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Population back on enviros’ agenda: Solutions global and local

Mike McGarry

“If sustainability means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations to meet their needs, it is axiomatic that continuous population growth is unsustainable, globally and locally.” – Jonette Christian, Carrying Capacity Network

Stabilizing an immigration-driven U.S. population growth rate that is exploding to an unsustainable doubling within the lifetimes of today’s school children is crucial to providing a sustainable future, locally and globally.

Those were the essential words of Jonette Christian and Colorado’s former three-term governor, Richard Lamm, two of the speakers at the Aspen-based Sopris Foundation’s (www.soprisfoundation.org) State of the World Conference 2002 in Aspen on July 12-14. The conference topic was, “Is a sustainable future possible?”

Thirty years ago Americans were much more aware of the threats overpopulation posed to the country and the world. Stabilizing U.S. population was integral to the ideals of the first Earth Day in 1970, and virtually every environmental organization officially endorsed the need to halt U.S. population growth as necessary to meeting sustainability goals.

The 1970s were also ironically the years the U.S. began showing a noticeable population weight gain from what was the beginning of an unprecedented mass-immigration binge. Since 1970 we have engorged ourselves with a dyspeptic 83 million new consumers, a number greater than the populations of most of the countries of the world. Nearly 70 percent of that growth came from immigration.

Fast-forward from 1970 to 1999 and you might not recognize the place. The country’s population had soared by more than a third, to 278 million, becoming the third most populous nation in the world, with immigration levels several times our historical averages. By now most environmental organizations had dropped U.S. population stabilization from their priorities, and what formerly were convivial coffee-shop discussions about population were now nasty, accusatory shouting matches.

Meanwhile, the population-consumption juggernaut was gaining momentum. Total U.S. energy consumption, for example, in the 1990s grew by 13 percent, exactly the percentage of population growth that decade. The decade of the ’90s makes clear the numbers of consumers cannot be isolated from the amount consumed. Even if Americans were to significantly reduce consumption levels and continue to improve resource technology, as we must, most gains would be lost to immigration-fueled population growth.

The many influences causing our national population priorities to about-face over the years were discussed in the Journal of Policy History’s “The Environmental Movement’s Retreat from Advocating U.S. Population Stabilization (1970-1998)”. It is important to note is that within that time frame the guiding population principle of Earth Day 1970, Think Globally – Act Locally, was supplanted with, “Population is a global problem (exclusively) requiring global solutions.” Thus was born and promulgated an intellectual dishonesty.

Deforestation is a global problem, but nobody would suggest we wait for the world to tackle our nation’s deforestation challenges. Moreover, there are nearly 200 countries and thousands of cultures and subcultures in the world. International bodies are notorious for their inability to agree on even the nature of a problem, never mind the nightmarish prospect of imposing global one-size-fits-all solutions.

The nation-state is the only practical and effective unit of community and therefore of public policy implementation. International cooperation and assistance do not suffer because of that fact, just as respecting and acting on the primacy of family does not mean families are uninvolved in the greater community.

Not to be ignored is the research by Dr. Virginia Abernethy of Vanderbilt University showing the opportunity to emigrate for the citizens of nations and members of cultures with unsustainable population growth rates keeps them from taking the necessary steps to stabilize their populations.

Hence, Mexico, which has more than tripled its numbers over the last 50 years (and is currently on a 32-year doubling course), has no substantive population policy. It also explains why the president of Bangladesh recently said matter-of-factly he would just send his nationals to the “under-populated” United States to ameliorate the effects of his country’s projected population doubling within 50 years.

Is a sustainable future possible? No, not when 6.1 billion people continue to annually add nearly 80 million more to the planets numbers, when the United States continues to be the sixth demographically fastest growing country in the world and when Colorado continues to grow at twice the U.S. rate.

Yes, if we heed the words of Christian and Lamm and if we immediately take to heart the those of the former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Environment and Population Lindsey Grant (“Elephants in the Volkswagen”): “Most world environmental and social problems can be solved but only if population policy is an integral part of the solution.”

Mike McGarry is with VASER Consulting, an Aspen-based population-awareness consultancy, and is a spokesman for the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform. He may be reached at Vaser2@aol.com.


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