Monthly Archives: June 2013

Immigration Reform–For the Climate by Bill McKibben

Immigrants come to the U.S. determined to make a new life. So often they’re more open to the kind of changes we’ll need to deal with climate change.

Climate activists with

Climate activists with

For environmentalists, population has long been a problem. Many of the things we do wouldn’t cause so much trouble if there weren’t so many of us. It’s why I wrote a book some years ago called Maybe One: An Argument for Smaller Families. Heck, it’s why I had only one child.

And many of us, I think, long viewed immigration through the lens of population; it was another part of the math problem. I’ve always thought we could afford historical levels of immigration, but I understood why some other environmentalists wanted tougher restrictions. More Americans would mean more people making use of the same piece of land, a piece that was already pretty hard-used.

In recent years, though, the math problem has come to look very different to me. It’s one reason I feel it’s urgent that we get real immigration reform, allowing millions to step out of the shadows and on to a broad path toward citizenship. It will help, not hurt, our environmental efforts, and potentially in deep and powerful ways.

One thing that’s changed is the nature of the ecological problem. Now that global warming is arguably the greatest danger we face, it matters a lot less where people live. Carbon dioxide mixes easily in the atmosphere. It makes no difference whether it comes from Puerto Vallarta or Portland.

It’s true that the typical person from a developing nation would produce more carbon once she adopted an American lifestyle, but she also probably would have fewer children. A December report from the Pew Research Center report showed that birthrates in the U.S. were dropping faster among Mexican American women and women who immigrated from Mexico than among any other group.

This is a trend reflected among all Latinas in the U.S. As an immigrant mother of two from the Dominican Republic told the New York Times: “Before, I probably would have been pressured to have more, [but] living in the United States, I don’t have family members close by to help me, and it takes a village to raise a child. So the feeling is, keep what you have right now.” Her two grandmothers had had a total of 27 children. The carbon math, in other words, may well be a wash.

But there’s a higher math here that matters much more. At this point, there’s no chance we’re going to deal with global warming one household at a time—scientists, policy wonks and economists have concluded it will also require structural change. We may need, for example, things such as a serious tax on carbon; that will require mustering political will to stand up to the fossil fuel industry.

And that’s precisely where white America has fallen short. Election after election, native-born and long-standing citizens pull the lever for climate deniers, for people who want to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency, for the politicians who take huge quantities of cash from the Koch brothers and other oil barons. By contrast, a 2012 report by the Sierra Club and the National Council of La Raza found that Latinos were eager for environmental progress. Seventy-seven percent of Latino voters think climate change is already happening, compared with just 52% of the general population; 92% of Latinos think we have “a moral responsibility to take care of God’s creation here on Earth.”

These numbers reflect, in part, the reality of life for those closer to the bottom of our economy. Latinos are 30% more likely to end up in the hospital for asthma, in part because they often live closer to sources of pollution.

But immigrants, by definition, are full of hope. They’ve come to a new place determined to make a new life, risking much for opportunity. They’re confident that new kinds of prosperity are possible. The future beckons them, and so changes of the kind we’ll need to deal with climate change are easier to conceive.

Republicans think immigrants are a natural fit for their party, and I hope they’re at least partly right—some force needs to help ease the Republicans out of their love affair with ideology and back into a relationship with reality. As commentator Bill O’Reilly put it as he watched Mitt Romney lose despite gaining a huge majority of white votes, “it’s not a traditional America anymore.”

He’s right. And for the environment, that’s good news. We need immigrants to this nation engaged in public life, as soon and as fully as possible. It’s not just the moral thing to do, it’s a key to our future.

Bill McKibben, a professor at Middlebury College, is the author of many books and the founder of He is dedicated to fighting climate disaster.  Source: Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2013.

The U.S.-Canada border.

The U.S.-Canada border.

The U.S.-Mexico border

The U.S.-Mexico border

COUNTERPOINT: Bill McKibben’s Magical Thinking on Immigration, Population Growth, and Climate Change by Leon Kolankiewicz

Bill McKibben, climate activist, author of the landmark book The End of Nature, and founder of the group, is deservedly recognized as one of America’s leading contemporary environmentalists.

Many of these same leading contemporary environmentalists assiduously dodge one of the most important environmental issues of all—population. Overpopulation is considered a politically inconvenient and polarizing distraction. Worse yet, it is entangled (often falsely) in the public imagination with a host of other hot-button issues and even travesties—religion, sex, women’s rights, birth control, abortion, immigration, forced sterilization, China’s one-child policy, and eugenics, just to name a few. Thus, it’s not surprising, but still disappointing, that leading environmentalists and their organizations prefer to duck population.

Not Bill McKibben. He forthrightly acknowledges that, “many of the things we do wouldn’t cause so much trouble if there weren’t so many of us.” After all, it is common sense and simple arithmetic – the more of us there are using up resources and excreting wastes, the greater our aggregate burden on the environment, including the climate.

