Half a billion Americans?
August 23, 2002 4:23 AM   Subscribe

Half a billion Americans? The Economist crunches census data from both sides of the Atlantic and figures that the US will hit the 500 million mark sometime in the next few decades, surpassing the combined population of even the expanded EU. In typical style, the Economist looks at the economic and political reprecussions of this, but skips another interesting question: how will a doubling of the population change America itself? will it make the US more environmentally friendly? reduce urban sprawl? will the shifting population balance change the culture itself?
posted by costas (48 comments total)
'will it make the US more environmentally friendly?'

you are joking right? it will put further pressures on government to ignore world environment issues, increase oil exploration and generally continue to look after number one etc...

more cars, more waste, more consuming. oh joy.

i would hope urban sprawl is reduced becuase that makes logistic sense.
posted by Frasermoo at 4:41 AM on August 23, 2002

Maybe this is the real reason why Pres. GWBush is advocating that we give some loggers some work and thin out our national forests...He must really think we're going to need the space for a couple of million people.
posted by john_lustig at 4:54 AM on August 23, 2002

This is something that I did not expect from the Economist:
- It is Ignoring East Europe, when integration takes place. Imagine the former communist countries as the equivalent of immigrants. And if you consider that E. Europe will not be at the same level as W. Europe in 50 years, look at Ireland or Portugal.
- This change is demographics is nothing compared with the pressure on Europe and US from the huge increase of population elsewhere. How many people will live in India in 2050? 2-3 billions? What about China being the next "economic adversary" of US?
posted by MzB at 5:04 AM on August 23, 2002

Immigration control. NOW
Immigration control for national security.
Immigration control for the environment.
posted by Beholder at 5:14 AM on August 23, 2002

Depends on whether Americans (I am one) continue to live like they do, and support adminstrations that will do nothing to promote alternative fuels, greater fuel efficiencies, and making LESS, not MORE cars/trucks on the road.

Public transport will be a key in the future decades, and whether we decide that this environmentally will be better, or whether driving the 2 MPG SUVs everywhere we go will be.
posted by benjh at 5:24 AM on August 23, 2002

My copy just dropped through the letterbox and I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but BBC News 24 is running a short piece on The Earth Summit.

Interesting little datum they're tossing around on the topic of carbon emissions :

One American emits as much carbon waste as 2.3 Britons, 7 Chinese or 20 Nigerians.

Lordy! I knew there was a difference and intuitively felt it to be rather large, but seeing the numbers really puts it into a different context!
posted by Mutant at 5:46 AM on August 23, 2002

Immigration control. NOW

Assuming that you're serious, how does this prevent people already here from raising giant families? I live in the Midwest where having 4 or more children per family is quite common. There's also a substantial contingent of religious fundamentalists who believe that God is calling them to raise up an army...i.e. have as many children as possible. I'm not sure how you deal with this phenomenon outside of draconian measures similiar to what's currently being practiced in China.
posted by MrBaliHai at 5:55 AM on August 23, 2002

There's also a substantial contingent of religious fundamentalists who believe that God is calling them to raise up an army...i.e. have as many children as possible.

That is truly one of the scariest things I've read in a long time....to fight who? me? my neighbors? pls elaborate or give me a link....
I really shivered when I read that!
posted by amberglow at 6:06 AM on August 23, 2002

MrBaliHali brings up a very valid point. Merely curbing immigration, or stopping it altogether, is not going to prevent a growth in population. The incessant need to breed that people feel has to be addressed.
Of course that is quite a touchy issue, that can go in many different directions.
I myself came from a family of 8 children. My parents must have been freaking nuts!! Out of 8 children, my parents have 2 grandchildren. What is that saying?
I have reached the conclusion that I will not be a parent.
posted by a3matrix at 6:15 AM on August 23, 2002

amberglow: the people I've spoken with believe that they're entering into a spiritual battle, not physical. They believe that they're going to overpower the Devil by breeding lots of little god-fearing Christians. No one I know has advocated actual violence.
posted by MrBaliHai at 6:17 AM on August 23, 2002

And low behold the devil created Democrats.
posted by stbalbach at 6:28 AM on August 23, 2002

Funny stbalbach, I was about to say

"And low behold the devil created Republicans..."
posted by gloege at 6:35 AM on August 23, 2002

Maybe the devil created both?
posted by a3matrix at 6:41 AM on August 23, 2002

Immigration control reduces US population growth, it doesn't stop it, but isn't slowing it down enough of a reason?
posted by Beholder at 6:42 AM on August 23, 2002

