Subject: ** Most Overpopulated Nation ** ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- Comments: Paul and Anne Ehrlich team-up to help us better understand population dynamics, consumption patterns and so-called affluence, and technological advancement--all leading to US addiction to consumption/production/pollution that is out of bounds on a world scale. Worse than our flagrant disregard for the health of the worlds ecosystems in our comsumptive lifestyle patterns, the US is often held up as an example to developing nations so that they too can emulate our wasteful lifestyles. Now is the time to start on a new path, one that includes a population growth policy that gets us moving toward negative population growth and helps us move toward cleaner technology. "The Most Overpopulated Nation," by Paul and Anne Erlich should stimulate thought, whether or not you agree with them. 4 pages. Dave. -------========X========------- Eco-Watch 11/16/92 The Most Overpopulated Nation* Paul R. and Anne H. Ehrlich Those of us who deal with population issues all the time are frequently confronted by people who believe the population problem belongs to someone else. But the view that overpopulation is not our problem just does not wash. Yes, poor nations have serious population problems, but in many respects rich nations have worse ones. Nothing recently has made the degree of over- population in the United States more obvious than George Bush's confrontation with Iraq. If the United States had stabilized its population in 1943, when it was in the process of winning the largest land war in history, today it would just have 135 million people. Assume that per capita energy consumption nevertheless had grown to today's level; that is, our smaller population was still using sloppy technologies: gas-guzzling automobiles, inefficient light bulbs and pumps, poorly insulated buildings, and so on. Even if its citizens were just as profligate users of energy as we are, the 135 million Americans could satisfy their energy appetite without burning one drop of imported oil or one ounce of coal.1 I = P A T The impact of a population on the environment can be roughly viewed as the product of three factors: the size of the population (P); the level of per capita consumption, or affluence (A); and the measure of the impact of the technology (T) used to supply each unit of consumption. This provides the short hand equation I = P x A x T, which, although oversimplified (because the three factors P, A, and T are not independent), provides a basis for comparing the responsibility of different nations or groups for environmental deterioration. Using the I = P x A x T, equation, one can see that the population problem in the United States is the most serious in the world. First of all, the P factor is huge: With 255 million people, the United States is the third largest nation in the world. And compared with other large nations, the A and T factors (which, when multiplied together yield per capita environmental impact) are also huge--their product being on the order of one-and-a-half times that of the Soviet Union; twice that of Britain, Sweden, France, or Australia; fourteen times that of China; forty times that of India; and almost three hundred times that of a Laotian or Ugandan. In per capita energy use, only Luxembourg, Canada, and a few oil-producing nations in the Middle East, such as Qatar and Bahrain, are in our league, and all those nations have comparatively tiny populations. When the population multiplier is considered, the total impact of the United States becomes gigantic, several hundred times that of Bangladesh. Few Laotians drive air-conditioned cars, read newspapers that transform large tracts of forest into overflowing landfills, fly in jet aircraft, eat fast-food hamburgers, or own refrigerators, several TVs, a VCR, or piles of plastic junk. But millions upon millions of Americans do. And in the process they burn roughly a quarter of the world's fossil fuels, contributing carbon dioxide and many other undesirable combustion products to the atmosphere, and are major users of chlorofuorocarbons, chemicals that both add to the greenhouse effect and attack Earth's vital ozone shield. We have destroyed most of America's forest cover (replacing a small fraction of it with biologically impoverished tree farms) and are busily trying to log the last of the old-growth forests in the Northwest, threatening the long-term prosperity of the timber industry, in part to service the junk bonds of rich easterners. The western United States is one of the largest desertified areas on the planet due to overgrazing by cattle and sheep--not because we need the meat (only a small portion of our beef comes from the arid West) but because of the political power of ranchers in the western states and a nostalgic view of western history. And Americans have contributed mightily to the destruction of tropical forests by purchasing products ranging from beef to tropical hardwoods derived from the forests. Furthermore, each additional American adds disproportionately to the nation's environmental impact. The metals used to support his or her life must be smelted from poorer ores at higher energy cost or transported from further away. The petroleum and water he or she consumes, on average, must come from more distant sources or from wells driven deeper. The wastes he or she produces must be carried further away, and so on. Activities that created little or no environmental burden when the United States had a small population, such as putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, increase that burden with every additional individual when the population is large. Consuming Our Capital Basically, like most of the rest of the world, the United States has been consuming environmental capital--especially its deep, fertile soils, ice age ground-water, and biodiversity--and calling it growth. Furthermore, directly and by example, it has been helping other nations to do the same. It