Looking Back to When It Wasn't Politically Incorrect to Want to Limit U.S. Population Growth

By Jerry Kammer on January 26, 2018

This is the second of two posts intended to provide context for the discussion of the Trump administration's proposal to cut legal immigration.

The growth of the U.S. population used to be a major concern for environmentalists. The official position of the Sierra Club, for example, used to be that since population growth exacerbated urban sprawl and our carbon footprint, the United States should restrict immigration in order to stabilize our population. That concern was widely shared in the American public. On the first Earth Day in 1970, the principal issues were efforts to manage population growth, clean up the nation's water and air, and limit the use of pesticides.

President Richard Nixon also weighed in. While Nixon's legacy is tainted by the Watergate scandal, environmentalists still point out that the Environmental Protection Agency was established during his administration. Nixon also facilitated a discussion of the nation's population. It was he who signed the measure to create the National Commission on Population Growth and the American Future.

In 1972, as that commission issued its report, it concluded that "in the long run no substantial benefits will result from the further growth of the nation's population." Showing a sense of urgency, it called population "an issue that is of great consequence to present and future generations."

The commission made this call for action: "Recognizing that our population cannot grow indefinitely, and appreciating the advantages of moving now toward the stabilization of population, the Commission recommends that the nation welcome and plan for a stabilized population."

The New York Times editorial board advanced the cause with an editorial that looked at the relentless power of demographics: "In 1950, there were 151 million Americans. Today; there are 208 million," the Times observed. "By the year 2000 ... the number is expected to swell to 300 million."

The Times hailed a bipartisan Senate resolution endorsing the goal of zero population growth: "The fact that senators come from both parties and across the political spectrum, from Barry Goldwater to George McGovern, is positive proof that the population issue has moved to the forefront of public concern."

The Sierra Club in the 1990s pulled back from its advocacy of immigration limits. That move was an effort to make peace with immigration advocacy groups who claimed that the club's position represented an effort to preserve the privilege of its white, affluent members. Carl Pope, the club's executive director, explained that if the club favored reduced immigration, "we would be perceived as assisting people whose motivations are racist."

Such tactics infuriated the founder of Earth Day, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson. A liberal Democrat and a staunch civil rights advocate, Nelson said, "People have been silenced because they are scared to death of being charged with being a racist. But racism has nothing to do with it. It's a question of numbers."

The numbers are large. In the 1990s, for example, as Sierra Club dissidents challenged Pope's position, the U.S. population grew by 32.7 million to reach 281.4 million.

During that same period, the United States welcomed about 9.1 million immigrants with green cards. Meanwhile, the population of illegal immigrants grew by just under five million, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. So all told, immigration accounted for about 43 percent of the nation's population growth during the decade.

Over the past 10 years, it is useful to point out, the nation's population of unauthorized immigrants has declined. But the annual arrival of legal immigrants has averaged more than 1,067,000.