Overpopulation, Immigration, and the Human Future

Tom Flynn

The March 4 New York Times headline said it all: “Ethiopia, Former Resident of the Bottom, Aspires to the Middle.” It’s the recurring story of the twenty-first century: nation after nation, once mired in poverty, achieves economic breakthrough. Its people thrill to the prospect of aspiring to live well—that is, like Americans. China did it first and surely on the largest scale, elevating hundreds of millions into middle-class lifestyles. Every few weeks, it seems that another country large or small claims its place on the economic escalator. Congratulations, Ethiopia: it’s your turn today.

But is what is good for Ethiopia—or China, or Indonesia, or India, or Malaysia—good for the planet? Can our world, its climate and ecosystems, survive a future in which billions worldwide live, consume, and pollute like Americans?

Are there even sufficient natural resources to allow burgeoning billions to enjoy Western living standards? Before the world financial crisis of 2007–2008, we experienced a global economic boom. Demand surged. As noted, vast numbers enjoyed their first access to life Western-style. The result was a crisis of scarcity. Commodity prices skyrocketed across sectors ranging from foodstuffs to industrial raw materials to energy. Food riots erupted in third-world countries, often related to the diversion of agricultural land to produce energy crops such as corn for ethanol. Americans got their first experience of paying well above four dollars per gallon for gasoline. The ballooning price of nearly everything was most likely a signal that, when operating at full throttle, the global economy demanded more resources more quickly than the planet could supply. Before that lesson could sink in fully, in fall 2008 the world economy nearly collapsed. Economic activity plummeted, pushing demand—and prices—back into manageable territory.

In recent years we’ve seen tentative steps toward recovery, usually accompanied by spikes in commodity prices. One day, the current recession will end, and demand will return to or exceed 2007 levels. Is our world any more ready to satisfy the demands of simultaneous full-throttle economies all over the world?

Perhaps more urgent, can the planetary biosphere survive even a serious attempt to operate this way?

We Cannot Delay Discussing Sustainability Any Longer

A landmark paper published by eighteen researchers in the journal Science this past January reports that in four of nine documented “planetary boundary” areas, human activity has already burst through sustainable levels. Never mind what the world will be like in the future when there are eleven billion of us—or seventeen billion of us, depending which United Nations (UN) estimate you consider more likely—the way 7.3 billion humans live and consume right now is pushing ecosystems toward calamity.

Secular humanists are supposed to be optimists. When it comes to the future of our planet—or at least, to the capacity of its surface to continue to sustain human life—this secular humanist finds optimism increasingly difficult to uphold. “Two out of three countries are already consuming more individually than each can produce sustainably from its own resources,” warned one 2014 study. We are deluged by reports that humanity demands more of our Earth’s air, water—even of the planet’s crust—than can be borne.

Climate appears to be transforming with a speed and relentlessness that makes our Kyoto-era hopes to limit warming to two degrees Celsius seem quaint. Climate change, overfishing, the agglomeration of plastic junk, and nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from mechanized, chemicalized agriculture seem to be in a race to see which will sterilize the oceans first. On land and sea, species are vanishing at a clip seen only during the great die-offs separating key epochs of prehistory. Arctic ice is vanishing; the estimated speed of Antarctic ice-cap melting rises with each new research report, fueling speculation that sea levels might rise by tens of meters before this century ends. In any case, as researcher Christopher Clugston suggests in this issue, we are likely to be tripped up by fast-erupting shortages of affordable natural resources before any of those scenarios come to fruition. (Could it possibly be humanity’s best hope that a deadly economic crash caused by resource scarcity might bring us low before we can finish off Earth’s biosphere?)

In this situation, it is dismaying to behold the active antipathy, even among green activists confronting other aspects of this crisis forthrightly, to admit the pernicious role of human population growth in making every sustainability dilemma worse. As population expert Robert Walker asks in this issue, “If humanity is breaking ‘planetary boundaries’ and imperiling, in the process, humanity’s future, why aren’t more scientists speaking publicly about the population trajectory and its implications?”

Indeed, across much of the world, experts seem less worried about overpopulation than they are about population decline. “Nearly half of all people now live in countries where women, on average, give birth to fewer than 2.1 babies,” report researchers Michael S. Teitelbaum and Jay M. Winter. Countries including Germany, Italy, and Japan are deeply anxious that as population declines, there won’t be enough taxpaying workers to support the social services that more numerous elderly cohorts will require. Even in the United States, birthrates have declined for a sixth straight year. America’s population, too, would decline if not for a steady flow of immigrants, legal and illegal, and the higher average fecundity characteristic of recent immigrant families.