Even conscientious environmentalists like McKibben inexorably leave behind some ecological and carbon footprint or legacy—if a somewhat smaller one than the average apathetic American.  It goes with the territory called living. And the more we consume to live well, to enjoy a higher standard of living and the quality of life that often but not always goes with it, the deeper and larger the ecological footprint we impose on a beleaguered biosphere.

For years McKibben’s position on population displayed a common sense all too uncommon among the nation’s politically correct environmental establishment. But now he appears to have taken leave of his senses. Inexplicably, in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, he promotes not only amnesty for illegal immigrants but argues more generally that expansive immigration policies —in effect, higher immigration rates—will help America address climate change. He admits this will boost America’s population in a land that is already “pretty hard-used.” And yet, in his magic formula, more people will magically emit less carbon dioxide.

How can that be?  In what McKibben calls “a higher math” and what I call an extraordinary, unfounded leap of faith, he claims that immigrants, particularly Latino immigrants, yearn not just for a higher standard of living—which is, after all, why most of them come to America—but to save the Earth from runaway global warming. He fanaticizes they are more likely to embrace a carbon tax, for instance, and to evince a determination to face down the entrenched fossil fuel industry.

His argument boils down to this: Americans are selfish and short-sighted sinners, and immigrants are the saints who might just save us from our own sinful ways.

On what evidence does McKibben base this feckless faith? His fetching belief that, “immigrants, by definition, are full of hope” and his misplaced confidence in a dubious 2012 survey by the Sierra Club and the National Council of La Raza that claimed, “Latinos were eager for environmental progress.”

The Sierra Club is the same purportedly environmental organization that back in the 1990s abandoned an earlier commitment to U.S. population stabilization to appease open borders advocates. La Raza (“The Race” in Spanish) is the largest national Latino advocacy organization. It has long pushed amnesties and what amounts to open borders—what it thinks of as good for its own ethnic constituency—but with disdain for America’s sovereignty and well-being as a whole, as well as utter disregard for environmental sustainability in general.

In other words, the 2012 report McKibben cites is highly suspect. What appears to be at work is political expediency orchestrated by operatives in the Democratic Party, or “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” I’ll support amnesty if you support or at least give lip service to climate advocacy.

In a 2008 research paper, I estimated CO2 emissions of the average immigrant (legal and illegal combined) in the U.S. at 18% less than those of the average native-born American.  However, these same immigrants produced four times more CO2 in the U.S. than they would have in their countries of origin. The average Mexican immigrant to the U.S. generated only half the COemissions of the average native born American but three times as much CO2 as the average Mexican who stayed in Mexico. Elevated CO2 emissions of immigrants to the U.S. accounted for about 5% of the total increase in annual worldwide CO2 emissions from 1980 to 2008.

My skepticism about the 2012 Sierra Club-La Raza findings that McKibben says fill him with such hope is informed by three years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Latin America and more than 20 years of marriage to an immigrant Latina, fluency in Spanish, and two decades of personal involvement with the Latino immigrant experience here in the U.S.

The Central Americans I lived and worked with in the Peace Corps were decidedly less concerned about the environment than North Americans. This was not because of any ethical shortcomings on their part but because of the pressing need to make ends meet and an understandable focus on improving their precarious material standard of living. Rather than worrying about the disappearing tropical rainforests of their country, or the nauseating contamination in the river that ran through town (so polluted you could smell it before you saw it), my wife’s family in a Tegucigalpa, Honduras shantytown was more concerned with trying to get a toilet and indoor plumbing to replace their old wooden outhouse. And replacing the old 55-gallon drum out back on which they cooked with firewood with an actual indoor electric stove was a much higher priority than saving polar bears endangered by disappearing Arctic ice from a warming climate. Such lofty concerns were a luxury my in-laws could not afford.

With the noteworthy exception of tiny Costa Rica (which sends few immigrants here) and its vaunted national parks system, not one Latin American country is widely considered a beacon of enlightened environmental policy and management. Are the immigrants who hail from these countries all that different? If so, they haven’t shown it by joining and supporting American environmental advocacy organizations in large numbers. But maybe at least in part this is because they aren’t made to feel welcome in these same groups that avoid the immigration issue so as to not appear unwelcoming to immigrants.

To believe that immigrants and their U.S.-born descendants will display an enlightened environmental ethic and advocacy so strong that it will more than offset the increased environmental burden of their burgeoning numbers is nothing short of preposterous. It is magical thinking on an outrageous scale.

By advocating amnesty and essentially unlimited immigration to any and all comers, Bill McKibben would doom America to population growth with no end in sight, and sacrifice America’s environment and its response to climate change on the altar of political expediency masquerading as “the moral thing to do.”   

Leon Kolankiewicz is a professional environmental scientist and planner who has researched and written extensively about immigration, U.S. population growth, and the environment.