If you look at the graph on their own site and check the middle projection for growth, it has the US at about 375 million in 2040. Compared with 288 million now, that's not so "scary." I'm all for population control and the environment, but let's use the real numbers and skip the scare tactics.
posted by quirked at 6:48 AM on August 23, 2002

What's that you say? 500 million Americans? Oh Dear. It might be time to start practicing my breast-stroke and developing a taste for soylent-green! Interesting stuff nonetheless costas - thanks for the link.
posted by Doozer at 6:49 AM on August 23, 2002

I think further immigration is absolutely necessary, and that controls are the wrong way to go. Immigration is the engine that keeps this country vital. If we didn't have massive immigration we would become like Europe, slow, non-innovative, with a massive aging class to support.
posted by pjgulliver at 6:49 AM on August 23, 2002

And low behold the devil created Democrats.

Heh. Well, at least one person I know told me back in 1996 that I would go to hell if I voted for Clinton.

Back to the topic at hand. Beholder, I think that a sensible immigration policy is certainly desirable, but as a 3rd-generation descendant of German/Italian immigrants, I don't want to see that tap turned off completely. Rather than adopting harsh measures to restrict immigration, wouldn't that money and effort be better spent trying to change the conditions in other countries that make so many people want to leave and come here?
posted by MrBaliHai at 6:50 AM on August 23, 2002

Immigration control. NOW
Immigration control for national security.
Immigration control for the environment.

I thought he was just imitating the U.S. Gov't's obvious opportunistic reaction to news like this (similar to, "Forest fires? We need more logging!")
posted by Shane at 7:10 AM on August 23, 2002

Immigrants fill an economic a need. They accept crummy jobs so everyone else can move up the ladder. This system has worked for over a century, but it was based on the fact that US cities had room to grow, which is no longer the case. As immigrants move into cities, people move into the suburbs, but we are running out of suburbs.

When I was a kid in the early 70s, my family would drive from Houston to Austin several times a year. These were pleasant cross country drives that I remember fondly. I also remember that within 20 minutes of leaving downtown Houston we were already well outside the city, and would not see any large urban area again until we were about 15 minutes outside downtown Austin. Today that large stretch of farmland between Houston and Austin doesn't exist. The edge of Houston suburbs almost touch the edge of Austin suburbs, in what is best described as a 3 hour stretch of housing, shopping malls, and barbecue pits. The same condition exist between Houston and Dallas, and if we don't start making some tough decisions about population, then I see things getting a lot worse.

Could you be more specific Shane? What do you mean by opportunistic? If you disagree with immigration reform, make a rational counter argument instead of a snarky comment.
posted by Beholder at 7:19 AM on August 23, 2002

Immigration control. NOW
Immigration control for national security.
Immigration control for the environment.

Yeh, we should have a War on Illegal Immigration. You know, like we had a war on drugs, and now you can't get drugs anymore?

Immigration control can't stop anyone from getting into the country, it just stops people from becomming tax paying citizens. In fact, stricter border control means florishing people smuggling, which can increase the drug and slave trade (yes, really).

I say we should throw open the borders, but force people to learn english.
posted by delmoi at 7:20 AM on August 23, 2002

Oh, btw. Did you know America has almost exactly the same amount of space as China? Americans can't stay > 4x as productive forever.
posted by delmoi at 7:21 AM on August 23, 2002

This is no new problem. Americans have always been fucked (I'm an American). We just don't listen to reason. The only way we could get people to breed less is if we got The Gap, Nike, and Brittany Spears to make it "cool" to not have kids. Even then, you'd have to contend with the whole stupidity factor, ie "They never said nothin' 'bout gettin' pregnunt from humpin in hi-school.'"

Americans are fucked (and by association, so are the rest of you poor slobs).
posted by password at 7:21 AM on August 23, 2002

Americans are fucked (and by association, so are the rest of you poor slobs).

Ah, the most profound thing I've read all week.

What will happen in the short term is our (American) government further leveraging the governments of other countries for their resources. We will continue to import non-renewable energy and cheap goods. GMO crop usage will explode to maintain a cheap and abundant food supply that most Americans demand. Housing lots will get a little smaller.

In the long term, I can't really say. Emigration, perhaps? I find it entirely plausible that people would leave this country if it became a remarkably unpleasant place to live. If citizens can vote with some foresight, things could change. But this would demand that the most complex issues our country faces be explained in a facile manner in under ten seconds.
posted by rocketman at 7:56 AM on August 23, 2002

If you disagree with immigration reform, make a rational counter argument instead of a snarky comment.

