As the end of the 20th century, sustainability has become broadly accepted as a desirable social goal from local and regional levels to the world as a whole. At the local level, for example, hundreds of communities across the United States have begun sustainability initiatives, with their collective actions reflected in the May 1999 National Town Meeting for a Sustainable America. There are comparable activities at the national and international level that signal a new awareness of the need to link environmental, social, and economic goals in pursuit of sustainable development. Despite this progress, however, human population growth as a key determinant of our collective future continues to be widely ignored. Yet failure to deal with population issues guarantees that no community or nation can achieve sustainability.
To most citizens and policymakers, population is a non-issue. It has been for most of the past three decades as citizens and policymakers alike paid little attention to growth in the human population. It is also clear that the low salience of population issues, in combination with a disturbing lack of public knowledge of basic demographic realities, will greatly constrain development of population policies that are essential to realize the goal of sustainability. The conclusion for environmentalists and other citizens concerned about establishing a sustainable future should be clear. They need to raise the visibility of population issues, educate the public and policymakers on the facts, and help to design and promote public policies that can slow and eventually halt population growth in the U.S. and around the world.
Sad to say, environmentalists for the most part have failed to give population policies the attention they merit. Timothy Wirth, former undersecretary of State for global affairs and leader of the U.S. delegation to the 1994 Cairo population conference put the matter bluntly: “I think every U.S. environmental group has got to get engaged in population, and I think almost every one of them has tried to avoid talking about the issue.”
This paper is intended as one tool for persuading more people to take the issues seriously and to work toward development of acceptable and effective population policies for the U.S. and other nations. The paper consolidates six separate articles that appeared in Pop!ulation Press between January 1998 and April 1999. In this integrated version, I clarify the connection between population growth and sustainability, discuss attempts in recent decades to formulate a U.S. population policy, review key U.S. and world demographic trends and their policy implications, and suggest opportunities for developing a viable population policy for the 21st century.
Population Growth and Sustainability
Those who follow population issues have no trouble seeing the connection between growth rates and sustainable development. It seems obvious that sustainability cannot be achieved with a continuously growing population. Despite wide variability in definitions of sustainability, the concept must include the enduring capacity of a given ecosystem to support the demands that its human population imposes on it–for example, in providing food, clean water, shelter, energy, and other essential services. Yet it is remarkable that so many discussions of environmental and energy policy are devoid of any mention of population issues.
A case in point is the elaborate negotiations held in Kyoto, Japan in December 1997 to establish limits on the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. With few exceptions, population growth was disregarded as a contributing cause of future climate change as the thousands of delegates, representatives of nongovernmental organizations, and journalists focused on technological solutions for cutting emissions and their economic impacts. Clearly, however, a growing population will translate into a rising demand for energy, a demand very likely to be met through greater use of fossil fuels. In many communities and nations the growth in population could well negate any gains in energy efficiency and conservation.
There are also ethical imperatives for limiting human population growth. The Brundtland Commission underscored the moral dimension more than a decade ago by defining sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” By doing little to stem current population growth, we will almost certainly be leaving future generations with far less ability to meet their needs as ecological systems are compromised and the services they provide to us humans (for example, food and clean water) are diminished. We would do well to heed the Commission’s advice today.
The case for slowing population growth and eventually achieving a stable or non-growing population is fairly simple even if the issue remains low in visibility. By mid-1999 the world was home to nearly 6 billion people, whose ranks were increasing annually by about 77 million. That is a little less than a quarter of a million more of us each day, placing ever greater demands on the Earth’s resources. The United Nations’ “medium variant” projection in late 1998 indicated a global population just short of 9 billion people in 2050, and nearly 11 billion in 2150.
What about the United States? In mid-1999, the nation had a population of almost 273 million people, and we were adding about 2.5 million more Americans each year. The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts continued growth over the next five decades. In recent years it has estimated that if current fertility and immigration rates continue, the nation will likely host 394 million residents by the middle of the 21st century (the middle series projection). The numbers are small compared to the world’s total population. Yet people in affluent nations such as the U.S. consume a far larger amount of energy and other resources than do residents of poor countries.
Scientists differ in their assessments of how such population growth translates into greater use of natural resources such as energy, water, and land, and increased pollution. There are also varying analyses of whether we can meet the challenge of feeding, housing, clothing, and otherwise providing for the manifold needs of an expanding population and rising expectations for economic development. But it is a good bet that without great advances in technology, substantial improvement in efficiency of resource use, and significant moderation in our consumptive lifestyles, most environmental problems will likely grow worse. So too will many other social problems.
