Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Frequently Asked Questions

About Negative Population Growth

1. What is overpopulation?

Overpopulation occurs when an area is populated too heavily for the available resources and the capacity of the environment. When an area is overpopulated, its population cannot be maintained without destroying nonrenewable resources and without affecting the carrying capacity of the environment (the earth's ability to support current and future inhabitants).

2. Is overpopulation a problem in the US?

The US is the only major industrialized country still growing, and we show no signs of stopping. The Census shows we grew by thirteen percent between 1990 and 2000 - and by 83 percent the last fifty years! You can see evidence of the problem all around you - vanishing open spaces, water and energy shortages, soil erosion, and air pollution, as well as overcrowded schools, urban sprawl, and traffic congestion.

At 292 million Americans, we're already well over our carrying capacity, and Census projections say we could grow to over 400 million by 2050 - that's another 100 million people to feed, clothe, educate, and house.

3. Isn't overpopulation a global problem?

Overpopulation is indeed a problem around the globe, but population issues must be solved at the national level, as global agreements are largely unenforceable and fail to recognize the unique history, customs, and challenges of each country.

From an environmental standpoint, US overpopulation is far worse for the environment than overpopulation anywhere else, because of our inordinately high use of resources. And of course, we have the most power to effect change right here at home.

4. What size do you believe the United States should be?

NPG has surveyed scientists over thirty years and asked: What's the optimum population size before you start exceeding an area's carrying capacity and harming the environment? The scientific consensus is that 150 to 200 million is the ideal population size for the United States. That's about the size of the US fifty years ago.

5. What is the optimum population size for the world?

Considering food production, the load that human activities are imposing on the biosphere, global warming, chemicals and pollution, labor and wages, issues of social equity, and the problems of crowding, disease, and misery, NPG believes that a world population size of two to three billion would be optimal.

6. I've heard that the entire population of the world could fit inside Texas.

People need more land than just the land they're standing on - they need land for raising food, producing their oil and water, recreation and entertainment, shopping, transportation, waste handling, and much more. And overpopulation isn't about how many people you can jam into a given area; it's about what the optimum population size is before you start destroying resources and quality of life.

7. The US is growing at about one percent per year. Why should we be worried about such a small rate?

Although an increase of one percent may sound small, such a rate is monumental when talking about a population the size of the United States. A one percent increase means 2.9 million new people in a year and 29 million in a decade.

8. Isn't the real problem that we will soon have too few working people to support the elderly? Why are you worried about population growth?

You're thinking of Europe and Japan, which comprise a very small fraction of world population - about fourteen percent. There, fertility decline is leading to a reversal of population growth. This offers those countries the opportunity to decide what population size is best for them. If they decide a larger size is better suited for them, they can raise their fertility back to replacement level or increase immigration.

Worldwide, however, population is still rising quickly. The United Nation's medium projection is for an increase of more than fifty percent by 2050.

9. Does the economy depend on population growth?

Population growth benefits business interests, since it means more development. But as an area becomes more populated, its infrastructure starts straining under the weight of all the new people who must be served. Police forces, roads, and schools no longer satisfy the demands of a growing population. Farmland and forests are sacrificed to strip malls and housing developments. And as more and more schools, sanitary systems, roads, libraries, and water services must be built, eventually growth no longer lowers the average cost of services, but instead raises it. When this point is reached, growth increases the tax burden on communities; the revenue brought in by new growth is outweighed by the costs it creates. Meanwhile, congestion increases, schools become more crowded, and pollution levels rise.

10. Do we need more people to support the Social Security system?

There is no denying that Social Security's viability requires some tough decisions. But adding scores of millions of new workers would at best postpone, not solve, the Social Security problem - and at an enormous cost in resource depletion and environmental damage. Rather, we should see the aging of America as an opportunity to begin transitioning to sustainability.

11. Food and basic commodities have been getting cheaper at the same time our population has expanded, so why should we worry about resource scarcities?

In order to produce the greater and greater quantities of food needed to satisfy an expanding population, our lands have been deforested and overgrazed and our soil eroded. And don't forget the quality of life issues associated with population growth: more pollution, more sprawl, tighter housing markets, overcrowded schools, traffic congestion, and vanishing open spaces.

12. How can we achieve lower population?

Three factors influence population: births, deaths, and migration. We can reduce population by lowering our fertility rate (the average number of children per woman) and reducing immigration. If almost all women had no more than two children, our fertility rate would drop to 1.5, because many women choose to have just one or none. Immigration levels are currently over one million a year - five times traditional averages - and should be returned to more traditional levels of 100,000 to 200,000 annually.

13. Can we tell people how to make a personal decision like family size?

We believe people should be educated about how overpopulation affects the environment and everyone's quality of life and have access to family planning, and then - on their own - make responsible family planning decisions.

14. How could we lower overall fertility?

We could achieve a smaller, more sustainable fertility rate through a combination of social leadership, non-coercive incentives to stop at one or two children (such as tax incentives), free access to family planning education and contraceptives to anyone who wants it, and education. Studies show that as education level goes up, fertility (particularly early fertility) goes down.