Against my better judgement, I guess I'll bite:


"Taking immediate advantage, often unethically, of any circumstance of possible benefit."

Perhaps my (gleefully) snarky comment indicated more about the gov't's opportunistic tendency to use situations to further its own agenda, rather than further the common good?

I'm not arguing that there are not too many strip malls. I hate them, every day I hate them. There're too many humans in general, in my opinion (I think we've proved ourselves unworthy of the planet as a species.) And you're right, the gov't has traditionally relaxed immigration policies in a good economy to fill low-pay manual labor jobs with immigrants (this might be considered "opportunism" by some.)

All I'm saying is, you should always look to the deeper motive. Lowest common denominator, usually. Apply this reasoning to politics and history and you'll rarely go wrong.

But I'm not going to jump into an argument over immigration controls, or why desperate people (whose traditional farmland now belongs to American corporations) end up suffocating in bins being smuggled into the States...
posted by Shane at 8:08 AM on August 23, 2002

It's a really big country. The US could easily support twice the population and produce twice the food that it does now.

It would require hardly any additional growth in existing urban areas ... there are hundreds of areas in the US which now feature 30,000 population cities surrounded by 10,000 more people in small towns ... which could grow to 200,000 people in the city and 1,000,000 people in the suburbs, quite easily.

And immigration controls simply discriminate against Asians in favor of Latinos, since Latinos can immigrate illegally at will, and it significantly more complicated for Asians to do so.
posted by MattD at 8:16 AM on August 23, 2002

but we are running out of suburbs.

This is no joke in Southern California. People are now regularly driving a 3 or 4 hour commute in order to afford housing in a "safe" bedroom community.

A far cry from when I was born. When my mother was pregnant, she wanted to go to the "country" so my dad drove her to Knott's Berry Farm! At the time it was the country with unpaved parking lots, chickens running loose, and real farmland. When I was a child and my friends moved into the new city of Cypress, I didn't now how they could stand the smell of cow shit from all the near-by dairy farms.

Now LA to San Diego is becoming one big Megalopolis.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:28 AM on August 23, 2002

US cities had room to grow, which is no longer the case

Huh? New York City is somewhere close to 8 million people now, and they certainly have room to grow -- mainly "up," meaning apartments/condos.

Do mean specifically in terms of land available? I suspect that's what you mean, but we have to remember that better zoning laws could help check the spread of suburbia.
posted by PeteyStock at 8:30 AM on August 23, 2002

...they certainly have room to grow -- mainly "up," meaning apartments/condos.

Not a problem, as we can all eventually live in "hamster wheel" one-room apartments.
posted by Shane at 8:37 AM on August 23, 2002

perhaps we could use scents to discourage breeding.

Immigration control. NOW
Immigration control for national security.
Immigration control for the environment.

excellent propoganda poster.
posted by mcsweetie at 8:41 AM on August 23, 2002

I think we should limit the amount of children a family is allowed to have. If they have more than, say, two children, they lose their house. Dumpster babies will skyrocket!
posted by pemulis at 8:45 AM on August 23, 2002

Immigration control reduces US population growth, it doesn't stop it, but isn't slowing it down enough of a reason?

That seems to lay the blame for our burgeoning population firmly at the feet of people who make up an incredibly small proportion of the whole. It's also a very short-term and not very workable solution.

The birth rate is the real culprit. Having four and five and six kids in this era verges on being socially irresponsible. We'll be feeling the effects of the huge nuclear family much sooner, and for much longer, than any negative impact a surge of immigrants could create.
posted by contessa at 8:59 AM on August 23, 2002

contessa says: "The birth rate is the real culprit. Having four and five and six kids in this era verges on being socially irresponsible."

Not that I disagree with you but what would you say a "responsible number" is? Who determines this? Is that NOT what China did when dictating that the "responsible number" of children born there was ONE?
posted by gloege at 9:14 AM on August 23, 2002

See, you people are failing to look at this from the appropriate perspective of the White Hegemonic Patriach. The blood, toil, and generations of offspring of exploited immigrant labor will perhaps be the only thing preventing Social Security from becoming completely insolvent.

Remember kids, The Man will always figure out how to fuck you over!
posted by rhizome23 at 9:14 AM on August 23, 2002

make that one per family... sorry.
posted by gloege at 9:15 AM on August 23, 2002

Since almost all illegal immigrants are poor, and we already know that birthrates are higher among low income families, then we are simply discussing two sides of the same problem. Poverty, illegal immigration, and high birthrates are all connected.

