Making it safe for progressives to talk about population

Population Growth is a Problem

Originally published in the Burlington Free Press, May 21, 2013


Few publications offer any in-depth coverage of U.S. population growth, and the Free Press deserves credit for including the views of people like George Plumb (Already over the edge?, Dec. 16), the Executive Director of Vermonters for Sustainable Population. Far more likely to get coverage these days is the claim that population growth is so anemic that it portends great economic hardships. This reflects the conventional wisdom that continued population expansion is needed to support the baby boomers in retirement.

Discussing Census data showing a slight reduction in Vermont’s population last year, a recent article (Experts: Vermont Population loss . . . Feb 13) offers speculation that this decline resulted from hardships brought on by Tropical Storm Irene.  But the article also quotes UVM economist Art Woolfe’s more troubling explanation. “We need to recognize Vermont is not a very attractive place for people to move to.”

Woolfe later submitted a letter to the editor (Growth is relative, Feb. 21) questioning the context of related coverage of rapid population growth in Chittenden County.  “Although that sounds like breakneck growth,” he wrote, “it’s still less than the U.S. population growth rate. A better way to put it is that Chittenden County’s growth rate is low, but Vermont’s growth rate is very low.”

Woolfe’s sees growth in Vermont and even Chittenden County as insufficiently rapid when compared to growth of the overall U.S. population. I suppose this could be of some concern if, as many seem to believe, U.S. population growth had slowed down in the past generation. In reality, the U.S. population has been growing very rapidly.

In 1980, the 27 nations of the European Union had a combined population twice as large as the 225 million counted in that year’s U.S. census. Since then, however, the U.S. population has grown four times as fast as the EU, adding 90 million people in about thirty years. Although current debates focus on a recession-triggered decline in our birth rate, our overall growth reflects a sustained period of resurgent immigration that handily overshadows our basically neutral fertility.  Under existing policy, many young Americans will live to see their country, following China and India’s lead, exceed half a billion people.

The most emphatic warnings about a graying population usually come from those who also claim that tax increases for the wealthy will cripple the economy.   The Wall Street Journal and many of its like-minded allies have called for even higher immigration levels to even out our generational imbalances. They neglect to point out, however, that our continued population growth serves the interests of the financial and political elite even as it undercuts the poor and middle class.

Not so long ago, most environmentalists publicly spoke about the hazards driven by rapid demographic growth in the world’s largest industrial nation. After all, the more modest population growth in Europe has been paralleled by their growing embrace of renewable technologies and more efficient use of nonrenewables. Americans, meanwhile, have pursued these advances only reluctantly, greatly magnifying the greenhouse emissions driven by our rapidly increasing numbers.  Unfortunately, the scientifically grounded views expressed by George Plumb are often subverted by politics. Among progressives, the debate about US population growth has been embargoed by a kind of 21’st Century Left-Wing McCarthyism. Any environmentalist who publicly expresses concern about U.S. growth will quickly face accusations of “green racism.”

America today faces many thorny challenges. But to invoke continued rapid population growth as a remedy to our demographic oscillations shows a callous indifference to the effect of our growth on the global climate and the relentless loss of vital habitat and open spaces. Modest adjustments, starting with gradual increases in the retirement age, would dramatically pivot age and dependency ratios. And the wealthy could pay a little more in taxes. Changes such as these would go a long way in minimizing the challenges imposed by our generational profile.




Mark Powell

Secretary, Vermonters for Sustainable Population

Worcester, VT


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