Help Us Stop Unsustainable U.S. Population Growth


Don Weeden
"What the country really needs is a population policy, guided not by special interests or nostalgia, but by critical thinking and analysis."




Immigration, Population, and the Environment:  Connecting the Dots

By Don Weeden, Weeden Foundation

In October 2006, with much fanfare, the United States passed the 300 million population milestone. Media coverage was oddly celebratory. The New York Times editorialized that "Our teeming immensity keeps us from going stale."  But a growing number of environmentalists view U.S population trends with concern, not just because 300 million American mega-consumers is a big number; 300 million marks a doubling of the country's population in only 55 years.   At this rate, we will glide our way to 400 million in just a few more decades. (The Census Bureau's middle projection for 2050 is 438 million.)  

Population a Key Factor

Population growth and levels do matter. Analyses of recent Census Bureau and other government data, for example, demonstrate that both increasing sprawl and growing energy consumption are directly attributable to our rapidly growing population. Sprawl studies by the NumbersUSA Education and Research Foundation determine that population growth is responsible for just over half of the loss of national rural lands to new development, approximately two million acres annually.  Land-use decisions leading to lower density account for the other half.  In essence, the higher the population growth, the greater the sprawl. The studies concluded that, "In the absence of population growth, smart growth policies would be much more successful and would encounter less opposition."

Similar studies by environmental researcher, Leon Kolankiewcz on energy consumption, examining the period between 1970 and 2000, found that 87 percent of US growth in energy consumption and related residuals, including carbon-dioxide emissions, is linked to the rising absolute number of energy consumers -- that is, US population growth -- and only weakly correlated (13 percent) with increasing per-capita energy use. In fact, during the 1980s, largely in response to the two "energy crises" of the previous decade, per-capita energy consumption in the United States actually declined. If it were not for a 10 percent increase in population during this decade, aggregate energy consumption would have declined as well. Instead, it grew by 8 percent.

According to the Department of Energy, between 1990 and 2003, U.S. per capita CO2 increased only 3%, while aggregate CO2 emissions increased 20%. The discrepancy is due to a 16% increase in U.S. population during the same period.   And despite stronger efforts to reduce fossil-fuel use, under the "business as usual" scenario, total US greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase by approximately 30 percent  between 2000 and 2020, again largely driven by population growth.  This increase is a disaster for the world's climate because the United States currently contributes to 25 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Norman Myers of Oxford University and Paul Ehrlich have described the United States as the world's most overpopulated country because we are the only one with massive population, massive growth, and massive per-capita consumption. Today, it is critical that our society drastically lower the average American's ecological footprint of 24 acres per person (a level far exceeding our nation's resources). But if the United States adds yet another 100 million residents, any gains in reducing per-capita consumption-or promoting smart growth, or better managing water resources-are likely to be negated. A stable US population does not by itself improve environmental protection, but it does make it much easier to attain environmental goals.

Immigration's Role

America's ballooning population, unique in the developed world, is largely driven by historically high immigration numbers, which, combined with recent immigrants' higher fertility rates, is responsible for 82 percent of the approximately 3 million people added to the population annually (Pew Hispanic Center).  The framers of the Immigration Act of 1965-which jump started today's mass immigration-never intended to increase legal immigration levels, let alone to quadruple them. Since then, in a climate of political inertia, the US Chamber of Commerce and other corporate lobbies have been the primary drivers for bolstering immigration numbers, with a stated goal of increasing overall growth and consumption, and a less open one of holding down wages. Thus, higher consumption is not simply an inadvertent aftereffect of today's immigration policy; it is largely its intention.

A Sustainable Demographic Future

Prescriptions for reaching a population-environment balance need not be anti-immigrant: The U.S can still accept immigrants, just not at the current rate. Reductions in immigration levels could be phased in, starting at a cap of 500,000 per year, which was the recommendation of the bi-partisan 1996 U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by liberal congresswomen Barbara Jordan (1996).  As a result of lower future numbers, most labor economists believe, individual immigrants in this country would be better off in terms of higher wages/benefits and availability of jobs and education.

Think Globally, Act Locally

I often hear the sincere view that the best way to achieve more sustainable levels of immigration is to alleviate hardship and population growth in developing countries, thus reducing the "push factors" driving immigration.  Having dedicated over 20 years to population and economic development efforts, I emphatically endorse the need to ratchet up such foreign aid assistance. We should also reform our trade policies with the developing world (such as NAFTA), because these policies often contribute to the destruction of local economies.  Such efforts should be no less than a moral imperative for our country, and a component of any immigration reduction efforts.

But tragically, progress in addressing poverty is grindingly slow. Thus, it would be foolhardy to postpone dealing directly with our population surge until "push factors" are sufficiently diminished around the globe.  One of the most important insights of the environmental movement has been "Think Globally, Act Locally."  There are a number of global problems (e.g., over-fishing, pollution, global warming, and desertification) that do demand global attention, but that doesn't excuse one from acting at one's own level, which in the case of population growth, is at the national level. 

What The Country Really Needs.....

What the country really needs is a population stabilization policy, guided by critical thinking and analysis. This policy should include efforts to significantly reduce the country's fertility rate (closer to the European average of 1.4 children). We could start by proactively addressing our relatively high number of unintended pregnancies. Additionally, U.S. population stabilization efforts should be coupled with big increases in foreign aid, including family planning, and energetic campaigns to - at the minimum - halve U.S. per capita consumption as soon as possible.

It is time to forge a more sustainable demographic future for our country. Our human health and welfare, and the fate of wild nature, depend on our tackling root causes, not merely symptoms, of environmental problems.







 Join Don and help us apply the brakes to unsustainable U.S. population growth.

Executive Director, Weeden Foundation - focused on preserving international and national biodiversity.  Former career with International Planned Parenthood and other organizations in programs to increase access to family planning services in Asia, Mexico, Eastern Europe and Africa. 

Prior to taking over as Executive Director of the Weeden Foundation six years ago, Don Weeden had a nearly 25-year career in the international population and economic development field, serving in various field and management positions for Columbia University, International Planned Parenthood Federation, and other non-governmental organizations devoted to increasing access to family planning services. He became a specialist in South and Southeast Asian population issues, where he lived and worked for 20 years. He has also worked in Mexico, Eastern Europe, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Weeden Foundation, based in New York City, supports a wide range of programs that aim to preserve biodiversity, nationally and internationally. Don is currently the Co-chair of the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity’s Land and Freshwater Conservation Working Group, and is a member of IUCN’s Mountain Biome group.

The Foundation’s population program, initiated over 20 years ago to address both international and domestic population growth, continues to support high leverage advocacy projects that seek to influence policy makers and opinion leaders. The program’s primary domestic population objective is for the U.S. to follow the recommendations of President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development by adopting a national policy to deal effectively and equitably with all sources of U.S. population growth, including immigration. The Foundation also supports a program to promote sustainable consumption in the U.S.  Don currently sits on the Steering Committee of the Environmental Grantmakers Association’s working group on Sustainable Production and Consumption.

Don lives in Ossining, New York, is married and has a nine-year-old son.

(Organizational affiliations listed for purposes of identification only.)

Contact Don Weeden