Population Growth and the Environment

by Dick Schneider


SUSPS Home     Overview     What You Can Do     History     Democracy     Misc


Population growth leads to increased environmental degradation, although many environmental activists do not fully grasp the magnitude of the connection. In simplest terms, more people require more housing, food, jobs, stores, schools, cars, more of everything that has an environmental impact. If population continues to grow, then even if each person stabilizes his or her consumption, overall impact increases. If population grows rapidly, then even declining per person consumption is overwhelmed and total environmental impact increases. That is the situation we face today.
graph The United States population currently stands at 268 million persons, third largest in the world, and is growing at 1 percent per year, the same rate as China. If this rate persists, the United States will double to over half a billion by the middle of the next century. Already the Census Bureau is projecting an additional 70 million residents in the next 25 years, the equivalent of adding the 200 largest American cities yet again to the existing population.

And our population has enormous environmental impacts. Whether it is air pollution in the cities or sprawl in the suburbs, farmland conversion in the valleys or deforestation in the mountains, Americans are destroying the natural systems that keep us alive physically and spiritually. There are many indicators of environmental impact, but energy use is the most thoroughly studied. Energy use causes damage at all stages of production. Fossil fuels require exploration, drilling, mining, transport, refining, burning, and waste disposal, which all create massive impacts. Impoundment of reservoirs behind huge dams floods natural valleys and canyons and disrupts riverine systems downstream. Even renewable energy is not without its consequences. Energy is the leading cause of global environmental effects such as climate change, oil added to the oceans, and acid rain. Energy use also is responsible for most local air pollution such as smog and particulates. Yet energy use in the United States has declined slightly on a per person basis. Only population growth is forcing overall use of energy to increase. This is true for most resources used in the United States today. Per capita consumption has stabilized or decreased but overall use is increasing, driven higher only by continuing growth of the U.S. population. 1
What has this got to do with immigration? Currently nearly half of U.S. population growth results from mass immigration; the other half is natural increase (more births than deaths). And the proportion due to mass immigration is steadily rising. According to the Census Bureau, immigrants and their descendants will account for two-thirds of U.S. population growth between now and the mid-21st century. The only way to begin stabilizing the U.S. population is to reduce both mass immigration rates and fertility rates.


U.S. Impact Worldwide

Some will argue that population growth is a worldwide phenomenon and it doesn't matter where such growth occurs, that borders are artificial boundaries. That is simply untrue. U.S. residents, whether native or foreign born, disproportionately impact the planet. With 5 percent of the world's population, Americans produce 20 percent of the global environmental impact. Any factor that contributes to a growing U.S. population disproportionately increases global impact. Were population growth in the developing world miraculously to stop tomorrow, projected U.S. growth over the next 50 years would still cause global environmental consequences equivalent to adding billions of people in poorer countries. U.S. population growth simply cannot be ignored. Is the problem therefore the high level of American consumption? Yes, but only in part. It is the combination of our already huge population and our massive consumption that is at fault. Even as we steadily improve the efficiency of resource use, if every increment of improvement is offset by a growing number of people, we are no better off than when we started. We have to reduce our consumption and stabilize our population to make a difference. The President's Council on Sustainable Development emphasized this point repeatedly in its 1996 Population and Consumption Task Force Report: "Stabilizing the population without changing consumption and waste production patterns would not be enough; neither would action on consumption and waste without efforts to stabilize population. Each is necessary; neither is sufficient." 2
Moreover, an insidious feedback phenomenon has developed. Many immigrants are moving away from their native lands because of environmental degradation at home. Much of that local degradation results directly from the high demand Americans place on foreign resources. As U.S. demand grows because of its growing population, that in itself causes more environmental destruction abroad, which in turn forces more people to flee their homelands, some of whom emigrate here. This leads to more growth of the U.S. population, causing yet more demand for foreign resources, leading to more mass immigration. This destructive feedback loop can only be broken by curbing our demand for foreign resources, both by making much more efficient use of all resources here and by stopping the growth of the United States population.
To summarize, only a comprehensive approach to environmental problems can succeed. We must deal with all the contributing factors at once.

  • Reduce U.S. consumption by making our economy far more efficient in its use of resources.

  • Halt U.S. population growth by reducing the two factors that contribute to it: birth rates and mass immigration rates.

  • Support international aid that will both slow worldwide population growth and promote sustainable development abroad.

It is a juggling act of global proportions, but it is the only one that can succeed.
1 World Resources Institute. World Resources 1994-95: A Guide to the Global Environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1994. pp. 15-19.
2 President's Council on Sustainable Development. Population and Consumption Task Force Report. Washington, DC. 1996. P. 3.


SUSPS Home     Overview     What You Can Do     History     Democracy     Misc