Is America already overpopulated?

November 30, 1994|By Philip Shabecoff | Philip Shabecoff,Los Angeles Times

Those who liked Proposition 187, which bars undocumented people from receiving education and non-emergency medical treatment in California, are going to love some of the measures proposed in "How Many Americans" for making the United States "less attractive" for illegal immigration:

Proof of citizenship or legal status would be mandatory for entering real estate contracts, for obtaining drivers' licenses or motor vehicle registration, qualifying for professional or occupational licenses, obtaining business and alcoholic beverage licenses or enrolling in state or federally funded colleges. They also ask us to consider "more expeditious procedures for deportation and summary exclusion of aliens entering illegally." They would erect higher obstacles for those seeking political asylum. Finally, they call for a "tamper-proof" identification system in the form of a national ID card.

With such actions, authors Leon F. Bouvier and Lindsey Grant say, illegal immigration can be curbed "without resorting to Draconian measures." One wonders what they have in mind as "Draconian."

Harshness against immigrants, however, is not really what this book is about. The authors are not xenophobic. They have nothing in particular against Mexicans or Chinese or East Europeans. What they are against is people or, more precisely, too many people. Their central thesis -- and I believe they are correct -- is that excessive numbers of human beings are the single greatest threat to the environment, to a healthy economy and to the quality of life of American citizens.

The current U.S. population, around 255 million, is already too high, the authors contend. We are producing too much waste and too much pollution, consuming unsustainable amounts of energy, eroding our soil, degrading our air and water supplies, using up our forests, making housing ever more expensive, creating more joblessness and poverty. Our cities are becoming more crowded, dirty and violent, our traffic is choking, our open space is disappearing.

If population trends continue on their current path, the book argues, we will be in much worse, perhaps desperate, straits in the not-very-distant future. According to their projections, there would be just under 400 million Americans by 2050, when children born in the 1990s will still be in the prime of their life. By the end of the 21st century, unchecked population growth would mean as many as half a billion people living in this country. Except for the rich few, Americans will be living mean, hungry lives in an unstable, violent society by the middle of the next century. And that might not be the worst. The stress placed on life-support systems by the pressure of human numbers could cause "the collapse or extinction of our own species."

The answer to this threat, the authors argue with cool, cogent urgency, is not just to slow population growth but to roll it back to an optimal level. Their number is 150 million, the size of the U.S. population at the time of World War II. Continued reductions in already declining fertility rates would not be sufficient to achieve this goal. Legal immigration must therefore be limited to 200,000 a year, down from the current level around 700,000, and illegal immigration must be stopped entirely.

"How Many Americans?" is a thoughtful, even admirable book about what may be the most important crisis facing humanity. Population projections are just that -- projections. But Mr. Bouvier, a professor at Tulane University and Senior Fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, has a reputation as a careful demographer. While the population threat has been the subject of many previous books, it is an issue that cannot be called often enough to public attention, and this one is well-researched, readable and, for the most part, well argued.

It does, however, have one significant flaw. Unfortunately, that flaw is a central premise of the book.

The population problem -- the harm that the rapid growth of human numbers is inflicting on the natural world, on human society and on individual members of the human species -- is not an American problem. It is a global problem. The question that must be answered is not how many Americans, but how many people can live on the planet?

The United States is part of a global environment, a global economy. It is folly to think that if we erect a fence around the country to keep people out, it will also keep out the greenhouse effect, toxic substances, resource scarcity, economic competition and joblessness.

Mr. Shabecoff is the author of "A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement."


Title: "How Many Americans? Population, Immigration and the Environment"

Authors: Leon F. Bouvier and Lindsey Grant

Publisher: Sierra Club Books

Length, price: $18, 174 pages

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