The Environmental Weight of 300 Million Americans

PORTLAND, ORE. -- A flotilla of 100 fishing boats, rafts, and kayaks crossed the Willamette River to a downtown park in Portland, Ore., the other evening to rally for the Pacific Northwest's reigning icon: wild salmon, now plummeting toward extinction due to development across much of the Columbia River basin.

It was a typical event for a "green" city that has one of the best records in the United States for recycling, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, using alternative energy, and providing public transportation and bike paths.

But Portland's amenities -- its natural setting along the Willamette River and its youthful techie vibe -- are drawing a surge of new people, threatening to erode the very qualities that drew people here in the first place. As the US approaches 300 million people, that's the story of the nation as well.

In many ways, Americans have mitigated the impact of their increasing presence on the land. Since reaching the 200 million mark back in 1967, they have cut emissions of major air pollutants, banned certain harmful pesticides, and overseen the rebound of several endangered species. Despite using more resources and creating more waste, they've become more energy efficient.

The danger, experts say, is that the US may simply have postponed the day of reckoning. Major environmental problems remain, and some are getting worse -- all of them in one way or another connected to US population growth, which is expected to hit 400 million around midcentury. Some experts put the average American's "ecological footprint" -- the amount of land and water needed to support an individual and absorb his or her waste -- at 24 acres. By that calculation, the long-term "carrying capacity" of the US would sustain less than half of the nation's current population.

"The US is the only industrialized nation in the world experiencing significant population growth," says Vicky Markham, of the Center for Environment and Population, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization in New Canaan, Conn. "That, combined with America's high rates of resource consumption, results in the largest ... environmental impact [of any nation] in the world." The boomer challenge

The changing nature of the population also has environmental consequences.

"Today's baby boomers -- 26 percent of the population -- are the largest, wealthiest, highest resource-consuming of that age group ever in the nation's history, and they have unprecedented environmental impact," says Ms. Markham.

The generation's preference for bigger houses and bigger cars -- and the proliferation of them -- are gobbling up more resources and creating more pollution, according to a recent study by the Center for Environment and Population. For example:

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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