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The Crowded GreenhousePopulation, Climate Change, and Creating a Sustainable World$

John Firor and Judith Jacobsen

Print publication date: 2002

Print ISBN-13: 9780300093209

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300093209.001.0001

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U.S. Population Activism in the New Century

U.S. Population Activism in the New Century

(p.80) 4 U.S. Population Activism in the New Century
The Crowded Greenhouse

John Firor

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explains how activists can best approach the population issue in the United States. It argues for a rather new approach, one that resonates with Cairo rather than with the older tradition in which the roots of most American population activism lie. The chapter finds that there are probably more self-described American population activists than of any other nationality, with a movement more than three decades old and several large national organizations focused on population matters. U.S. activists work to affect the fertility and growth rates of the country, which has the third-largest population in the world and is the most rapidly growing industrialized country of any size. The chapter reveals that how well U.S. population activists do their job may determine a great deal about population issues, both domestic and international.

Keywords:   population activists, population activism, fertility, consumption patterns, technology

If one sees farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

—paraphrase of Sir Isaac Newton

In a book that is essentially about global population policy, the efforts of activists based in the United States nevertheless deserve attention. There are probably more self-described American population activists than those of any other nationality, with a movement more than three decades old and several large national organizations focused on population matters. We U.S. activists work to affect the fertility and growth rates of an important country: the United States has the third-largest population in the world and is the most (p.81) rapidly growing industrialized country of any size. We lobby to affect an enormous resource, in the form of American foreign aid, vastly more capable of furthering our agenda than it has done in the past.

How well U.S. population activists do their job may determine a great deal about population issues, both domestic and international. How much is spent on international assistance related to population, including women's empowerment; whether women's empowerment and reproductive health settle into the central position they should occupy in thinking about population, both domestic and international; whether and how soon the U.S. population stabilizes; whether every child born in the wealthiest country in the world is wanted; whether we provide a creditable example to the rest of the world as we handle domestic population and resource issues—all these are critical matters for the United States. How American activists approach their work on population issues may in turn determine whether we succeed or fail.

We are guided in this task by our legacy of early writings by the “masters” in the field. The groundbreaking publications of the 1960s and 1970s first led the cry for population stabilization, globally and in the United States. They include Paul Ehrlich's powerful Population Bomb, which ignited the U.S. movement in 1968, the year that he and others founded the organization Zero Population Growth (ZPG); the many books and articles of Lester Brown, which cover population, food, and sustainability; and Garret Hardin's elegant 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of (p.82) the Commons,” which still frames essential dilemmas of population, resources, and public policy.

In the early years, these analysts and others in the movement shared an outlook and approach that has dominated the U.S. population movement for most of its history. When they first set to work, the world they faced was different from today's. Fertility and population growth were high everywhere. Even in wealthy countries like the United States, families had more than two children. In 1960, women in the United States had slightly higher fertility on average (3.4 children) than women in the developing world (including China) have today (3.2)! Society welcomed population growth. Laws still banned contraceptives in many places and abortion in most. The notions of scarcity and of “limits to growth” were alien to all but a few. The public had only just begun to recognize environmental problems and saw them largely as local problems, soluble simply by “cleaning up after ourselves.”

In attempting to get population on the public agenda against these odds, the early analysts shaped their arguments in a particular way: they described population as the most important global environmental issue—indeed, crisis—faced by the world. The growing human population was likened to a ticking time bomb set to explode. Human populations on the earth were compared to bacteria in a petri dish, where excessive growth in numbers would outstrip food supply, causing starvation and population collapse. Most of the world's ills, from environmental destruction to poverty, hunger, and war, were (p.83) traced to population growth. At the same time, analysts downplayed other causes, such as inequitable social and economic systems, disparities in resource consumption levels, and differences in technologies. They argued that if we don't solve the population problem, nature will do it for us—by killing us.