Population policies can help both rich and poor nations attain a better future than these demographic projections suggest is otherwise likely. They can do so through providing the means for women to avoid unwanted pregnancies–for example, by establishing and funding voluntary family planning programs to provide information and contraceptive services that can help individuals achieve desired family size. Meeting those needs alone could sharply reduce the birth rate in nations where access to such programs falls below current demand. Such programs can also appreciably reduce the number of abortions performed annually.
Aside from direct assistance through family planning programs, other policy initiatives have proven to be effective. They were strongly endorsed at the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, Egypt. These include population education, improvement in infant, child, and maternal health care; basic education, especially for young girls; promotion of gender equity; and improvement in the status of women–in part to empower them to make decisions related to reproductive choice.
A 20-year program of action approved at the meeting called for a tripling of the amount the world spends on such population policies (from $5 billion spent in 1994 to $17 billion by the year 2000). These are tough times for nations to meet such funding expectations. Yet the Cairo proposal reminds us that there is much that governments can do to alleviate human suffering and environmental disasters in the years ahead.
Examples of successful population policies abound–for example, in Kenya, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Thailand, and Zimbabwe–and they provide models of what can be done. These countries have achieved substantial reduction in fertility rates without the adoption of more coercive policies, such as China’s attempt to restrict families to one child.
Developed nations present a different picture. Most now have very low levels of fertility, and are nearing, or have dropped below, replacement levels. The United States is a major exception. Its annual growth of nearly 1.0 percent exceeds the growth rate of Northern and Western Europe (0.1 percent) and the rest of the industrialized world by a factor of ten.
The U.S., however, has no formal policies that can assure population stabilization over the next several decades. This oversight is remarkable, particularly because national leaders today endorse the goal of sustainability, as did President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development in 1996.
Activists in organizations such as Zero Population Growth, the National Aubudon Society, and the Population Coalition have been working for years to raise the American public’s consciousness on population issues. They continue to promote a national dialogue on policy actions that might be taken by the U.S., from increased funding for family planning programs to further restrictions on immigration. This kind of public discussion is precisely what is needed to build public support for national and international population policies, and also to bring the issue of local population growth to bear on discussions of community sustainability.
Developing a Population Policy for the United States: Lessons from Recent History
To the extent that the public and policymakers recognize the need for population policies and family planning, they believe the problem lies primarily in developing nations. Yet the size of the U.S. population, its growth rate, and its consumption patterns speak to the need for such policies here as well. As noted, the U.S. population increases by about 1 percent a year. That is another Wisconsin every two years, or almost another California in a decade. This is an enormous rate of increase, especially in light of our high rates of consumption and the resulting impacts on the environment.
A good case can be made that these trends are not only unsustainable, but inequitable on a global basis. For example, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. accounts for over 25 percent of global energy use. The nation is also the leader in greenhouse gas emissions, contributing about 25 percent of the world’s total. Other key indicators provide a similar picture.
Given its size, continued high rate of growth, and its effects on the global environment, the United States would benefit from a population policy that could help it (and the world) move toward stabilization. That position is consistent with many recent government studies and reports. These include those of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in 1992 (especially its plan of action, Agenda 21) and the World Population Plan of Action approved at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo. More specifically for the United States, the President’s Council on Sustainable Development in early 1996 released its report, Sustainable America: A New Consensus for Prosperity, Opportunity, and a Healthy Environment. It called for U.S. leadership on management of population growth and underscored the importance of setting an example for the rest of the world. The council’s Task Force on Population and Consumption took a firm stance in saying the nation “must take” the step of stabilizing U.S. population “promptly.”
These reports and recommendations notwithstanding, the United States has no explicit population policy. There is no national target for population size or growth rate, nor is there any evident commitment by policymakers to the goal of population stabilization. From an ecological perspective and in light of the new national dialogue over sustainable development, these omissions are striking. That is a primary reason why so many environmental groups have long campaigned for the adoption of such a policy.
What the United States does have are some of the ingredients of a population policy, including federally funded family planning programs, population research efforts, immigration policies, and international population assistance programs–with both direct U.S. aid to other nations and indirect aid through contributions to the United Nations. Each of these programs affects or attempts to affect the balance between births, deaths, and migration of human beings (a common definition of population policy). Yet they also fall short of a comprehensive policy. Indeed, most are rarely defended in terms of their demographic or environmental effects. Instead, political debate turns on issues such as the morality of contraceptive use or abortion decisions, or the economic and social impacts of immigration.