Filed under Climate, Immigration, Population, Sustainability

U.S. Immigration Policies: Uncomfortable Facts by Paul Krugman

(This article was written in 2006, and it’s still relevant today)

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” wrote Emma Lazarus, in a poem that still puts a lump in my throat. I’m proud of America’s immigrant history, and grateful that the door was open when my grandparents fled Russia.

In other words, I’m instinctively, emotionally pro-immigration. But a review of serious, nonpartisan research reveals some uncomfortable facts about the economics of modern immigration, and immigration from Mexico in particular. If people like me are going to respond effectively to anti-immigrant demagogues, we have to acknowledge those facts.

First, the net benefits to the U.S. economy from immigration, aside from the large gains to the immigrants themselves, are small. Realistic estimates suggest that immigration since 1980 has raised the total income of native-born Americans by no more than a fraction of 1%.

Second, while immigration may have raised overall income slightly, many of the worst-off native-born Americans are hurt by immigration—especially immigration from Mexico. Because Mexican immigrants have much less education than the average U.S. worker, they increase the supply of less-skilled labor, driving down the wages of the worst-paid Americans. The most authoritative recent study of this effect, by George Borjas and Lawrence Katz of Harvard, estimates that U.S. high school dropouts would earn as much as 8% more if it weren’t for Mexican immigration.

That’s why it’s intellectually dishonest to say, as President Bush does, that immigrants do “jobs that Americans will not do.” The willingness of Americans to do a job depends on how much that job pays—and the reason some jobs pay too little to attract native-born Americans is competition from poorly paid immigrants.

Finally, modern America is a welfare state, even if our social safety net has more holes in it than it should—and low-skill immigrants threaten to unravel that safety net.

Basic decency requires that we provide immigrants, once they’re here, with essential health care, education for their children, and more. As the Swiss writer Max Frisch wrote about his own country’s experience with immigration, ”We wanted a labor force, but human beings came.” Unfortunately, low-skill immigrants don’t pay enough taxes to cover the cost of the benefits they receive.

Worse yet, immigration penalizes governments that act humanely. Immigrants are a much more serious fiscal problem in California than in Texas which treats the poor and unlucky harshly, regardless of where they were born.

We shouldn’t exaggerate these problems. Mexican immigration, says the Borjas-Katz study, has played only a “modest role” in growing U.S. inequality. And the political threat that low-skill immigration poses to the welfare state is more serious than the fiscal threat: the disastrous Medicare drug bill alone does far more to undermine the finances of our social insurance system than the whole burden of dealing with illegal immigrants. But modest problems are still real problems, and immigration is becoming a major political issue. What are we going to do about it?

Realistically, we’ll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants. Mainly that means better controls on illegal immigration. But the harsh anti-immigration legislation passed by the House, which has led to huge protests—legislation that would, among other things, make it a criminal act to provide an illegal immigrant with medical care—is simply immoral.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush’s plan for a ”guest worker” program is clearly designed by and for corporate interests, who’d love to have a low-wage work force that couldn’t vote. Not only is it deeply un-American; it does nothing to reduce the adverse effect of immigration on wages. And because guest workers would face the prospect of deportation after a few years, they would have no incentive to become integrated into our society.

What about a guest-worker program that includes a clearer route to citizenship? I’d still be careful. Whatever the bill’s intentions, it could all too easily end up having the same effect as the Bush plan in practice—that is, it could create a permanent underclass of disenfranchised workers.

We need to do something about immigration, and soon. But I’d rather see Congress fail to agree on anything than have it rush into ill-considered legislation that betrays our moral and democratic principles.


Dr. Paul Krugman, American economist, bestselling author and respected professor, was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Economics in 2008. Krugman’s expertise is in international economics, including finance, trade theory and economic geography. Source: This essay was published by Paul Krugman in the New York Times on March 27, 2006. It is reprinted here verbatim and unedited. In follow-up remarks Krugman noted that although many readers will probably be unhappy with the essay, he stands by its main points, referencing economic studies which support those points. Interestingly, the NY Times quickly deleted the original article from its website.

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Filed under Economy, Ethics, Growth, Human Rights, Immigration, Leadership, Sustainability

Open Borders and the Tragedy of Open Access Commons by Herman Daly

Immigrants are people, and deserve to be well treated; immigration is a policy, and deserves rational discussion.

Immigration is a divisive issue. A good unifying point in discussing it is to recognize that every country in the world has a policy of limiting immigration. Some allow many legal immigrants. Other countries (China and Japan, for example) allow very few. As the World Bank reported in its Global Bilateral Migration Database, “The United States remains the most important migrant destination in the world, home to one fifth of the world’s migrants and the top destination for migrants from no less than sixty sending countries. Migration to Western Europe remains largely from elsewhere in Europe.” 