Much about these principles is true and useful, and we would be unwise to ignore the early insights of the masters. Rapid population growth is a crisis. In my view, the “bomb” has already exploded, though perhaps not exactly as the image suggests. Certainly the population problem is no smaller today than it was when the early writers published their work. Indeed, the world's population has nearly doubled since 1960, and environmental problems have mushroomed. Yet aspects of the early approach would serve the population movement better today if refined and supplemented. (And indeed, the masters' writings themselves have evolved. For example, in recent writings, both Ehrlich and Brown refer to the importance to population of gender equity and education for women and girls.)

In this chapter I outline some principles that I believe should be added to our traditions, to guide the population movement in the new century. These principles join social science to the biology that has traditionally dominated population issues and add political understanding to the focused commitment of the first generation. Refining our activism in this way increases our chances of broadening the movement beyond its current membership (p.84) and raises our chances of success. It also matches our activism more closely to the inclusive, constructive, and complex vision of Cairo.

Principle 1: Population Growth Is Not the Only Problem

It is true that if the world does not solve the population problem, it will have a much harder time accomplishing virtually every other desired goal: cleaning up and preserving the natural world, working toward peace, eradicating poverty, making the world more equitable. Indeed, continued population growth can totally prevent us from solving some problems. Many say justifiably that population is the world's biggest, most fundamental problem.

Still, solving the population problem is not enough. Were we to do only that, in some magic, isolated way—without improving our use of resources and preventing waste, without governing ourselves more wisely, and without changing unjust social and political systems—we would have a dirty, warring, unjust world with a stable population. The population problem is one of several equally critical, equally fundamental problems, no less important because other issues are equally so.

When we say that population growth is the only, or the biggest, problem, we sound to those we wish to convince—those not already on our side—as if we are insensitive to much that they care about, and that we care about too. We seem to believe that poverty is not a serious problem, (p.85) when it lies at the heart of many environmental and social difficulties, including high fertility—and we do care about poverty. We seem not to believe that technologies can change the impact of human beings on the world, when they clearly do—and we believe it too. We appear to deny that small numbers of people consuming vast amounts of resources and producing huge quantities of waste is a major dimension of environmental degradation, when it is—and we agree. And we seem to believe that war and weapons do not, in addition to hurting people, harm the environment and hold back development, when they do—and we know it.

In other words, population activists who today insist on the sole primacy of the population issue have a serious public relations problem. Only it is not trivial or superficial, as the term “PR” suggests. A critical part of the bitter conflict in the United States over immigration policy in recent years is the perception by communities of color that the exclusive emphasis on numbers by the population movement means that we want to protect our wealth. Though a shock to liberals in the population movement, it is, in fact, part of the debate.

The first principle is that population is not the only problem. Other factors are equally important.

Principle 2: The Population Issue Is Complex

With their almost exclusive reliance on biological ways of thinking about how human beings interact with their (p.86) world, the early writings were deterministic and oversimplified. The analyses suggested that human numbers necessarily and always produce adverse effects and that human life is summarized by its biological character. Human life is biological, but it is also social, political, technological, religious, and a lot else. Those dimensions affect a human being's impact on the world; they can make it better or worse.

Human beings affect the environment not simply because of their numbers. It is more accurate to think of many factors, all swimming together in a soup, like flavors. Sometimes one flavor masks another. Sometimes one flavor brings out another. Sometimes two flavors mix to create a lovely taste; sometimes they mix to taste like mud. The flavors in our soup are numbers of people, resource consumption patterns, technology, and social and political arrangements. Thoughts of this much complexity have less punch than the petri dish illustration of early writers. But the longer sentences are more appropriate for today.

Consumption patterns and technologies can worsen or mitigate environmental impact. A town of ten thousand people who drive sport utility vehicles to work harms the environment more than a town often thousand people who walk to their offices. A town of people each driving 350 miles a week harms the environment more than a town of individuals who drive that far in a month.

