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A Magazine of Ideas

AEI Classics: The Nonsense Explosion

Monday, August 26, 2013

In the 1970s, the crisis of the day was overpopulation. In this AEI Classic, written 40 years ago, AEI scholar Ben Wattenberg demolishes the 'explosionists’' claims.

Today, Ben Wattenberg turns 80. He wrote this essay on population explosion nonsense in The New Republic in 1970, and was told after it appeared that the magazine received more letters than it had ever received before about a single article. Most of them were hostile. Wattenberg’s 1987 book The Birth Dearth looked again at population trends, focusing on declining fertility. The essay has been slightly abridged from its original publication.

- The Editors

As the concern about the environment has swept across the nation, the ghost of the “population explosion” has suddenly been domestically resurrected and we are again hearing how crowded it is in America.

Life magazine, for example, chose to launch the new decade [1970s] with the headline “Squeezing into the ‘70s,” announcing that because of the crowds, “the despair of yesterday’s soup line has been replaced by today’s ordeal of the steak line.” Two months later, Life featured a story about a young New Jersey mathematician who had himself sterilized because he is “deeply worried by this country’s wildly expanding population.”

Crowded, crowded, crowded, we are told. Slums are crowded, suburbs are crowded, megalopolis is crowded, and more and more and more people are eating up, burning up, and using up the beauty and wealth of America – turning the land into a polluted, depleted sprawl of scummy water and flickering neon, an ecological catastrophe stretching from the Everglades to the Pacific Northwest. Crisis. Crisis. Crisis.

There are no plain and simple problems any more. From poverty to race to crime to Vietnam, all we face are crises which threaten to bring down the world upon our heads.

That so very much of this is preposterous, as we shall see, should come as no real surprise to those who follow the fads of crisis in America. There are no plain and simple problems any more. From poverty to race to crime to Vietnam, all we face are crises which threaten to bring down the world upon our heads. And now it is ecology/environment – which is a perfectly good problem to be sure – but with its advent comes dragged in by the heels our old friend the super-crisis of population explosion, which is not nearly as real or immediate a problem in America, and ends up serving unfortunately as a political smokescreen that can obscure a host of legitimate concerns.

While the rhetoric rattles on about where will we ever put the next hundred million Americans, while the president tells us that the roots of so many of our current problems are to be found in the speed with which the last hundred million Americans came upon us, while the more apocalyptic demographers and biologists (like Dr. Paul Ehrlich) are talking about putting still nonexistent birth control chemicals in the water supply, and about federal licensing of babies – the critical facts in the argument remain generally unstated and the critical premises in the argument remain largely unchallenged.

  • The critical facts are that America is not by any standard a crowded country and that American birth rates have recently been at an all-time low.
  • The critical premise is that population growth in America is harmful.

Let’s, then, first look at the facts. The current population of the United States is 205 million. That population is distributed over 3,615,123 square miles of land, for a density of about 55 persons per square mile. In terms of density, this makes the United States one of the most sparsely populated nations in the world. As measured by density, Holland is about 18 times as “crowded” (at 975 persons per square mile), England is 10 times as dense (588 persons per square mile), scenic Switzerland is seven times as dense (382), tropical Nigeria three times as dense (174), and even neighboring Mexico beats us out with 60 persons per square mile. The United States, by international standards, is not a very “crowded” country.

But density in some cases can be very misleading in trying to judge “crowdedness.” The Soviet Union, for example, is less dense than the United States (29 per square mile), but has millions of square miles of uninhabitable land, just as does Brazil and Australia, two other nations also less densely populated than the United States.

Of course, the United States also has large areas of land that are equally uninhabitable: the Rockies, the Western deserts, parts of Alaska, and so on.

But while it is of interest to know that America has some land that is uninhabitable, what is of far more importance is that we have in the United States vast unused areas of eminently habitable land, land that in fact was inhabited until very recently. In the last eight years, one out of three counties in America actually lost population. Four states have lost population: North and South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming; and another two states, Maine and Iowa, gained less than one percent in the eight years. Furthermore, three out of five counties had a net out-migration; that is, more people left the county than came in.