Herman Daly

Herman Daly

Questions of how many immigrants are consistent with the welfare of the receiving community, and which prospective immigrants should get priority, are legitimate, and are answered differently in different countries. There are political arguments in every country for more or for less immigration, and for different selection criteria. There are also arguments about freedom to emigrate—what are the obligations of emigrants to the community that educated and invested in them (e.g. the brain drain)?

Immigrants are people, and deserve to be well treated; immigration is a policy, and deserves rational discussion. It seems that neither expectation is adequately fulfilled, perhaps partly because the world has moved from largely empty to quite full in only one lifetime. What could work in the world of two billion people into which I was born, no longer works with today’s world of seven billion. In addition to people the exploding populations of cars, buildings, livestock, ships, refrigerators, cell phones, and even corn stalks and soybean plants, contribute to a world full of “dissipative structures” that, like human bodies, require a metabolic flow of resources beginning with depletion and ending with pollution. This growing entropic throughput already exceeds ecological capacities of regeneration and absorption, degrading the life-support capacity of the ecosphere.

The U.S. is indeed a country of immigrants; but it is also a country of law. Within the rule of law there is a wide range of legitimate opinion about what limits and priorities best balance the interests of the sending and receiving communities, and of the individual migrants. In the US most population growth is due to net immigration, so population stabilization absolutely requires immigration limits. To advocate population stability while refusing to accept limits to immigration is self-contradictory. Some open-borders advocates argue that because population at a global level is the result only of birth and death rates (migration is irrelevant since the Earth does not receive people from other planets)—that therefore nations should not be concerned with immigration as a cause of their own population growth, but only with their own natural rate of increase. This is a non sequitur. With open borders, why would any country any longer try to limit its birth rate, if it is (a) possible to export its excess population, and, (b) impossible to limit its population, given unlimited immigration? Evading an issue by “globalizing” it is a cop-out.

In addition we have in the U.S. a strong cheap-labor lobby that uses immigration (especially illegal immigration) to force down wages and break labor unions, as well as weaken labor safety standards. This is less the fault of the immigrants than of our own elite employing class and pandering politicians. The immigration issue in the U.S. is largely an internal class battle between labor and capital, with immigrants as pawns in the conflict. This class division is more important than racial issues, which nevertheless receive more attention because racial discrimination is rightly illegal, whereas class exploitation is often legal, protected by laws that need to be democratically changed—just have a look at the U.S. tax code, or the Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court.

Unlike Europe, the U.S. has a large population of citizens whose recent ancestors were forcefully brought over as slaves (involuntary immigrants). Many Americans, including me, think that Black American heirs of slavery deserve priority in the U.S. job market (including job training) over new immigrants, especially illegal immigrants. Likewise for the many Americans of all races still living in poverty. Other Americans, unfortunately, seem to feel that if we can’t have slaves, then the next best thing is abundant cheap labor—another way of saying lots of poor people! Nevertheless, I would favor temporary legal immigration at about half of the current level of one million per year, but diminishing gradually every year to a level consistent with population stability. Population stability means that births plus immigrants equal deaths plus emigrants.

What immigration policy would critics of U.S. immigration limits advocate for other countries? Say for Japan, or Germany, or Greece, or for an independent Catalonia, if that should come about? Do any political parties in member countries advocate open borders for the European Union with respect to the rest of the world? Should the areas of the Amazon reserved for indigenous people be open to free immigration? Should Bhutan, bordered by the world’s two most populous countries and trying to preserve its culture and ecosystems, declare a policy of open borders?

Outside the rule of law there is of course illegal immigration that renders moot all democratic policy deliberations about balancing interests for the common good. Again, there are legitimate questions about how best to enforce immigration laws, making the punishment fit the crime, etc. But it is hardly democratic to refuse to enforce democratically enacted laws, even though difficult individual cases arise, as with any law. Humane provisions for difficult cases must be worked out, e.g., children brought here illegally by their parents twenty years ago.

Some people propose quite a drastic change in immigration law. They advocate a policy of open borders, which at a stroke would do away with illegal immigration and enforcement problems. This is at least a more honest position than just refusing to enforce democratically enacted laws. It is attractive to anarchists, if there are any left, and to libertarians, their modern descendants. Libertarians are mainly found today among neoclassical economists, whose view is that of atomistic individualism. Only the individual is real. The community is just an aggregate of individuals, nothing more. Their focus is on individuals maximizing their own welfare. Since the community is not considered real they commonly neglect effects of mass immigration, both positive and negative, on both the sending and receiving community. They see the world as one big free market, which of course entails free mobility of labor, as well as goods and capital—a globally integrated economy all guided by a global invisible hand—deregulation taken to the limit! In developed countries they are especially interested in opening their borders to young workers to help cover social security shortfalls resulting from the older age structure caused by slower population growth. The cheap-labor lobby is joined by the cheap- retirement lobby. Apparently the immigrants are expected to die or go home as soon as they reach retirement age and would start receiving rather than paying into social security. Also, while working they are expected to boost fertility and population growth sufficiently to postpone the necessity of raising the retirement age or lowering benefits. Population growth is expected to continue indefinitely.

