Good News Misunderstood

Tom Flynn

Among its many frustrating attributes, the year-end holiday season is a graveyard for news stories. Want to make sure no one pays attention? Release your story in late December. That seems to be what happened, if perhaps inadvertently, to this December 20 item by veteran New York Times journalist Sabrina Tavernise: “Growth Rate in Population Is at Lowest Since 1937.”1 That’s news worth hailing from the housetops. Since I tend to have more free time than others during the “helladay” season I don’t celebrate, let me fill you in (however belatedly) on what you might have missed:

The population of the United States grew at its slowest pace in more than eight decades, the Census Bureau said Wednesday [December 19]. … Not since 1937, when the country was in the grip of the Great Depression and birthrates were down substantially, has it grown so slowly, with just a 0.62 percent gain between July 2017 and July 2018. With Americans getting older, fewer babies are being born and more people are dying, demographers said.

Kenneth Johnson, a University of New Hampshire demographer, told Tavernise that “The drop is simply stunning. … Just 10 years ago, the surplus of births over deaths was 44 percent higher.” In no fewer than nine U.S. states, population actually declined over the past decade.

This is cause to celebrate—at least, it is if it augurs a move toward a real and continuing decline in the U.S. population. If that statement surprises you, let’s review why I cheer for the prospect of fewer Americans.

It’s well-known (if in some quarters unfashionable to discuss) that the world is desperately overpopulated. Experts have been sounding this alarm since shortly after World War II. Their (admittedly imprecise) consensus suggests that for long-term sustainability, human polities should aim for a European-style standard of living (that is, a per-capita carbon footprint roughly half the size of the average American’s). Yet if every human alive today achieved the living standard typical in France, we’d need 2.5 Earths to sustain them all2. In 1994, a study group led by Population Bomb authors (and Free Inquiry contributors) Anne and Paul Ehrlich determined that a European standard of living could be extended to at most only about two billion people for our planet to support human civilization indefinitely.3

Two billion is an estimate of optimum population.4 It is not to be confused with carrying capacity, a measure of the largest number of humans the planet can support on a near-term basis. (Estimates of carrying capacity vary widely depending on the methodology used. Some suggest that populations considerably larger than today’s are supportable in the short term; others do not.) Since optimum population is consistent with human thriving over generations, I submit that it’s the figure toward which we should aim.

The U.S. Census estimates world population at 7,543,000,000 and counting (upward, always upward). That’s almost four times the number the planet can sustain long term. Clearly, if we want humanity to continue at a reasonable level of comfort, we will need to reduce human numbers to between a third and a quarter of their current levels.

Let that sink in.

The challenge, of course, is to achieve so drastic a reduction in our numbers humanely. (If we do nothing, circumstance will likely reduce our numbers for us in horrific ways—think Mad Max, but with less motor fuel.) I like to imagine that we have a century in which to shrink our population this far. Then again, it’s possible that we had a century back in the 1950s, when specialists first started talking about overpopulation—in which case only a few decades may remain to us in which to act. (Or we might already be too far down the wrong road. The thing is, no one knows for certain.) What’s undeniable is that human civilization is now in a condition of “overshoot” that cannot be sustained.5

“All right,” you might be thinking. “Even if that’s true of the world as a whole, it cannot be that the United States is desperately overpopulated. Not America! Sure, Los Angeles traffic is atrocious, but fly across the continent and you’ll see limitless vistas where no one lives!” That’s a naive view. Yes, America retains wide-open spaces, but most that are left suffer from forbidding terrain, poor soil, or inadequate water. Insolently we’ve raised mammoth cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas in places with incontestably inadequate water—and turned semi-arid plains into breadbaskets through short-sighted irrigation that’s quickly depleting midcontinent aquifers. Clearly there are already too many Americans, many of us living in ways little more sustainable than the endangered residents of poorer countries.