Despite the low visibility of population issues, there have been several serious attempts over the past three decades to formulate a national population policy for the United States. Those efforts provide some useful lessons in population politics. In July 1969, for example, President Richard Nixon sent to Congress the first presidential message ever on population. It dealt primarily with domestic population growth, and its major recommendation was to establish a Commission on Population Growth and the American Future to study the impact of continued U.S. growth. Nixon referred to population growth as “one of the most serious challenges to human destiny in the last third of this century,” and he pressed Congress to act. It did so, creating the commission and authorizing a broad study of population issues.
The commission’s 1972 report (accompanied by six thick volumes of research) stated boldly that no substantial benefits could be expected from further growth of the nation’s population. It also recommended actions to facilitate population stabilization, especially through family planning programs. Unfortunately, by 1972 the Nixon White House had lost interest in the subject, and it sought to avoid controversies over abortion and provision of teenage contraceptive services. With low fertility rates becoming the norm by the 1970s, the press and public officials saw no problem worthy of their attention, and no need for action. There were two exceptions to this general trend, one in Congress in the mid-1970s and the other in the White House under President Jimmy Carter.
On Capitol Hill, the 95th Congress (1977-1978) saw the creation of a Select Committee on Population under Rep. James Scheuer of New York. The broad scope of its inquiry was rivaled only by that of the Population Commission. The committee was directed by the House to conduct a full and complete investigation of the causes of changing population conditions and their consequences for the United States and the world, including environmental impacts. The committee compiled ten volumes of studies and recommendations dealing with the full range of population issues. Ultimately, however, its work served mainly as a “consciousness-raising” activity, as Scheuer himself described it. Remarkably, the committee’s efforts received virtually no coverage in the mass media or even in public policy journals and newsletters.
The other exception to the low salience of population policy was the release in 1980 of the Global 2000 Report to the President, jointly sponsored by the Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of State. The report focused on projections of sharp increases in the world’s population and their long-term effects. Its principal finding–that, “if present trends continue” the world in 2000 “will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now”–reached a wide audience. Coverage of the report was prominent enough that the incoming administration of President Ronald Reagan was moved to commission a counter study by conservative supporters that found no cause for concern.
By 1984, the Reagan administration went a step further by announcing a new international policy at a United Nations population meeting in Mexico City. Responding to conservative and religious groups, the administration sought to eliminate all U.S. contributions to the United Nations Population Fund. Congress went along, and the funding cut extended through the presidency of George Bush. It was reversed only with the election of Bill Clinton, and it has been a contentious issue on Capitol Hill since that time.
This brief history of efforts to frame and build support for a U.S. population policy indicates the kinds of political obstacles facing advocates of such action. However, it also suggests some strategies for persuading the American public and policymakers of the need for population stabilization. Linking that goal to sustainable development may be the best way to defuse the “hot button” issues–such as immigration and abortion–that so often constrain public debate and political action on population growth.
Citizen activists must find effective ways to reach the American people and their political leaders. Population policy at all levels of government can succeed only with broad public understanding and support. Actions may be easier at the community and regional level where people can more easily see the consequences of continued growth. Yet only a national policy can fully address the underlying dynamics of population growth and consumption patterns.
Public Policy Implications of U.S. Population Trends
As the brief history recounted above indicates, despite concern among environmentalists and others over the size, growth rate, and consumption habits of the U.S. populace, there has never been a firm consensus on a population policy for this country. National leaders both within and outside of government have called increasingly for a movement toward sustainable development and sustainable communities. Yet few of them appear willing to endorse a U.S. population policy. The subject remains politically and socially controversial, and building support for such a policy will not be easy, even within the environmental community.
Any discussion of population policy must be firmly anchored in the nation’s demographics. The greater the public’s awareness of demographic trends, the better the chance that policy issues will be understood, debated, and eventually resolved. This position is grounded in the belief that the public, most media representatives, and most public officials at present are not knowledgeable about population trends and their implications for the nation. A brief overview of the current demographic picture and its implications reminds us of what needs to be conveyed to this audience.
Three sets of numbers are important: the present size of the population, the growth rate, and projections for future size. As discussed earlier, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that as of June 1999, the U.S. was home to 273 million individuals, up from 249 million in 1990. We add slightly less than 1 percent a year to this population base, or about 2.5 million people. To put this increase in understandable terms, the nation adds over 200,000 people each month, 52,000 per week, or nearly 7,000 every day.
