Tunnel Vision Dooms America's Future

By Meredith Burke
Volume 8, Number 1 (Fall 1997)
Issue theme: "Carrying capacity and caring capacity: are they at odds?"

Whom you seek advice from reveals what you want to hear. This observation by Jean-Paul Sartre best explains the diametrically opposite conclusions reached in 1972 by the President's Commission on Population Growth and the American Future and the report that has just been issued by the National Academy of Science panel at the behest of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform.

The bipartisan 1972 panel, headed by John D. Rockefeller III, founder of The Population Council, had a diverse membership. It included lay people, politicians and scientists. Its five-volume report examined the role of population in every facet of American life. The effects of population level and growth on both the individual and community levels were thoroughly examined.

The Commission observed the high value Americans place upon low-density, compact communities, and easy access to uncrowded open space as well as to political representatives. It concluded there was no value in American life that could be furthered by additional population growth. It condemned our pro-growth ideology, recommending population stabilization (then at 200 million) as fast as possible. Immigration policy would necessarily have to respect this reality.

This year's report was produced by a panel of social scientists led by a Rand Corporation economist. They favor econometric computer models that utilize readily quantifiable monetary and demographic data. The methodology rules the kinds of questions that are asked, rather than vice versa. Societal values and quality-of-life considerations which produce preference rankings do not fit this model.

Moreover, the Commission expressly enjoined the NAS panel from addressing the issue of optimum population. Therefore, the NAS report evaded the implications of doubling by mid-21st century (and more likely sooner) a population the earlier panel found already excessive. It ignored two decades of national surveys showing an American consensus on the need to stop population growth - e.g. a 1992 Roper poll found that only 27 percent nationally and 11 percent in California, home to half the new immigrants, believed their state could handle an increase in population. It was oblivious to the assessment by some leading ecologists that the United States' long-term sustainable population is 150 million, a total we have exceeded ever since 1950.

"[The Commission on Immigration Reform] recommended continuing the pace of immigration that has already nullified the benefits of the low fertility of the boomers." Instead, the panel endorsed the perpetual motion model of population. Rather than hailing the "Baby Bust" as a welcome corrective to the previous baby boom, it condemned the resultant temporary shift upwards in the age distribution of our population. Thus it recommended continuing the pace of immigration that has already nullified the benefits of the low fertility of the boomers themselves.

Most culpably, the panel's restrictive definition of immigration's "costs" excludes dozens of categories. It excludes all environmental costs considered by the 1972 Commission, including the pressure upon our exiguous remaining wetlands, our threatened loss of flora and fauna from sprawl fueled by population growth, our drained aquifers. It excludes "congestion costs" swollen commute times; elevated coliform counts at popular beaches; access, parking and litter problems at recreational areas; housing market tightness and inflation due to sheer population increase. It excludes the costs of our projected loss of food self-sufficiency by 2040 in a world which had relied on our surpluses.

The panel even denies that immigration policy is population policy - despite the fact that immigrants after 1970 and their descendants account for three-quarters of current American population growth and all of our projected population growth in the 21st century.

What Congress as well as the public needs to know is that there is a battle going on in the population/ environment/ immigration arena. Political correctness now deems "selfish" the anti-growth view. Enthusiastic cornucopians dominate both liberal and conservative think tanks as well as the traditional academic journals. They share a love of narrow disciplines, computer models, neoclassical economics' assumptions of infinite resource substitutability and waste absorption capacity, and an accounting method that accords zero present value to any resource more than seven years out.

But there is still a small (and growing) number of scholars, including myself, who stubbornly cling to an interdisciplinary view of the world. Though quantitatively trained, we do not elevate dollar transactions above nature's resource accounting nor the normative values of society. We publish in low-profile journals Population and Environment, the Journal of Ecological Economics, and BioScience.

Had the Immigration Commission consulted us and some of the rank-and-file citizens fleeing cities swelling toward 30 million population, it would have heard a story very different from the one delivered by the National Academy last May. But ours was not the conclusion it wanted to hear.