These counties, the net-loss counties and the net-out-migration counties, are the areas in America where the current hoopla about the population sounds hollow. These are the areas, mostly rural and small town, that are trying to attract industry; areas where a smokestack or traffic jam signifies not pollution but progress; areas that have more open space around them for hunting and fishing than before; and areas where the older people are a little sad because, as they tell you, “the young people don’t stay around here anymore.”

This human plaint tells us what has been happening demographically in the United States in recent years. It has not been a population explosion, but a population redistribution. And the place people have been redistributing themselves to is a place we call “suburb.”

It has not been a population explosion, but a population redistribution. And the place people have been redistributing themselves to is a place we call 'suburb.'

In less than two decades, the proportion of Americans living in suburbs has gone from less than a quarter to more than a third.

But even the total increase in population – rural, city, and suburb – is misleading. The big gains in population occurred ten and fifteen years ago; today, growth is much slower. Thus, in calendar year 1956, the United States’ population grew by 3.1 million, while in calendar year 1968 population went up by 2.0 million – and in a nation with a larger population base.

What has happened, simply, is that the baby-boom has ended. When the GIs came home after World War II, they began begetting at high rates for about 15 years. The best index of population growth in the United States is the fertility rate; that is, the number of babies per thousand women aged 15-44. In 1940, the fertility rate was 80, just a few points above the 1936 all-time low of 76. Ten years later, in 1950, the baby-boom had begun and the fertility rate had soared to 106, an increase of 32 percent in just ten years. It kept climbing. In 1957, it reached 123, up more than 50 percent in two decades.

But since 1957, the rate has gone steadily down to 119 in 1960, to 98 in 1965, and to 85.7 in 1968, not very much higher than in Depression times. The estimated fertility rate for 1969 was down slightly to 85.5 and there is no reason now to think it will go up, although, as we shall see, it may sink further.

When measured by another yardstick, the “percent national population growth” (birth plus immigration less death), the American population is now growing by about 1.0 percent per year; just a decade ago it was growing by 1.8 percent per year. That may not sound like much of a difference, .8 percent, but in a nation of 200 million people it means 16 million fewer people over a single decade!

With all of this, however, comes another important set of facts: our population is still growing. At the reduced growth rate, there are now about two million people being added to our population each year. This may even go up somewhat in the next few years as the baby-boom babies become young adults and – roughly simultaneously – parents. Moreover, a growing population, even a slowly growing population, grows by larger numbers as it grows. As the two hundred million Americans become two hundred and fifty million Americans, there are a proportionately greater number of potential mothers, more babies, and the incremental two million new Americans per year can rise to 2 ½ or 3 million new Americans even with a relatively low growth rate.

The current, most likely projection of the Census Bureau of the US population in the year 2000 – three decades hence – hovers somewhere in the 280-290 million range. That means there will be about 75-85 million more Americans than today, which is many millions more indeed, although not quite the round “hundred million” figure everyone is talking about. It must be stressed, however, that this is only a projection: it could be high, it could be low.

But even the low estimates suggest there will be sixty million more Americans in just three decades – more than the population of Great Britain today.

Those, then, would seem to be the elementary facts. More Americans, although probably not as many as we may have been led to believe. More Americans, but not necessarily inhabiting a statistically crowded country.

More People, More Problems?

With these facts, we can now turn to the premise set forth by the Explosionists, i.e., more Americans are bad. Are they? My own judgment is – not necessarily.

There are a number of points made by Explosionists and they can only be briefly examined here.

People not only cause pollution, but once you have a substantial number of people, it is only people that can solve pollution. Further, the case can be made that more people can more easily and more quickly solve pollution problems than can fewer people.

Because population growth is currently being linked to environmental problems, we can look there first. The Explosionists say people, and the industry needed to support people, causes pollution. Ergo: fewer people – less pollution.