This substantial growth occurs unevenly across the country, which is one reason it achieves little visibility nationally. In recent years the fastest growing metropolitan areas have been in the Sun Belt of the West and South, especially cities in Nevada, Texas, Florida, Southern California, and Arizona. Growth rates in some of those cities and states have been extraordinarily high. Throughout the 1990s, the city of Las Vegas added about 1,000 residents every week, earning it the number one spot on the Census Bureau list, with a 41 percent gain in the six-year period of 1990 to 1996. In 1996 alone, California added 410,000 people, by far the largest increase of any state. Other cities and regions experience little or no growth, making the issue far less salient.
As residents of the high-growth areas are well aware, it is difficult to cope effectively with the consequences of increased population–such as crowded schools, increasing water scarcity, urban sprawl, congested highways, increased air pollution, and other effects. It is also a challenge to try to “manage” growth through the use of zoning, land use controls, infrastructure limitations, and similar methods. Yet in many metropolitan areas, including the one in which I live, the prevailing view among public officials and the business community is still that population growth is good for the local economy and that a slowing of growth is harmful. The concept of a sustainable community is taking hold, but only very gradually.
The U.S. growth rate of 1 percent a year should be compared to other developed nations to gain perspective. It is much higher. Northern and Western Europe have population growth rates of only 0.1 percent a year, and Japan’s growth rate is only 0.2 percent a year. As the world’s third largest nation (after China and India), the U.S. impact on global resources and the environment is significant. Thus continued growth of the U.S. population raises fundamental questions of equity in the use of world resources and effects on the environment.
As this comparison suggests, many developed nations are approaching, or have already reached, a zero rate of growth. This is largely because they have sustained low fertility rates (about 1.5) that are well below the so-called replacement rate of 2.1, a rate that, if maintained indefinitely, would provide for a stable population. In contrast, the U.S. fertility rate is much higher at about 2.0. The present rate is down from its postwar peak of 3.65 in 1960, but also up from its low of 1.74 reached in 1976. In addition, immigration (both legal and illegal) accounts for between 40 percent and 50 percent of the present U.S. growth rate, depending on whose numbers one accepts. Immigrant families are likely to be of child-bearing age and women in those families have higher fertility rates than the U.S. average (at least initially), which boosts the contribution of immigration to growth rates.
Debates over immigration have become intense in the last few years, with environmentalists (most notably within the Sierra Club) deeply split on whether to address the matter at all and, if so, how to do it without increasing racial and ethnic polarization and harming the environmental movement. Getting accurate estimates of immigration levels and their economic, environmental, and cultural impacts to help inform this dialogue has never been easy. Of special interest, however, is a widely cited 1997 study by the National Academy of Sciences. It estimated that 80 million of the 124 million people projected to be added to the U.S. population between 1995 and 2050 will reflect “the direct or indirect consequences of immigration.” Thus over time immigration seems likely to account for over 60 percent of U.S. growth.
Because of population momentum, continued high fertility rates, and immigration, the U.S. will experience many decades of further growth before stabilization is likely to be reached. In its most recent release of population projections over the next 50 or so years, the Census Bureau estimated that the U.S. population will reach 298 million by the year 2010, 335 million by 2025, and 394 million by 2050. These estimates come from the bureau’s so-called “middle series” projections, which assume that past and current trends will continue.
The bureau also offers low and high series projections based on differing assumptions about birth rates, death rates, and immigration that represent “plausible,” though less likely, courses of future growth. These indicate a low projection for the year 2050 of 283 million and a high of 519 million.
U.S. Population Growth 1900-2050: Census Bureau Projects the Next Half-Century
Based on the more reasonable middle series projections, the Census Bureau estimates that even by 2050 the nation will be adding about 2.5 million people a year (about the same number added each year). Thus growth is very likely to continue well beyond 2050.
The implications of these projections, particularly for increased use of energy and other natural resources and for environmental quality should command our attention in the years ahead. At a minimum, these trends indicate that the nation cannot expect to achieve sustainability for at least half a century, unless the growth rate is reduced significantly and soon. Given present demographic conditions and trends, a strong case can be made for adoption of a national population policy that offers some hope of limiting future growth and moving the nation more quickly toward a stable population and environmental sustainability.
