There were two bombs in the news this week: North Korea’s underground nuclear weapon test, and the population explosion — as some see it — that brought the number of people in the United States to the 300 million mark, and past it. It is hard to guess which caused more gloom in the office of Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth), which churned out a press release bemoaning the effects of growth on the environment and proposing a four-point plan for stabilisation.
Most of the commentary from any quarter has focussed on immigration, which adds about 1.5 million people to the US each year. But newcomer 300,000,000 is more likely to be a baby born in the country, since births add about 4 million to the population each year. It is likely, too, that this squalling bundle of new life is a cause of joy to its parents. But does she or he herald joy to the nation and the world? Is it a Good Thing that there are more Americans than ever?
Yes, I say. Let the population clock roll. In the Western outpost where I live, along with a mere 4 million other souls, America has long been synonymous with progress, glamour and fun. Britain, with its buttoned-up ways, may have been New Zealand’s past; but America, with its power to turn everything it touched to wealth and entertainment, was our future. Where else did we get movies, motor cars, television and home computers but from America?
America was also our protector and insurance policy. It ended the war in the Pacific and saved us from joining Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. It saved us from the spread of Communism in South-East Asia, and kept the balance of power during the Cold War. Even as we came to understand the terrible inhumanity of the bomb and ferociously disagree over the Vietnam War, nuclear deterrence and now the war on terror, our debates have largely followed those in the US itself. And all the while our imitation of its popular culture never faltered. Nor are we really alone in this. Absent a few mullahs and the chattering classes, doesn’t the whole world want to be American?
America is attractive precisely because it has grown. Hordes of immigrants from different parts of the world gave it diversity and a tradition of tolerance long before the new Europe discovered those words and turned them into weapons of self-destruction. Recent immigration from Central America has served a more vital function: it has helped to keep the birth rate at a relatively healthy two per woman, in contrast with the below-replacement rates almost everywhere in Europe — as well as Canada and Australia.
The shortage of younger workers resulting from ZPG ideology and the introduction of the contraceptive pill is a critical issue today when the so-called baby boom generation are due to retire, making the sustainability of pension and health care schemes a political hot potato. Even America will need all its immigrants to stave off a social security crisis.
But if this were the only reason — or even the main one — for rejoicing over America’s population boom it would be a poor one. People are not to be valued because they suit the needs of the economy, or disvalued when they don’t. People are valuable. Full stop. And this is a principle America, with its stronger hold on the religious underpinnings of Western culture, seems to grasp better than other nations, even when it is more honoured in the breach; the original culture war, after all, was set off by the Supreme Court’s go-ahead for abortion on demand.
Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal editorial board got it right in a discussion the other day when he said: "The two major reasons the US population has grown so much over the last century has been dramatic declines in infant death rates and increases in life expectancy. That is to say, this has been a kind of epidemic of human life. It’s something that we should be celebrating, not moaning about and saying we’re overcrowded."
But there certainly are people moaning about it. Newsweek tells us "the country isn’t in the mood for celebrating" and the magazine comes down on the side of curbing immigration.
And listen to Earth Policy Institute zero-growth diehard Lester R. Brown (formerly of Worldwatch Institute): "In times past, reaching such a demographic milestone might have been a cause for celebration. In 2006, it is not. Population growth is the ever expanding denominator that gives each person a shrinking share of the resource pie. It contributes to water shortages, cropland conversion to non-farm usages, traffic congestion, more garbage, overfishing, crowding in national parks, a growing dependence on imported oil, and other conditions that diminish the quality of our daily lives."
Let’s see, now. The British newspaper, The Independent, tells us Americans eat 58 billion burgers a year and 54 million of them are obese, so a shrinking share of the "resource pie" should be good for them, if not for the whole world. Wouldn’t "stabilising" the population just make people greedier?
Crowding in national parks sounds pretty bad, but if it gets much worse people may decide it is no fun and the numbers will drop back. Perhaps the administration should ban cars from within five kilometres of a park and make people walk the last stretch — that should sort out the idle gawpers from the nature enthusiasts. (Discreetly placed gawping platforms, with powerful telescopes, could ensure that no one is completely excluded.)
There are some real problems on Brown’s list, of course, and they require serious attention. But the history of civilisation is a history of men and women using the brains God gave them to overcome problems and make the world habitable for more and more people. If an error has crept into that process — the error of over-consumption and environmental degradation — who is to say it does not come from forgetting who gave us our brains and why, rather than from overpopulation?
One of Lester Brown biggest worries about American consumption is that the developing countries are taking it as their model, and it’s true that when one looks at China’s voracious appetite for oil and consumer items like cars, it is mind-boggling. Its car fleet could be 1.1 billion by 2031, says Brown, compared with a total world fleet today of 800 million. "What China is teaching us is that the Western economic model is not going to work for China and if it will not work for China it will not work for India and in the long term… it will not work for us."
Maybe. But what is definitely not working for China — or India — is the draconian population control that Western interests have promoted and supported in these countries for over three decades. Should we be surprised if the Chinese, after such a prolonged assault on the family, have turned their attention to consumerism? What else were they supposed to do with only one child to look after and perhaps, because of the gender imbalance, not even a spouse in sight?
And what comfort are the anti-natalist zealots going to offer the Chinese when the global — not just Western — ageing crisis hits them the hardest of all? It is one thing to have little money or public services when you are old; it is another to have only one child, who is stuck in some megacity working flat out to maintain his lifestyle and keep the country from economic collapse.
America, so far, has chosen the better part and let us hope it will not be taken from her.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.