On the eve of the 30th Earth Day, the Rand Corporation, Santa Monica's premier think tank, released a new study showing the abysmal ignorance of the American public on global population issues. Surveyed in August, 1998, only 14% of the national sample knew world population was about six billion. Fourteen percent thought it five times that --- and 40% confessed they didn't know.
Closer to home I would bet that most adults could not tell you the population of their state or of the country. This may partly explain why population policy has vanished from the public agenda. It was a hot and popular cause among the original Earth Day activists. Ecologists had warned that both our then-state population of 20 million and the national population of 200 million far exceeded carrying capacity level. We were consuming more renewable resources-plant and animal life and ground water than were being regenerated each year.
In 1972 the President's Commission on Population Growth and the American Future urged Congress to adopt a stabilization policy with all due speed. Rejecting demographic accountability Congress perversely adopted policies that fed population growth. California now has 35 million people; the country 280 million. Metropolitan Los Angeles, swollen from 4 million in 1950 to nearly 10 million in 1970, has leapt to 15 million.
Sprawl, loss of farmland, increased congestion, inadequate school and other physical plant capacity are now daily news fodder. But no mainstream planners or elected "leader" will identify continuing population growth as the underlying cause of these. As the President's Commission warned, the American dream of compact cities, affordable housing, and uncrowded wilderness could not survive higher numbers.
Individual communities fail to link "micro" effects with macro causes. Consider Santa Monica. One of metropolitan Los Angeles's older communities, it has been fully built-out for many years. There is no vacant land for massive new tracts. "Densification"-replacing single family houses with multi-unit buildings- is progressing slowly.
Yet beaches and coast lines are a fixed resource and a destination for all metropolitan residents. Even as once-wild coastline is engulfed, close-in beaches retain their draw. To handle increased patronage half of Ocean Park and Santa Monica beaches became asphalt parking lots by 1970. Subsequent population growth has only aggravated traffic congestion, including pedestrian, and pollution (beach litter, fecal matter in the sea water, and "multi-point" seepage that originates in hundreds of untreatable sources).
Locals who themselves would like to take a "Sunday drive in the country" find the country is ever farther away. Given Los Angeles's geography beach cities have commanded an increasing housing premium for their higher air quality. They are emerging as bedroom communities for the affluent. Where will your teachers, police, other public servants, shop owners, and your own children dwell? As commercial rents soar homely and indispensable shops offering hardware items, shoe and appliance repair services, and dry cleaning are driven out.
Saving our communities means local activists must deal with national population growth. Few baby boomers realize how totally immigration has displaced fertility as the source of American population growth. In its latest projections issued last January the U.S. Census Bureau identifies immigration (not just entrants but their increasingly-numerous descendants who are discounted by apologists for high quotas) as the sole source of all 21st century population growth. This projected growth is massive. Unchanged immigration policies will result in 600-800 million people; expansive ones, 1.2 billion
How will Los Angeles, California, and the nation look with three times more people? Our representatives and our senators appear content to let Mother Nature impose limits at far higher costs than an explicit population social policy would impose. Those grown to adulthood since the first Earth Day have been taught that it is "undemocratic" or, worse, "racist," to link immigration to population growth. They cannot hear that identifying causality is not assigning "blame." They have falsely learned we have always had high levels of immigration-which even if true wouldn't make a present-day environmental case for its continuation. Young environmentalists have also been instructed that all environmental ills are due to high individual consumption. True, individual consumption patterns magnify or diminish the effects of a given population base -- but sheer numbers take up space, form households, bear children, and go to beaches and national parks.
The young should be taught that the only way to free up resources for the third-world nations is for the world's largest consumer and polluter to stop population growth AND reduce individual consumption. Countries that fuel our population growth are acting against everyone's long-term interests. But so is a U.S. that doesn't help fund overseas social development and family planning programs. Politicians might note that 80 percent of those surveyed by Rand, including 70 percent of self-identified "conservatives" supported U.S. funding of family planning programs overseas.
Global population stabilization requires that each country get its own demographic house in order. In 1970 we might have become a role model. Instead, we are now holding up the rear.
An authority on California and national fertility trends, Burke is Senior Fellow, Californians for Population Stabilization (www.cap-s.org).
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