Are 300 Million Americans Too Many?

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The U.S. Census bureau projects that U.S. population should surpass 300 million in the next week or so. Is that cause for alarm, celebration, or a good snooze? UCLA demographer Dowell Myers tells the Washington Post, "[A}t 300 million, we are beginning to be crushed under the weight of our own quality-of-life degradation."

What degradation? When I was born U.S. population was 160 million and the GDP was just over $2 trillion in constant dollars. I must say that over that time, things have gotten a lot better. At 300 million, U.S. GDP tops $11 trillion. In the meantime, U.S. air is cleaner, forest area has been stable for 100 years and houses are bigger and more comfortable. By almost every measure life is better– restaurants, television, computers, the internet, air travel, life expectancy and the list is nearly endless. Of course, we all can point to aspects of living in these here United States that could be improved, but the term "degradation" seems inapt to me.

What about the future? According to projections made by the Employment Policy Foundation, as U.S. population reaches 480 million around 2077, GDP should rise 12-fold to $128 trillion in real dollars. If that happens, average per capita incomes would be over $150,000. That will buy a lot of quality of life and environmental improvement. On the other hand, the U.S. could join Europe over the next few decades and eventually begin to see a population decline.

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  1. All demographic news is bad news.

  2. > By almost every measure life is better–
    > restaurants, television, computers, the
    > internet, air travel, life expectancy
    > and the list is nearly endless.

    Written like a typical city slicker who only values what he can eat or passively view. The fact is, wilderness and open space–the foundations of this country–are decreasing and dying everywhere. Isolation is in decline. This is a lose to our soul that we will never, ever recover, and we are much the poorer for it.

  3. The fact is, wilderness and open space–the foundations of this country–are decreasing and dying everywhere.

    Oddly, though, many rural areas are depopulating. Many empty places are getting emptier, even as suburbs expand around cities.

    The perception that open space is decreasing is to a significant degree misplaced – the open space that is decreasing is that immediately adjacent to large population centers, where it disproportionately visible to pundits and activists.

    You can pick up literally square miles of land in West Texas for less than the price of the average house in Plano. Anyone who wants to live a truly rural, albeit low-cash, lifestyle can certainly do so. It so happens that fewer and fewer want to do so.

  4. It was that Kkook PAUL EHRLICH who brought all those stuff on over population in his eco poppycock book THE POPULATION BOMB i mean if he wants to decress the population i suggest they start with him and his wacko followers

  5. Isolation is in decline. This is a lose to our soul that we will never, ever recover, and we are much the poorer for it.

    Sheesh. Jefferson was bitching about this too. What’s the timeline for a collapse because of lack of open space? Longer than 250 years?

  6. I’m as antisocial as the next guy, and more than most, but the only way wilderness and open space qualify as the “foundations of this country” is that that’s what we’ve built everything on.

  7. And remember the poverty line, in constant dollars, will be set at 45 grand a year and politicians will support income assistance for hard working families making less than a paltry 85 grand.

  8. “I must say that over that time, things have gotten a lot better. At 300 million, U.S. GDP tops $11 trillion. In the meantime, U.S. air is cleaner, forest area has been stable for 100 years and houses are bigger and more comfortable. By almost every measure life is better– restaurants, television, computers, the internet, air travel, life expectancy and the list is nearly endless.”

    And don’t forget about the tail, Ron. The tail is sweeter, too.

  9. UT, feel free to come to Wyoming. Lots of space to get lost in the wilderness here, maybe get eaten by a bear too.

  10. On a related note, I “fisk” a recent open_borders_cartoon from Peter_Bagge at the link.

    His report on going to a peace protest was pretty good, but his discussion of immigration_issues is brain-dead.

  11. RC Dean: The issue, of course, involves DESIREABLE open space. Many places in the Rockies, on the seashore, etc. were a lot more fun to visit 40 years ago than they are today, if you value unspoiled natural scenery. Can you honestly say that Jackson Hole has been improved by all the condominiums that have been built in lieu of scenic ranchland, or that the Moss Beach California natural area has been enhanced by the patter of two zillion little feet of schoolchildren from the San Francisco area who arrive by the busload every day? I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t have equal opportunity to enjoy nature’s bounty, but don’t try to tell me there’s just as much of it to go around as there has been in the past. It’s actually a very simple case of demand exceeding supply, and what do you think is fueling the demand, other than population growth? One can argue that preserving natural scenery at the expense of population growth isn’t worth talking about, but I don’t buy the idea that there isn’t a direct relationship between the two.

