After years of US population growth, it’s time for a pause
In the long run, no substantial benefits will result from the further growth of America’s population. The gradual stabilization of the U.S. population through voluntary means would contribute significantly to America’s ability to solve its problems.
That statement from a half-century ago was the unequivocal central finding of the groundbreaking report by the U.S. Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, submitted to the president and Congress on March 27, 1972.
However, rather than moving toward a gradual stabilization, as was clearly recommended, America’s population over the past 50 years has grown to 334 million, an increase of 123 million (about 60 percent) since 1972.
In addition, America’s population is projected to continue growing over the coming decades. According to its main projection series, the Census Bureau expects the nation’s population to be close to 400 million around mid-century.
Preceding the commission’s establishment by several years, former President Richard M. Nixon remarked that “One of the most serious challenges to human destiny in the last third of this century will be the growth of the population… Whether man’s response to that challenge will be a cause for pride or for despair in the year 2000 will depend very much on what we do today.”
Nixon’s observations are even more prescient today. Given climate change, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, pollution and congestion, population growth in America and the rest of the world remains among the serious challenges to human destiny in the 21st century.
Similarly and more recently, naturalist Sir David Attenborough remarked, “It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth, or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.”
Without a doubt, America’s population growth is a major factor affecting domestic demand for resources, including water, food and energy, and the worsening of the environment and climate change. There is hardly any major problem facing America with a solution that would be easier if the nation’s population were larger. On the contrary, population stabilization would help to resolve several.
Stabilizing the population would reduce pressures on the environment, climate and the depletion of resources and gain time for America to find solutions to its pressing issues. If the United States intends to address climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, etc., it must consider how its population affects each issue.
In contrast to the commission’s central finding, some do not recognize the need to stabilize the population. Their reasons are largely based on profit, politics and power. They give little attention to the consequences of population growth on the nation’s future.
For instance, many economists contend that continued population growth is needed to fuel economic growth. Their “bigger-is-better” arguments simply ignore or dismiss the negative consequences for the country, which are threats to the wellbeing of today’s Americans as well as the long-term sustainability of the nation.
Others argue the nation would be “more happy” with more people. Slow population growth, they claim, hurts not only America’s economic growth but also the national mood. Concerns about climate change and the environment are omitted from their rhetoric.
Some advance nationalistic appeals for continued population growth, maintaining that the more patriotic one is the more one ought to believe in a large and growing America.
Another argument is the view that “America isn’t full” and can accommodate many more people, particularly more immigrants. Those advocates, however, rarely ever specify how large the population must become to be considered full nor do explain why America needs to be full.
Thousands of scientists worldwide take an opposing view. Among their major recommendations for governments to address the climate emergency is a call for the stabilization of the world population, or ideally, a gradually reduced population within a framework that ensures social integrity.
Gradually stabilizing America’s population will provide an exemplary model for other countries to emulate. Rather than racing to increase the size of their respective populations in a world with 8 billion humans and growing, nations would see America moving away from the unsustainable demographic strategy.
As American couples are having fewer children than in the past for a host of social, economic and personal reasons, the nation’s fertility rate is unlikely to return to the replacement level any time soon. And pro-growth calls for Congress or the administration to establish pro-natalist policies to raise fertility appear unlikely to be adopted.
So, with the nation’s fertility below the replacement level, stabilizing America’s population will necessarily involve substantially reducing immigration levels, estimated at approximately 1.1 million per year. If immigration levels were, for example, close to zero, America’s projected population in 2060 would be 320 million versus 405 million if immigration continued at the same pace.
After 50 years since the commission presented its central finding, it is well past the time for the White House, Congress and the American public to embrace the gradual stabilization of the population, which is essential for ensuring the country’s vitality, prosperity and sustainability.
Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, “Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters.”