I also support some form of national healthcare, which I don't see how the US can possibly afford, without first addressing the impact of illegal immigration on our social system, but I guess that's a thread for another day.
posted by Beholder at 10:27 AM on August 23, 2002

Of course there's plenty of space to put more people in America. You can drive for hours in the West and see nothing but empty space; there's room for billions. Nevada alone has enough room to give every American family in its own sprawling suburban ranch-style house, with room left over for roads. And of course that doesn't solve the problem at all, because there's no water there and no way to get any.

Population density is bounded by resource availability, which is bounded by raw material availability and efficiency of extraction technology. Cities need water, power, food, air - there is plenty of open space but if those open spaces were capable of supporting cities we would have already built them there.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:53 AM on August 23, 2002

What worries me is not so much the space issue per se (i.e. can the country provide space for 500,000 people) but that each American consumes more resources and produces more waste on average than any equivalent person in any other country, as Mutant pointed out in an earlier post. What happens when the number of SUV's on the road doubles, and there are twice as many people producing garbage, and wanting wooden furniture or houses? If we continue to live as we are now, with no concern for future generations, let alone our next-door neighbors and the people downstream from us, any increase in our population seems bound to lead to more and larger environmental and social messes.
Immigration and birth control are both pretty loaded issues - I think I have to agree with previous posters, that fewer people would come here if where they were wasn't so awful. Helping other coutries to imrove may turn out to be a worthwhile investment to reduce immigration, maybe even a more effective investment than the continuing "wars" on illegal immigration, drugs, and whatnot. As far as limiting fertility rates, I have a radical and throroughly undemocratic suggestion: mandatory chemical birth control for everyone under the age of 25...
posted by naturegrrl at 10:53 AM on August 23, 2002

Immigrants fill an economic a need. They accept crummy jobs so everyone else can move up the ladder. This system has worked for over a century, but it was based on the fact that US cities had room to grow, which is no longer the case. As immigrants move into cities, people move into the suburbs, but we are running out of suburbs.

We are running out of suburbs because the suburbs are themselves dying off. As one ring of suburbs grows around the urban core, another one begins to grow outside of that one. Much like how a tree grows, only the outer layers are alive. The real problem is the outer push of the sub-urban kills off the center city. Let's take Cincinnati, Ohio for example. It is one of the highest sprawling cities in America, with a population of around 1.5 million. A telling statistic from the Sierra Club explains the situation:

While the number of people moving into the Cincinnati metro area has not risen significantly in recent years (8 percent in the 1980s and 2.2 percent from 1990 to 1996), its land area has spread out steadily over the years: from 335 square miles in 1970 to 512 square miles in 1990, a 53 percent increase. The area grew by another 12 percent between 1990 and 1996. [source]

At the same time Cincinnati was expanding outward, the center was [and is] empty. Over-the-Rhine [which you might have heard of] used to hold over 60,000 residents at the turn of the century. Now just over 9,000 people live there with an average yearly income of just over $6,000 a year. [source]. This is not just happening in Cincinnati, but in every major city in the US, with the most dramatic effects in the larger urban centers.

The problem is not that the suburbs are "full", but rather that the existing urban and [sub] urban center are being mismanaged. I don't have an easy answer to how to fix this. Do we draw a circle around the city like Portland and prohibit development outside of this line? Do we continue tax credits to those who invest in the urban cities? What are the most environmental conditions? New York with the huge cost of living and goods? Or is the most optimal condition Cincinnati, with long commutes and a dispersed infrastructure? I tend to think that New York is a better alternative than Cincinnati, but the high cost of materials, labor and huge concentration of humans are a large impact on that regions environment.

Either way, the city and suburb are failing, and we have only ourselves to blame. The suburb as a way of life has been spoon fed to us by over 50 years of advertising in print, movies, music and all forms of media. It has become so persuasive, that any attempt to challenge the validity of suburban living has become Anti-American and anti-choice [I have been told I hate this country and its people because I think that suburban life is not correct]. Either way, I will continue to live in the city, walk, grow my own vegetables and try to live a low-impact life. I believe the clean-up bill will be on the rest of your tabs.
posted by plemeljr at 11:04 AM on August 23, 2002

In answer to gloege: what would you say a "responsible number" [of children] is? Who determines this?