Still we haven’t confronted the key reason American overpopulation matters so much: per capita, Americans consume, dispose, and emit more than anyone else on Earth. The United States has the world’s largest per capita carbon footprint among large countries, by one measure 16.14 metric tons of CO2 annually. Canada’s and Australia’s CO2 footprints are similar, though smaller; western European countries’ emissions run about a half to a third of the U.S. per capita figure. China, in absolute terms the world’s leading polluter, has a per capita footprint of just 7.54 metric tons because its population is so large.6,7

In sum, though U.S. overpopulation may be modest by global standards, it poses an outsized threat to the human future.

Dare we hope, then, that the number of Americans is on the cusp of real decline—even if not yet to the degree required to stave off ecological collapse? Here U.S. journalists tend to grow skittish. Sure enough, Tavernise gives a grim nod toward “diminished vibrancy and strains on social services” in areas where populations are already declining. She sketches a near-nightmarish picture of northern Maine, which “suffers from acute shortages of police officers, firefighters, town managers, school superintendents and teachers” – even snowplow operators.

This red flag always gets raised when the prospect of reducing human numbers comes up. Given current knowledge, our polities work best with steady annual growth of at least a percent or two. Anything less spells trouble: if retirees outnumber the employed, who will pay to care for them all, much less keep the rest of society humming along?

This objection is genuine but secondary. If we’re serious about dealing with the population crisis, we must see it not as a bar to action but rather as an obstacle to overcome. With global population at three to four times the optimum, we simply can’t go forward with “steady annual growth of at least a percent or two.” We need to bring our numbers down.

We face the necessary prospect of several consecutive generations over whose course each successive cohort will be significantly smaller than the one it supplants.8 That poses redoubtable economic challenges, to be sure. Today there seem to be few ideas how a deliberately shrinking society might function. But unless we want to surrender to apocalypse, our economists, technologists, and politicians will need to find new ways to make a contracting society manageable, because we simply don’t have an option about the need for rapid reduction.

By the way, have you ever noticed that media discussions of climate change and greenhouse-gas buildup hardly ever mention the role of sheer human numbers? It should be obvious—but instead, it seems taboo—to note that even with static per capita emissions, a smaller human population would lead to proportional reductions in carbon footprint.9 Conversely, ongoing population growth negates this benefit. A 2008 study noted that “in recent years, increases in U.S. CO2 emissions have been driven entirely by population increases as per capita emissions have stabilized.”10

Okay, so much for the easy part. I will now court controversy. Tavernise’s story perhaps underplays her story’s most explosive statistic: If current trends continue, she writes, “immigrants will soon be more important to population gains than the so-called natural increase … the number of births minus the number of deaths.” To put that another way, we are very near the point where, if not for immigration, the decline in American fertility would already have precipitated an actual population decrease—you know, that thing we desperately need. It stands to reason that if we’re serious about reducing the U.S. population, reducing or curtailing immigration may be an important tool. This conclusion stands without regard to the skin color, ethnicity, religion, or any other personal characteristics of would-be immigrants.

Only one variable truly matters—the lower the per capita CO2 emissions are in one’s country of origin, the worse it is for the planet when one becomes an American. (In Honduras, to choose an extreme example, per capita emissions are one-sixteenth what they are in the United States. Since many countries of origin have somewhat higher emissions, average immigrants to the United States produce four times more CO2 than they did in their country of origin. That works out to just 18 percent less per capita than the average native-born American.11)