World Population Trends and Policy Implications
One conclusion we can draw from the information in the previous section is the United States should do far more to limit its high rate of population growth, especially in light of the nation’s enormous appetite for natural resources and the environmental effects its level of consumption invariably produces. It is particularly useful to put the U.S. growth rate and its impacts into the context of global demographic trends.
Despite recent and encouraging declines in world fertility rates, the projected growth in human numbers over the next four to five decades is certain to have major adverse impacts on environmental quality, natural resources, and the quality of life. Public policies can help to minimize population growth and its effects, and to steer the world toward sustainability. But population activists have their work cut out for them in light of long-standing public apathy toward these issues and strong opposition among conservatives in the U.S. Congress to funding family planning and other world population initiatives.
An appreciation for the nature of the problem faced requires a brief review of demographic conditions and trends. As with the U.S. case, three sets of numbers are important: the present world population, its growth rate, and projections made for future population size.
As indicated earlier, according to the United Nations, as of mid-1999, the world was home to nearly 6 billion human beings, or more than twice the population in 1950 of 2.5 billion people. The global growth rate has been declining slowly over the past two decades and it was estimated in late 1998 to be 1.33 percent a year; this is down from 1.7 percent just since 1992. However, even at 1.33 percent a year, the world adds 78 million more people annually, or nearly a quarter of a million more of us every day. They will need food, water, shelter, energy, and other natural resources that are likely to be in short supply in many nations.
Averages of this kind disguise great differences among the nations of the world. The developed, or rich, nations have a natural rate of increase (births minus deaths divided by the population size) of only 0.1 percent a year, whereas the developing, or poor, countries average 1.7 percent. If China (which has the world’s largest population, a stringent population policy, and a growth rate of only 1.0 percent) is subtracted from the latter group, the average for the remaining developing nations is 2.0 percent a year. Such a rate of growth will double a nation’s population in only 35 years. Thus the picture is one of a demographically divided world, with rich nations quickly approaching stable populations (the U.S. is a major exception) while poor nations continue to exhibit high rates of growth. The United Nations expects that about 98 percent of future world growth will occur in the developing nations.
Such anticipated population change is based on many assumptions, but the overall direction is not in much doubt. By 2050, the UN “medium” population projection, revised downward in late 1998, is for about 8.9 billion people. This medium variant assumes that policymakers will continue to support family planning programs and associated medical and scientific research, and that human mortality rates will decline moderately, consistent with recent trends. The role of family planning programs is important because analysts generally attribute about 40 percent of the decline in fertility to the availability of such programs.
In addition, these calculation presume that fertility will level off to an average total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1, or replacement level. Under the medium projection, such a TFR would be reached with a total world population of about 9.8 billion. After about 70 years at that rate (which reflects the momentum of previous high growth years), world population would stabilize sometime between 2150 and 2200 at a little under 11 billion.
Of course, there is much uncertainty in these kinds of projections. For example, UN estimates for the year 2150 range from a low of 3.6 billion to a high of 27 billion people. The biggest differences between these two extreme scenarios lie in the assumptions made about the pace of fertility rate decline, and that in turn is greatly affected by policy actions that governments choose to adopt and implement. Population policy does make a difference.
The good news in these assessments of world demography is that growth rates are declining almost everywhere even if current rates remain high in Africa, South Asia, and in Central and South America. The world just passed the 200th anniversary of Thomas Malthus’s “Essay on the Principles of Population,” so it is an especially suitable time to ask whether Malthusian forecasts of a “population bomb” are now dated and irrelevant. According to most environmentalists, they are most definitely still pertinent. They view the prospect of adding another 4 to 5 billion people to the world with considerable alarm.
One concern is the capacity of the world to feed a population nearly twice the present size. Estimates vary widely, but one well-respected recent analysis suggests that the world’s agricultural production can support only about 2.3 billion people if they have a diet similar to Americans (heavy on consumption of meat), 6.1 billion with a Japanese diet, and as many as 15 billion if people live on a subsistence diet. Such an analysis reminds us that population numbers are not the only important factor to consider. Lifestyles, the technologies that we use, and environmental impacts are equally significant.
To many of us, these conclusions about world population patterns strongly indicate that the sooner fertility rates are brought down to replacement levels (or below), the better off people will be in terms of access to a healthy diet, clean water, clean air, adequate shelter, and other necessities of life. With the level of economic development that can be expected in the 21st century, this argument is all the more powerful.
