Help Us Stop Unsustainable U.S. Population Growth


Tim Palmer
Conservation author and photographer
"Even the most ambitious efforts will be undone ...  as the America that contributes 25 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions to the world becomes two Americas."



Personal Essay on Population and the Future

By Tim Palmer, January 2009      

America's population has been growing faster than ever before in history. At recent rates of growth, our country will double in about 56 years-adding 300 million more people. Even the U.S. Census Bureau, which has consistently under-estimated growth, calls for a dramatic increase. California will double in about 40 years; imagine another Los Angeles every decade. Even if these numbers were substantially lower than they are, they would still pose ominous threats to the future, to the efforts of American workers to get ahead, to the fate of all wild creatures and places, and to the quality of life for everyone in our country.

I've worked as a land use planner, as a consultant to conservation groups, as a writer and photographer with nineteen books published, and as a citizen activist on conservation issues. I've spent my entire adult life dedicated to protecting the environment and the great natural systems that make life on earth possible. It has been deeply disturbing to realize that much of what I've worked for-as well as the work of many people I know-will be futile if our society does not address the questions surrounding unlimited growth. With growth continuing at a rapid pace, many of our best reforms for efficiency and environmental protection have simply been buying time, and not much of it.  

For example, efforts to conserve water and slow sprawl have been admirable, but even our most optimistic goals will be undone as the demands of population growth surpass our supply of land, water, and other resources. With great effort, we have cut per capita water consumption in half in some regions, but that savings has been totally consumed by new growth

Nationwide, about 80 percent of our population growth to the year 2050 will be a result of immigration, counting both new immigrants and the children they will have.

I am profoundly not anti-immigrant. I believe we should treat immigrants with all the respect that we accord to every other American. And I believe that, as a wealthy nation, we have responsibilities to less fortunate people of the world. I also believe that some immigration should be allowed. However, I do not believe that we have an obligation to throw our borders wide open to accomplish those goals. Rather, I believe we should do all we can to help people in their own countries of origin. As a nation, one of the most important things we can do is to become a model of sustainable living, which means reduced consumption and a stable population rather than runaway growth. 

By constantly assuring a surplus of labor in America, those who are responsible for the extremely high rate of immigration undercut the ability of the American worker to get ahead. Now we are spending billions of taxpayer money to create jobs, and at the same time allowing millions of new workers to come and stay in our country. Our schools, hospitals, and social services are suffering and failing because of overloaded demands of our rapidly growing population. We are losing open space and farmland at an alarming rate, consuming our water supplies, and pushing wildlife to extinction, all to accommodate an ever growing population. To what end?

Global warming is exacerbated by our country's unlimited growth--most new Americans strive for the American "standard of living," which means consumption of fuel and resources at the highest rate in the world-forty times the per capita rate in India. In this sense, adding a new resident to the United States is comparable to adding forty people in India. Even the most ambitious efforts to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions will be undone simply by population growth if the current rates continue. The America that is now contributing 25 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions to the world will become two Americas in less than one lifetime. 

And after the current doubling is over, our population will double again unless immigration policies are changed. So why not change them now? With unlimited growth we will see the loss of nature, open space, and quality of life. Attempts for sustainable use of our natural resources will become not only difficult, but impossible. As a community and a society, we should at least be able to thoroughly discuss the problems and issues of population growth.

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

American Rivers' first Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Paddler magazine's one of the ten greatest river conservationists of our time, and recipient of California's Friends of the River's  highest honor.

Tim Palmer has written nineteen books about the American landscape, rivers, conservation, and adventure travel. His 2006 book, Rivers of America, was published by Harry N. Abrams and features 200 color photos of rivers nationwide. In 2008 Abrams published Tim's most recent book, Trees and Forests of AmericaLuminous Mountains: The Sierra Nevada of California, was also published in 2008 by Heyday Books and the Yosemite Association.

Tim's book of text and color photos about wilderness in California, California Wild, won the Benjamin Franklin Award as the best book on nature and the environment in 2004. The Heart of America: Our Landscape, Our Future won the Independent Publisher's Book Award as the best essay and travel book in 2000. The Columbia won the National Outdoor Book Award in 1998. Tim wrote the text for the Yosemite Association's Yosemite: the Promise of Wildness, which received the Director's Award from the National Park Service as the best book about a national park in 1997. 

Recognizing his accumulated contributions in writing and photography, the organization American Rivers gave Tim its first Lifetime Achievement Award in 1988. Perception, Inc. honored him as America's River Conservationist of the Year in 2000, and in 2002 California's Friends of the River recognized him with its highest honor, the Peter Behr Award. Paddler magazine named him one of the ten greatest river conservationists of our time, and in 2000 included him as one of the "100 greatest paddlers of the century." In 2005 Tim received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the College of Arts and Architecture at The Pennsylvania State University.

Before becoming a full-time writer and photographer, Tim worked for eight years as a land-use planner in Pennsylvania. He has a bachelor of science degree in Landscape Architecture. In addition to his free-lance writing and photography, he does contract writing and river studies for conservation organizations. 

Tim frequently speaks and gives slide shows for universities, conservation groups, outdoor clubs, workshops, and conferences nationwide, and can be reached at

(Organizational affiliations listed for purposes of identification only.)

Contact Tim Palmer