Since you asked, I'd say one or two kids. Maybe - maybe - three. That's just my opinion. I realize this is controversial for some people. I'm not advocating a China-type system at all. I just wish people would use some common sense and think a little farther (e.g. generations) into the future when planning a family. A bit idealistic, maybe...

Speaking of China, it appears they are softening up on their one child policy [pardon the month-old link].
posted by contessa at 12:03 PM on August 23, 2002

i think governments in the us (local, state national) need to step up to the plate on a lot of this. it seems like foreign people castigate the us constantly for driving SUV's as if every morning people in the us wake up and make a decision to ride the train or take that single person SUV into town.

that's not the case, i use more gasoline than my fair-share, and i drive a civic. i would love there to be a train or bus or something to go downtown, there's not. so what can i do? vote. that's all. the us has piss-poor public transportation, i know that's because of our elected officials, but i get tired of being constantly berated by people in other countries who get to ride that train around anywhere they want about using so much gas, as if i'm just refusing to ride public transportation...
posted by rhyax at 12:07 PM on August 23, 2002

ours has been a country of immigrants from day one. people who leave their homeland are different than the one's who stay behind. And those who come to America come to work.

The recent immigrant faces the same challenges and stereotypes as the wave of immigrants which rose before. Over time, a generation or two, the immigrant, or at least her offspring, has fully assimilated into American culture. Why it works in this country is because assimilation is a two-way street between the established culture and the newly arrived.

most importantly, the low-wage first generation immigrant works hard to provide for his family. The children learn the value of hard work and combine it with the mainstream's culture of experiment and innovation. The second and third generation immigrant-descendant make up a bigger proportion of entrepreneurs than their numbers would suggest.

Immigration does have its costs: to the host country, to the old home land, to the host population and to the individual immigrant. However, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

America is enriched. The old home land receives money, support and vocal voices for democratic reform. And the individual immigrant provides herself and her family a better life in the most wonderful country in the world.

immigration, rule of law and democratic institutions are the three pillars that set the US apart from the rest of the world
posted by irongrooves at 12:37 PM on August 23, 2002

The US has limited public transportation not becuase of bad politicians because Americans like to drive and like to live in spacious circumstances. Thankfully, politicians in the US are servants of their constituents, and the other way around.

Where driving is not feasible for many people's commutes (the big cities in the east and midwest, plus San Francisco) there are good, reasonably-well-operated transit systems, and plenty of politicians who work hard to keep them that way.

This balance really is the American way of life, and for every complaining foreigner, there are a dozen who want to move here and buy themselves their own cars and houses with big lawns.
posted by MattD at 12:37 PM on August 23, 2002

I read this in "Green Mars" by Kim Stanley Robinson. One of the characters, Art, suggests giving each person the right to have 3/4 (0.75) children, right which can be traded in the market. Thus, a family would have either one kid and sell the other half, or, if they have enough money, buy one half and raise 2 children. Let the market take care of the resource allocation problem!
posted by MzB at 12:52 PM on August 23, 2002

Contessa - one could argue that China has the right idea. One child ensures you had a shot at ensuring your DNA stays out in the gene pool. Two is probably more accurate at ensuring this however in case one child dies or does not procreate further.

Given the number of kids needing a home, I think if you want more than two kids you need to seriously consider bringing in a child who NEEDS a home rather than having more. Just my $0.02. Granted, I have a child. If I ever remarry I would LOVE to have another. If more children are desired, I would push to adopt a child who needs a home... and hopefully whomever I am with would agree.

Regarding the census - for those of us who have dual citizenship, how are we counted? I have always wanted to know.. I THINK I am counted here and in France but I am not sure.... Anyone know?
posted by gloege at 1:05 PM on August 23, 2002

I don't have that "must pass on my genes" view and neither do most of the women I date. I see so many others having too many (my definition: more than they can afford to take care to adulthood), not giving the planet my offspring will not cause the species to die out.

With my live fast, die young lifestyle and no kids I can pretty safely say it will be someone else's problem by the time there are 1/2 billion suv drivin, mcdonalds eatin Americans. And if I am around I'll be a crotchety old misanthrope carrying on about the good old days when the sky was blue.
posted by birdherder at 2:04 PM on August 23, 2002

On this topic, Christopher Jencks wrote a long review essay in the New York Review of Books titled "Who should get in?" that deals in hard numbers and analysis, rather than in the usual cant and fulmination. Part One ; Part Two ; Debate Afterwards
posted by apollo3000 at 11:28 PM on August 23, 2002

The US could always return to old practices.
posted by snarfodox at 11:10 AM on August 24, 2002

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