As underscored at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt in 1994, several decades of experience suggest that fertility rates can indeed be brought down faster than might otherwise occur. Doing so requires hybrid policies that combine family planning programs, actions that promote postponement of marriage and child bearing, and concerted efforts to reduce poverty, promote education and women’s rights, and improve maternal and child health care. Some commentators are tempted to dismiss family planning as no longer important, but UN data indicate that some 350 million couples worldwide are without access to such services and to reproductive health care, a number that grows by some 14 million per year.
Each country must choose its own population policies, yet the United States and other nations that are prepared to help can provide financial and technical assistance to those countries that request it. Population activists can assure that such assistance is available by working with members of Congress to provide the requisite funding–and without the kind of restrictions (largely concerning advocacy of abortion) that the 105th Congress tried to impose. The Alan Guttmacher Institute has estimated that cuts in U.S. international population assistance funding in 1996 led to 134,000 additional infant deaths and 8,000 deaths among women in childbirth and pregnancy, as well as to four million more unintended pregnancies and 1.6 million more abortions. Citizens need to make themselves heard on these issues for Congress to change its decisions this year and in the future.
U.S. Immigration and Population Policy
The general population trends discussed in the previous two sections suggest the imperative of developing public policies to steer the United States and the rest of the world toward sustainable development. One of the increasingly important components of this argument, especially within the United States, concerns the subject of immigration. With one of the developed world’s highest rates of immigration, the U.S. faces difficult questions about how best to balance competing concerns for human rights, family reunification, economic growth, and environmental quality. A focus on sustainability provides a framework for reconciling these diverse perspectives.
As most readers of this paper know, immigration has become a highly controversial issue for environmentalists. In fact, it has deeply divided the environmental community. Many environmentalists favor a sharp tightening of immigration policies to keep immigration to a minimum as part of a larger effort to limit and eventually end U.S. population growth. Others are just as adamant in defending immigration policies that are relatively generous or in suggesting that immigration should not be a concern for environmentalists. The two sides often talk past one another, with little genuine dialogue about how to deal fairly with immigration and population issues nationally and globally.
In a very visible and bitter fight this year within the Sierra Club, members narrowly rejected a petition drive that sought to force a Club population policy calling for reductions in both birth rates and net immigration and an end to U.S. population growth “at the earliest possible time.” Club leaders preferred to have no policy on immigration quotas or policies; they argued instead for focusing on the “root causes” of global population problems through improvement in education and maternal and reproductive health services in developing nations. They also rejected the idea that immigration to the U.S. is an environmental issue. Debate over these issues is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
The contribution of immigration to U.S. population growth puts these recent battles into sharp relief. As noted earlier, by most calculations, immigration accounts for between 40 percent and 50 percent of the present U.S. growth rate. There are two reasons for this high percentage. One is that U.S. immigration policy is fairly liberal, and permits over 1 million individuals a year to come to the U.S., counting both legal and illegal immigration. In recent years, over 900,000 legal immigrants have been entering the country annually (up from about 300,000 in the 1960s), and an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people enter illegally each year. Immigration today comes primarily from Asia and Latin America, in contrast to earlier immigration from Europe. The shift adds a complex mix of social and cultural issues to the long-standing immigration debate.
The second reason for the substantial role that immigration plays in U.S. population growth is that immigrant families tend to be younger than the average, with a larger percentage of child-bearing age, and women in those families also have higher fertility rates than the U.S. average. As stated earlier, recent studies suggest that 80 million of the 124 million people projected to be added to the U.S. population between 1995 and 2050 will reflect the direct or indirect consequences of immigration. So about 60 percent of U.S. growth over the next five decades will come from immigration.
These figures underscore the difficult choices we face. If the nation is to limit population growth, in part to conserve natural resources and protect environmental quality, then dealing with immigration is essential. One can hardly ignore one-half of the problem and hope for the best, especially in light of the nation’s relatively low birth rates at present and the limited possibilities of lowering fertility enough to reach population stabilization.
Moreover, current immigration rates are not the result of a conscious selection through public policy of an optimal population size consistent with the nation’s carrying capacity or long-term goals of sustainability. Rather, immigration reflects a completely different set of concerns having more to do with historical commitments to allow migration from certain nations and public support for family reunification. In addition, present immigration policies, significantly revised in 1986 and again in 1996, are not working as intended. For example, laws that were to end illegal immigration clearly have failed to do so. In large part this is because governments lack the means to implement those policies, which in turn reflects a fundamental public and policymaker ambivalence toward immigration. Polls tell us that clear majorities of the U.S. public (and of all major racial and ethnic groups) wants less immigration. Yet we all depend on the services that immigrants provide and we benefit from lower costs for agricultural and other products. Immigration is not a very salient issue for most Americans–even if on occasion the subject rises to prominence in states like California. This low salience sends an important message to policymakers that says the status quo is acceptable.
