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Where Do We Go From Here?

Senator Gaylord Nelson, excerpted from Carrying Capacity Network (CCN), FOCUS/Vol.7, No. 2 1997

When experts are asked to list the most critical environmental problem, they are practically unanimous in ranking at the top of the list the calamitous consequences of continuous exponential population growth.

For the United States, the U.S. Census Bureau population projections for mid-next century range from about 393 million to 522 million. To be on the safe side, it would be wise to use the Census Bureau's high projection. Indeed, in the 55 years between 1940 and 1995, U.S. population doubled and may double again by mid-next century,.

The cornucopian unlimited growth school of thought, represented by the Cato Institute, The Heritage Foundation and the Julian Simons of the world, are not worried about resource depletion because, they claim, science and technology will create substitutes for anything we need. Neither are they concerned about population growth because with the help of science, we can feed 10 or 20 billion or more. Maybe so, but arguing about how many people the world can feed is a meaningless exercise. The important question is what will be the quality of life if the population doubles or triples? The answer: Life on the planet will continue in some sort of condition regardless of population levels but certainly not in a condition that we would find tolerable.

In the debate over population, the country seems to divide roughly into three groups: Group One - Those who are alarmed by the prospect of continued exponential population growth; Group Two - Those who are alarmed that Group One is alarmed; Group Three - Those who don't give a damn about any of the alarms.

In fact, there is something to he alarmed about. It is called exponential population growth, not to be confused with fertility rate. While an annual population growth rate of one or two percent looks small, it is indeed quite dramatic. A 1 percent annual growth will double the population in 70 years; a 2 percent rate will double it in 35 years; a 3 percent rate will double it in 23 plus years.

The current U.S. growth rate is 1.1 percent per year. At that rate, U.S. population will double in 63 years. It took 3 million years for world population to reach 1 billion around 1825:100 years to reach 2 billion - 1925; 35 years to reach 3 billion - 1960; 15 years to reach 4 billion - 1975; 12 years to reach 5 billion 1987; 13 years to reach 6.2 billion - 2000 (est.)

Those alarmed about the world population are strangely complacent about U.S. population. They think population is a problem in China, India, Africa and elsewhere, but not in the U.S. The facts tell a different story.

Lost in the endless arguments over how many people can be sustained on the planet is another question of greater import. What is the optimum population of the world or the United States? Have we not already exceeded it? What will the world or the United States look like with twice as many people? What will be the impact on the quality of life? On freedom of choice? Let's take a look close to home. What will be the political, cultural and social consequences of doubling the current U.S. population? The high range Census Bureau population projection indicates an increase in the U.S. population from 260 million to 522 million by mid-next century.

With twice as many people projected 'for 2050-2060, it will be necessary to double the total U.S. infrastructure in a little more than sixty years.

A Few Examples. 1. Twice as many cars, trucks, planes, airports, parking lots, street and freeways. 2. Twice as many traffic jams. 3. Twice as many houses and apartment buildings. 4. Twice as many grade schools, high schools, colleges and trade schools. 5. Twice as many hospitals. 6. Twice as many prisons. 7. In short, twice as much of everything,

What Will Happen to Wildlife Habitat? Population growth has already destroyed half the nation's wetlands and the major portion of habitat for birds and other animals. There is something wrong with a society which remains complacent while this kind of irrational destruction erodes its life-sustaining resource base. With twice the current population, will there be left any wilderness areas, remote and quiet places, and habitat for songbirds, waterfowl and other wild creatures? Certainly not very much.

New Cities, Suburbs, Housing Developments At the rate of urbanization since 1977, the urbanized area of the United States will double by about 2050 from 155,000 square miles to about 312,000. This is an area larger than Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan combined. If we permit that to happen, what will our country look like and be like?

National Parks, National Forests, Wildlife Refuges, BLM Lands and Wilderness Areas With twice the population, what will happen to the last of our great natural areas which are already experiencing serious degradation from population pressures? The short answer is, they will be gone--rare and special places like our national parks and national forests will evolve into modified theme parks and Disneylands--the process is already underway.

Look at the numbers. Annual National Park visitations, for example, have ballooned since 1950 from 30 million to almost 300 million, a ten-time increase in 47 years. The park system is already in a state of decline and deterioration from people pressure and commercialization. What will this remarkable natural heritage be like and look like when visitations double or triple in the next couple of decades?

Will the Quality of Life Be Better? With Twice as Many People? Will mega-cities twice the size of New York, Miami, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles be more manageable, more liveable and safer? The answer is obvious. Some are already borderline ungovernable. The question is this: Do we have the wit clearly to perceive the long-term implications of continued exponential population growth soon enough to effectively address that issue within our own borders?

Mainstream economists have long dominated economic thought with comfortable assurances that there is no foreseeable limit to economic expansion; that exponential population growth is an asset not a liability.

Thus, it is little wonder that the economics profession, except for a small number of resource economists, has made itself irrelevant to the central issue of our time. The extent of their irrelevance was aptly put by Amory Lovins when he said, "Economists are those people who lie awake nights worrying about whether what actually works in the real world could conceivably work in theory."

Ironically, an issue at least of equal importance to population is rarely noted or mentioned anywhere. Yet, it is the key to our environmental future. The absence of a pervasive, guiding conservation ethic in our culture is the issue and the problem. Society's answer must be to focus its attention and energies on nurturing a conservation generation imbued with a conservation ethic.

Without such a guiding cultural ethic, society will not have the understanding, motivation, conviction or political will to persist in addressing the truly hard questions that will confront us in the decades to come.

Fortunately, there are encouraging signs that we as a society are rapidly beginning to develop a conservation ethic that will ultimately flower into a powerful social, political and economic force. The sooner the better.

For more than four decades, Senator Gaylord Nelson has been one fo the nation's foremost environmental leaders, best known as the founder of Earth Day in 1970. A two-term governor of Wisconsin, his 18-year career in the United States Senate included authorship of legislation to preserve the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail and establish the National Trail System. At present he is Counselor to the Wilderness Society, where is current focus is on U.S. population issues and sustainability is a key part of their efforts to protect America's national forests, parks, and other public lands. For a complete copy of this article call CCN at 1-800-466-4866.

Population-Environment Balance is a national, non-profit membership organization dedicated to maintaining the quality of life in the United States through population stabilization.
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