15. What is NPG's position on family planning?

We believe that anyone who wants it should have access to family planning education and contraceptives. It's essential that we raise awareness about family planning and not allow taboos to prevent open discussion about issues so vital to our nation's health.

16. What is NPG's view of abortion?

We support Roe versus Wade and subsequent Supreme Court interpretations that affirm but limit women's right to abortion and protect the fetus if it has arrived at a viable stage.

There is still a debate about regulating human fertility, because those who oppose it have not yet come to understand what the theory of evolution tells us about human behavior. Charles Darwin had a titanic role in the history of human thought. Out of his observations of finches in the Galapagos Islands came the theory of evolution, which explained things that had never been explainable before about population.

All successful species, he said, have the ability to bear more young than their environment can support. This enables species to recover from food-short periods and it enables the best adapted to expand and fill new environmental niches when the opportunity presents. It also leads to overpopulation. The successful survive. The others die off.

That excess fecundity is central to the population dynamics of living creatures. It was true of human populations until we learned to practice fertility regulation by family planning. Like other animals, our population growth was limited by high mortality, particularly of the young. Medical and public health advances, sanitation and the growth of agricultural yields saved us for a time from that fate, but the process goes on. As human populations continue to grow, they are meeting those limits. The Darwinian controls, imposed in part by our destruction of the ecosystem, will stop the growth.

Seen in that light, family planning is perhaps the most fundamental advance in the human condition. It permits the human species to control its growth by regulating fertility, rather than waiting for the control to come from misery and rising mortality. Family planning is not just something that we are entitled to practice for our own purposes. It is something that the Earth itself badly needs, to escape the damage of continued human population growth. It is essential to the preservation of ecological balance in the face of a species grown far too successful. Within our species, it is desperately needed by the poor and fertile of the world so they can escape the evolutionary curse of excess fecundity and so their children will not be trapped in high mortality.

Such foresight is good in theory, but it may not be sufficient in practice. The common good is probably the last thing on people's minds when they are making love, and abortion may be necessary, for the good of the woman and of society, when contraception is not practiced. In the United States, there is one induced abortion for every three live births. If many of those pregnancies had come to term, fertility and population growth would be much higher than they are. Without legal abortions, there would be (1) more illegal abortions, which are usually septic and dangerous, and (2) more unwanted children, many of them presumably to single mothers less responsible than other women - and they are hardly ideal parents.

Abortion is the least attractive means of managing birth rates. It has been declining with the widespread availability of contraceptive techniques. It would probably decline further if the other measures were in effect - including over-the-counter availability of morning after pills. The medical profession, including the scientific advisory council to the Food and Drug Administration, has recommended that they be made available, but the FDA has deferred a decision.

The very idea of family planning is not very old, and the idea of tying it to social ends is a new one in human experience. We are far from knowing how to do it. Until we have learned, abortion plays a role as the final resort for women who don't want children or can't raise them. And Roe versus Wade provides the legal framework to reconcile it with other societal goals.

17. Won't technology save us from the problems raised by population growth?

Despite technological advancements, human numbers will ultimately overwhelm our ecosystems. We will eventually run out of finite resources, such as space and water. Even the CIA has weighed in on the issue, predicting in its "Global Trends 2015" report that parts of the US will experience water shortages by 2015 {*}. The report stated that water conservation, expanded use of desalinization, developing genetically modified crops that use less water or more saline water, and importing water "will not be sufficient to substantially change the outlook for water shortages in 2015".


18. Could we negate the results of population growth by reducing our consumption?

Increasing our population means increasing consumption. Every new person consumes resources, takes up space, and disposes of waste products. Even if we can reduce consumption by half, no progress can be achieved if we allow the population to double.

19. Won't "smart growth" plans help accommodate our increasing numbers?

Rather than packing more and more people into more and more crowded areas, we need to tackle the problem at its source: an ever-growing population. When populations continue to expand, communities must find places to house, educate, and employ new residents and thus, even the best-intentioned smart growth efforts will eventually run up against population pressures.

20. Isn't immigration just a shifting of people? Why does it matter where people are living?

From the earth's perspective, population growth is particularly significant in the affluent US, where even the environmentally conscious have levels of consumption far exceeding the rest of the world. The US has five percent of the world's population but consumes 25 percent of its resources. When immigrants come here, they adopt our lifestyle and ultimately have a far worse impact on the earth than they would have had in their home country.

21. Isn't the United States a nation of immigrants?

Immigration levels today are far higher than traditional levels; in the mid 1950s, our immigration was less than one-third what it is today. Additionally, the US today is a very different country than in years past. We've settled the last frontiers and open space is no longer a commodity. Further population growth now means diminishing farmlands and otherwise harming our environment.

22. Is opposition to high immigration rooted in racism?

Immigration, as it relates to population, is not a racial issue; it's about numbers, not race, ethnicity or skin color. It is not racist to consider what doubling or tripling our population would require of our resources and environment.

NPG condemns racism in all its forms. But we also condemn taboos that prevent open, honest public discussion about issues so vital to all of us. With two-thirds of our population growth a direct result of immigration, the American people deserve some say in whether this kind of staggering increase is desirable. Immigration policy must be designed within the framework of overall US population goals.

Bill Totten


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