  12. The fact is, wilderness and open space… are decreasing and dying everywhere. Isolation is in decline.

    What’s lost isn’t isolation in the wilderness; it’s being able to be alone in a lush forest in beautiful mountians with deer and a nice little creek. Still plenty of places to get away from people, just in much harsher environments. Interesting Liberty magazine article about that:

    Living on the Fringe

  13. Ron – Wyoming is 99.5% open grassland, ranches, and mountain wilderness. How much more do you want? Jackson Hole is one tiny valley in an immense state. Visit the beartooth mountains, or the Wind River Range, or the Cloud Peak Wilderness. There is NO overdevelopment in Wyoming.

    And California – I drove the whole coast a few months ago from LA to Oregon and, again, its 90% wilderness, parkland, and ranches, especially north of San Francisco. There is nothing but pure, open, wild beaches.

    Get out of the city once in a while and experience the real world.

  14. Better 300,000,000 Americans than a similar amount of almost any other nation on Earth.

  15. dead elvis – you, or Liberty magazine, are completely wrong about that. Participation in all outdoor sports is declining precipitously. It is much easier for me to find isolation and wilderness within a quick drive of Seattle than it was 5 years ago. No one seems to hike or climb anymore.

    I live in a suburb 30 minutes outside Seattle. Within 10 minutes of my house are five seperate quiet forested areas where I often see deer and beaver, and even the occassional bear. I never see any other people in these places.

    Within a two hour drive, I can be in complete wilderness standing on a ridgetop, for all intents and purposes alone in the world.

    Disappearing wilderness is a complete myth. I’ve lived in Washington for 8 years, hiking every single weekend, and I haven’t even begun to touch the amount of wilderness available in this one state!

  16. Lemur – I’ve gotta agree with you. It’s been a few years, but there were always plenty of places that my family and I went horseback riding that perhaps not more than a half dozen people had ever seen before. This was in Western Oregon, and we rode in places where maybe a dozen people had been before in Central Arizona.

    Yes, the “wilderness” areas that are in and around Phoenix seem to be getting built upon, which is unfortunate, and I wish I had the money to buy some of it myself to keep it natural so I can go mountain biking there, but I’m not too worried about all wilderness going away or any such rubbish.

  17. Um, does anyone think that traffic levels are better today than 5, 10, 20, 30 years ago?

  18. Actually Dowell Myers is at USC. Maybe things are more crushing there.

  19. Lemur: Disappearing wilderness is not a myth. Arguing that it must not be shrinking because you can still take a walk by yourself in the woods is like arguing that there can’t possibly be any global warming because it fell below freezing at your house last night–it might be true that the earth isn’t getting warmer, but you’re relying on the wrong evidence. By the way, good luck taking that lonely planet walk anywhere in California. I’m most familiar with what has been happening in Colorado the past 4 decades, and it is not a pretty sight. I am delighted to hear that 99.5% of Wyoming is wild and free–haven’t spent much time there, but I was depressed to read about Jackson Hole, which I saw many moons ago.

  20. Lemur: Disappearing wilderness is not a myth. Arguing that it must not be shrinking because you can still take a walk by yourself in the woods is like arguing that there can’t possibly be any global warming because it fell below freezing at your house last night–it might be true that the earth isn’t getting warmer, but you’re relying on the wrong evidence. By the way, good luck taking that lonely planet walk anywhere in California. Your idea of isolation must be different than mine. I’m most familiar with what has been happening in Colorado the past 4 decades, and it is not a pretty sight. I am delighted to hear that 99.5% of Wyoming is wild and free–haven’t spent much time there, but I was depressed to read about Jackson Hole, which I saw many moons ago. Of course, more than 50% of Wyoming is federal land, which partly explains the open space there, although I’d be surprised if you could walk too far without hearing an ATV.

