Subject: ** Most Overpopulated Nation **

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.

                        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

                                   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

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

   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

   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

*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.