Even some environmentally-minded economists seem to favor open borders. They  have swallowed the basic atomistic individualism of neoclassical economics while opposing other aspects of the paradigm. Nevertheless, people are in fact not atomistic individuals but persons-in-community—both social and biophysical community. Our very identity as persons is constituted by internal relations in community—with family, friends, and place, including one’s ties to country, biome, customs, religion, language, and history. Community is real and important to the welfare of real persons—it is not just an aggregate of externally related, atomistic, interchangeable individuals—of “economic men” running all over the world in mass numbers seeking their own utility maximization.

Within limits individual freedom to migrate is certainly a value to be protected—including against its own self-defeating extreme of open borders. To make political progress toward consensus on immigration policy we should first clear the air with a “referendum” on the policy of open borders. If that policy is rejected then we can talk seriously about the total number of immigrants and the selection criteria that best balance the needs of all people. If the open-borders policy is adopted then one must forget about controlling the movement of people across national boundaries.

Indeed, open borders eliminates or at least diminishes control of the border crossings of goods and capital as well—something consistently advocated by neoclassical economists under the banner of “free trade” and “globalization”. National boundaries are in effect erased, and without national boundaries there need be no border patrol, indeed no military to defend those former borders—just one big happy “world without borders” in the words of the song. After two world wars the abolition of the nation state admittedly has its appeal—but a “world without borders” is an expression of sentimentality, not reason. If you are poor and your country provides no social safety net, you move to one that does. If you are rich and your country makes you pay your taxes, you move to one that doesn’t. That is the “world without borders” —and without community either!

Global community must be a “community of communities”, a federation of nations cooperating for a limited number of important global purposes. Erasure of national boundaries would mean that there are no communities left to federate. The invisible hand of the free global market (along with unrestrained global corporations) will unleash growth in global GDP (unhindered by national policies of cost internalization). The population of atomistic cosmopolitan individuals, free from national laws and constraints, will grow with renewed pace. External costs, if recognized at all, will presumably fall on the “non-existent” community, and to the extent that some fall on real individuals, they can be escaped by freely migrating somewhere else.

Realistically however, a policy of open borders obviously invites the tragedy of the open access commons. It is its own reductio ad absurdum, as indicated in the previous paragraph. Probably that is why, in the full world of today, no country practices it, and few people advocate it. Nevertheless, it should be fairly discussed, because some people certainly do advocate it. In addition to the cheap-labor and cheap-retirement lobbies, advocacy of open borders comes both from the politically correct faction of left-wing economists, and from the libertarian faction right-wing economists. The politically correct reflexively label any limits on immigration as thinly disguised “racism”, apparently the only evil they can recognize. The libertarian neoclassicals label any restriction on immigration as a “market distortion”, their single cardinal sin. Both consider themselves advanced cosmopolitans, morally superior to the national populists whose “provincial” concern is first for the poor in their own community. This surprising agreement between opposite political extremes in support of open borders is evidence that ideologues of both types have difficulty thinking clearly. Unfortunately, lack of clear thinking—aided by moralistic pretension, ethnic politics, and class interest—is often a political advantage.


Herman E. Daly is one of the world’s foremost ecological economists. He is Emeritus Professor at the University of Maryland, School of Public Policy. From 1988 to 1994 he was Senior Economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank. His interest in economic development, population, resources, and environment has resulted in over a hundred articles in professional journals and anthologies, as well as numerous books, including Toward a Steady-State Economy. He is co-author with theologian John B. Cobb, Jr. of For the Common Good which received the 1991 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas for Improving World Order. Over his career, Herman has taken a courageous stance, swimming upstream against the currents of conventional economic thought. Printed with permission.

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Filed under Culture, Ethics, Human Rights, Immigration

New Poll Finds Americans Do Care About Runaway Population Growth by Jerry Karnas

Earth’s human population could hit 10 billion by 2050. A national poll by the Center for Biological Diversity finds a majority of Americans believe the growth is causing species to go extinct, is making climate disruption worse, and that we have a moral obligation to address the problem.

There’s a price for screwing around like we are. And Americans know it.

Every day, we add 200,000 more people to the planet—that’s like adding a city the size of Phoenix every week. We’ve already tipped the 7 billion mark, and we’re on pace for 10 billion by 2050, perhaps 14 billion by 2100.

Think of what it takes to accommodate that many more people: the roads, the pollution, the strip malls, the fresh water, the oil, the land to grow food, the ungodly amount of electronic gadgets and gizmos that have become practically intertwined in our DNA.

