U.S. Population and the Environment


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U.S. population growth

When activists formed the modern environmental movement in the 1960's, they were well aware of the effects of population growth on the environment.

Senator Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day, stated:

"Forging and maintaining a sustainable society is the critical challenge for this and all generations to come. In responding to that challenge, population will be the critical factor in determining whether or not we succeed in forging such a society."

U.S. Population Growth When Senator Gaylord Nelson launched the first Earth Day in 1970, U.S. population stood at 203 million people. Today, with a population of 292 million, the U.S. is the third most populous country in the world and has the highest population growth rate of all developed countries.2,4 The Census Bureau projects U.S. population to double this century.5

The Sierra Club has stated that:1

"... all of our environmental successes may be short-lived if they do not include efforts to address population growth."

If public policies are not reformed, the quality of life of our descendents and the biodiversity of our environment will suffer. Twice as many people will mean twice as many houses, roads, schools, hospitals, and office buildings and twice as much sprawl, traffic, overcrowding and congestion. It will place twice the pressure on our dwindling natural resources and the resources that we draw from other countries. We will have to build practically an entire new infrastructure equal in size to our existing infrastructure in order to sustain this new population. The environmental consequences of this doubling will be significant.

Since 1980, the U.S. has converted more than 10 million acres of forest to suburb - an area twice as large as Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Everglades and Shenandoah National Parks combined.3 Human encroachment upon habitat will continue as our population doubles; wetlands and old-growth forests will become more endangered, aquifers further depleted, fragile deserts and coastlines more threatened and pollution more widespread.

E/The Environmental Magazine has observed:

There's a minefield in the American environmental movement, and its name is population. Because negotiating that minefield is so dangerous, many environmental groups and leaders have stopped trying to cross it. But to ignore population as a central issue while talking freely about sprawl, air and water pollution, loss of biodiversity, agricultural land and animal habitat, global warming and many other crucial environmental issues is to deny reality.54 (Read the complete article.)

The Census Bureau's medium projections show U.S. population growing to 400 million people by the year 2050.2 The Census Bureau projects California's population will reach nearly 50 million by 20258, 9. With this high population growth rate, California's coastal densities will reach 1,050 people per square mile.3

Population growth and consumption

The U.S. is the world's highest-consuming nation and our per-capita level of consumption is magnified by our large population. Yet our population continues to grow at a rate comparable to many third-world countries - since 1945 our population growth rate has equaled that of India and California is currently growing faster than Bangladesh.2,4

SUSPS supports lower levels of consumption. Addressing consumption levels is necessary, however that alone will not halt the degradation of our environment. U.S. consumption per capita has remained constant or decreased slightly for the last 30 years for most resources (including energy consumption)8, and the only force significantly driving up total consumption in the U.S. is population growth.7,10

If we could reduce consumption by half - an immensely overoptimistic scenario - the temporary gain would be offset by the doubling of our population and subsequent growth. As the Sierra Club recognizes1, both consumption and U.S. population growth must be curbed in order to achieve sustainability:

"The growing population and its consumption patterns have profound consequences for the global environment, including species extinction, deforestation, desertification, climate change, and the destruction of natural ecosystems."

Environmentalists in the Sierra Club understand the relationship between population growth and environmental impact. In fact, current Sierra Club population policy39 states:

"The Sierra Club advocates reductions in the population of the United States and the world... The Board clarified that the Club favored an eventual decline in US population, since we had already decided in 1970 that expected 1990 levels were the highest that were environmentally sustainable in the long term, and we are now much above that level..." - Sierra Club 1999 population policy

In order for the Sierra Club to advocate for policies that will achieve U.S. population stabilization, we must fact the politically sensitive drivers of population growth, including immigration into the U.S.

U.S. Population policy

Current U.S. population policy is essentially a policy of default, resulting in U.S. population growth of approximately 3 million people each year.5

In 1972, two population commissions - the President's Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, headed by John D. Rockefeller III, and the Select Commission on Population, headed by Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame - concurred that U.S. population must be stabilized.6 Our 1972 population of 205 million was already threatening the environmental legacy of future generations.

The 1972 Rockefeller report stated:

"Recognizing that our population cannot grow indefinitely, and appreciating the advantages of moving now toward the stabilization of population, the Commission recommends that the nation welcome and plan for a stabilized population."

"The nation has nothing to fear from a gradual approach to population stabilization."... "From an economic point of view, a reduction in the rate of population growth would bring important benefits."

The Select Commission on Immigration then concluded:

"The Commission recommends the creation of an Office of Population Growth and Distribution within the Executive Office of the President."
"The Commission recommends the immediate addition of personnel with demographic expertise to the staffs of the Council of Economic Advisers, the Domestic Council, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the Office of Science and Technology."
"Growing populations demand more food, goods, services, and space. Where there is scarcity, population increase aggravates it."
"After two years of concentrated effort, we have concluded that, in the long run, no substantial benefits will result from further growth of the Nation's population, rather that the gradual stabilization of our population would contribute significantly to the Nation's ability to solve its problems."

Unfortunately, the report was quickly cast aside. Now, with a population of nearly 300 million on the way to doubling this century, our nation is sorely in need of a realistic, sustainable national population policy. Environmentalists can contribute to the formation of an appropriate and sustainable national population policy by pointing out the clear connection between U.S. population growth and environmental degradation and the need to achieve an environmentally sustainable society.

Causes of U.S. population growth

The legacy of U.S. overpopulation we are leaving to future generations does not have to happen if we recognize and address the causes of our population growth.

Next: U.S. birth rates and their relationship to population growth.
Skip to:
      Information on U.S. immigration and population growth.
      Global and local solutions and the road to U.S. population stabilization.
      U.S. population numbers, graphs and explanations.
Also see:
      Cites and notes for the overview section.
      Population terms.

        Author: Fred Elbel. Edited by Dick Schneider.


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