How Many People Is Too Many?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
By mid-October of this year, the world's third most populous nation will hit 300 million inhabitants. And thanks to America's burgeoning fertility rate, we will keep moving briskly onward, hitting 400 million in less than 40 years, by Census Bureau projections.
Is 300 million people too many -- or not enough? Wade into a discussion of population size, and you're soon up to your neck in a host of knotty issues: sex, contraception, immigration, economic justice and ecological crises. To find out who'll be celebrating the big milepost, who'll be deploring it, and why, I got in touch with seven individuals who have especially strong views on the various forces that will decide the eventual size and composition of our nation's population.
One out of three pregnancies unintended
I started with an organization that's been at the center of the population struggle for decades. Population Connection, based in Washington, D.C., was founded in 1968 as Zero Population Growth by, among others, biologist Paul Erlich. Erlich wrote " The Population Bomb," a 1960s bestseller that put human numbers on the public agenda.
Brian Dixon, Population Connection's director of government relations, told me the group will try to take advantage of the publicity surrounding the 300 million mark to advance its congressional agenda. Today, that consists mostly of rearguard actions to protect existing reproductive rights and resist what Dixon calls "the war on sex information."
He said that when people don't have the means and information to control their fertility, the results are obvious: "Just here in the D.C. area where we work, you can't go a week without seeing evidence of overpopulation in the press: choked highways, crowded classrooms. It's our job to make it clear that we have to maintain not only living space but also lots of forests, farms, wetlands, etc."
Dixon cited research showing that one-third of all pregnancies in this country are unintended. "And our teen pregnancy rate is almost twice that of the next-highest industrialized nation. Yet we're wasting hundreds of millions on abstinence programs that have been shown never to work, and in fact can be quite harmful."
He doesn't believe abstinence proponents are really interested in preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases: "They want to punish people who act, in their view, immorally. You got pregnant? It's because you behaved badly. You got an STD? You should've thought about that before you had sex. They want bad outcomes."
I asked Dixon about a May 6 article by Russell Shorto in The New York Times Magazine that created a national stir by exposing the religious right's efforts to restrict access to contraception. He said the threat is very real, and it's nothing new: "That's been pretty obvious around Washington for a while."
Fruit of the womb
Among the motives behind what Shorto called the "contra-contraception" campaign, a "pro-procreation" philosophy is not necessarily foremost; current attacks on birth control are as much about making political hay as making babies. But some Christian writers are giving top priority to what they see as the duty of believers to reproduce, early and often.
Nancy Campbell of Franklin, Tennessee, is author of the 2003 book "Be Fruitful and Multiply." Her title quotes Genesis 1:28, in which God gives Adam and Eve a bit of advice that many evangelical Christians interpret as a command to procreate energetically. In an article on her website aboverubies.org, Campbell lists "101 Reasons for Having Children." (No. 27 -- "It's just as easy to cook for ten as it is for one!")
Regarding religious groups' efforts to restrict contraception, she told me, "I would like to see contraception be made less available to young unmarried people. Contraception has actually caused more babies born out of wedlock than when young people had to say no to sex before marriage."
She also sees access to contraception within marriage as a negative influence: "It has caused more divorces and breakups. It gives easy access to adultery and therefore has reduced faithfulness in marriage."
It's not easy to find hard data on the impact of American religion on reproductive behavior where it counts most -- in the delivery room. Very recent research (pdf) at the University of Colorado found that Catholicism (which still forbids artificial contraception) had a positive association with fertility rates in some parts of the country, but a negligible or negative effect in others. Mainstream Protestantism was linked to higher fertility rates only in a few regions, whereas evangelical Protestantism had a "significant and positive" relationship with fertility "everywhere in the U.S."
Is Nancy Campbell encouraged that evangelicals are having more kids? "Yes, I think this is a positive trend. I think that Christian people, on the whole, are going to raise more God-fearing and honest citizens who will bless the nation."
Mark T. Coppenger, distinguished professor of Christian apologetics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, doesn't want to do away with contraception, but he does believe in a divine mandate to procreate. Last year, Coppenger wrote an article entitled (what else?) " Be Fruitful and Multiply" in which he assured his readers, "We've got room. Don't let the fear of overcrowding discourage you. And even if things get tight with unbelieving families, we could always use more Christian parents raising Christian kids, should they be saved."
