AMERICANS WHO SAY "I hate sprawl, I hate congestion, I hate long commutes and I hate polluted drinking water" cannot be encouraged by the latest Census Bureau numbers. With population growth showing its biggest jump in three decades, Americans can expect to suffer more of the above.
The American population grew more than 13 percent in the last 10 years, to 281 million. Indeed, there are 6 million more people than the bureau`s demographers estimated there were three months ago.
The signs are everywhere. California`s population is now growing faster than India`s. There`s already California-style traffic gridlock in Austin, Seattle, Boston, Denver and numerous other cities.
Here in the crowded Northeast, developments continue to gobble up farmlands and forests. New Jersey, the most densely populated state, expects another million inhabitants in the next 20 years. Where in the world are they going to go?
American environmentalists know full well that population growth is a serious threat to our ecology. But only a handful has worked up the courage to speak out. That`s because stabilizing the population will require a cut in the immigration numbers. Immigration is a contentious issue.
The statistics, however, cannot be ignored. America`s "resident population" has been growing very slowly for the past 20 years. The rise in immigration and the high birth rates among recent immigrants are responsible for nearly all the growth.
If our population continues expanding on the present path, it will double in the next 70 years. Did you hear that? Today`s babies will be retiring in an America with over half a billion people.
The Sierra Club has been hiding from the issue for quite some time. In 1998, a group called Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization put forth a club initiative to address the matter. It called for a comprehensive policy on population growth that would include a frank discussion of immigration.
The Sierra Club leadership fiercely opposed the initiative and created a confusing ballot. Nevertheless, 40 percent of the membership voted in favor of it.
Since then, stark reality has forced the Sierra Club to ease up on its stance. In 1970, the club set a goal to stabilize the U.S. population by the year 1990 — obviously a dismal failure. The club now recently began to advocate an actual reduction in population, without publicizing the change.
For 30 years, the League of Conservation Voters has rated members of Congress for their environmental record. In giving out scores, the LCV considers votes on such matters as public lands, pollution, energy issues and consumption. Population growth, however, is off the radar with one strange exception. The LCV score card considers votes on family planning programs in Africa.
Instead of worrying about population, many environmentalists argue, why not concentrate instead on reducing American consumption? Well, good luck to them. Others want to go the "smart growth" route of directing population growth in healthy ways. These efforts are highly worthwhile, but how much good can they do in the face of a doubling population?
Alan Kuper, retired engineering professor at Case Western Reserve University, has been trying to drag population issues onto the environmental agenda. He was the one who founded Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization. On his Web site, Kuper has devised his own congressional scoring system, which includes votes on issues related to population.
Kuper, a self-styled liberal, understands the environmental movement`s reluctance to get involved in population, and therefore, immigration issues.
"For many environmentalists concerned about ancient trees in the Northwest or free-flowing streams, they know in their bones the population connection," Kuper says. "But population is untidy. It involves the emotions surrounding immigration."
Calls by environmentalists to reduce immigration will surely make them some enemies. The pro-immigration forces comprise an odd mix of social liberals and cheap-labor conservatives. Liberals will try to cut the conversation short by calling them xenophobes. Conservatives will accuse them of being anti-growth.
Environmentalists should know that stabilizing the population does not require a ban on immigration. Had immigration been reduced in 1970 to more traditional levels, the U.S. population would stabilize at 230 million in 2050.
Whatever. If environmentalists don`t get involved in the numbers issue, then their other efforts will be futile. It`s time for them to bite the bullet and speak out.
Froma Harrop is a syndicated columnist and Journal editorial writer. She may be reached by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
January 15, 2001