While it’s exciting to finally start seeing articles about population in the news, unfortunately, most of them are bemoaning a so-called U.S. “population bust” and “demographic stagnation.” The vast majority of top-ranked comments (select the Reader Picks tab) on these articles support our position: that fertility decline and slowing population growth present opportunities for the U.S. to reduce climate-changing emissions, lift people out of poverty, close the inequality gap, and protect our country’s—and our planet’s—natural resources for future generations.
This spate of recent hand-wringing articles is a response to the release of the 2020 U.S. Census results and the release shortly thereafter of the 2020 provisional births data from the CDC. The 2020 Census counted 331,449,281 Americans, up from 308,745,538 in 2010—that’s 22.7 million more Americans needing housing, heating and cooling, transportation, food, jobs, education, healthcare, and so on.
And yet, The New York Times printed an article asserting that there’s a “population bust”; a Bloomberg columnist said, “Global depopulation is the looming existential threat that no one is talking about”; The Economist wrote that “global shrinkage looms”; and The Washington Post wrote about “the challenge of population stagnation” in one editorial and warned that “without robust population growth … there is no prospect of repairing the fraying social safety net that supports an aging population of retired Americans” in another one. A quick Google search yields dozens more examples from the past couple of months.
Threats – Imaginary and Real
Some journalists would have you believe that the following [rare] developments are cause for panic: In Germany, housing developments being razed to make way for parks, and shrinking towns becoming more attractive to home buyers due to their smaller scale. In South Korea, illiterate elderly people attending school to learn how to read alongside children, and nature growing up through playgrounds no longer used. In Europe, forests regrowing in unused fields, and a recent resurgence of large carnivores. In Japan, Asian black bears scavenging nuts and fruits in old fields and neglected gardens of rural towns losing residents.
Seriously, though. “Population decline”—which is nowhere near happening at the U.S. or global level—would be a boon to everyone’s quality of life, to say nothing of the benefits to the natural world. Yes, there will be challenges to how economies are structured. But those challenges are far easier to address than the permanent environmental tipping points that humanity is already beginning to breach and that we’ll only exceed more frequently as world population continues to grow.
Our world is already overpopulated. Just imagine how much less stress we’d place on the natural world if there were only half as many of us. Even when that was the case in 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. raised the alarm about the “modern plague of overpopulation.”
Americans burn more fossil fuels each day than many poor countries burn in years. There are important and compelling reasons to facilitate slower population growth in low-income countries, of course. The bulk of our advocacy work focuses on slowing growth in high-fertility countries least equipped to meet the needs of rapidly growing populations. But there’s hardly a country on earth that rivals the U.S. in terms of per capita consumption. And we don’t see the majority of Americans volunteering to give up their cars, single family homes, air conditioning, or fast fashion any time soon. Perhaps the easiest way for Americans to reduce our ecological footprint is for us to continue having smaller families and slowing the number of people we add to the ranks of future consumers in this country.
It is, after all, people who consume natural resources, destroy wildlife habitats, and produce climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions. For the sake of our planet and of future generations, shouldn’t we celebrate the slower addition of new consumers and polluters?
And a Solution: Invest in Children
If it’s the economy that concerns the authors of the above-cited articles, we urge them to look at ways to improve per capita productivity. We should not pin our country’s economic future on the population Ponzi scheme. The United States has more than enough people—and we’re adding over 1.1 million more every year. What it lacks is adequate investment in its population of young people who will be tomorrow’s workforce. And, of course, we need to educate the next generation to think of themselves as citizens, not consumers.
We have 10.5 million children growing up in poverty—let’s invest in the futures of those children so they can become healthy, well-educated, productive adults. Better educated people also tend to contribute to slower population growth through lower fertility.
Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote, “America simply needs more babies,” (we disagree!) and said that we’re pushing “toward population decline” as a result of our “fertility collapse.” Provocative click-bait phrases aside, he spends most of the piece outlining how this country can make parenthood more affordable—and of course, child tax credits and welfare benefits mean children grow up with more financial security. It’s always strange when we find ourselves agreeing even partially with someone like Mr. Douthat, but in this case, he’s got it right: Investing in children is a plan that should align folks from both sides of the aisle. Healthy societies don’t need more people; they need people who are more productive who make what we consider to be better choices.
If we ensured that every baby born in the U.S. had access to high-quality health care, childcare, education, and nutrition, we’d be a much more productive society than we would be simply by adding more numbers to our ranks. And this could provide a sound pathway to population stabilization.
This Is a “Good Crisis”
We published a book several years ago about these topics and more. You can read and download the PDF version of The Good Crisis: How Population Stabilization Can Foster a Healthy U.S. Economy for free here. Hard copies can be purchased on Amazon.