At 308 million people, the U.S. is currently the third most populous nation on Earth, behind only China (1.3 billion) and India (1.2 billion). By 2050, India will rise to #1, with 1.6 billion—a 37% increase. China’s ‘one-child’ policy will limit its increase to about 8% (1.4 billion). The growth rate in the U.S., though, tops them both: We are projected to hit 440 million, or an astonishing 43% increase. This is, by far, the highest growth rate of any western industrialized nation.
Such dramatic population growth, under any circumstances, causes a variety of social and economic problems. In the U.S., as we know, the situation is exacerbated by the fact that most of our increase will be among non-White minority groups, primarily Hispanics. The numbers are striking: The 43% increase amounts to 132 million people; of these, 130 million will be minorities. White population will increase by only 2 million, reducing it to 46% of the total by 2050. Thus we can expect that problems with minorities will grow in a variety of areas: housing, schools, welfare, health care, crime, security, economic inequality, and racial and ethnic conflict.
But one neglected area of importance is truly color-blind, and that is the environment. Resource and energy use, development, road construction, expanded cropland and pastureland, deforestation, pollution and waste disposal — none of these care which race or ethnicity is doing the consuming. Only two things matter: sheer numbers of people, and the level of consumption. And on this count alone, we are facing an ecological crisis in this country.
Measuring environment impact is a challenging prospect, but consensus seems to be building around the concept of the ecological footprint as one relevant criterion. The basic idea behind it is sound: that human beings, as consumers and producers, require the ongoing use of some portion of the planet’s surface, from which to draw resources and on which to dump their wastes. Some resources are renewable, others are not. Some waste products decay quickly, others take millennia. Many of our resources demand a quantifiable area of land: land to farm, pave, pasture, or otherwise develop. So too our waste products: our trash takes up an ever-growing space, and greenhouse gas emissions from all sources may require offsets in terms of vegetation (trees or other ground cover). And plant life generally has a vital ability to break down the various pollutants and toxins that our society churns out daily.
In an attempt to formulate a standardized measure, environmental scientists have added together the land area of all our resource use, plus the land area required for all our waste products and carbon offsets. The result is, for each nation, a single measure of land area—the ecological footprint—that represents the amount of area required, per person, to sustain a given standard of living. (In the following, I use the World Wildlife Fund’s “Living Planet Report 2008”.)
At the low end, nations like Haiti and Bangladesh struggle by on roughly 1 acre per person. The bulk of the Third World consumes between 2.5 and 8 acres, including India (2.3) and China (5.3). Most of Western Europe ranges from 10 to 15. At the top of the list of major nations is the U.S., at nearly 24 acres per person. (Two energy-intensive oil fiefdoms, UAE and Qatar, rate higher than the U.S, but only slightly.)
Naturally, there is some guesswork and estimation in these numbers, and certainly they are subject to debate. But I have little doubt that they are directionally correct, and that the margin of error is within reason. But even if they are off by 50%—that is, if they indicate twice the actual consumption level—they point to some troubling conclusions for our country.
Consider, for example, the total footprint of the U.S. With over 300 million people consuming on average 24 acres per person, this yields a total footprint of 7.4 billion acres. By comparison, the continental U.S. (i.e. excluding Alaska) has a total land area of just 1.9 billion acres—merely one quarter of our actual usage. Putting it otherwise: Our footprint is 400% of our continental area, and takes in more than 20% of the entire planet.
In fact there is a two-part explanation for our situation. First, we are overtaxing the land itself. The above calculation of ecological footprint for the US implies that it is possible to use more than 100% of the land. This happens by, in essence, depleting the “natural capital” of the biosphere, which occurs through such actions as deforestation, loss of topsoil, and overuse of groundwater. By most indications, humanity as a whole is overtaxing the planet by 30–40%—a condition that, if true, clearly cannot continue indefinitely. But the second and more important factor for the U.S. is a situation whereby we are able, through globalization and international trade, to consume the land resource area of other nations—in the form of imported agricultural products, manufactured goods, chemicals, clothing, machinery, vehicles, and fossil fuels.
For both reasons of social justice and ecological sustainability, the world of the future will have to live within its means. In a practical sense this means three things: reducing total (global) consumption to sustainable levels, reducing the per capita consumption (given the U.N. assumption that populations will rise), and, most critically, living within the capacity of each nation’s land area.
So for the U.S., the calculation is straightforward. With 1.9 billion acres of land, we can carry at most only (1.9 billion / 24 acres =) 80 million people sustainably. Compare this to a present population of 308 million, which is rapidly heading up to 400+ million. Thus, we should be contemplating a reduction of 75%, rather than staring head-on into a 40% increase. (This, of course, assumes a fixed level of consumption; if we are willing to cut our footprint in half, we could get by with a mere 50% population cut, to something like 150 million people.)
But the situation is worse than this. True long-term sustainability demands that a large portion of the land be set aside as true wilderness, unused and unexploited, in order to maintain overall ecosystem viability. How much to set aside is a difficult question, especially given the wide variability and sensitivity of differing ecosystems, and the lack of consensus on the appropriate metrics. Minimum estimates seem to run in the 20–25% range, and at the high end, some have argued for 50% or more, especially in the more biodiverse regions.1 If, worst case, we are then allowed to use only about 1 billion acres of land, current consumption levels will sustainably support only 40 million people—an 87% reduction.
These are, frankly, shocking numbers. And as I mentioned above, even if the footprint figures are significantly wrong—if, say, we are actually consuming only at a rate of 10 or 12 acres per person—then the long-term sustainable population is only back up to 80–100 million. Thus we cannot argue our way out of this problem simply by claiming wild overestimates by some crazed environmentalists. Clearly more drastic action is demanded.
