The Numbers Game - Confronting Growth and the Environment

by Jim Motavalli, E/The Environmental Magazine, January/February, 2004

There's a minefield in the American environmental movement, and its name is population. Because negotiating that minefield is so dangerous, many environmental groups and leaders have stopped trying to cross it. But to ignore population as a central issue while talking freely about sprawl, air and water pollution, loss of biodiversity, agricultural land and animal habitat, global warming and many other crucial environmental issues is to deny reality.

Population and - in particular - immigration are never easy topics. At least in the U.S., population growth is closely tied to immigration. If you subtracted post-1990 immigration, the U.S. would have a population around 310 million in 2050; with current immigration, the Census Bureau says it could be 438 million. The population could double by 2100, with two-thirds of that growth attributed to immigration.

Some of the consequences of our rapid growth: With U.S. population growing by three million a year, we lose two acres of farmland every minute, according to the American Farmland Trust. Traffic congestion costs drivers $78 billion a year, says the Road Information Project. A serious water shortage is developing nationwide, with aquifers once considered inexhaustible drying up. Syndicated columnist Lou Dobbs argues that immigration-fueled population growth is putting a "heavy burden" on our abundant natural resources, and that at the present rate the U.S. won't be exporting food at all by 2025.

Some of these problems feed on each other. Population growth increases U.S. greenhouse gas production, which in turn makes existing crises more acute. For instance, one study suggests that most of the entire western United States - already severely water-challenged - could experience a 40 to 76 percent drop in precipitation levels because of climate change. The U.S. experience is reflected internationally. From 6.3 billion people on the planet today, the United Nations projects 8.9 billion in 2050. (And that's just the middle of three possibilities; on the high end, the population could grow to 10.6 billion, while 7.4 billion is on the low end.) If fertility were to remain constant - which is not likely - the UN projects that the population of the world could actually double by 2050, to 12.8 billion.

We need a new understanding of the effects of population growth, because much of what passes for accepted wisdom on the subject is either wrong or only partly right. In many cases these commonly held notions grew out of political expediency - they're what we want to believe - so it's all the more necessary to subject them to an objective review. So here's a look at some myths, half-truths and truths, with all the shading in between:

"World population, far from being a problem, is actually shrinking because of the global ‘birth dearth.'"

There is indeed a population shortfall trend developing in Western Europe, Russia and Japan (see "The Birth Dearth," Currents, September/October 2003). In Ireland, for instance, families have an average of 1.8 children today, slightly below replacement level. Couples in Italy, Germany and Spain have just 1.2 to 1.3 children each. The average fertility rate in Europe is 1.45. Both Russia and Japan are at 1.3.

But it's simply not true, as the conservative Center for Bio-Ethical Reform writes, that "the problem today is not overpopulation; it's under-population." The reason that isolated "birth dearths" don't produce lower numbers is the very rapid population increase in the world's least-developed countries. The population of the most heavily industrialized regions of the world grows at an annual rate of just .25 percent, reports the UN, compared to a rate of 1.46 percent - six times faster - in the less-developed countries.

We are currently adding 77 million people to the globe annually, with 21 percent of that increase coming from India, 12 percent from China and five percent from Pakistan. Three countries, Bangladesh, Nigeria and - surprise! - the United States each contribute four percent of the world's annual growth. Half of the projected increase will occur in just eight countries, seven of them in Africa and Asia. Population grows rapidly in the U.S., despite a near zero-growth fertility rate of 2.05 in 2002, because of the impact of immigrants and their descendants (who tend to have large families, according to the Census Bureau). Because of this, American population is growing as fast as in some of the more populous Third World countries.

The bottom line is that population in 30 developed countries (excluding the U.S.) will likely not grow much at all through 2050, but in the U.S. and the Third World it will rise steadily, to 7.7 billion or more.

"Sprawl and the rapid decline in open space are caused by bad development policies and our love of the automobile."

Obviously, the car is a major culprit in the sprawl phenomenon. America now has more automobiles than it has drivers, and the auto industry (in close consultation with the highway lobby) has been influencing, if not controlling, development policy since the end of World War II. Cheap mortgages courtesy of the GI Bill made suburbia possible. Each new subdivision claims open space.

The rush to the suburbs was also spurred by the urban riots of the 1960s, which emptied out inner cities. But population growth, plain and simple, is the 900-pound gorilla that gets ignored when "sprawl" is discussed.