And all of these come at a price. The more people we add, the more fossil fuels we dig up, the more wild land we log and pave and mine, the worse the climate gets, the more pesticides we use, the more land we take from wildlife, the more species that are put on an accelerated ride toward utter extinction.

But there is some good news. The American people understand. They’re connecting the dots. They get that we can’t keep growing our human population as if there’s never a price to be paid.

A new national poll commissioned by the Center for Biological Diversity (where I work) and conducted by über-pollsters Public Policy Polling finds that 60% of Americans believe the world’s growing human population is driving wildlife species toward extinction. 57% believe that population growth is making climate change worse. Respondents also said addressing the human population—which topped 7 billion in 2011—is an important environmental issue (59%).

But wait, you might be saying, didn’t I just read a slew of recent news pieces sounding the alarm about how the U.S. is a facing a population catastrophe, that we aren’t breeding enough?

Didn’t I just read how hordes of city slickers are choosing childless lives and about a book titled What to Expect When No One’s Expecting? Didn’t Joel KotkinMegan McArdle, and Justin Green all write pieces about how the real problem is not population growth but population decline?

What’s going on here?

Well, seems there are a few media-savvy Growth Boosters who like the allure of a narrative that says, “Nope, the problem isn’t too many people, it’s that we’re not producing humans fast enough.” These folks have a worldview where population growth is all wisdom and no vice. Grow or die, they say. The bad news is that these folks have a habit of generating a lot of press. The good news is that the American people aren’t buying it.

Do Americans feel that growth is just too fast? You bet they do. Our poll found 50% said the world’s population is growing too fast. Only 4% said too slow. The belief in the tooth fairy would poll higher than that.

The U.S. adds 5,000 people a day to the population ranks. That’s like adding a city of Philadelphia every year. And we certainly take a toll on the planet. Americans consume 18.8 million barrels of oil per day—more than the next four highest oil consumers combined. The same is pretty much true for meat, grains, water, coal, natural gas, and a host of other resources.

The Gunnison sage grouse merits endangered-species protection in part because the human population has doubled in its habitat and will double again in the next 20 years.

The Gunnison sage grouse merits endangered-species protection in part because the human population has doubled in its habitat and will double again in the next 20 years.

Are Americans aware of our disproportionate levels of consumption? Yes, they are. Are Americans OK with these levels of consumption? 48% of the poll respondents said the average American consumes too many natural resources. Only 17% said we consume too few.

Are Americans concerned about the rate that wildlife is disappearing? Absolutely. 61% were concerned about vanishing plants and animals.

Here’s the key question. Do the American people believe population growth is impacting the disappearance of wildlife? Yes: 57% said population growth was a significant cause of plant and animal extinctions. Asked another way, 60% agreed with the following statement: “Human population growth is driving other animal species to extinction.”

We also asked about future growth and its impacts. Our poll found 64% of Americans believe a 10 billion–person planet would result in adverse effects. Only 8% thought this population level would be beneficial.

What about climate disruption? Do Americans connect the cooking of the planet to making babies willy-nilly? Without a doubt: 57% of those polled said population growth was making climate change harder to solve.

Do Americans think stabilizing population will help protect the environment? 54% believe stabilization will.

Florida panthers experienced the second year in a row of record-breaking road-kill deaths due to increased traffic and development in panther habitat.

Florida panthers experienced the second year in a row of record-breaking road-kill deaths due to increased traffic and development in panther habitat.

Nothing on Earth happens in a vacuum. It’s a closed system that begins to buckle under the sheer weight of human demands. Scientists are increasingly linking population growth and overconsumption to our environmental challenges. In just the past few months scientists have found:

  • The Colorado River system is under assault by a growing population, and there are serious doubts it can meet the West’s demand for water in the coming decades.
  • Florida’s aquifer, the water supply for 19 million people, is experiencing saltwater intrusion because of overpumping.
  • The United States will lose 36 million acres of forest to urban sprawl by 2050.
  • Sixty-six species of coral should be classified as endangered—population and consumption of resources are a driving factor in the threats corals face.
  • The Gunnison sage grouse merits endangered-species protection in part because the human population has doubled in its habitat and will double again in the next 20 years.
  • Florida panthers experienced the second year in a row of record-breaking road-kill deaths due to increased traffic and development in panther habitat.

What is most heartening about our poll is that the American people get it. There is no disconnect between what the scientists are measuring and finding and what Americans are perceiving and experiencing. They aren’t freaking out about population declines. They are increasingly of the view that the world’s population and consumption levels are seriously out of whack with the ecological safety net the Earth provides free of charge to us all.

And finally it comes to this: We asked, if mass extinctions of plants and animals were unavoidable due to population growth, do we have a moral responsibility to address the problem? Sixty percent said yes.

In the end that is the most important conclusion. Americans believe we should do the right thing. The right thing is to start a real conversation about what’s happening to life on Earth. If we don’t, in the end we will only be injuring ourselves.