Some recent studies that have found immigration to be a net plus (albeit small) for the nation as a whole–if not necessarily for individual states or regions. Does this mean there are no grounds for concern? These findings are important, yet what is often missed in press coverage and other commentary is that the studies focus only on economic and fiscal effects of immigration, such as employment, economic growth, and taxation, or impacts on education and welfare services. The effects on natural resources–such as arable land, water, natural habitat, and energy use–and environmental quality are rarely studied or given equal emphasis. Nor is immigration policy linked directly to population growth in the U.S.
Contrary views can be found in publications by groups such as Carrying Capacity Network and in reports from the U. S. Commission on Immigration Reform (the Jordan Commission). The Commission recommended a broad set of actions that would help to reduce immigration. Most important was its call for reducing legal immigration from over 900,000 per year to about 550,000, chiefly by reducing family-based immigration–which now accounts for about two-thirds of the nation’s immigrants.
The National Academy of Science and the Rand Corporation took a different tack in studies completed over the past few years. They recommended focusing immigration policy on attracting skilled professionals. Although there has been no clear consensus in Congress on how to act on these issues, nor any great debate since 1996 on immigration, a number of incremental changes in law have been approved that will reduce family-based immigration and modestly increase skills-based immigration. That is not enough.
The most important argument that can be advanced about immigration in the context of population policy is a very simple one. Population policies must address both fertility rates and immigration. Most nations have such low rates of immigration that they need not bother dealing with immigration policy. Clearly, the United States is an exception. Whatever one’s views about the social, cultural, and economic aspects of continue high rates of immigration, the environmental community must also advance the case for building a sustainable nation, as strongly recommended by the President’s Council on Sustainable Development.
No nation can be sustainable if it maintains a high rate of population growth, whether that growth comes from natural increase or immigration. If we are to take sustainability seriously in the U.S., we must find a way to reduce immigration over time. It is likely that only a national debate on sustainability and population growth, and viable paths to global sustainability, can create the proper atmosphere for taking a hard look at this difficult subject. Few politicians are likely to tackle immigration otherwise and risk losing voter support.
Focusing on immigration or population policy, however, is also no excuse to ignore the even stronger imperative to limit the environmental and resource impacts of our present U.S. population through reducing our consumption of resources, greatly improving our efficiency of resource use, retaining stringent environmental policies, and encouraging environmentally sound and sustainable actions throughout both the private and public sectors.
Population Policy for the 21st Century
In the sections above, I focused on trends in U.S. and world population growth and their social and environmental implications. I also reviewed key developments and controversies over the last several decades that have affected U.S. population policy. In this concluding section, I return to the argument that I advanced at the outset for adopting a U.S. population policy for the 21st century. Such a policy should address family planning programs, international population assistance, reproductive research, and immigration as well as local and regional growth strategies. Moreover, it should do so in a way that considers environmental and resource impacts as well as social, economic, and cultural issues.
The failure of the U.S. to have any formal population policy in light of prevailing growth rates in the nation and world is truly remarkable. This is especially so given the strong U.S. commitment to environmental quality goals, domestically and internationally. Although political obstacles to adoption of such a policy are clearly formidable, the best way to build public and policymaker support is to link population issues with the concept of sustainability. Sustainable development has been endorsed increasingly by political leaders, evident in reports over the last several years from the President’s Council on Sustainable Development and in the hundreds of initiatives around the country to build sustainable communities. Yet the connection of sustainability to population growth is typically indirect and tentative at best.
This may be an especially good time for thinking about population issues and their relationship to sustainability. Reaching the end of both the century and the millennium ought to inspire at least some thought about human progress and the capacity of the environment to meet the ever growing demands that we place on it. Moreover, the recent political popularity of managing urban sprawl and promoting “smart growth” strategies hints at the possibilities for linking population growth and community sustainability.