The U.S. had 150 million people in 1950, when the suburbs were new. By 2000, just 50 years later, we had 275 million. Each year, says the organization Population-Environment Balance (PEB), we convert to human use an area the size of Delaware, including 400,000 acres of arable land.

We can, and should, get serious about "smart growth," "greenbelts," "New Urbanism," redevelopment "infill" and "land-use planning." But we can't solve the sprawl problem by simply moving people to high-density cities, even smartly managed urban centers like Portland, Oregon. "Ecological footprint" studies show that cities use the resources and waste disposal capacity of an area many times their size in the surrounding countryside. That's why New York's "garbage barge" became famous.

Immigration exacerbates sprawl because it is a primary contributor to population growth: A study by Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) concluded that immigration was responsible directly and indirectly for 98 percent of California's soaring population. The common perception is that immigration does not exacerbate sprawl, because new immigrants move to urban areas. But half the country's immigrants now live in suburbs, and only 24 percent of immigrant homebuyers settle in central cities.

Although some formerly industrial "rust belt" cities spread out even as they are losing population, the general rule is that sprawl accompanies population growth. On average, according to the Center for Immigration Studies report "Outsmarting Smart Growth," states that grew in population by more than 30 percent between 1982 and 1997 sprawled 46 percent. States that grew by 10 percent or less sprawled only 26 percent. Add 10,000 people to a state's population and you'll lose, on average, 1,600 acres of land to development.

Both True and False:
"Population isn't the problem; it's high western consumption rates and waste."

There is certainly a very solid basis for this argument. According to the TV documentary Affluenza, "Even though Americans comprise only five percent of the world's population, in 1996 we used nearly a third of its resources and produced almost half of its hazardous waste. The average North American consumes five times as much as an average Mexican, 10 times as much as an average Chinese and 30 times as much as the average person in India." It's obvious that reducing our sky-high western consumption rates would be a big help.

Without a doubt, high consumption rates and rapid population growth work together to degrade the environment, and both need to be addressed globally. Unfortunately, however, reducing consumption is very difficult to achieve on a national basis, and international momentum is toward emulating high American levels of it, not modeling Third World frugality. As William Ryerson pointed out in his "16 Myths About Population Growth," published by the Carrying Capacity Network, developing countries want cars, televisions and other signs of western prosperity. China, which is rapidly expanding its highway network and encouraging private car ownership, will likely surpass the U.S. as a global warming gas emitter by 2015.

The overall news is not good. The UN's panel on climate change projects that by 2025 developing countries could be emitting four times as much carbon dioxide (CO2) as they do today. What's true of CO2 is also true of other measures of consumption. The rapid Third World switch to a meat-based diet is one measure of the trend.

"Efforts to reduce fertility and population size in the Third World are anti-woman."

The most prominent spokesperson for this viewpoint is probably Betsy Hartmann, director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College and a co-founder of the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment (CWPE). Population stabilization (which she calls "neo-Malthusianism") "is powerful in the U.S. because it resonates so well with domestic racism and sexism," she wrote in 1999. "Images of over-breeding single women of color on welfare and bare-breasted, always pregnant Third World women are two sides of the same nasty coin. And both groups, it is believed, are excellent candidates for social engineering. Insert Norplant, tie their tubes, put them to work in fast-food chains or sweat shops, and give them a little micro-credit and education if you're feeling generous."

Hartmann says in a message to E that "it's virtually impossible to detach the immigration debate from race." Her group, CWPE, "rejects the notion that population size and growth are primarily responsible for environmental degradation. This notion is created and spread by an alliance between the mainstream media, environmental organizations and population control advocates, especially in the United States."

Asked by New Statesman how she reconciles her pro-choice, anti-population control views, Hartmann responded, "A lot of people find this hard to understand. But for me, family planning is about human rights and women's health - not population control. It is about freeing women to have the number of children they want, not blaming them for a whole host of social problems." She believes that "family planning should be detached from population control," and its primary goal should be to "meet women's needs first."