I asked Coppenger how far parents should go in their efforts to be fruitful. He leaves that up to the parents, sort of: "Following Genesis 1:28, I believe there is a prima facie duty to try to have children, but I believe each couple's number is a matter of personal calling, of vocation. This is not fancy talk for personal preference or convenience. Rather, the issue is what the Lord wants for them."
Congratulations -- it's a bouncing baby Republican!
With evangelicals seemingly more eager to have their sex bear fruit than are other Americans, and with religion and politics running more and more in parallel, it's not surprising to find conservatives gleefully claiming not only electoral dominance but also a reproductive edge over liberals. That has led to recent Democratic handwringing over an apparent liberal " baby bust" and the possibility that the party's platform is insufficiently "pro-family."
Jennifer Shawne has heard plenty about the alleged baby bust phenomenon since she published her book " Baby Not on Board: A Celebration of Life Without Kids" last year. Shawne, who lives in Oakland, California, told me it's not just religious conservatives who try to convince her of her duty to have children. "Some of my very liberal, nonbelieving friends tell me, 'You and your husband are liberal and well-educated, and you have good-paying jobs. You are the type of person who has an obligation to raise kids. Otherwise, there will be all kinds of societal problems.'"
Aside from the not-so-subtle prejudices implied by such arguments, Shawne points out the unsupported assumption that political and cultural attitudes are inherited traits. "The idea that people will turn out like their parents â€¦ it's so untrue, so silly."
Others have told Shawne that, without kids, her life's missing a dimension, that she's not a complete person until she has sacrificed for the sake of children. "Well," she says, "If I don't go live in Japan, my life's missing that dimension. That doesn't mean I should do it. And of course, if you do have kids, you give up a lot of other things."
As for more religious folks, Shawne says they need no longer be concerned about the command to be fruitful and multiply. "On that front, I think humanity can say, 'Mission Accomplished'! We all get a big pat on the back for that one."
Any biologist will tell you that a species that's too fruitful for too long will undercut its means of survival. How much bigger beyond 300 million people can this country grow without facing ecological ruination? I put that question to childbearing advocates Nancy Campbell and Mark Coppenger.
Campbell sees no problem. "God made this earth to be inhabited. I have traveled from one side of America to the other, as I am sure you have. You travel for miles and miles and miles of uninhabited land, drive through a city and back to uninhabited land. I think that the God who created this earth knows more than the environmentalists of our day."
And in Coppenger's opinion, "Three hundred million is not at all high. Even if you doubled that number, the U.S. population could still huddle on Nantucket Island, not that we would want to."
But how empty is all that land beyond Nantucket? In its 2005 update, the Oakland-based think tank Redefining Progress estimated that this nation's staggering level of consumption and waste generation requires a lot more than standing room for each person. The average American's " ecological footprint" -- the theoretical area required to supply everything a person consumes and to deal with the aftermath -- is 269 global acres, almost nine times the footprint of the average person in China and more than 22 times that of the average Indian or Pakistani.
According to their analysis, the ecological footprint of the United States as a nation is bigger than the combined footprints of China, India, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Russia, which together are home to 3 billion people. So from the planet's point of view, the birth of a single American child has the potential impact of 10 births in those countries.
Jennifer Shawne believes that such statistics should be a consideration in deciding whether to reproduce: "Each child born in this country means further destruction of the planet. Now that argument doesn't really stick with people who are eager to have kids. But for others who are constantly being told by society that they are selfish for not wanting to have kids -- maybe it does help them."
And they're pushed in that direction by economic forces as well. History shows that the typical way a nation stabilizes its population is to raise its economic standard of living -- a process social scientists call the "demographic transition." The transition works partly because it takes so many more resources to raise a child in a rich country. The United States went through the transition, but it wasn't as effective here as in other industrialized nations, which have both lower resource consumption and lower birth rates than we do.
What would 400 million Americans look like?
In his 2002 book " The Death of the West," paleoconservative godfather Pat Buchanan argued that our nation's very existence is threatened by a one-two punch: insufficient enthusiasm for childbearing among native-born women and growing immigration from Mexico. In consummate Buchanan fashion, he denounced former President Bill Clinton and other "Western elites" who "don't seem to care if the end of the West comes by depopulation, by a surrender of nationhood, or by drowning in waves of Third World immigration."
Believing that the best defense is a good offense, Buchanan urged a return to large, patriarchal families (at least for people who look like him and his family) as a way of outstripping the immigrant population demographically and culturally.