In November 1998 voters across the nation endorsed growth management policies through some 250 state and local ballot initiatives, many promoted by environmental groups. These actions were designed to limit regional growth or otherwise preserve open space. Some 72 percent of the initiatives were approved, and they authorized about $7.5 billion in additional conservation programs at the state and local level. Pollsters have described this new focus on suburban growth as a “huge surging political issue,” with major implications for both political parties.
The public’s message was not lost on the White House as President Bill Clinton proposed in his fiscal year 2000 budget some $1 billion in new federal spending for a “livability agenda.” His package of policy proposals was designed to help states and communities preserve open space, ease traffic congestion, and promote sensible growth. Such a focus on livable communities, better planning, and public involvement in local decisionmaking should make sustainability an even more attractive goal in the years ahead. It also offers great potential for bringing local and regional population growth more directly into the picture than has been the case so far.
Two other developments, one at the global level and the other national, suggest that population issues may get greater attention than usual in the next few years. In February 1999, in the Netherlands, the United Nations Population Fund sponsored The Hague Forum, a major review and appraisal of the ambitious 20-year Programme of Action adopted at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo. This was the first of three U.N.-sponsored sessions scheduled for 1999, and many NGOs were active at that meeting in calling for additional support for implementing the action plan. The last of these meetings was a special session of the U.N. General Assembly held in New York in the summer of 1999. It provided a good opportunity for citizen groups to underscore the world’s continued high rates of population growth and their impacts–despite the recent and encouraging declines in global fertility that have received so much attention in the media.
As noted above, by mid—1999 the United Nation’s estimated that the world was nearing 6 billion people and growing at a rate of over 1.3 percent a year, or by more than 78 million people per year. The medium projection suggests a world of 8.9 billion people by 2050. Such population growth–and the simultaneous pursuit of intense economic development–means that innovative ways must be found to respond to significantly greater demands for energy, food, water, and other resources essential to sustain human life. Yet the Hague meeting also underscored the failure of the U.S. and other nations to meet their commitments to support international family planning.
The other key development took place in the Republican-controlled Congress in 1998. Members renewed their attempts–in the face of strong White House opposition–to eliminate funding for the U.N. Population Fund and to reduce U.S. funding for international and domestic family planning programs. The environmental community urged President Clinton to reestablish the nation’s leadership role on international family planning, and to raise spending levels. Yet these congressional efforts, which reappeared in the 106th Congress, remain highly disturbing. They signal that widespread ignorance of population growth and its effects, as well as ongoing controversies over population policies–from family planning and abortion to immigration, may well thwart thoughtful and earnest efforts to deal with these issues. An additional impediment is the increasing number of conservative analysts expressing concern about the arrival of lower fertility rates in developed nations and about an alleged “birth dearth” or a population “implosion.” They are urging action to reverse recent trends toward lower birth rates to avoid what they believe will be adverse economic impacts of stabilizing populations, and they give almost no consideration to the substantial environmental and resource benefits of low birth rates.
Under these conditions, additional action is needed to focus public and policymaker attention on population issues and to build greater understanding and support for population policies. Such policies could help greatly in slowing the rate of growth and in minimizing adverse environmental and other effects. Many readers have most of the information they need, and many are active in organizations that promote these goals. Others could help by getting involved in population and environmental education efforts and in the newly emerging sustainable communities movement.
National and global population policies, whether family planning or other measures, depend on having a well-informed and active electorate that can bring much needed political pressure to bear on public officials who otherwise tend to ignore these issues. For many people, the easiest way to understand the implications of a growing national and world population is to focus on their local communities and sustainability issues. At the local level, where concern about urban sprawl has grown sharply, there should be plenty of opportunities for the kind of public involvement and interaction that can help to reconcile conflicting positions and forge a community consensus on a desirable future.
Whether global, national, or local, however, only a knowledgeable and active citizenry can help to maintain the population policies that we now have, design and adopt new policies as needed, and ensure that the funds necessary to implement them are provided. The solutions cannot come from national governments alone, nor are they likely to given existing disagreements. But a community-based movement has enormous potential to move population issues to a more visible position on the policy agenda across the country and to help bring about essential national and international actions as well.
Professor Michael Kraft is Chair of the Department of Public and Environmental Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Yale University. Among other works, he is the author of Environmental Policy and Politics: Toward the 21st Century, and co-editor of Toward Sustainable Communities: Transition and Transformations in Environmental Policy . He contributed the chapter “Population Policy” in the Encyclopedia of Policy Studies. He served on the Board of Directors of Zero Population Growth from 1976 to 1985. This article was written in 1999.