Given the radical unsustainability of our present situation, we need to immediately address both the level of consumption and the population issue simultaneously. On the consumption side, we clearly need to become more efficient, less wasteful, and generally consume less. Americans as a whole waste a tremendous amount of energy and resources, and this does little or nothing for our standard of living. Germany, for example, has an equal or higher quality of life, and it achieves this on a footprint of just 11 acres per person—less than half of ours. A comparable level for the U.S. is clearly attainable, especially over a period of a few decades. But it will not happen without overcoming some ferocious infighting by vested interests.
The other half of the equation is even more difficult and contentious. Tackling the thorny issue of population control, let alone population reduction, is only slightly less controversial than Holocaust denial. And in fact any attempt to discuss large-scale population reduction invariably brings up bad jokes about gas chambers and crematoria. But the situation demands a rational discussion, and there are some obvious first steps.
One: An immediate end to all immigration. The myth of America as the ‘land of the free and home of the brave’ is, for most immigrants, nonsense. Immigrants don’t come here because they ‘love our freedoms.’ They come primarily for one reason: to make money, and increase their standard of living. But every new immigrant—whether poverty-stricken Mexican or well-educated Asian—contributes directly to an already overshot ecosystem. Neither our nation nor the planet can stand any more Americans.
Two: Deportation of all illegal immigrants, and termination of green card privilege. Given the urgency, every illegal person here should be arrested and deported. The green card system should be ended, and those holding current green cards should be subject to accelerated expiration without renewal.
Three: Pay people to leave. If anyone wants to permanently relocate outside the U.S., the government should pay all moving expenses, and perhaps throw in a little financial incentive as well. This obviously does nothing for the global population predicament, but it does help the total consumption problem; the fact remains that any given person living anywhere besides the U.S. will, on average, consume less.
Four: A full-court press on family planning and contraception options. Free or low-cost access to condoms, birth control pills, educational programs, even abortions, should be considered.
Five: An end to all tax incentives to have more than one child. Current tax laws allow exemptions for all children, regardless of number. They should be revised to allow a break only for the first child, and increasing disincentives beyond the second.
If these should prove insufficient, more radical options are available:
Six: Government-paid sterilization. Certainly some percentage of the American population would be willing to get sterilized if it was free. More radical yet would be to provide monetary incentives for sterilization. Imagine if the government offered $5,000 for any childless adult who was willing to get sterilized—and imagine the outcry! But there can really be no complaint, as long as there is no coercion and the program is fully voluntary. Yes, the lower classes are more likely to participate; this is perhaps unfortunate, but given that we accept extreme financial inequality in our country, we have to live with the consequences. (At worst, this would offset the higher birth rates of the lower class immigrant populations.)
Seven: Birth licenses or ‘credits’. This is a kind of capitalist version of China’s policy. Kenneth Boulding and Herman Daly, among others, have proposed a system that gives every woman a certain number of credits, such that would allow her to have one legal child. If she wants two or more, she must buy the credits from another woman who is willing to forego hers. A national marketplace would set the price, and childless women would clearly profit. This is perhaps a rather heartless method, but the present system is exceedingly cruel in its own way—an uncontrolled human plague eating up the planet.
No doubt many readers will think of sterilization programs or birth credits as outrageous and impossible. To which I offer two replies: (1) we would obviously begin with the less radical approaches first, and only contemplate the more extreme actions if necessary; and (2) do we have any better ideas? Continuing on in the same vein is not a rational option. This only invites catastrophe as a means of reducing our population—which will certainly happen if we do nothing. Human numbers will go down; we can rationally plan a soft landing, or just wait for a ruthless Mother Nature to crush us.
The above actions, addressing population and consumption simultaneously, would doubtless have a substantial impact. The actual effect would of course depend on the speed of implementation. The situation is pressing, but there seems to be sufficient time for these actions to work. Reduced consumption and greater efficiencies can happen rather quickly, but no one is proposing 50% or 75% population reductions in a decade.
More realistically, I would propose something on the order of a 50-year plan to achieve the above goals. If, over the coming five decades, we could reduce both our footprint and our population by just 2% per year, we would reach 2060 with 110 million people, consuming at a level of 8.7 acres per person—a sustainable 1 billion acre footprint in total. Two percent annual reductions are easily achievable, and would barely register on the public consciousness.
There is plenty of flexibility in the numbers, of course. If we were only able to muster, say, 1% reductions per year on average, the process would still work—but it would take 100 years to achieve sustainability. Tradeoffs between population and consumption are also possible. If we could, for example, drive population down by 3% per year, then consumption need only fall by 0.5% annually; or vice versa.
And finally, critical to any population reduction scheme is equitable and proportionate implementation. It would not do, for example, to have one class or ethnicity voluntarily adopting low-growth (or negative growth) policies while others ignored them with impunity. There would thus need to be some minimal policy of monitoring and, particularly for systems of tax penalties or birth credits, equitable enforcement.
Every year that we wait, things get immeasurably worse: growing population, increasing per capita consumption, and a global ecosystem nearing exhaustion. With a sustainable population in America, we could feed ourselves, supply all of our own energy (think of it—no more wars for oil!), and maintain vast areas of wild nature. This is truly achievable. It is only a matter of will. But the discussion must start now.
1. See: Metzgar and Bader (1992), “Large mammal predators in the Northern Rockies,” Northwest Environmental Journal, 8(1). Hoctor et al (2000), “Identifying a linked reserve system,” Conservation Biology, 14(4). Noss et al (1999), “A conservation plan for the Klamath-Siskiyou ecoregion,” Natural Areas Journal, 19(4). Carroll et al (2003), “Use of population viability analysis,” Ecological Applications, 13. RETURN TO ARTICLE.