Social and political arrangements can also improve or worsen the effect of numbers of people, consumption patterns, (p.87) and technology. Imagine a population of 50 million people that produces 50 tons of nuclear waste. If that population has an isolated totalitarian government and active terrorists, and is otherwise not very effective, the environmental and human impact of that 50 tons of nuclear waste is likely to be worse than if the same number of people had a true democracy, a responsive government, and active peace and environmental movements. Similarly, the consequences of crowding are worse in a society of aggressive people committed above all to maximizing their own welfare than in a society of civil residents who have worked out ways of discussing complex problems and dealing with them.

Thus, no single answer exists to the question so often posed by population activists: How many people constitute the right size population, or what is the Earth's optimum population? There are many answers, all dependent on details of the surrounding conditions. A smaller number may be too many if governments are oppressive, wealth is unevenly distributed, individuals are surly, and some people consume a lot more than if the opposite conditions prevail. And “too many” depends in part on what the people involved consider too many, not just on whether the resources are sufficient.

Lester Thurow summarized these complexities eloquently when he wrote: “If the world's population had the productivity of the Swiss, the consumption habits of the Chinese, the egalitarian instincts of the Swedes, and the social discipline of the Japanese, then the planet (p.88) could support many times its current population without privation for anyone. On the other hand, if the world's population had the productivity of Chad, the consumption habits of the United States, the inegalitarian instincts of India, and the social discipline of Argentina, then the planet could not support anywhere near its current numbers.”

Another aspect of population's complexity is relevant. The notion that the human population on Earth will grow beyond its resources—“overshoot” them—and experience dieback—or “collapse”—is a dominant piece of the population canon, still employed by activists today. It is indeed what happens in many predator-prey relationships in the wild, and when the bacteria in a petri dish grow beyond their food supply.

Speaking of human populations in this way is rather more a conclusion about how the world seems than a data-based prediction. Those committed to the idea that “overshoot and collapse” describes what is most likely to happen to human populations should elaborate and strengthen their arguments. They could incorporate data on the health of ecosystems, the identification of thresholds of stability and instability, the development and spread of diseases, and the geographic scale and size of the populations involved. It is not enough to simply repeat the metaphor of “overshoot and collapse” as if it were a prediction; population activists who speak in this fashion are not believed, except by already committed activists.

(p.89) Other metaphors, not rooted in biology alone, also illuminate the population problem in all its severity. For example, the tragedy of excess population growth may not be that it kills us, but that it does not—that as we adapt to slowly developing, ever grimmer conditions, we lose our memory of clean air, freedom of movement, privacy, and dignity. C. S. Lewis said, “The safest road to hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” He doubtless had something in mind other than environmental deterioration, but the point applies.

The second principle is that the population issue is complex and is not readily reduced to simple ideas.

Principle 3: Adopt a Constructive, Rather than a Punitive, Attitude

The Cairo agenda argues that we should avoid any sort of condemnation as we address issues related to high fertility and rapid population growth. It urges us to look instead at the conditions that give rise to high fertility and change those, thereby providing women and men the opportunity to solve the population problem themselves, on their own terms. The lesson that we can move ahead more effectively by being constructive than by being punitive can be applied to other dimensions of the population problem and to places other than the Third World.

We can try hard to create the conditions that enable people to find a sufficient livelihood at home, so that they (p.90) are not pushed by enormous disparities in wages to migrate in large numbers to wealthy countries. This task is admittedly huge—the ultimate job of global development, in many ways—and not one that can yield a reduction in U.S. immigration levels, for example, anytime soon. It is also a more constructive approach to curbing unwanted immigration into wealthy countries, almost certainly more effective in the long term, and more likely to earn more coalition partners, than erecting militarized borders and fashioning punitive laws. Immigration laws with ceilings and quotas will always have a place; they are a fact of life among sovereign nations. But let us not imagine that they are the only or the most effective approach, especially for the long term.