On the surface, a reasonable enough statement; certainly, population is one of the variables in the pollution problem. Yet there is something else to be said. People not only cause pollution, but once you have a substantial number of people, it is only people that can solve pollution. Further, the case can be made that more people can more easily and more quickly solve pollution problems than can fewer people. For example: let us assume that $60 billion per year are necessary for national defense. The cost of defense will not necessarily be higher for a nation of three hundred million than for a nation of two hundred million. Yet the tax revenues to the government would be immensely higher, freeing vast sums of tax money to be used for the very expensive programs that are necessary for air, water, and pollution control. Spreading constant defense costs over a large population base provides proportionately greater amounts for nondefense spending. The same sort of equation can be used for the huge, one-time capital costs of research that must go into any effective, long-range anti-pollution program. The costs are roughly the same for 200 million or 300 million people – but easier to pay by 300 million.

Lake Erie, the Hudson River, and the Potomac are ecological slums today. If the U.S. population did not grow by one person over the current 205 million Americans, these bodies of water would still be ecological slums. These waters, and any others now threatened, will be decent places only if we are willing to devote resources to the job. That is not a function of population growth, but of national will. It can be done if we, as a nation, decide that we want it done and are willing to pay for it. It is as simple as that and it has relatively little to do with whether the national decision involves 200 or 250 or 300 or 350 million Americans. It should be remembered that pollution occurs in underpopulated places as well: in Sydney, Australia today, in medieval Europe, in ancient Rome.

The Resources Problem

Next, the Explosionists use the “resources” argument. It comes in two parts. Part one: many of our resources are finite (oil, coal, etc.); more people obviously use more resources; the fewer the people, the less the drain on the resources. Part two: we Americans are rich people; rich people use more resources; therefore, we must cut back population particularly fast, and particularly our rich population.

The resources problem is difficult to assess. A demographer now in his sixties seemed to put it in perspective. “Resources are a serious problem,” he said, “We’ve been running out of oil ever since I was a boy.”

The fact is, of course, sooner or later we will run out of oil. So too will we run out of all nonrenewable resources – by definition. We will run out of oil even if population growth stops today and we will run out of oil, somewhat sooner, if population growth continues. Whether oil reserves are depleted in 2020 or 2040 or 2140 does not seem to be of critical importance; in any event, a substitute fuel must be found – probably nuclear. If no adequate substitute is developed, then we (all us Earthmen) will suffer somewhat regardless of numbers.

It can be done if we, as a nation, decide that we want it done and are willing to pay for it. It is as simple as that and it has relatively little to do with whether the national decision involves 200 or 250 or 300 or 350 million Americans.

Part two, that rich people are the real menace both resource-wise and pollution-wise, has recently been particularly stressed by Dr. Jean Mayer, who advises the president hunger-wise but would not seem to be fully up to date demography-wise.

For the simple fact is that wealthier people generally have far fewer children than poor people. With current mortality rates, population stability is maintained if the typical woman has on the average 2.13 children. In a 1964 Census Bureau survey among women who had completed their child-bearing years, it was shown that families with incomes of $10,000 and over had 2.21 children, just a trifle over replacement. This compared with 3.53 children for the poorest women. Since 1964, fertility rates have gone down among young women, and it is possible that when these lower rates are ultimately reflected as “completed fertility” we may see that affluent American women of the future just barely replace their own number, if that.

In short, current population patterns show that affluent people do not cause rapid population growth. And if the entire population were entirely affluent, we certainly would not be talking about a population explosion. Further, if the entire population were affluent and committed to combating pollution, we wouldn’t be talking about a pollution explosion either.

What then is Dr. Mayer’s prescription? Is he against affluent people having babies but not poor people, even though the affluent have relatively few anyway? Or perhaps is it that he is just against the idea of letting any more poor people become affluent people, because they too will then consume too many resources and cause more pollution?

