's becoming rapidly paved over and experiencing the fastest population growth in the country, I have little incentive to stay. Or invest. Perhaps I can move to Japan, and find a nice depopulated community.
While it may be possible that all the people in the world smooshed together might take up only as much space as the whole of Dallas county, how many acres would the crops that we need to eat/make clothing/make into medicines and chemicals take up? How many acres for the grazing animals we eat? How many square miles are needed for the ores we mine or timber we cut? How many gallons of freshwater, or space for refineries? How much space for waste disposal, or any of the other myriad things that make civilised life possible? The average human needs much more "real estate" to survive than simply the size of his or her house or apartment. The things that we consume - either through want or need - in some form or fashion come from the earth, and there's only so much of that to go around.
I find this debate interesting, but everyone seems to be missing one point when they whine about the increasing population in America. Those people who worry about enjoying the fruits of their labors should keep in mind that the increasing population is the only thing that will allow them to retire and enjoy those fruits. We have a future crisis in supporting the aging population in this country, but it is nothing in comparison the the issues that Europe and Japan will face in the next 50 years. So, put up with population increase or work until you drop, your choice.
Coming as I am from India, I have seen first-hand the problems excessive population can cause. I would venture to assert that most of India's problems can be traced back, directly or indirectly, to high population. I don't believe the US is about to reach the state India finds itself in, so this is probably not an important issue right now. However, it could become one if we do not take steps early on to contain it.
Increasing population benefits primarily developers, and those who have something to sell. It does not improve the quality of life. Having lived through 72 years in which the population has more than doubled, I do not see the advantages. I personally do not enjoy crowds, and everything is more crowded.
In my lifetime the population of the US has nearly doubled. As a result I find most of the East coast an absolute drag to be in. The highways are clogged with cars, ugly sprawl has replaced greenery and it is difficult to find peace and quiet. More people means a lower quality of life.
So how about some forecast for the Middle-East and Near Asia. I have not seen one writing nor any discussion about the demographics there and how that affects us and the war on terror.
Japan? Depopulated? Have you ever been? Japan is probably the most dense of all countries in the world. It is true that 70% of their geography consists of mountains and trees, but the inhabitable parts are extremely dense and compact; so much so as to make an American's head spin.
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