A related issue for population activists involves our sense of urgency—and, often, of despair—about population growth and the future of the planet. We should not turn this anxiety into hostility toward those we consider keep us from population stabilization: people in our country with above-average fertility or young single mothers on welfare. We are more effective when we get our numbers right, attribute causes correctly, and avoid fashioning punitive remedies.

Fertility in the United States has averaged around two children per woman for some years. Yet if every child born in this country were wanted, fertility would be lower. How much lower is not clear, but the difference would be nontrivial. American women, from teenagers to women in their forties, experience much more unwanted (p.91) fertility than one would expect in a country as wealthy as ours. The causes are complex, but poverty, powerlessness, and sexual violence—including sexual abuse of children—are among the most important. Studies find that between half and two thirds of girls who become pregnant as teenagers have been sexually abused at some time in their lives. For causes like these, blame is cruel, and withholding welfare is barbarous punishment. Making services available, raising the minimum wage, reducing domestic violence, protecting children from rape: these are appropriate responses.

The third principle is that creating conditions for change is better than blaming the persons involved.

Principle 4: Laws Have Limits

The U.S. population movement needs to be more sophisticated in its understanding of how public policy works and of the limits of public policy in realms as personal and complex as those connected with population growth.

Laws definitely have a place in the effort to bring about population stabilization. Our federal law that supplies family planning services for poor women is essential, though insufficiently funded. We assist family planning, women's empowerment, child health, and related programs overseas through legislation. Immigration laws, welfare laws, and funding for sex education are all legitimate devices for influencing population. States also address family planning funding and welfare. Localities (p.92) can affect population issues through ordinances on land use and growth control. Though not by means of ordinances or laws, school districts have a strong hand in sex education and family planning services for adolescents. There is room for more legislation at all levels in the United States in the areas of domestic violence, child abuse, and poverty—all issues that affect fertility, and therefore population.

Population activists in the United States usually support legislation of this kind. But we also tend to have an overdeveloped sense of how much a technical solution can accomplish. Simply declaring in a law that population stabilization is a worthy goal for the country may feel satisfying to those who are desperate to stem population growth, who have watched the public landscape change radically in the United States through civil rights legislation and other laws. Still, we must have a realistic sense of what such a declaration can accomplish.

At the urging of the organization ZPG, in 1999 Congressmen Tom Sawyer of Ohio and Connie Morella of Maryland introduced a population policy bill. No action was taken on it before the end of the session, and new bills are customarily introduced with each new session. The old bill contains some stirring language characteristic of all the bills:

  • Rapid population growth causes serious problems both in the United States and abroad.

  • The people of the United States envision a world with a healthy environment, clean air and water, (p.93) uncluttered land, ample open space, natural beauty, wilderness, and abundant wildlife, in which the dignity of human life is enhanced.

  • Delaying efforts to slow population growth will increase the difficulty and cost of achieving that goal.

  • The United States should develop, promote, and implement, at the earliest possible time and by voluntary means consistent with human rights and individual conscience, the policies necessary to slow the population growth of the United States, and thereby promote the future well-being of the people of this nation and of the world.

It sounds wonderful! However, let us not imagine that the bill has a real chance of affecting U.S. population growth. It is entirely limited to a rhetorical declaration. Anything with real content—such as expanded reproductive health, opposition to domestic violence, antipoverty programs, or changes to immigration laws—would face even more political obstacles than the simple declaration. It is true that even rhetorical support at the highest levels of government can create awareness of population issues and might affect fertility rates slightly. But a campaign of presidential-level leadership—or by the First Lady—would be likely to do more than a one-time legislative declaration. To be effective, such declarations have to be the result of widespread public support, not the reverse.