would not be remotely possible for Earth to support today's 5.4 billion people on humanity's "income" (which consists largely of solar energy) with present technologies and life-styles--even though for billions their life-style is living in misery, lacking an adequate diet, shelter, health care, education, and so on. And in the past decade the United States has retarded the worldwide movement towards population control because of the braindead policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations. The U.S. Role A large part of the responsibility for solving the human dilemma rests on the rich countries, and especially on the United States. We are the archetype of a gigantic, overpopulated, overconsuming rich nation, one that many ill-informed decision makers in poor nations would like to emulate. Unless we demonstrate by example that we understand the horrible mistakes made on our way to overdevelopment and that we are intent on reversing them, there seems little hope for the persistence of civilization. The first step, of course, is for the United States to adapt a population policy designed to halt population growth and begin a gradual population decline. Such steps can be taken without immediately targeting an eventual optimum population size, since that optimum is far below 255 million. With leadership at the top, say, a president who kept pointing out that patriotic Americans stopped at two children maximum, we could probably achieve NPG in the United States within a couple of decades. Americans would also, of course, have to recognize that for every immigrant who arrives in the United States and is not balanced by an emigrant, a birth must be forgone. We can never have a sane immigration policy until we have a sane population policy. The ideal mix of births and immigrants is a difficult question that must be solved by public debate. The immigration issue is extremely complex and ethically difficult, but it must be faced. Equally daunting, after a decision on levels of immigration has been made, will be monitoring the flow and enforcing the quotas. Badly needed now is a wide-ranging discussion, first, of population policy and then of immigration within the context of that policy. Optimum U.S. Population Which brings us finally to the question of an optimum population for the United States. What can be said about it in light of the foregoing discussion? About the only thing that is certain is that the optimum will depend upon the scale of the A and T factors. And with a quality of life that more or less resembles today's or is superior to it, and with present or foreseeable technologies, the optimum would be far below the present population. Calculating an optimum size for any human population today is no easy task. First of all, the optimum size will depend on the standard of living of the average individual. A population of vegetarian Gandhis can be much larger than the one made up of superconsuming Trumps. It also depends on the environmental impacts of the technologies used to support the life-style. An optimum population that uses light, highly fuel-efficient vehicles for personal transportation can be larger that one that drives gas-guzzlers. And one that uses commuter trains, buses, carpool vans, or even redesigns its cities to eliminate most commuting can be even bigger. On the interdependent globe, the optimum size depends as well on the population sizes, technologies, and life-styles adopted by other nations. Of course, optimum population size depends upon the answer to the question: "How long will it be sustained?" With a Reaganesque program of consuming all natural resources for the exclusive benefit of people now alive, the optimum will certainly be much higher than one that gives importance to the long-term maintenance of society. Finally, the optimum population depends upon the aggregate of life-style choices of individual citizens. A United States in which nearly every family wanted to live on at least a five-acre parcel of land would have a much lower optimum population size than one populated with people who loved crowded living in action-filled cities. Our personal preference would be to design a nation with a maximum of life-style options. If forced to make an estimate of the optimum population size of the United States, we would guess around seventy-five million people. That was about the population at the turn of the century, a time when the United States had enough wilderness and open space that people who wanted it could still find real solitude. With about that number, we believe, a permanently sustainable nation with a high quality of life could be designed--if it were embedded in a world that was similarly designed. The critical point, though, is that views of an optimum are going to change as society and technology change and as we learn more about the environmental constraints within which society must operate. It is fun to make guesses now, but those guesses may be far from the consensus view of our society a century hence (when, for example, the concept of solitude may be well-nigh forgotten). Unless there is a disaster, it will probably take a century or more even to approach an optimum--plenty of time for research and discussion. It suffices today to say that for our huge, overpopulated, superconsuming, technologically sloppy nation, the optimum was passed long ago. And because of decades of destruction of natural capital, the optimum will surely be lower the second time we approach it, and lower still for every year we postpone the turnaround. For our own sakes, and that of humanity as a whole, a rapid move to NGP is essential. ----------------------------------- 1"Technically the economic system would not have worked quite that way since demand varied, but the point is valid. --------------------------------- *From: Clearinghouse Bulletin 2(8), October 1992. Clearinghouse Bulletin is a publication of Carrying Capacity Network, 1325 G Street, N.W., Suite 1003, Washington, D.C. 20003-3104.