However, another strain of anti-immigrant activism, motivated more by environmental concerns, sees overpopulation as the chief cross-border threat.
On the question of how many Americans there should be, no group goes further than Negative Population Growth (NPG), based in Arlington, Virginia. NPG's long-term goal is a U.S. population of 150 million -- half as many people as will reside here come October. Founded in 1972, NPG still advocates the two-child family and curtailment of resource consumption, but now spends most of its time and energy on immigration issues.
NPG Executive Vice President Craig Lewis is concerned that 300 million Americans will represent a much bigger environmental load than the same number of people almost anywhere else. But, he maintains, working for reproductive rights and smaller families without forceful action on immigration -- the strategy followed, for example, by Population Connection -- is doomed to fail.
"If not for immigration," he told me, "we already would have stabilized the U.S. population. Look at Italy and Ireland. Two Catholic countries that now have stable or declining populations. Our problem is immigration. It's easy for one person to bring in his sisters, brothers, parents. And immigrants have more children. Pretty quickly, one immigrant can really amount to 12."
Peter Brimelow, a financial journalist who lives in Washington, Connecticut, and runs the anti-immigration website vdare.com, also wants to see less population pressure within our borders.
He told me, "The environmental movement is generally thought to be liberal, but liberal environmentalists are apolitical for the most part. They just know that they like trees." He sees conservative environmentalists as hard-headed realists who, since President Theodore Roosevelt, have worked successfully to preserve lands in their natural state.
"It's simple: Do you like unspoiled land, or do you want to pave it over? To avoid paving it, I would like to see the population stabilize." Instead, he says, the government is encouraging growth through immigration: "We're carrying out a social engineering experiment on an unprecedented scale. And there's not even an economic rationale for it. Immigrants are mostly unskilled, and they have unskilled children."
Brimelow's plan of action is extreme: no net immigration into the United States for 15 years. What he calls "family unification chains" -- the ability of immigrants to be joined by family members -- should be broken. And the U.S.-Mexican border should be sealed.
How would sealing of the border be accomplished? "It would be easy to build a 2,500-mile fence. The Israelis say their fence is working very well. It's just a question of will."
The wall Israel is building on occupied Palestinian land may be "working" in the most narrow sense of deterring cross-border movement. But the broader consequences for a country that withdraws into that kind of isolation seem clear. In taking such extreme measures to protect our natural landscapes, we risk crippling our social and psychic landscapes.
Are Brimelow, Lewis, Buchanan and the rest of the anti-immigration movement aiming to preserve America's great traditions only by embalming them? Can we find ways of viewing immigration that lead to a less cruel course of action?
Don't blame us
Michael D. Yates is associate editor of the left political journal Monthly Review and former professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. When I asked him whether the United States is threatened by under- or over-population, either within or outside our borders, he insisted that it's wrong to blame a nation's problems on people because they're poor or immigrant, or have what are seen as too many kids: "People are poor and nations are poor not because they have too many people. Rather, the reverse is true."
Most anti-immigration activists are highly critical of U.S. businesses that take advantage of a swollen labor pool to exploit workers. But their bombast about "drowning in waves of immigration," says Yates, only draws attention away from the fundamental problem, which is economic. Companies, he says, structure themselves to make workers as interchangeable as possible. As a result, they "continuously throw onto and draw into the market a pool of surplus labor, and this surplus puts downward pressure on the wages of those still employed."
When the native population isn't producing enough people willing to work for the wages being offered, companies look beyond their national borders for a bigger pool of people. And, says Yates, "Any competition for jobs between native and immigrant labor can be exploited by many different actors. All sorts of bogus arguments can be made, as we see here now. The goal is to make natives see the immigrants as the cause of native problems. What is really going on is capitalism operating normally. Employers gain. Native workers lose. Immigrants lose too. Both groups lose because they are not united."
How soon the United States adds another 10 million or 50 million or 100 million to its population, and who those new Americans will be, is clearly an open question. The religious beliefs, political maneuvering, racial and ethnic struggles, economic realities, and ecological limits that will come together to shape the U.S. population curve in this century are probably enough to thwart even the most sophisticated demographic models.
And if it's hard to predict how many of us there will be, it's even tougher to know who we'll be. I'll leave the last word on that to non-breeder Jennifer Shawne. She told me, "This culture, like all cultures, is constantly evolving. I'm more interested in seeing how it changes in the future than in preserving it as it is or was. Trying to freeze any culture in time is futile anyway -- even dangerous."