The Population-Environment Connection

“There is, of course, a legitimate argument for some limitation upon immigration. We no longer need settlers for virgin lands, and our economy is expanding more slowly than in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.”
-President John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants, 1964.

“One of the most serious challenges to human destiny in the last third of this century will be the growth of population. Whether man’s response to that challenge will be a cause for pride or despair in the year 2000 will depend very much on what we do today.”
-President Richard Nixon, The Report Of The Commission On Population Growth And The American Future, 1972.

“Efficiency in the use of all resources would have to increase by more than 50 percent over the next four or five decades just to keep pace with population growth.”
-President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development, 1996.

Conservationism is Not Enough

Since the environmental movement began in the 1960s, Americans have made great strides in reducing their personal impact on the environment. Practices like carpooling and recycling have become a normal part of our lives, and our industry and governments strive to clean up waste and reduce pollution. But as a country, our ecological footprint has steadily increased; all our efforts at conservation are washed away by our increasing population.

population projection graph

Even if we reduce the environmental impact of every American by 25 percent from 1972 levels (a feat far beyond the hopes of the most optimistic environmentalists), our country will still consume and pollute more as a whole, simply because our population has grown 50 percent since then.

Continued population growth dooms every attempt at conservation and resource efficiency. Only by stabilizing our population can we control our impact on the environment.

“Conservationists cannot succeed in protecting our natural heritage unless population becomes part of the solution. Keep the human population level in balance with the limits of nature’s renewable resources, or face the eradication of a way of life.”
-Izaak Walton League of America, national conservation group.

“It is possible that we have already exceeded our ability to sustain ourselves: estimates of the population we can support, without damaging resources for the next generation, range [up to] 170 million. We are well beyond those limits.”
-Audubon Society, July 1994.

“[The National Wildlife Federation] encourages the President of the United States to initiate action, both in this country and abroad, which will result in the development of plans and/or programs to curtail the present expansion of human populations.”
-John Audley, Director of International Affairs, National Wildlife Federation, 1999.

“As a priority, population policy should protect and sustain ecological systems for future generations… To bring population levels to ecologically sustainable levels, both birth rates and immigration rates needs to be reduced.”
-Wilderness Society, The Wilderness Society Population Policy, 1999.

Over Population scale

Stabilizing Population

The key to population stabilization is arriving at a replacement rate of roughly 2.1 births per woman and an immigrant replacement rate equal to the annual emigration rate (roughly 300,000 per year). Americans briefly achieved “replacement rate” in the early 1970s. However, U.S. birth rates have since risen due to higher than average birth rates among post-1970’s immigrants.

Every year, the U.S. population grows by three million people—about half of whom are immigrants. Because of high immigration rates and high birth rates among recent immigrants, post-2005 immigrants are projected to account for 82 percent of U.S. population growth by 2050.1 Population has not leveled off and is not expected to level off in the foreseeable future. Why? Because of immigration.

By 2050, the U.S. population will have grown by another 114 million people—93 million of whom will be post-2005 immigrants and their descendants. According to Census Bureau projections, U.S. population will increase to 571 million by the year 2100— nearly double the present population.2

We Must Act Now

Even if all immigration were stopped today, momentum would cause the U.S. population to continue to grow for another 100 years. The government has done nothing to change the immigration policy fueling this population growth, despite the fact that 81 percent of Americans feel that immigration is "out of control".3

In order to control our damage to the environment, we must stabilize our population, which we cannot do with immigration at its current level. For the sake of our environment, we must greatly reduce average annual immigration and eliminate illegal immigration.

Commentary by Dr. John Feeney

Published by BBC News

February 2, 2009

"It's the great taboo of environmentalism: the size and growth of the human population.

It has a profound impact on all life on Earth, yet for decades it has been conspicuously absent from public debate.

Most natural scientists agree our growing numbers and our unchecked impact on the natural environment move us inexorably toward global calamities of unthinkable severity.

They agree the need to address population has become desperate.

Yet many environmentalists avoid the subject, a few objecting strongly to any focus on our numbers.

Some activists insist acting to influence population growth infringes on human rights; they maintain that it is best to leave the problem alone.

Let's dispense with this confused notion right now.

Yes, there have been past abuses in the name of "population control".

There have been abuses of health care and education too, but the idea of reacting by abandoning any of these causes is absurd.

We can learn from past abuses, reducing the likelihood of fresh problems arising in the future.

In fact, those working on population issues have done so. Today, they recognize that the methods with the best track records of reducing population growth are, by their nature, respectful and promoting of human rights.

They include educating girls and women in developing countries to help empower them.

This is achieved by providing more options, using media strategies to make them aware of alternatives regarding family sizes and family planning.

Those who oppose talking about the world's population are obstructing the further provision of such services and resources.

Last chance saloon

Fundamentally, we need to ask what is the greater threat to human welfare: the possibility that humane efforts to address population growth might be abused, or our ongoing failure to act to prevent hundreds of millions, even billions, dying as a result of global ecological collapse?

It's no far fetched possibility. Increasingly, environmental scientists insist we have overshot the Earth's carrying capacity.

I believe they are right; the proof is everywhere. Our inability to live as we do, at our current numbers, without causing pervasive environmental degradation is the very definition of carrying capacity overshoot.

Overshoot, we know, is followed by population decline. As we have learned form other species, this manifests itself initially with a crash.

For humanity, this portends a potential cataclysm exceeding anything in our history.

Our chance to avert such an outcome depends on our ability to address our numbers before nature reduces them for us.

There's no other way out. Merely reducing per capita consumption, for instance, won't do it.

After all, per capita consumption levels multiply with population size to determine our total resource consumption.

Just look at the data from the Global Footprint Network group. They estimate that we'll remain in overshoot unless we also address population.

Solutions do not spring from silence. We must bring population back to the centre of public discussion.

We need to break through the taboo to encourage not just a few voices but all those with relevant expertise to speak out on the subject loudly and often.

Recently I wondered what would happen if all the scientists - and everyone else considered a scholar of the population issue - spoke out all at once.

Would it help to weaken the taboo now shackling the subject, pushing it closer to centre stage?

Would it bring the matter enough attention to begin generating new or more widespread solutions?

Might it prompt a deeper examination of our ecological plight?

The Global Population Speak Out campaign has brought together over 100 voices from 19 countries, all pledging to speak out publicly on the population issue throughout the month of February, 2009.

Many now recognize the urgency with which we need to halt the human-caused degradation of Earth's natural environment.

Can we break down a taboo that has for years blocked the path toward that goal?"

Dr John Feeney is an environmental writer based in Boulder, Colorado, US

Updated June 2009

  1. Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, U.S. Population Projections: 2005-2050, Pew Research Center, February 11, 2008.
  2. Day, Jennifer Cheeseman, Population Projections of the United States by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 1995 to 2050, U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, P25-1130, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1996.
  3. Marjorie Connelly, “In Polls, Illegal Immigrants Are Called Burden,” The New York Times, April 14, 2006.