Numbers Aren’t the Problem

There are two important points that run through most of the above. First is that the simple numbers of people are not in themselves of great importance in the United States. There is no “optimum” population as such for the United States, not within population ranges forecast in any event. Whether we have 250 million people or 350 million people is less important than what the people – however many of them there are – decide to do about their problems. Second, the population problem, at least in the United States, is an extremely long-term proposition, and in a country of this size and wealth there is more flexibility in solving the potential demographic problems than might be assumed from the current rhetoric of crisis.

To be sure, much of the concern about population growth is sane, valid, and important. Certainly, the concept of family planning – which for years had been a political stepchild – is now coming into the mainstream, and properly so. That every family in America should at least have the knowledge and the technology to control the size of its family as it sees fit seems beyond question.

Certainly too, population growth must sooner or later level off. While America could support twice its current population and probably four times its current population – growth can obviously not go on forever and it is wise to understand this fact now rather than a hundred years from now. It is also wise to begin to act upon this knowledge, as indeed we have begun to act upon it. It is, accordingly, difficult to complain about the suggestions for legislation to make conditions easier for women to get and hold decent jobs – the thought being that easier access to employment will slow the birth rate. Our problems in the future probably will be easier to handle with somewhat fewer people than with somewhat greater numbers.

What is wrong, and dangerous, and foolhardy is to make population a crisis.

But what is wrong, dangerous, and foolhardy is to make population a crisis. Doing so will simply allow too many politicians to take their eyes off the ball. When Explosionists say, as they do, that crime, riots, and urban problems are caused by “the population explosion,” it is just too easy for politicians to agree and say sure, let’s stop having so many babies instead of saying let’s get to work on the real urban problems of this nation. (As a matter of general interest, it should be noted that the riot areas, the high-crime areas, the areas of the most acute urban problems are areas that are typically losing population.)

When the Explosionists say, as they do, that Yosemite and Yellowstone are crowded and that there is a vanishing wilderness because of too many people – they are wrong again. When visits to national parks have gone up more than 400 percent in less than two decades while population growth has gone up by about 30 percent over the same time, then Yosemite isn’t crowded because of population but because of other factors. When you have a nation where a workingman can afford a car and/or a camper-trailer, when you give him three weeks’ paid vacation and provide decent roads, who is to say that is bad? Again, if the population-crisis rhetoric is accepted, it becomes too easy to say that the way to an uncrowded Yosemite is to have fewer people and forget about the hard and far more costly problems of creating more recreation areas, which are needed even if our population does not rise.

When the Explosionists say, as they do, that it’s because we have so many people that Lake Erie is polluted, then once again we are invited to take our eye off the tens-of-billions-of-dollars ball of environmental safety and we are simultaneously invited to piddle around the 25-million dollar programs for birth control, which are nice, but don’t solve anything to do with Lake Erie.

Population Control

Finally, we must take note of the new thrust by the Explosionists: population control. Note the phrase carefully. This is specifically not “family planning,” where the family concerned does the planning. This is control of population by the government and this is what the apocalyptics are demanding, because, they say, family planning by itself will not deduce us to a zero growth rate. The more popular “soft” position of government control involves what is called “disincentives;” that is, a few minor measures like changing the taxation system, the school system, and the moral code to see if that won’t work before going onto outright baby licensing.

Accordingly, the demographer Judith Blake Davis of the University of California (Berkeley) complained to a House Committee: “We penalize homosexuals of both sexes, we insist that women must bear unwanted children by depriving them of ready access to abortion, we bind individuals to pay for the education of other people’s children, we make people with small families support the schooling of others. . . .” (Italics mine.)

Now, Dr. Davis is not exactly saying that we should go to a private school system or eliminate the tax exemption for children, thereby penalizing the poor but not the rich – but that is the implication. In essence, Senator Packwood recently proposed just that: no tax exemptions for any children beyond the second per family, born after 1972.

The strong position on population control ultimately comes around to some form of government permission, or licensing, for babies.

Dr. Garret Hardin, a professor-biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says, “In the long run, voluntarism is insanity. The result will be continued uncontrolled population growth.”

