As we observe Earth Day today, it's fitting to note some of the concerns expressed by its founder, the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson. Here are some excerpts from his 2002 autobiography, Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise.
If we accept that forging and maintaining a sustainable society is the critical challenge for this and future generations, we must also accept that stabilizing our population will be key to determining our success or failure.
The most pressing issue of all for this country is the matter of what America will be like when our population of more than 280 million doubles to more than a half-billion in the next seventy to seventy-five years – a rate at which we will join China and India in the billion population class sometime in the next century. Clearly, population is a world problem, and many nations will suffer from overpopulation problems worse than those facing the United States. But we have a problem here at home, and if we wait for the rest of the world to come along and do what's right, we'll join the less-industrialized nations as a nation of degraded, overpopulated lands.
In 2000 the US population topped 280 million. Not surprisingly, adding population hasn't improved American society, the economy, or the environment. Yet we are headed at current growth rates, toward having well over 500 million people on the same land resource within the next seventy-five years and 1 billion people within the next century. Does anyone imagine we can grow like that without tremendous cost to the environment and our quality of life?
The U.S. birthrate is at replacement level, or about 2.1 children per woman on average. This birthrate would bring about population stabilization over a relatively short time. Yet we won't stabilize our population as long as immigrants to the United States continue to add 1.3 million people to the population each year – 300,000 of them entering the country illegally. It is a fact that until we address this growing influx of immigrants, who account for about one third of our annual population growth, the population will continue to grow indefinitely despite the nation's success at achieving a replacement level birthrate.
Never has an issue with such major consequences for this country been so ignored. Never before has there been such a significant failure by the president, Congress, and the political infrastructure to address such an important problem. We are faced with the most important challenge of our time – the challenge of sustainability – and we refuse to confront it. It is the biggest default in our history.
The reason for this silence is simple. In order to bring a halt to exponential growth, the number of legal immigrants entering this country would have to match the number of emigrants leaving it – about 220,000 people per year. Yet, while federal actions have increased the immigration rate dramatically during the last four decades, any suggestion that the rate be decreased to some previously acceptable level is met with charges of "nativism," "racism," and the like. Unfortunately, such opposition has silenced much-needed discussion of the issue – recalling the smear tactics of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy. The first time around it was "soft on communism." This time the charge is "racism," because a significant number of immigrants are of Hispanic descent. Demagogic rhetoric of this sort has succeeded in silencing the environmental and academic communities and has tainted any discussion of population and immigration issues as "politically incorrect." As frustrating as it is to see the president and members of Congress running for cover on such a monumental issue, it is nothing short of astonishing to see the great American free press, with its raft of syndicated columnists, frightened into silence by political correctness.
The issue is not racism, nativism, or any other "ism," however. The real issue: numbers of people and the implications for freedom of choice and sustainability as our numbers continue to grow. Population stabilization will be a major determinant of our future, how we live and in what conditions; talk of it should not be muzzled by McCarthyism or any other demagogic contrivance. Rather, the issue must be brought forth and explored in public hearings and discussions precisely because it is a subject of great consequence.