Jerry Karnas is the population campaign director for the Center for Biological Diversity. To learn more about their population campaign, and to sign up to help, go to < >  This article first appeared in The Daily Beast, February 28, 2013. Reprinted with permission.


Filed under Growth, Natural Resources, Population, Sustainability, Wildlife

Can the World Have Both Rapid Population Growth and Sustainable Development? by David Lam & John Bongaarts

This is part of an online discussion, a point/counter-point exchange on the issue of rapid population growth and sustainable development. The debate continues on what the international development agenda should be. These arguments are just as relevant to U.S. family planning services as to any other country.



The Quantity/Quality Transition

David Lam:

When couples decide whether to use contraception and whether to have another child, they think not only about the numbers of children but also about the quality of life each child will have. As fertility has fallen rapidly in most regions of the world, the amount of resources invested in each child has also increased dramatically. Some of these investments, such as schooling and public health, are at least partly provided by public resources. But many of the investments are made by the parents, and explain why parents around the world talk about children being more expensive than they were when families were much larger. In the last 50 years most of the developing world has made a transition from couples having large numbers of children with low investments per child, to couples having small numbers of children with high investments per child. This is one of the most fundamental dimensions of economic development and is one of the reasons for optimism about the future of the world. Children born today in developing countries will be healthier and better educated than their parents or their grandparents, good news for them and for the countries they live in.

...or Quality?

…or Quality?

Economists think of parents as choosing both the quantity and the ‘quality’ of children, in the same way that people choose both the quantity and quality of things like cars, houses, and clothing.  Non-economists sometimes find this language offensive, perhaps because it sounds like some children are more valuable than others or because it equates children with consumer durables.  But ‘quality’ of children simply refers to the amount of resources invested in each child, with these investments resulting in outcomes such as better health, more education, and a higher standard of living. Parents make decisions about both quantity and quality, and it is important to keep this in mind in thinking about why parents choose to reduce fertility. Whenever we see fertility decline we also see increased parental investments in children. It is really the combination of lower quantity and higher quality that parents are choosing, not simply lower fertility.

Understanding this ‘quantity-quality transition’ is important in thinking about population policy. Parents choose a combination of lower quantity of children and higher quality of children for a number of reasons. One reason is because increased child survival makes this a more viable childbearing strategy. Another is because better access to family planning services gives women the ability to choose a low fertility option. Another important reason is because with economic development parents begin to see increased returns to investing in their children.

Urbanization and industrialization bring increased returns to human capital, including education and health. Parents begin to see that a child with good schooling can do well in the world. This is one of the reasons why parents move to a strategy of low fertility and high investments in their children.

Women are most likely to reduce fertility when they see rewards to increasing investments in children. Family planning programs are most likely to be effective when they are accompanied by improvements in schools, better economic opportunities, and improvements in child survival. Most countries have already made the transition from high fertility-low investments to low fertility-high investments. The challenge is to bring this transition to the remaining poor countries, mainly in Africa, that have yet to make it. The best way to accomplish this is to provide access to family planning that is accompanied by policies and programs that will improve economic growth and increase the returns to investments in children.

John Bongaarts:

Economists have made important contributions to our understanding of the fertility transition by emphasizing the crucial role of investments in the education and health of children and by analyzing the quantity-quality trade-off that parents face when making family size decisions. Poor countries should indeed make education and health improvements a top priority. This will yield many individual and social benefits and will eventually bring about the fertility transition. However, such transitions take time and will leave many poor countries with huge population increases that threaten to derail development. This is why family planning programs are also essential.

Unfortunately economists have been largely unsupportive of family planning programs. As David Lam points out, economists think of parents as choosing both the quantity and the ‘quality’ of children, in the same way that people choose both the quantity and quality of things like cars, houses, and clothing. An obvious problem with this way of thinking is that durable goods require an active purchase in the market, while pregnancies occur unless an effort is made to avoid them. In addition, economic theories typically assume that the cost of contraception is sufficiently low to be ignored. From this academic perspective the occurrence of unwanted pregnancies should be as rare as of unwanted new cars; family planning programs are therefore considered pointless and a waste of resources. Needless to say, the real world is different.

Richard Easterlin recognized the problem with this reasoning and in the 1970s produced an influential revision of the conventional economic theory of fertility. His framework for the determinants of fertility added two critical elements. First, it acknowledged the role of biology in childbearing outcomes. Specifically, without efforts to control conception, women who are sexually active would bear large numbers of children, because a pregnancy takes only nine months and the reproductive years last decades. To avoid having ‘excess’ children, parents must practice birth control. This fact makes the ‘acquisition’ of children fundamentally different from the purchase of durable goods. Second, Easterlin recognized that the cost of birth control could be substantial, thus leading to significant numbers of unplanned pregnancies. These costs are broadly defined to include economic, health, psychological, and social obstacles.