ZPG is realistic about its work on population policy bills. It aims to create opportunities to educate individual legislators, and to use bills as an organizational tool for the members. ZPG knows well that simple declarations (p.94) cannot overcome the economic forces that promote growth, the social and cultural forces that affect fertility, or the wage disparities that fuel immigration. It knows that in this field one must attack causes, not simply rely on declarations.

In addition to realism about the likely effects of population policy legislation, we must never forget where we are: this is the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We have struggled for years not to lose domestic funding for family planning for poor women. In the 1990s Congress decided to close down the government rather than fund family planning services for poor women overseas. Abortion providers are murdered, and the availability of abortion services erodes yearly. Focusing on population policy legislation for other than education purposes risks making the population movement look irrelevant and ineffective.

The fourth principle is that laws have limits, and we should work for those that are effective.

Principle 5: Work Wisely on Immigration

To have a stable population in the United States, it is indeed necessary to bring annual immigration levels down from the million or so that they are today. This is a demographic fact. Today immigration constitutes close to 40 percent of the annual population increase in the United States. As time passes and the baby-boom generation ages out of the childbearing years, immigration will make up (p.95) an even higher percentage of expected annual growth unless it abates significantly—although that may be a high percentage of a relatively small absolute increment.

Immigration policy has been an inflammatory issue in the population and environment debate in the United States, with a great deal of name-calling and extremely hard feelings. On one side are people who insist that immigration is the main cause of population growth in the United States, that population growth is destroying the country's environment, and that we must curb immigration if we are to save the environment. Arguing for this position, some people feel that they must find every reason why immigration—and, often, immigrants—can be considered undesirable. In the middle are people, some of them environmentalists, who say that population growth, while important, is a global phenomenon and that it does not really matter where it takes place. Whether people born in Mexico, for example, live in Mexico or in the United States, the argument goes, has no effect on global population numbers and need not enter the debate.

On the other side are those who say that wasteful resource use and social inequalities, not population growth—and certainly not impoverished immigrants—lie at the root of environmental problems. They add that people who wish to curb immigration are principally interested in protecting their own wealth and in preventing the ranks of people of color from growing in the United States.

(p.96) These are not grounds for forward movement, and indeed make for anguish and conflict. Yet we can advance the immigration debate with grace, though slowly, if we bring a certain wisdom to the issue, correct our past mistakes, and work with those who have disagreed with us on substantive issues that we have in common.

Those who have argued for restricting immigration on the grounds that it is the chief cause of U.S. population growth and, by implication, of U.S. environmental degradation, should speak of fertility as often as of immigration, and of resource use as often as of population growth. Otherwise a cascade of false impressions is set in motion. We appear to single out immigration as the main cause of population increase, when natural increase currently contributes more growth. We look as if we wish to protect U.S. fertility levels, when many people of all ages and incomes in the United States want fewer children than they currently have. We appear to focus exclusively on population growth, when wasteful resource use contributes enormously to environmental degradation.

Those in the movement who argue that migration between countries is irrelevant to total global population numbers and hence has no significance for the population debate are leaving out half the issues. If population growth counts, it counts both globally and where it happens. In addition to having global effects such as increased carbon dioxide emission, population growth occurs in particular places, affecting particular resources. To argue that population is only global omits these local (p.97) impacts. They matter—and so, then, does migration between countries.

If the environmental movement, the population movement, and the movement for social justice were to join to reduce wasteful resource use and economic inequality, all three movements would progress. Modifying immigrants' rights so that tighter immigration levels do not translate into more discrimination against people of color is critical. Access to reproductive health care, women's empowerment, and community development in all communities, including those made up of immigrants, is also crucial. Even as such work strikes a major blow for improving people's lives and achieving a stable population, it fosters cooperation. In addition, it would build bridges on which the movements may eventually be able to walk, together, to a fair and enduring immigration policy.