While China has a coercive policy that legally restricts births and presents human rights challenges, Hartmann goes further and concludes that even voluntary programs are oppressive to women. But there is considerable evidence that women (and their children) are primary victims of overpopulation and, when asked, seek out family planning aid. According to the National Audubon Society's Patrick Burns, "Women started the family planning movement, lead the family planning movement, and buy almost all the contraception in the entire world. Why? Women want to have control over their lives and determine the number, timing and spacing of their children." William Ryerson of the Population Media Center adds, "Women who live in societies where they have power over their own lives tend to use family planning much more frequently than in countries where they are relatively powerless."

Although Hartmann and CWPE support "women's right to safe, voluntary birth control and abortion," they strongly oppose "demographically driven population policies." In other words, they're in favor of making contraception widely available, but against tying it to any national plan to address population growth. They decry not only China's coercive program, but also, because its stated aim is reducing population size, Iran's commendable grassroots effort to make birth control widely available, which has cut the growth rate in half. (The policy encourages women to wait three to four years between pregnancies, discourages childbearing for women younger than 18 or older than 35, and encourages three-child limits, which would certainly appear to be "demographically driven.")

Hartmann has energetically attacked what she sees as a nefarious cabal promoting anti-immigrant and anti-population growth attitudes in the U.S. ("the greening of hate," she calls it), but in fact the media treats the subject gingerly, if at all. Population activist Virginia Abernethy, a PEB board member and Vanderbilt University professor, offers this rejoinder, "In an interview with New Scientist [Feb. 2003], Betsy Hartmann attacks so many eminent scientists without good reason... that perhaps we should feel honored by all the attention."

"Education will greatly contribute to the reduction of fertility rates."

Education usually does produce smaller families, but there are exceptions. Tanzania had achieved 90 percent female literacy by the early 1990s, but parents in 2002 had an average of 5.3 children, more than double the replacement rate. A study by Charles Westoff of Princeton University's Office of Population Research found a strong relationship between education and family size in some countries, and a "weak or non-existent" connection in others.

Studies done for the Demographic and Health Surveys in the 1990s indicated that half of the women identified as having an "unmet need" for contraception would not use it even if it were available. Specific education about family planning could make a difference in this number, since "lack of knowledge" was the most frequently cited reason for not using birth control in a Kenyan survey. It's interesting to note that soap operas presenting birth control in a positive light led to increased contraceptive use and changed attitudes in India, Kenya and Mexico.

Obviously, cultural beliefs are not necessarily altered by educational attainment, and they play a big part in attitudes toward birth control. Religion might also be expected to play a large part, but it's plain that family planning is firmly embraced in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and in the Catholic countries of Europe, which have some of the lowest fertility rates in the world. But no matter how their congregants actually behave, some religious denominations, including Catholicism, some Islamic orders and the Southern Baptist Convention, continue to be strident voices against family planning. "The ban on artificial birth control is total and absolute," wrote the popular magazine The Catholic Answer.

"Population growth does not lead to hunger and starvation; it's an equitable distribution problem."

While it is undeniably true that the world currently produces enough food for our burgeoning population, and that it is uneven distribution that produces hunger, the long-term production outlook is ominous. Worldwatch reports that the growth in agricultural production has slowed steadily since the 1960s as populations soar, crops approach their biological maximum yield, arable land is lost and global fisheries crash. Genetic engineering, seen by some as a panacea for increasing yields, could actually backfire and make the situation even more desperate, reports Innovest Strategic Value Advisors.

While the raw numbers on global malnutrition are declining, in countries such as Haiti rapid population growth has led to an ongoing human rights crisis. Nearly 70 percent of all Haitians depend on subsistence agriculture in one of the most devastated environments on Earth, where only 30 percent of the land is suitable for cultivation. "In Haiti (fertility rate 4.3 in 2002), a substantial share of poverty is also traceable to rapid population growth pressing upon limited endowments of soils and clean water," says an American University report entitled "Deforestation in Haiti." It adds, "Deforestation and population growth, coupled with years of repression and colonial intervention has caused the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Haitians."

Haiti has the fourth most undernourished people on Earth, says the World Bank, and only 40 percent of its eight million people have access to fresh water. Haiti, then, has a population problem coupled with a political problem. International aid plus the dedicated work of foreign support groups such as Partners in Health are not able to compensate for a devastated environment supporting too many people.

Arguments that equitable distribution would feed the world, while possibly true, would have more weight if the world was actually moving in that direction. In fact, Tracy Kidder reports in The Nation that development aid to Haiti has actually declined by two-thirds since 1995.

