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.
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.
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
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
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
1 World Resources Institute. World Resources 1994-95: A Guide to
the Global Environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1994.
2 President's Council on Sustainable Development. Population and
Consumption Task Force Report. Washington, DC. 1996. P. 3.