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U.S. population growth threatens global sustainability

by Jay Lustgarten

Last year world population soared to over 6 billion, and this continues to place burdensome stresses on, and take heavy tolls from, the natural world. Our potable water and arable land are finite resources that continue to shrink on a per capita basis as world population grows annually by 78 million people. The unrelenting population boom in the U.S. (at 1.2% growth, double Europeís rate) is causing the U.S. to lose its natural resource base that makes a sustainable society possible. The annual loss of native forests and the crucial habitat they provide for plants and animals, unique plant and animal species and wilderness regions (which might be the one thing that all Americans agree on: the need to hold on to our natural heritage) are all in decline. This spells doom for nature, the foundation of a sustainable economy.

At 6 billion people and a dwindling water supply, one historian comments that "The wars of the 20th century were fought over oil. The wars of the 21st century will be fought over water." Population growth is a double edged sword since we need to extract more for a growing population from a smaller pool. A growing population with itís accompanying sprawl leaves less resources (land and water) to extract from.

While this population/environment balance certainly is not unique to the U.S., the U.S.ís 4.5% of the worldís population consumes 30% of the worldís natural resource base. India, which last year topped 1 billion people would seemingly cast a larger footprint on the planet with almost 4 times as many people as the U.S. (population 281 million), is not even close. Itís estimated the average American has an environmental impact 40 times the impact of someone from a developing country like India which makes U.S. population growth all the more serious. Itís not long before todayís immigrant is tomorrowís American visiting the new mall to buy TVís, VCRís, tapes, DVDís, with all the accompanying packaging. Donít forget about the oil to transport these items or coal (the top two contributors to global warming) which provides the energy to play these appliances. In such a world, it is not surprising that people everywhere are put off by G.W. Bushís rejecting the Kyoto Protocol for the selfish, misguided notion that Americanís lifestyle would be inconvenienced.

Some Americans will be surely inconvenienced in a world where surface temperatures will increase anywhere from 3 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.

If present population trends continue, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the U.S. population will more than double to 571 million by 2100. Peter Ward, a Washington Univ. professor describes this as a world where "Every forest, every valley and every bit of land surface capable of sustaining plant life will have to be turned over to crops if our species is to avert unprecedented global famine. In such a world, animals & plants not directly necessary to our existence will probably be a luxury not affordable." In this world, the U.S. would lose the $40 billion made in food exports & arable land would drop from 400 to 250 million acres by 2050. Worldwatch Instituteís "Vital Signs" comments that "today we live in a world that is economically richer than could have been hoped for a half-century ago, but one that is ecologically poorer than hardly anyone could have imagined."

Embedded deep in the American psyche, is the concept of infinite expanse and endless horizon. "Go West young man," Horace Mann told his protege but that doesnít work today. Going west winds you up in California, the largest state in the union with 34 million people and about 12% of the countryís population. The endless highway is a myth indeed.

Following the World Trade Center bombing, will anything ever be the same? Maybe now weíll live a world where people will be conscious of their impact on it. Will there be a strong cutback on U.S. immigration?

Will Americans stop being so wasteful? Will there be a renewed appreciation for plants, animals, the natural world & the concept of sustainability? If we donít save and protect the natural world for the plants and animals themselves, considering the benefits humans derive, we must save the natural world for our own self-interests. Plant medicines canít be discovered and distributed from extinct species.

Sustainability means long-run equilibrium which currently does not exist with soaring population and global warming life-styles.

Contact: Negative Population Growth at or Population-Environment Balance at for more info on population matters.

Jay is a writer hoping to relocate to the West Coast ASAP but in the meantime, he is stuck in N. Bellmore, NY. E-mail:


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