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Debating The Impact of America’s Slowing Population Growth

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The U.S. Census Bureau recently released numbers showing that the American population increased by about 7 percent over the last decade.

Many news organizations portrayed this modest population growth in a negative light because it was the second slowest rate of increase of any decade, since the 1930’s during Great Depression.

For example, Washington Post news analyst Dan Balz published a story with this ominous headline: “A blinking light ahead: Slowing population growth raises questions about America as a land with unlimited horizons.”

Here’s Lyman Stone, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, bemoaning what he called “demographic decline.” “Is it a national crisis or a moral panic? Is demographic decline a big deal or is it not?” Stone asked. “I’m going to argue it’s a big deal – in fact, it’s worse than you think.”

To many economists, fewer births and less immigration into the U.S. mean fewer taxpayers to support an aging population; fewer workers providing cheap labor for corporations; fewer customers buying products; fewer homebuyers taking out mortgages to fuel economic growth.

On the other hand, from an environmental perspective, a gradually slowing birthrate may be a good thing. A growing population means more greenhouse gas pollution and climate change; more destruction of forests and wildlife; more extinctions of endangered species; more trash and traffic jams; more plastics in our rivers and oceans; more water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

Sarah Baillie is an organizer with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. She said it is no coincidence that wild animal populations around the world have plummeted by more than half over the last half century, as the human population has doubled.

“Population control has some understandably very negative connotations,” Baillie said. “And I think that’s also kind of the holdup of the taboos of talking about population altogether. Is there have been some injustices done in the name of population control. Like, coercive measures. China’s one child policy is one that people think of a lot. But what we want to advocate for is voluntary family planning. Just improving access to contraception and health care, so that people are only having children when they’re ready, and when they want to.”

She said that a parent’s choice to have fewer children is many times more important for the climate than any other life decision they can possibly make.

“Having one less child in the U.S. will save almost 60 tons of carbon dioxide per year,” Baillie said. “That’s compared to other things like switching lightbulbs or driving a hybrid car or eating a more plant based diet. Those will also make a difference, but that will top out at about three tons of carbon dioxide per year saved.”

While a declining human population might be healthy for the world’s climate and natural ecosystems, it is a disaster for urban environments like Baltimore, which already has 16,000 abandoned homes and businesses littering the landscape. While Maryland as a whole grew 7 percent between 2010 and 2020, Baltimore’s population fell by an estimated four percent, dropping below 600,000 for the first time in a century.

Dr. Seema Iyer manages the Baltimore Neighborhood Indictors Alliance at the University of Baltimore.

She said that the Trump Administration’s policies that slowed immigration were especially damaging to cities like Baltimore, which have always drawn their lifeblood and health from immigration.

She said that saving urban areas like Baltimore --through immigration and population growth --is necessary for fighting climate change, as well suburban sprawl, and the destruction of forests, fields and wildlife areas by suburban real-estate developers.

“In general, we know that denser living – where we use less resources per person – which is what a city has to offer – and using existing infrastructure instead of creating new – you know, that’s everything that Baltimore has to offer, Iyer said. “ And so repopulating a city like ours will absolutely be something that we need to do for climate control, for using less per capita resources in the future, and I think that’s what a younger generation wants.”

So the question is not: Is population growth good or bad? The question is: Where exactly is it needed and where is it destructive?

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The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com.