The opposition of economists to family planning programs has been one of the main reasons for the low investment in them during the past. Fortunately the tide is now turning and Easterlin’s views are taken seriously again. Not a moment too soon.


John Bongaarts, Ph.D. is Vice President and Distinguished Scholar of the Population Council in New York.  Mr. Bongaarts is the author or co-author of approximately 200 scholarly articles on various aspects of demography, including the determinants of fertility, population-environment interactions, the demographic impact of the AIDS epidemic, population aging, and population policy options in the developing world.  He is a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences and the US National Academy of Sciences, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  

David Lam, Ph.D. is Professor of Economics and Research Professor in the Population Studies Center, University of Michigan.  He was President of the Population Association of America in 2011.  Throughout a long and distinguished career, Professor Lam’s research has focused on the interaction of economics and demography in developing countries, including analysis of the economics of population growth, fertility, marriage, and aging.  He is currently on sabbatical at the University of Cape Town.


Filed under Economy, Growth, Population, Sustainability

Focus on U.S. – Editorial by Marilyn Hempel

Periodically we focus on U.S. issues. Why? The United States is the third most populous nation in the world, behind China and India. And because Americans are the world’s super consumers, our ecological footprint is larger than that of any other nation.

Because Americans are the world's super consumers, our ecological footprint is larger than that of any other nation.

Because Americans are the world’s super consumers, our ecological footprint is larger than that of any other nation.

U.S. population continues to grow rapidly, by approximately 3 million people per year. Indeed, the U.S. annual growth rate (0.96%) is much closer to that of developing countries such as Morocco, Vietnam and Indonesia (all at 1.07%) than to other developed nations such as Denmark (0.25%), Taiwan (0.19%) and Belgium (0.07%). The main difference is that population growth in the developing world is driven by high fertility rates, while population growth in the United States and the rest of the developed world is mostly driven by immigration—and the relatively higher fertility rate of immigrants.

U.S. consumption of natural resources has not abated either. The U.S. ranks highest in most consumer categories, even among industrialized nations. American fossil fuel consumption is double that of the average resident of Great Britain, and two and a half times that of the average Japanese. The continuing surge in numbers of Americans offsets individual efficiencies or reductions. For example, even if the average American eats 20% less meat in 2050 than is 2000, total U.S. meat consumption will be 5 million tons greater in 2050 due to population growth.* In a nutshell, our Ecological Footprint is twice that of Western European nations, and they have a high quality of life!

For the good of the planet and for the good of human civilization, the U.S.—along with all nations—should stabilize population as rapidly as possible.

Immigration is not our favorite subject, largely because almost every discussion of immigration becomes emotional, and sheds more heat than light on the subject. We have tried very hard to find articles that present facts, not feelings (although we have included some examples of ‘feeling’ articles to show the difference).  As Herman Daly wisely observed, “Immigrants are people, and deserve to be well treated; immigration is a policy, and deserves rational discussion.” Don’t miss his article on page xx.

We are continuing our series on happiness and sustainable living with a look at the work of the City of Santa Monica’s sustainability program.  For those of you who have requested more good news, this is an excellent example of creative thinking and positive action.

In the midst of mass shootings, bombings, and other tragic events, the United Nations declared, with almost no news coverage, the first ever International Day of Happiness (March 20, 2013). This signifies recognition of the relevance of happiness and wellbeing as universal goals in people’s lives, and acknowledgement of the importance of these goals in public policy objectives.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared, “People around the world aspire to lead happy and fulfilling lives free from fear and want, and in harmony with nature.” There are three essential facets to happiness or wellbeing: personal, community and planetary—and all three are interconnected. We think wellbeing should be embedded in the concept of sustainable communities, as part of a global movement away from our addiction to growth.

Wellbeing supports building physical, emotional and psychological resources for genuine “wealth”.  Each of us can take responsibility for contributing to ourselves, our families, friends, communities and world, rather than relying on institutions or governments to provide ‘happiness’. Good health both faciltates and results from greater happiness, but there are subtle differences between wellbeing and happiness. Happiness is often understood as a temporary emotional state, while wellbeing encompasses a longer-term sense of peace and prosperity in our lives.

Our ultimate vision is of a world in which everyone’s genuine needs are met within the limits of the planet’s resources and carrying capacity. Wellbeing for people and ecosystems will become the central measure of progress in any society interested in living sustainably.

As Mr. Ban said. “On this first International Day of Happiness, let us reinforce our commitment to inclusive and sustainable human development and renew our pledge to help others…. When we contribute to the common good, we ourselves are enriched. Compassion promotes happiness and will help build the future we want.”

*data from Worldwatch Institute

Marilyn Hempel is the editor of the Population Press.

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Filed under Consumption, Culture, Immigration, Natural Resources, Population, Sustainability