Mia MacDonald of Worldwatch notes that a billion people are likely to be added to the Indian subcontinent in the next 50 years, at the same time the region faces a huge freshwater crisis. "One has to wonder whether it makes sense to spend scores of billions of dollars to revamp irrigation systems and build new dams, when so little money is invested in tackling the root of the problem - human population growth," she writes. Pakistan is likely to double its population, to 332 million, by 2050. The $11 billion it is spending on the Kalabagh Dam could double Pakistan's investment in family planning for the next 50 years.

Contraceptive use is widely accepted, and U.S. aid is increasing availability.

As the Population Resource Center notes, "The amount of [population] growth in the developing world will depend largely on women's access to education and health care, especially family planning services." Since most population growth is in these countries, this is where the world's attention should be focused.

Family planning aid can lead to dramatic reductions in population growth, but unforeseen obstacles can also prevent that from happening. In Kenya, where the Catholic Church has led public condom burnings, there is 90 percent access to contraceptives but only a third of the population is using them, according to Kenya's own figures. A 1991 study indicated that only half the women characterized as having an "unmet need" would use condoms if they were available.

The 1994 UN conference on population and development defined access to reproductive and sexual health services as a human right. Unfortunately, that right is not being met. Although 60 percent of married women worldwide use contraception, only 10 percent of married women in sub-Saharan Africa do. The current "unmet need" for contraception averages 70 percent in Asia and Latin America. Around the world, 123 million women do not have adequate access to family planning.

The country most able to help is AWOL. The U.S. has traditionally been the largest source of family planning assistance, but under President Bush it has drastically changed course for political reasons. In the face of unprecedented demand, the Bush administration (which continues to simplistically link birth control with abortion) has cut funding dramatically for international family planning aid, and consistently attempts to eliminate all aid for the agency best able to guide global population policy, the United Nations Population Fund.

The Bush administration's policy will undoubtedly mean more abortions, not fewer. "Widespread family planning availability tends to reduce abortion rates, as has been well-documented in several recent studies," says Robert Engelman, vice president for research at Population Action International (PAI). "Family planning - and good reproductive health - can only contribute to making all pregnancies wanted pregnancies and reducing abortion rates," adds MacDonald.

According to the coalition Saving Women's Lives, the consensus reached during the 1990s at various UN conferences was that global spending for family planning should total $17 billion by 2000, and $18.5 billion by 2005. That's the goal. In reality, in 2000 donor countries actually provided only half of the $5.7 billion they pledged.

"Population growth can only be addressed globally. It's selfish to worry about immigration levels in the U.S."

It's unambiguously true that population growth is a global problem needing global solutions, but these are in woefully short supply. Groups such as Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth) speak vaguely about solving global poverty to ease emigration pressures but are short on specifics. Although we definitely do need global solutions, the late Garrett Hardin pointed out that population policy is actually set on the national level, and it is therefore at the whim of localized cultural and religious norms.

Americans must address the full consequences of high immigration numbers in the U.S. As Lester Brown of Earth Policy Institute has argued, high emigration may offer countries a "safety valve," allowing them to continue with high fertility rates. This situation can reverse itself, as in Ireland, where historically high fertility and record high emigration have been replaced with below-replacement level fertility and immigration surpassing emigration.

Another important fact is that immigrants quickly adopt the high consumption patterns of their host country, putting larger strains on natural resources. As the Journal of Housing Research notes, "The aggregate housing consumption of immigrants will rise substantially in the next 15 years as past waves of immigrants move up the housing consumption ladder." Energy use provides another dramatic example. Negative Population Growth reports that per-capita energy consumption barely rose between 1970 and 1990 because of energy-efficiency gains and conservation, but total U.S. energy use rose 36 percent - because of the larger, immigration-driven U.S. population.

"Calls to reduce immigration are inherently racist."

Immigration is never an easy topic. Strictly speaking, immigration by itself may not lead to higher world population - it just moves people around. Immigrants have always been among the most scapegoated people in America. In 1855, the Chicago Tribune thundered, "Who does not know that the most depraved, debased, worthless and irredeemable drunkards and sots which curse the community are Irish Catholics?" Such sentiments were common even in the shadow of Ellis Island, as Martin Scorsese's film Gangs of New York makes clear.

