Sunday, March 13, 2011
Thoughts on Population Growth (part I)
I was troubled by the news that the population of the United States has topped 311,949,118. In no way am I a Malthusian; I believe that America's productive, dynamic farms, factories, mines and builders have the power to feed, clothe and house three times our current population. Rather, my concerns center on the environmental impact that increased populations pose on a local and global level. The population growth of the United States is especially pertinent considering that Americans have the largest carbon foot print and the highest per capita use of natural resources in the world. Even those who are skeptical of anthropogenic climate change, should be concerned, because of the clear effect that population growth has on quality of life issues, such as: urban sprawl, gruelling commutes, diminished recreational opportunities and rising cost of natural resources.
Critics will counter that such sentiments are misguided, because our focus should be on developing environmentally friendly technologies and policies. My response is that this is not an either-or issue; a sound environmental path must involve the combined goals of reducing per capita carbon emissions and controlling population growth. The latter is essential because ecological gains achieved by "shrinking the size of our carbon footprint" are offset by increases in the number of "carbon producing feet." Two factors amplify this: the growing environmental impact of China and India, as well as mass immigration to western nations beset by high levels of resource consumption. For example, in 2003, the average ecological footprint of an American Citizen was 9.6, whereas that average footprint of a Salvadoreño was 1.4. This means that by migrating to the United States the said individual will increase their ecological impact by up to 6.86 times! Considering that nearly 3/4 of the population growth of the last decade was fuelled by immigration, this is a major factor in the environmental equation.
Many economists and advocates of high levels of immigration will correctly respond that economic growth and the solvency of social security are contingent upon continued population increases. Shrinking and greying populations are factors in the economic stagnation that much of Europe is experiencing. And by skewing the ratio of social security contributors to social security beneficiaries, such population shifts ensure the failure of the system. So, from an economist's perspective, policies that encourage the migration of populations from poor nations with a surplus of young, able bodied workers to wealthy nations with "greying" workforces make all the sense in the world.
The problem with this perspective is that while economics are important, they are only one factor in the equation of national and global welfare. So, while the positive economic impact of population growth should be calculated, so should its negative environmental impact. The question is, what policies should be enacted to address this issue? The underlying philosophy must be to avoid policies that increase the number of "ecological footprints" unless there are compelling economic and social reasons to do otherwise. If adopted, this philosophy would radically alter our approach to immigration. The burden of proof would not fall on those who sought to restrict the number of migrants, rather the starting point would be a quota of zero.
First, we would permit X number of family unifications for immediate family, such as spouses and children. Chain migration (siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.) would cease. From there we would permit the entry of X amounts of migrants to address real and demonstrable labor shortages in specific, vital sectors of the economy that cannot be filled by current residents. For example, under such a policy, 100,000 computer programmers, engineers and entrepreneurs would be granted temporary Visas and 500,000 farm workers would be granted visas for the duration of the farm season. But, the questionable economic benefits of filling vacant fast food positions, would clearly not offset the ecological costs that a population increase would impose. This is especially true considering the fact that there exists a large pool of unemployed American teenagers and adults who given modest changes to the incentive structure would fill them. And in no case would new workers be permitted to bring their family members. After a 5 year period, the most productive members and their immediate family members would be granted permanent status. Last, but not least, we would allow for a prescribed number of refugees fleeing persecution and dire circumstances. All in all, this would greatly shrink the extent and alter the nature of immigration. At one end of the spectrum, the seasonal flow of migrant farm workers would be legalized and regulated, at the other end, more visas would be granted to skilled workers, while population growth would be held in check. Workers whose skills matched those of current residents would be discouraged from migrating. And existing laws would be systematically enforced.
Even more controversial would be policies that addressed natural population growth among current citizens of the United States. In a democratic society, the state must not take heavy handed measures to actively limit the number of children its citizens have. However, that does not mean that the state must continue subsidies that encourage individuals to have more children than they can afford. The most obvious example are welfare recipients whose food, housing and health care subsidies increase with each new child. While we cannot allow children to suffer for the irresponsibility of their parents by cutting off aid to them, we can declare that continued welfare benefits are contingent upon the use of birth control. And granting welfare parents a monthly subsidy for not having additional children, would offer net financial and ecological savings to tax payers. Regarding middle and upper class Europeans and Americans, the high cost of quality education, housing, health care and taxes have already pushed the fertility rate below the replacement level. The bottom line is that anyone who takes ecological and quality of life issues seriously, cannot overlook the phenomena of population growth. So, more environmentalists must be willing to stand up to their progressive brethren's dogmas on immigration and welfare. Green technology may shrink the size of carbon footprints, but if we allow government policies to increase the number of "carbon feet" we will fall further behind in the race to achieve ecological sustainability.