Powell: Population growth makes our problems harder to resolve

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Mark Powell, who is the secretary of Vermonters for Sustainable Population.  He lives in Worcester.

Although the U.S. was approaching a stabilized population as recently as 1980, we are now experiencing the longest running growth spurt in the history of the developed world. In spite of this, our nation’s legislative body proposes even more rapid population growth in the form of comprehensive immigration reform. These changes will boost our demographic profile still further beyond our already unsustainable growth. I call on Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, to truthfully advise the American people of the implications of this legislation for the future growth of our population.

Recently, the White House Council of Economic Advisers endorsed population growth as a remedy for current and future economic woes. “U.S. population growth is projected to fall almost in half over the next three decades,”[i] the report states, but it doesn’t mention that the growth of the past 30 years — the growth implicitly regarded as desirable — has been unprecedented and unsustainable. The report adds, “Immigrants increase the size of the population and thus of the labor force and customer base, making an important contribution to economic growth.”

Although there is much talk these days of America’s declining fertility, the premise of a drastic slowing in our population growth is misleading, as can be readily evidenced by comparing our own growth and that of the European Union. Back in 1980, the combined population of those 27 countries was double the 225 million counted in that year’s U.S Census. Since then, however, the EU population has increased by only 10 percent, while the U.S. grew by 40 percent, adding 100 million people. Under existing policy, the Census Bureau projects 100 million more people by 2060, while the EU will remain virtually unchanged. We will grow even faster with the proposed changes in immigration; many young Americans would probably live to see the U.S. reach half a billion people, a threshold never before crossed by an industrial nation.

The arguments in favor of continued population growth are based on the flawed assumption that only by maintaining past levels of growth can we hope for a more prosperous future. But how well has this rapid growth served us today?

While the national debate about immigration reform focuses primarily on the status of undocumented persons, with a bit of debate about high-skilled and low-skilled visas, impacts on U.S. population growth are virtually ignored. That really needs to be addressed openly, and the White House statement about the economic benefits of population growth begs the question: If adding 100 million more people in 45 years won’t sustain our economy, how many millions more do we need to ensure prosperity?

Not so long ago, many environmentalists publicly spoke about the hazards driven by rapid demographic growth in the world’s largest industrial nation. After all, the more modest population growth in Europe has been paralleled by their growing embrace of renewable technologies and more efficient use of nonrenewables.

Americans, meanwhile, have pursued these advances only reluctantly, greatly magnifying the greenhouse emissions driven by our rapidly increasing numbers. Unfortunately, the scientifically grounded views expressed by a few realistic environmentalists are often subverted by politics. Among progressives, the debate about U.S. population growth has been embargoed by a kind of 21st century Left-wing McCarthyism. Environmentalists who publicly express concern about U.S. growth will quickly face accusations of “green racism.”

The arguments in favor of continued population growth are based on the flawed assumption that only by maintaining past levels of growth can we hope for a more prosperous future. But how well has this rapid growth served us today?

We certainly can’t expect that further growth in our population will alleviate America’s growing economic inequality. The disparity between rich and poor has increased substantially as our population has rapidly grown since the late 1980s, and the middle class is feeling the squeeze. It’s not hard to see why; as the supply of labor has increased, prevailing wages have stagnated relative to the cost of living. This may help to explain why the business community is so enthusiastic about immigration reform.

In the same vein, we struggle today with high unemployment, and millions of workers, including skilled workers, have fallen through the cracks. How does an increase in our workforce, in this difficult economic moment, make it easier to get them back to work?

We certainly should not expect this continued growth to improve our educational outcomes; as the population has rapidly grown over the last quarter-century, we have been falling behind in our math and science scores. It’s true that many of our schools are struggling with declining enrollment, but other schools face crowded classrooms and have trouble recruiting qualified teachers.

This growth in our population has neither reduced our dependence on foreign sources of energy nor decreased our carbon footprint. Even as we develop more efficient technologies for industry and transportation, growth in our population has pushed national energy consumption and greenhouse gas production still higher.

If the federal government really believes that continued rapid population growth is somehow going to make life better for our children and grandchildren, then they need to say so and make that case to the American people. But the White House Council of Economic Advisers should not be pretending that we are in danger of demographic implosion and our economy can only be kept afloat with continued population growth. This deceptive spin calling for continued expansion of our population will make life harder for American families and further disrupt the climate from which our children and grandchildren will have to draw sustenance and seek shelter.


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Tony Redington
3 years 7 months ago
Agree population growth a problem, but US recent birth rate lowest since the Great Depression…and Vermont grows by a health 11 persons per month based on US Census data and estimates for 2010-2011-2012. We need a twofold approach–radical reduction in resource consumption in the areas of non-sustainable use and continued attention to the U.S. population. All while making efforts at other nations no now involved in the same effort and assisting developing nations into sustainable areas Most important, the U.S.–and Vermont-ust change transportation pricing and investments towards rail, bus, and the active modes, walking and bicycling. The huge subsidy of… Read more »
Phyllis North
3 years 7 months ago

Thank you for speaking out, Mr. Powell. This is a topic that our leaders refuse to consider, and most environmentalists willingly ignore.

Why is Leahy pushing for a program that will bring in 33 million more people — the population of Canada — in the next decade?

This is just what the corporations want: cheap labor. But we already have millions of unemployed American citizens who want jobs. God forbid we should think about their needs.

Robert Fireovid
3 years 7 months ago
I agree with Mr. Powell. We humans cannot grow our numbers forever. In a finite world, humanity’s physical growth must stop at some point. Where should that point be? I suspect that few Vermonters want to see their community’s population to double over their lifetimes. Many of us came to Vermont or choose to stay in Vermont because man’s footprint here is more humane – in balance with human communal interaction and with the rest of Creation (our larger community). As our non-renewable resources disappear and even the value of our renewable resources are depleted by climate change, further growth… Read more »
Rolf Mueller
3 years 7 months ago

It’s a simple matter of arithmetic.
Unfortunately arithmetic or simplicity seems to be a lost art.

Kathy Nelson
3 years 7 months ago
Mr Powell’s article has a very distinct tone of political correctness. Population control is an emotional subject that involves adult responsibility and the proper planning of families. One of the primary factors in both of those issues is women. Throughout the world, and in the US too, women are disenfranchised, un-empowered and even beaten and killed for trying to make good choices about reproduction. It’s something men don’t like to talk about. It’s a hot-button topic that draws religious and cultural fanaticism into the fray. It’s a question of who’s in power and who is not. The Earth is a… Read more »
3 years 7 months ago
Kathy, There is no statement of fact or analysis here with which I don’t agree wholeheartedly, but those aspects of population growth were beyond the focus of this particular Op-Ed. Please visit our web page at http://www.vspop.org where you will find a series of broad principles, including the importance of the education and overall empowerment of women across the globe as an important prerequisite for a world where human numbers, and human consumption, are more in balance with the limitations and resources of this finite planet. We also heartily endorse the work of the Population Media Center (www.populationmedia.org), which is… Read more »
Charlie Alvin
3 years 4 months ago
I pretty much agree with you all, folks. The legalization of illegal emigrants accompanied by broken promises of securing our boarders has been done time and again and has obviously failed to stop the ever increasing flow of boarder-jumpers. When it comes to emigration, as a society we are constantly cutting off our nose to spite our face. We must learn to properly reward folks who play by the rules, that is our our emigration laws, by bringing the unlawful boarder jumping to a DEAD STOP and expelling those who are already here following a hefty prison sentence meanwhile making… Read more »
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