Astro-physicist Donald Aiken says, “The government has to step in and tamper with religious and personal convictions – maybe even impose penalties for every child a family has beyond two.”

Dr. Melvin Ketchel, professor of physiology at Tufts Medical School, writes in Medical World News: “Scientists will discover ways of controlling the fertility of an entire population . . . the compound . . . could be controlled by adjustments in dosage, [and] a government could regulate the growth of its population without depending upon the voluntary action of individual couples . . . such an agent might be added to the water supply.”

And Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford: “If we don’t do something dramatic about population and environment, and do it immediately, there’s just no hope that civilization will persist. . . . The world’s most serious population-growth problem is right here in the United States among affluent white Americans. . . .”

What it all adds up to is this: why have a long-range manageable population problem that can be coped with gradually over generations when, with a little extra souped-up scare rhetoric, we can drum up a full-fledged crisis?

What it all adds up to is this: why have a long-range manageable population problem that can be coped with gradually over generations when, with a little extra souped-up scare rhetoric, we can drum up a full-fledged crisis? We certainly need one; it’s been months since we’ve had a crisis. After all, Vietnam, we were told, was “the greatest crisis in a hundred years.” Piker. Here’s a crisis that’s a beauty: the greatest crisis in two billion years: we’re about to breed ourselves right into oblivion.

Finally, look at it all from Mr. Nixon’s point of view. It’s beautiful. You (Mr. Nixon) take office and the major domestic problems, generally acknowledged, are the race situation and the (so-called) crisis of the cities. They are tough problems. They are controversial problems. They are problems that have given way only gradually, painstakingly, and expensively over the years. Your opponents are in a militant mood. They have been co-opted in Vietnam and you fully expect them to hold your feet to the fire on these tough domestic problems.

Apprehensively, you await the onslaught. And what is the slogan? No, it . . . can’t be – but yes, it is. It’s coming into focus. Read it: “Lower Emission Standards!” And in the next rank is another militant sign; and what does it say? It says, “Our Rivers Stink.”

Full circle. The opposition sloganeers have gone from the “New Deal” to the “Fair Deal” to the “New Frontier” to the “Great Society,” and now they march to a new banner: “No Sh--”!

Beautiful. Of course, the environment is a real problem, an important problem; we knew that from Senator Muskie. Of course your president will respond to it, particularly since almost everyone is for it, particularly if it takes the heat off elsewhere. But even the environment issue is massively expensive – too expensive to do everything now that ought to be done now.

So wait a minute, you say, your opponents have been good to you so far, let’s see how really helpful they’ll be. And behold, here comes the cavalry.

And what do they say? The problem of pollution is really the problem of too many people. Let the opponents divide among themselves and let the opponents fight among themselves. Let there be a children’s allowance, say some of your opponents. Nay, let there not be a children’s allowance, it will encourage population growth. Let there be better public schools, say some of your enemies. Nay, let each family pay for their own schooling to discourage population growth. Let us help the poor, say the opponents; nay, let us penalize the poor for having too many children. Let then the Secretary of HEW go forth to the people and say, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country – you shall have two children no more, no less; that is your brave social mission in America.”

I imagine there have been luckier presidents, but I can’t think of any.

Ben Wattenberg, an emeritus scholar at AEI, is at work on a new book about America’s future.

FURTHER READING: Other AEI Classics include Charles Murray’s “Americans Remain Wary of Washington” and Sally Satel’s tribute to “James Q. Wilson and the Defense of Moral Judgment.” Nicholas Eberstadt provides “Seven Billion Reasons to Celebrate” and debunks “Five Myths About the World’s Population.” Michael Barone examines “The Coastal Conundrum” while Steven F. Hayward writes “Mere Environmentalism” and Mark J. Perry blogs “Population Bomb? No, There’s Been a Massive Global Drop in Human Fertility That Has Gone Largely Unnoticed by the Media” and “40 Years Later, Time Has Not Been Kind to the Limits of Growth.” 

Image by Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group; Photo by Jose AS Reyes/Shutterstock