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Jewish World Review
Oct. 26, 2006
/ 4 Mar-Cheshvan 5767
The population pessimists
When the population of the United States hit 200 million in 1967,
President Lyndon Johnson marked the occasion with a speech at the
Commerce Department, home to the US Census Bureau and its official
In 1776, LBJ said, the American people had numbered only 1.5 million,
but as the nation grew in population, so too had it grown in stature and
strength. "We have seen success in America beyond all of our wildest
dreams," he went on, but "mighty challenges" remained: the challenges of
urban life, of race relations, of industrial pollution, of inadequate
public schools. "I cannot tell you this morning that we are going to be
able to meet successfully all of these challenges."
It was not a particularly upbeat speech, but at least it was a speech.
When the population clock surpassed 300 million last week, President
Bush offered only a two-paragraph statement calling the big round number
"a testament to our country's dynamism and a reminder that America's
greatest asset is our people."
If presidents seem less than thrilled about the population milestones
reached on their watch, perhaps it is because they have been unable to
shake off the prophecies of doom about "overpopulation" that date back
at least to Thomas Malthus's prediction that starvation and misery were
the inevitable consequence of population growth. That was in 1798, and
we have been hearing from "Malthusian" alarmists ever since.
(Ironically, Malthus himself came to realize that his pessimism was
groundless, and sharply revised his famous essay in 1803.)
Within months of President Johnson's speech, for example, Paul Ehrlich
published The Population Bomb, which opened with the grim assertion
that "the battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, the
world will undergo famines hundreds of millions of people are going
to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now."
But "the Great Die-Off," as Ehrlich called it, didn't arrive in the
1970s. Nor in the 1980s. Undaunted, Ehrlich wrote in 1990 that
"starvation and epidemic disease will raise the death rates over most of
the planet" and humanity would experience the "deaths of many hundreds
of millions of people in famines." It still hasn't happened. In fact, on
the whole human beings are better fed today (as well as better housed,
better educated, and longer-lived) than ever before. Where starvation
still occurs, it is usually the result of deliberate government policy,
not agricultural failure. In many parts of the world, the
fastest-growing nutritional problem is not hunger, but obesity. Yet the
idea that more people means more pain and penury dies hard.
At 300 million, America's population is three times what it was in 1915.
Over that span of time the quality of American life has soared. From
health and wealth to technology and transportation, from leisure time
and homeownership to life expectancy and productivity, from clean air
and water to entertainment and travel, most Americans today enjoy
conveniences and benefits that not even the Rockefellers and the
Vanderbilts could have afforded a century ago. But to hear some experts
tell it, we should be tearing our hair out in distress.
"The world does not need more people, and the US in my judgment does not
need more people either," grouses Charles Westoff of Princeton's Office
of Population Research. The Washington Post quotes Dowell Myers, a
demography professor at the University of Southern California: "At 300
million, we are beginning to be crushed under the weight of our own
Crushed? We're not even mildly cramped. It might not seem that way to
someone stuck in a rush-hour traffic jam, but America is actually one of
the world's least congested nations, with a population density far lower
than that of Britain or Germany. The land area of the United States is
so vast that each American could have 7 acres to himself, and there
would still be 200 million acres left over. We are in no danger of
running out of space.
To be sure, the United States has its problems, some of them quite
serious. But a burgeoning population isn't one of them. As Europe and
Japan age and shrink, America continues to grow and stay comparatively
youthful. That means not just more mouths to feed and more bodies to
house. It also means more brainpower and more human energy more
problem-solvers, more entrepreneurs, more thinkers, more fighters, more
leaders. The late Julian Simon famously called human beings "the
ultimate resource," and the United States is blessed with more of it
than any other First World nation.
"In other words, you ain't seen nothing yet," The Economist predicts.
"Anyone who assumed the United States is now at the zenith of its
economic or political power is making a big mistake." As good as things
are, they are about to get even better. It's great to have you with us,
No. 300,000,000. Welcome aboard!
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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.
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