But Wait—Isn’t the World Overpopulated?

Haven’t experts been raising that alarm since, oh, the 1950s, when the globe held a mere 2.5 billion humans? There are 7.3 billion of us now. Reversing earlier, more optimistic estimates, the UN now projects that human numbers will swell to eleven billion by the end of this century. (And that’s the midline estimate. The same study’s worst-case estimate is almost seventeen billion.) It is hard to see how our planet could sustain eleven billion people, even in great poverty; how can our biosphere withstand the impact of eleven billion people—much less seventeen billion—especially if many or most of them strive to live like modern-day Americans? Obviously, such a nightmare scenario is not sustainable. One recent study noted that if every member of the current population of seven billion lived like Americans they would require five planet Earths to supply all that they’d consume. How many Earths will seventeen billion require? Oh, that’s right—we only have one.

Given all of this, why don’t we see more countries embracing the goal of reducing their populations? Why aren’t more specialists scrambling to make feasible a century or two during which each generation is smaller than the one before it? Actually, some are. Economics journalist Nathan Lewis described present government social-welfare policies that demand continuous population growth as “Ponzi schemes”—on Forbes.com, no less—and wrote that “the notion that a shrinking overall population naturally causes or leads to economic decline” is “[p]erhaps one of the silliest myths around today.” Even mainstream commentator George Friedman of the forecasting firm Stratfor writes that population decline, should it come, will be eminently economically manageable. Meanwhile, the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (steadystate.org) is bringing together economists and other specialists to work out how the global economy might survive—even thrive—after weaning itself from the false standard of perpetual growth.

Finally, in a world so overpopulated, h
ow can it be that some countries still clamor for immigrants—and that other countries are eager to supply them, in some cases despite strong economic growth at home? What does it mean when a country such as the Philippines sends fully 10 percent of its population abroad to live and work in other countries—not accidentally but as a deliberate government-supported policy to train future “economic exiles” to labor as cooks, drivers, gardeners, and mechanics in foreign countries—hailing them as “national heroes”?

With this issue’s cover feature, Free Inquiry returns to a perennial topic: human overpopulation and its consequences. We have visited this subject before. Our August/September 2004 issue asked experts to suggest an optimum population for the United States and the world. Opinions varied widely, but every authority agreed that the optimum number was far smaller than the actual population. In April/May 2009, we asked whether human numbers were making the day’s economic and environmental crises worse. The answer was yes, though even as that issue’s authors were completing their articles, the global economic collapse had begun, reducing economic activity to bearable levels, at least temporarily.

Posing the Tough Questions

In this issue, we will examine population issues once again, this time emphasizing contemporary concerns including climate change, biodiversity erosion, and immigration policy. Immigration policy? Yes, immigration impacts population issues in uncomfortable ways, as it has for many years.

In a 2011 editorial, I suggested that the United States should view its immigration policy not in terms of racial equity or fairness but strictly in terms of population: “Perhaps we need to ask more openly how many more people of any ethnic background America can afford to feed—or how many more can be supported by available and sustainable freshwater supplies. Perhaps we need to consider that the last time America welcomed immigrants at a rate anything like today’s, it was the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century, when the manufacturing economy demanded large numbers of workers at every skill level. Last time I looked, employment prospects today were far less rosy.”

Immigration is the chief reason that U.S. population is still growing—native- born Americans reproduce below replacement level, if more enthusiastically than the Japanese and many Europeans. U.S. politicians and pundits equate population growth with economic growth; yet America is seriously overpopulated. That may seem counterintuitive when we compare the United States to countries such as China or India, but take into account average Americans’ high levels of consumption—to say nothing of average American levels of rubbish disposal and the carbon emissions associated with typical American lifestyles (a recent study estimated that over his or her life, one American child will generate 169 times as much CO2 as a Bangladeshi child). Suddenly, it makes sense that with its current 320 million people, America might be overpopulated.

Ponder this: what will the residents of America’s Plains drink when the Ogallala Aquifer goes dry? What if current weather patterns in the Southwest—under which, at the beginning of 2015, 20 percent of the nation’s land area was experiencing drought rated severe or worse—become the new normal?

The Trouble with Immigration

The trouble with immigration has nothing to do with ethnicity or culture. It has to do with the fact that the United States just can’t sustain vastly higher numbers of Americans. (In the long term, it probably cannot sustain the number it already has.)

For that reason, I suggest that Americans need to rethink the one-time ideal captured in that beloved Emma Lazarus poem incised into the base of the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired, your poor” made sense when the country was growing rapidly and had a nearly limitless demand for labor, skilled or otherwise.* But it was always poetry, not policy—and in the face of today’s sustainability crisis, it may be time to embrace a new realization that America’s shores are teeming, too.

