Earth Day at 50—What about Overpopulation?


Earth Day at 50—What about Overpopulation?

Published on April 22nd, 2020

A devastating oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara inspired Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to create the first Earth Day in 1970. Twenty million Americans participated as conservationists noted that “every environmental problem is a population problem.”

Earth Day turns 50 this year, but global population has doubled to 7.6 billion in the past half century. The U.S. population has soared from 203 million to 330 million, an increase equivalent to adding the entire current populations of Poland, Australia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Congo, and Syria to the nation. The result is more crowding, more traffic, less open space, and less wildlife habitat.

The continuing population growth threatens gains achieved through conservation and technological advances. Traffic congestion causes drivers in the U.S. to waste annually more than 3 billion gallons of fuel. Electric and hybrid cars struggle to offset the impact of increasing population, and air pollution is once again rising. Southern California violated federal smog standards for 87 consecutive days in 2018, the worst streak in the past two decades. More people, more cars, more smog.

The Baby Boom of the 50’s and 60’s that fueled the population growth of a half-century ago was supplanted by the Immigration Boom of the 80’s and 90’s that continues today. According to the Pew Research Center, “Future immigrants and their descendants… are projected to account for 88 percent of the U.S. population increase,” between 2015 and 2065. Were it not for foreign immigration, America would have stabilized its population at a lower, more sustainable level.

The 1972 President’s Commission on Population Growth and the American Future found that “gradual stabilization of our population would contribute significantly to the Nation’s ability to solve its problems.” A majority of the commission urged freezing immigration at the level of 400,000. Instead, Congress gradually increased immigration to its recent average of over one million annually.

More space consumed by human activity means less space for the other critters with whom we share the biosphere. America is a huge and bountiful land with wide-ranging wildlife habitat, but rapid population growth imperils this extraordinary biodiversity. Over 1500 animal and plant species are listed as endangered or rare. Habitat depletion—the inevitable consequence of a growing population and its residences, businesses, industries, and roads—is the primary driver of loss of biodiversity. 

In spite of the angst expressed by the political left over any return to traditional, lower immigration levels, those reductions are largely in line with the recommendations of the 1996 U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. That bipartisan group with a 5-4 Democratic majority—chaired by African-American Congresswoman Barbara Jordan—recommended stopping chain migration, enforcing laws against illegal immigration, and reducing legal immigration by one-third. President Clinton embraced the proposal to cut immigration. His press secretary announced, “The President indicated to Barbara Jordan today that he will support such reductions.” 

Ignoring and denying the problems linked to immigration-driven population growth offer no solutions. Research into tree rings reveals that the Southwest experienced megadroughts of over 100 years on multiple occasions within the past two millennia. A recent study says climate change may exacerbate these drought events, yet the Colorado River, a vital source of water for 40 million Americans, is already reduced to a trickle by the time it crosses Mexico and flows into the Gulf of California. 

Large environmental groups have retreated into nests of political correctness, no longer willing to address population growth, globally or locally. It was not always so. The iconic David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club and the preeminent environmentalist of the last 100 years warned us, “Overpopulation is perhaps the biggest problem facing us, and immigration is part of that problem. It has to be addressed.”

The founder of Earth Day, Sen. Gaylord Nelson, was equally forthright in drawing the links among population, immigration, and the environment. He stated, “In this country, it’s phony to say ‘I’m for the environment but not for limiting immigration.’” 

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