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According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from 1990 to 2000, an already bloated U.S. population grew by nearly 33 million (from 248 to 281 million), more than any decade since the Bureau began keeping track in 1790, when there were only 4 million Americans in total. Thus, in a mere 10 years, eight times as many people were added as there were altogether in our country some two centuries earlier, in a stark demonstration of the stunning power of what is known as compound, exponential, or geometric growth.
In so doing, a population of ravenous resource consumers equivalent to 10 cities of Los Angeles was unleashed upon an already ravaged American landscape and ecosystem. More resource consumers were added than even in the much-ballyhooed Baby Boom decade (1950–1960)—33 vs. 28 million. Way more were added than in the Great Wave of Immigration decade (1900–1910) a century earlier, when a “mere” 16 million new Americans joined our ranks, and at the conclusion of which our population was “only” 91 million, less than a third of today’s 311 million.
From an environmental perspective, 33 million new pairs of ecological footprints were added to the country with one of the highest per capita ecological footprints on the planet, as well as the country with the single greatest aggregate ecological footprint on Earth. Added to a nation already living unsustainably, far beyond its ecological means (Figure 1); living in ecological deficit and accumulating a staggering ecological debt. That many more Americans meant that much more demographic pressure on our already beleaguered forests, wetlands, productive farmland, wildlife habitat, air and water quality, water resources, greenhouse gas emissions, threatened and endangered species, oil and coal consumption, and virtually every other pinched, stressed, over-stretched, and overloaded environmental resource in America.
Now let us look at the decade just completed (2000–2010), the subject of the 2010 Decadal Census, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, and the topic of a great many recently released and forthcoming reports and commentaries. As a result in part of the “Great Recession” with which we still contend, the aggregate growth in our population during the decade just passed dipped somewhat from 33 to 27 million. But these 27 million added to an already overpopulated America still represent the third-largest increase of any decade in our history! This past decade’s growth is surpassed only by the record 1990–2000 decade (33 million) and the Baby Boom 1950–1960 decade (28 million) (Figure 2).
In the bar graph of Figure 2, the trend is quite evident: from 1900 onward, up to the present day, even as our population size has gotten ever larger, the decadal increments, far from decreasing—which would be the case in a population on its way to stabilization—have on average gotten larger as well. The bars on the right (more recent) side are clearly taller, on average, than the bars on the left side. If we divide this 110-year period into two parts—1900 to 1950, and 1950 to 2010, in the first part the average (mean) decadal increase in U.S. population was 15 million. In the second part (1950–2010), the average increase per decade was 26 million. Not only has our cumulative population size been growing ever larger, but viewed over the long term, the pace of growth is accelerating!
With, of course, dire consequences for environmental sustainability and our quality of life. Yet to judge from the consistent narrative of commentary in the mainstream media on the 2010 Census, one would have no clue that environmentally damaging, unsustainable growth continues its ruinous reign in America. Amazingly, if there was any hint of dissatisfaction with the numbers revealed by the Census, it was that they were too low, because the decadal growth rate had declined from 13 percent in the 1990s to 10 percent in the 2000s (Figure 3). This welcome shift—a slowdown, albeit a modest one—in the torrid growth rate of the nineties was met with cries of dismay on the nation’s business pages. It prompted the worried headline of an article at CNN.com to ask: “Is the U.S. entering a population slump?” The same article stressed that, “U.S. population growth last decade was slowest since the Great Depression.”
From an environmental impact perspective, what counts of course is not percentage change, but absolute numbers. It is absolute numbers that represent real change on the ground. What do you think was worse for the environment? 1) When the U.S. population grew by 21 percent from 1900 to 1910 and added 16 million consumers at a per capita consumption level perhaps one-fifth of today’s, or 2) When the U.S. population grew by “only” 10% from 2000 to 2010 and added 27 million consumers? It should be obvious.
The CNN.com article pretty much epitomizes the depressing state of commentary on U.S. population issues today. Indeed, judging from the coverage I have seen in recent months touching on different aspects of the 2010 Census results, my main takeaway is that the reactions were three-fold:
- “OMG!”—the rate of growth is declining. We’re in a death spiral! This fretting from the nation’s business establishment and politicians from states and regions that had negative, no, or slow growth, fearful of the implications of being left behind in the never-ending, ruthless race for political and economic power, locally, nationally, and globally. If you fall behind on the treadmill as it moves ever faster, you’re on your way to falling off entirely.
- Applauding the nation’s ever more diverse ethnic/racial composition. In particular, Hispanic commenters, politicians, and business leaders by and large reveled in the fact that more than half of the 2000–2010 growth was from Hispanics (from a combination of immigration and higher fertility rates), assuring them greater political, economic and cultural clout in the country. Other commentors thought this was the most important story in the 2010 Census results, not the implications of continuing aggregate population increase with no end in sight.
- And from the Environmental Establishment, deafening silence, or virtually no reaction at all, implying that for these clueless people, ever-increasing numbers of Americans (each one a resource consumer and waste generator) had little bearing on their purported missions to save this, that, or the other. Rank-and-file environmentalists are a little better than their leaders, but not by much. If so, they would be more actively supportive of the population stabilization cause by backing those few organizations that do forcefully advocate it.
In my professional labors as an environmental planner and consultant over the past two decades and more, I have written and managed massive Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) examining the potential environmental effects of projects ranging from large highways, flood control projects, water supply projects, power lines, oil and gas drilling, and coal-fired electrical generation stations. In each and every case, the driving force behind what environmental planners call the “purpose and need” for the project was population growth. Pure and simple. Undeniable. And utterly ignored by the powerful Environmental Establishment. It’s much more convenient to bash greedy, heartless, ruthless multinational corporations, whose often selfish and short-sighted behavior plays right into the hands of their critics, after all.
The agencies and the project proponents themselves—water and electrical utilities, flood control districts, highway builders, the Army Corps of Engineers, etc.—made no effort to disguise what was causing the increased need for electricity, or water, or transmission capacity, or road capacity. Population growth. Documented and quantified right in chapter one of each EIS. In no case was it ever increases in per capita consumption driving the need for the “proposed action.” It wasn’t McMansions, SUV’s, pickup trucks, or their ilk, every environmentalist’s favorite whipping boys, which bore the blame.
By and large, due to a greater emphasis on conservation and efficiency, our per capita energy, electricity, water and other resource consumption rates have either stabilized or decreased in recent decades, which is good. But not enough to stop the need for new environmentally destructive projects to meet the new demands for energy, water, resources, and land imposed by the new millions. And in their obstinate refusal to recognize this, the American Environmental Establishment has gone AWOL over the last couple of decades. In the short-term, it is more politically expedient to engage in the pretense that their cause is not a lost cause without population stabilization. Over the long term however, they have sold out the very environment they claim to defend.
Leon Kolankiewicz is a practicing environmental scientist and natural resources planner with more than 25 years of professional experience. He has a B.S. in forestry and wildlife management from Virginia Tech and an M.S. in environmental planning and natural resources management from the University of British Columbia. His career includes stints with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, University of Washington, University of New Mexico, and the Orange County (CA) Environmental Management Agency. He was also a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras and vice-president of the Washington, DC-based non-profit Carrying Capacity Network. Mr. Kolankiewicz is the author of “Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska’s Raincoast.” He is a Senior Writing Fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) and can be reached at [email protected]