Today, untrammeled migration probably harms both the “sending” country and the “receiving” country. High emigration rates encourage governments in countries such as Mexico and the Philippines, to name just two of many, to put off dealing with domestic dilemmas such as excessive birthrates or the economy’s inability to provide jobs for the domestic population. In countries such as the United States, high rates of immigration license governments to avoid confronting the fact that their social-service infrastructures are Ponzi schemes, unable to survive unless each generation of workers is larger than the previous generation of retirees—to say nothing of the fact that endless population growth stresses a finite planet in ways that are simply, literally intolerable.

We cannot go on living like this—so we won’t. The question is if, or how, we will manage the inevitable decline—or will we land with a thud?

Might it be time to close America’s borders, not out of fear of some imagined ethnic onslaught but simply because America—yes, even America—is unable to sustain more people? Is America full? And why is it that in all the fevered rhetoric that spews forth from Washington on the vexed topic of immigration, one scarcely hears a single voice portraying it as a population issue? (Actually, a very few voices are being raised, among them philosopher/ecologist Philip Cafaro, whose book How Many Is Too Many? The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration into the United States, is review on page 43.)

Why Population Matters

To paraphrase an argument that population advocates have been making for decades, imagine any of the manifold crises confronting humanity—species extinction, deforestation, climate change, groundwater depletion, overfishing—close your eyes and pick one. Would any of these dilemmas become easier to conquer if only there were more people? Conversely, can you imagine that any of those dilemmas would not become more tractable, perhaps even solvable, with fewer people? As Cafaro has noted, “lessening the human footprint is inseparable from limiting the number of human feet.”

Secular humanists know better than most that no god gave us title to this planet and its ecosystems. We know that the human race is a cosmic accident, that the universe might very well never have given rise to us—and that if we foul our planetary home so utterly that we go extinct, nothing else in the universe will likely even notice. Sixties art-rocker Shawn Phillips captured the core dilemma facing human beings today in one of his later lyrics: “What most of them don’t realize is that the only difference it makes is to them.”

Is it already too late for humankind? Has the process of making our world unlivable lurched too far along to stop? Frighteningly, that is unclear. What is clear is that if our species is to have any chance for long-term survival, we must get serious about becoming sustainable. That, in turn, will require getting serious about human numbers—not just about stopping their growth but about significantly reducing them, for all that most of us are coming to this realization decades too late. And that—here in the high-consuming, high-disposing, high–CO2 United States of America—may demand our rethinking comfortable old memes about America as the country that opens its arms to the whole world.

*Admittedly, in saying even this, I am disregarding the fact that the growth of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America was made possible only by rapacious and irresponsible exploitation of nonrenewable natural resources. Nonetheless, while the nation had a continent to rape, few scruples about how many ecosystems it destroyed, and fewer scruples about how many of its eager immigrants it killed
or maimed in the name of “breakneck” growth—an apt term, that—America needed all the strong backs it could attract.

Further Reading

Achenbach, Joel. “Scientists: Human Activity Has Pushed Earth Beyond Four of Nine ‘Planetary Boundaries.’” Washington Post, January 15, 2015.

Dietz, Robert, and Dan O’Neill. Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013.

Flynn, Tom. “A Discussion Long Overdue.” Free Inquiry, December 2011/January 2012.

Friedman, George. “Population Decline and the Great Economic Reversal.” Stratfor.com.

Hance, Jeffrey. “Unrelenting Population Growth Driving Global Warming, Mass Extinction.” Mongabay.com, June 26, 2014. Accessed June 27, 2014.

Kushkush, Isma’il.“Ethiopia, Former Resident of the Bottom, Aspires to the Middle.” New York Times, March 4, 2015.

Lewis, Nathan. “Economic Abundance with Shrinking Population: Why Not?” Forbes.com, August 28, 2014.

Population Matters, “Two Out of Three Coun­tries ‘Ecologically Overshot.” http://populationmatters.org/2014/population-matters-news/countries-ecologically-overshot. Accessed July 24, 2014.

Renton, Alex. “The Disaster We’ve Wrought on the World’s Oceans May Be Irrevocable.” Newsweek, July 11, 2014.

Sackur, Steven. “The Country Training People to Leave.” BBC, March 8, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31762595. Accessed March 10, 2015,

Teitelbaum, Michael S., and Jay M. Winter. “Bye-Bye, Baby.” New York Times, April 4, 2014.

Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry. He opted never to have children, considered the most effective way of reducing one’s lifetime carbon footprint.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).