All of the discussions I have read or seen so far seem to be studiously avoiding the "elephant in the room", population growth in the U.S. and worldwide. For the moment, let's just focus on the U.S. since we are such a large consumer of energy and producer of pollutants. According to the U.N., the per capita output of pollutants in the U.S. is 20 metric tons annually. If our population doubles by the end of this century or before as currently projected, we will be pumping out another 6 billion tons of pollutants annually at the present rate. Even if by some technological miracle we were able to reduce our per capita output by half to that of Mexico, we would have made no progress toward reducing the present unacceptable total level of output. Allowing our population to grow makes the task of reducing total emissions exceedingly difficult if not impossible.
The limit of finite natural resources per capita as population increases without bounds is zero. The more there are of us, the less there is for each of us. The question then becomes: how far down that road should we go? Wind-driven generators, solar panels, and energy storage devices require substantial amounts of metals, lubricants, and other finite natural resources.
More people mean a larger demand for energy. Given our current level of dependency on fossil fuels, it is a huge challenge just to meet a portion of the current demand with cleaner technologies. Doubling the population has the prospect of doubling the demand for energy. Can we solve any of these problems without addressing population growth? If we are to be successful in inhibiting climate change and global warming, stabilizing our population is of paramount or at least equal importance with energy conservation and the development of clean, alternative energy sources.
The president has proposed a cap and trade approach to reducing emissions. Let’s apply that idea to population. A couple that wishes to have more children than the replacement level of about 2.1 per female must buy credits from those who choose to have fewer than that number. The overall cap would be based on a combination of net births and deaths and net in migration.
Fossil fuels will continue to play an important role in the future. It is hard to imagine an alternative source of energy for military applications, airlines, heavy vehicles, and farm machinery. Many of our chemical industries also depend on fossil fuel feedstock. While it is wise to begin the process of trying to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, in the meantime, it is vital to our economy to meet our fossil fuel needs from domestic sources instead of continuing to send our treasure to foreign oil producers.
Addressing the population issue helps to solve the energy and pollution problems and also enables us to conserve scarce resources like water. In the Southwest, water rights are being bought up by cities to serve their burgeoning populations. That deprives the farms, ranches, and orchards of the water they need to grow food for the additional people. We should all be watching with dismay the continuing plunder of the Great Plains’ Ogallala Aquifer, the largest underground reservoir in the United States and one of the largest on the planet. It once held as much water as Lake Huron. It is a treasure that took millennia to accumulate. Remarkably, it could cease to be a water resource within another generation. As Tom Letheby put it in the 4/30/06 Denver Post, “We are left with yet another illustration of an all too common American mindset: short on vision, mired in denial and unable to comprehend nature’s limits.”
No matter from what point of view you approach the problem – energy, finite natural resources, pollution or all three – it just makes common sense to factor a stable population into the equation as a prominent part of the solution. Using land to grow fuel that would have been used to grow food has caused food prices to rise. Using water to serve the ordinary needs of an expanding population reduces the amount available for food production. People that would have only been hungry in the world may now be starving to death.
According to Joel Cohen, eminent demographer, “…the world cannot easily and comfortably accommodate an unlimited number of people at any desirable level of material, mental and civic well-being.” We can achieve a stable population and a soft landing for our economy with appropriate tax, family cap and trade, and immigration policy changes. This is an important new way to constrain energy demands, reduce pollution, and conserve scarce natural resources. Let’s make it a national objective and a national priority. Let’s begin today.