The fear of alien hordes is still used to stir people up today. Alabama's Auburn Plainsman recently opined, "It is time to close the borders, because continued mass immigration will only persist to erode what is left of the West in America. If it continues, logically it follows that in a few generations Western civilization will be extirpated from America."

The key to this kind of demonizing is creating a dividing line between immigrants and "real" Americans. According to "nativist" writer Sam Francis, immigrants "just work here, or hang out, on welfare, dealing drugs, or doing whatever they do. But their real loyalties lie elsewhere, namely in the countries they came from." Americans for Immigration Control further warns, "Fewer than 15 percent of our immigrants come from Europe and share the heritage that made America strong." Groups like the American Patrol offer convenient one-click service for reporting illegal aliens.

Chris Simcox and his so-called Civil Homeland Defense Corps have actually patrolled the Mexican border looking for illegal immigrants to "humanely" repatriate. "We cannot let [the Mexicans] export their failures," Glenn Spencer of the Arizona-based American Border Patrol told the Los Angeles Times. "They are a threat to our entire culture." Commentator and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan pronounced, "The Third Worldization of California is now far advanced."

Fear of being lumped in with groups like this has led many mainstream environmental organizations to avoid the population issue, and particularly immigration. But the fact remains that human population growth is a root cause of environmental degradation, and the U.S. population (fertility rate 2.05) would hardly be growing at all were it not for immigration. But the ethnicity and race of these immigrants doesn't matter at all - it's the numbers, plain and simple.

The loss of "immigrants of European origin" is used as a code phrase to avoid saying the obvious: that the new immigrants are primarily people of color. Writer Peter Brimelow, author of Alien Nation, says, "The U.S. population is going to be vastly larger, much more non-white and much less skilled than would otherwise be the case." It's not clear why the "non-white" part is important.

But it's absurd to postulate some kind of non-white conspiracy to take over America, as the alarmists do. It can't even be extrapolated that current black and Hispanic-American populations automatically support high immigration numbers. A commission created in 1990 by the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (D-TX), a celebrated civil rights activist, recommended that immigration be capped at 550,000, half its current amount. A Gallup poll in June of 2003 found that 44 percent of African-Americans think immigration should be decreased. A Wall Street Journal poll in 2000 discovered that 42 percent of Hispanics consider U.S. immigration "too open." The Hispanic USA Research Group found in 1993 that 89 percent of Hispanics strongly support an immediate moratorium on immigration.

Some of these attitudes stem from minority-based racism. Asian Week, a newsletter published by a Chinese-American organization, editorialized that even illegal Chinese immigration is good for society, while Latino immigrants are a burden even if they come here legally.

The major worry among all these respondents is job displacement. Barbara Jordan, in congressional testimony, said a major commission goal was "to reduce the magnet that jobs currently present for illegal immigration." A case in point is the hotel industry. In Los Angeles, for instance, a study shows that unionized native-born black janitors in the hotel industry have overwhelmingly been replaced by non-union laborers from Mexico and El Salvador, while pay dropped from $12 an hour to $3.35 an hour. According to the study, "Immigrants and Labor Standards: The Case of California Janitors," published in Labor Market Interdependence, most of the displaced workers failed to find new employment.

During the recent Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, union leader John Wilhelm thundered, "No human being is 'illegal.'" But does the presence of seven million illegal immigrants in the U.S. really support the poor and minority communities that are the top priority of the progressive coalition? "Immigration hurts first and worst our own poor, many of whom are minorities and established immigrants," says Michelle A. Fehler, coordinator of Population-Environment Balance. Interestingly, some of immigration's biggest supporters are business leaders who want to keep wages low.

Immigration supporters have been very successful in closing off discussion by playing the race card. Theresa Hayter, the British author of the book Open Borders, has stated, "Immigration controls are explicable only by racism," but the reality is far more complex than that blanket assertion.

Patrick Burns, director of the population and habitat program at the National Audubon Society, points out that "a tight American labor market would probably benefit everyone all over the world," because wages would rise in the U.S. and jobs now here would be exported to countries, including India, Mexico and Vietnam, that desperately need to put people to work.

It's one of the most polarizing issues of our time, so it's not surprising that population discussions usually end in shouting matches. But if we don't soon get a handle on this critical issue it may be too late, for the planet and for ourselves.

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E. CHRISTINA ZARRELLA provided invaluable research assistance for this article.