Readers uneasy with the immigration issue may feel relieved at this recommendation; readers devoted to curbing immigration are doubtless unhappy. The approach I advocate has been born not of my discomfort with immigration issues but of hard experience over fifteen years of population activism at the national scale and the cold calculation that it is simply impossible, in the current political climate, to be heard accurately if one advocates limiting immigration into the United States. Indeed, one is heard as a demon by all but those who already agree with immigration reduction. This is a political reality, making it impossible to move forward meaningfully on legislative reduction of U.S. immigration levels.

(p.98) Given this hard, cold fact, I argue for a long-term approach that seeks first to change the climate in which immigration policy is debated and only later—in a future I hope is closer to five years away than ten or fifteen—to reduce annual immigration levels. No debate can occur unless the two sides—those who wish to stabilize the U.S. population sooner rather than later, and those who defend the rights of communities of color, especially Hispanic communities—know each other. If that happens—and acting together on shared issues can accomplish it, I believe—then and only then can we move forward on immigration policy.

The fifth principle is to bring wisdom and patience to the immigration issue.

Principle 6: There Are Many Roads to Mecca

We will be more effective as a movement if we give up the idea that if everyone knew what we know, they would feel as we do about population. It is tempting to believe that if everyone simply understood the nature of exponential growth, the extent of unwanted pregnancies, the laws of ecosystems, or whatever collection of facts and principles settled things for each of us, they would join us and work for the cause. But there are many, many different ways of thinking about the world, to which we must be open. One individual perhaps might find the religious notion of stewardship most moving. Someone else might be convinced most readily by the concept that (p.99) corporations benefit from population growth while “the little people” do not.

It is vital to remember the many ways of resisting beliefs, all operating through political interests, values, and culture. A successful political movement of any kind never underestimates their importance, whether it is an African woman's belief that without children she is nothing, or an American's belief that he is entitled to all the material goods he can buy. Sometimes rational argument is not the most appropriate response. Sometimes political action is.

It is also important to remember that some people are never going to agree with us. Some will forever see an upward-moving population growth curve as increasing profits, as progress, and as the way the world is supposed to be.

A few years ago I participated in an effort in Boulder, Colorado, to develop “principles of sustainability” as part of a “healthy communities initiative.” We had, like many communities, held large meetings with an array of “stakeholders,” all of whom “envisioned” the kind of Boulder they wanted to see in the future. At the end, the sense emerged that the group thoroughly understood “healthy,” but not “sustainable.” So a small group began outlining the basic principles that a community, a business, a public group, or an individual would have to follow to generate “sustainable” activities. We covered the environment, the economy, and social equity and diversity. In the course of our discussion late one summer afternoon, (p.100) someone proposed that sustainability requires that everyone understand and believe in certain basic ideas: regard for the environment and all creatures, intergenerational equity, and respect for other cultures, for example. Something felt wrong about that, sensible as it sounded at first. Eventually I realized what was wrong. We have to create a sustainable society even though people do not believe in it. We have to win without them on our side.

If we remember this, perhaps we can avoid framing our strategies for success like this: we could win “if only everyone understood ecology … or believed in the value of other species … or gave up the paradigm of domination … or gave up greed.” Even though these statements are true, they are largely irrelevant in the short term. We need to succeed without perfection.

The seventh principle is that there are many roads to Mecca.

Population stabilization, whether in the United States or in the world as a whole, is too important to fail for bias, overzealousness, incomplete understanding, or ignorance of its vulnerabilities as a political movement. The enormous challenge of bringing human populations into sustainable harmony with the earth requires the most informed and powerful strategies and the broadest, most effective political coalitions. A population movement that follows the principles outlined in this chapter has a greater chance of success than one based solely on the early works of the masters in the field. The movement (p.101) in the new century would be constructive; it would open itself to a larger membership and to broader political coalitions; and it would present a vision of population issues and their place in the economic, political, and environmental world whose complexity matched reality. We stand on the shoulders of the masters in the population field, and we see farther than they did two and three decades ago. Real success with regard to population in the world today requires this longer, larger vision.