Immigration’s an uncomfortable topic for many secular humanists, as it is for progressives and even political centrists12 because of its association with the political Right, to say nothing of President Trump’s cruel and ham-fisted approach to the southern border. Activists on the left and center used to be much more comfortable with population advocacy; as late as 1994, Sierra Club Books published How Many Americans? Population, Immigration and the Environment, a clear-eyed survey by forthright population activists Leon F. Bouvier and Lindsey Grant. Well into the early 2000s, the Sierra Club advocated population reduction to curb human impact on the environment. In 2004, the outspoken humanist Richard D. Lamm—population activist, thirty-eighth governor of Colorado (1975–1987), and the American Humanist Association’s 1993 Humanist of the Year—led a slate of Sierra Club board candidates who urged the Club to promote immigration curbs to combat population growth. (The slate included Cornell University entomologist David Pimentel, who with his wife, Marcia, has written on population issues in Free Inquiry.13) That bitterly fought election ended in defeat for Lamm and fellow reformers. Only later did they learn that the outcome had been, essentially, bought and paid for: derivatives mogul David Gelbaum had made a secret donation of $100 million, the largest gift in the Club’s history to that time, conditional on the Club never again advocating immigration reduction.14 That’s how much one wealthy influencer dreaded even the perception that the Sierra Club opposed immigration, however germane that might have been to the organization’s mission of protecting the environment. From then until now, the Sierra Club has been almost entirely silent on population issues, to (I think) the great detriment of its effectiveness.

I suggest it’s time for secular humanists and others concerned with humanity’s long-term welfare to reopen the discussion on immigration reduction—not out of racism or xenophobia, which we deplore, but out of the simple recognition that immigration from whatever source counteracts a desirable reduction in U.S. population that might otherwise already be underway.15 We should stress that while migrating to America is one of the most personally beneficial steps persons living outside the United States may consider, it is also one of the most destructive courses they can pursue from the viewpoint of ecological stability and long-term human welfare.

The world needs there to be fewer people who consume and emit like contemporary Americans. We shouldn’t let well-meant but irrelevant concerns—not even our revulsion at the bigotry motivating some other calls to limit immigration—keep us from doing what’s right.

Not only what’s right. In the long term, it may be humankind’s best hope.

Notes and References

  1. Sabrina Tavernise. “Growth Rate in Population Is at Lowest Since 1937.” The New York Times (December 20, 2018).
  2. Global Footprint Network determination, summarized by Bent Flyvbjerg (Oxford University) in Daniel Kolitz, “What’s the Ideal Number of Humans on Earth?”, December 25, 2017. Available online at
  3. Gretchen C. Daily, Anne H. Ehrlich, and Paul R. Ehrlich. “Optimum Human Population Size.” Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies (July 1994). See also Anne H. Ehrlich and Paul R. Ehrlich. “Is the Population Bomb Finally Exploding?” Free Inquiry (April/May 2009).
  4. Lindsey Grant. “Optimum Population.” Free Inquiry (August/September 2004).
  5. For the genesis of this term, see William R. Catton, Jr. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Foreword by Stewart Udall. Illini Books, 1980.
  6. Data from Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Environmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee, United States.
  7. Several Arab countries have far higher per capita CO2 discharges—Qatar has the world’s highest—but these levels are anomalous, reflecting the impact of oil and gas production and refining spread over relatively modest populations rather than personal consumption.
  8. See Tom Flynn. “Too Many People.” Free Inquiry (August/September 2004); “Overpopulation, Immigration, and the Human Future.” Free Inquiry (June/July 2015).
  9. Though see Robert J. Walker. “Four Out of Five Scientists Agree: Population Matters.” Free Inquiry (June/July 2015).
  10. Steven A. Camarota and Leon Kolankiewicz. “Immigration to the United States and World-Wide Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Center for Immigration Studies (August 12, 2008).
  11. Ibid.
  12. A notable exception is Philp Cafaro, How Many Is Too Many? The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration to the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). I favorably reviewed this book in Free Inquiry (June/July 2015).
  13. See David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel. “The Real Perils of Human Population Growth.” Free Inquiry (April/May 2009).
  14. Joe Guzzardi.“The Sierra Club and the $100 Million Donation That Changed It Forever.” (February 17, 2012). Available online at See also Alan Kuper. “From Sentience to Silence.” Free Inquiry (August/September 2009). For background on the 2004 Sierra Club board election, see Felicity Barringer. “Bitter Division for Sierra Club on Immigration.” New York Times (March 16, 2004).
  15. See David Simcox and Tracy Canada. “Toward Negative Population Growth: Cutting Legal Immigration by Four-Fifths.” Free Inquiry (June/July 2015).

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).