  21. Wow! the server squirrels bit me!

  22. For what it’s worth, Lemur and Lowdog, here are some statistics:

    Forest Service Report Finds Open Space Dwindling

    WASHINGTON, DC, October 2, 2006 (ENS) – The United State is losing 6,000 acres of open space each day, according to a new report by the U.S. Forest Service. The report, released last week, details the growing threats to the nation’s public lands, as counties with national forests and grasslands are experiencing some of the highest growth rates in the nation.

    The report details a “steady loss of open space” that is outpacing population growth. From 1982 to 2001, 34 million acres of open space – equivalent to the state of Illinois – were developed and some 100,000 square miles are projected to be developed by 2020.

    For forest land alone, the United States lost 10 million acres to development from 1982to 1997, with 26 million additional acres project to be developed by 2030.

    The fastest growing areas include the South, Northeast, Rocky Mountain West, Upper Great Lakes, and Ozarks.

    The report warns the trends are worrying in part because it is reducing the ability to manage public lands to maintain healthy forests and public recreation dwindles. In addition, it notes that undeveloped forests provide critical ecosystem services, including wildlife habitat, clean drinking water, natural-resources-based jobs, and a sustainable output of forest products.

    National forests, for example, are the single largest source of water in the United States, providing water for some 60 million people.

    In addition, 57 percent of U.S. forest lands are privately owned and unprotected from development.

    Conservationists said the findings of the report are “sobering.”

    “The levies around our remaining open spaces are leaking badly and inundating those places with development sprawl,” said Tom Gilbert, director of eastern forest conservation for The Wilderness Society. “We don’t have the luxury of waiting to see what happens.”

    The report describes cross-boundary partnerships between multiple levels of government, private interests and landowners as a promising tool to conserve open space in rural America. But Gilbert said the “missing ingredient” in such efforts is federal funding to purchase lands or development rights in threatened areas.

    “If we hesitate, if we dither, we will lose tens of millions of acres of open spaces and forests,” Gilbert added. “We need to make the investment today before our wild places, favorite recreations areas and forests are buried forever under the coming flood of development.”

  23. By the way, good luck taking that lonely planet walk anywhere in California.

    I’m from LA, and I just did it last weekend. Saw a nice healthy plump “teenage” bear, too. And a ladybug swarm.

    I’m with Lemur. ie, because his example is a personal anecdote, that does not mean it isn’t true or valid. There’s tons of silence and solitude, if you get out of your car. Even around LA and San Francisco. Even in the crowded national parks – *if* you get out of your car.

    In my opinion, people who stress about having “too many” people are misanthropic eco-loons. I don’t share that religion. People like this feel aggrieved and deprived if they can’t have their own personal Yosemite Valley. They cluck with irritation at the distant sound of a jet flying 30,000 feet overhead. It ruins their freeze-dried dinner if they encounter someone else on the trail sometime during the course of the day. Surrounded by beauty, they are still oppressed with their hatred of the rest of us. These people baffle me.

    That being said, I wholly support trusts buying land for setting aside. And I’m concerned about “creep” problems like air pollution. But I’m certainly not losing sleep about it.

  24. The issue here is simple: there are a number of folks who want to enjoy the wilderness alone. That becomes difficult when others also want to enjoy the wilderness alone.

  25. I’ve spent more time than I ever wanted to in the Mojave, and I can personally testify that lonley walks are easily possible there. As they are near Bridgeport, CA. Or anywhere away from the coast and the major cities.
    But I know…the world is ending because it’s hard to find a place to commune with nature. It’s all those other folks who have the same desires that make life so hard…if we could only get rid of some of them, eh?

  26. Um, does anyone think that traffic levels are better today than 5, 10, 20, 30 years ago?

    I’m going to take a wild guess and suggest that all the people who are using the roads now who would or could not use the roads under whatever scheme you imagine to limit traffic think traffic levels are better.

    When whining about a second-order cost, do not ignore those who receive a first-order benefit.

  27. The report warns the trends are worrying in part because it is reducing the ability to manage public lands to maintain healthy forests and public recreation dwindles.

    Read: The U.S. Forest Service will lose its budget if Big Papa-government does not do something.

    In addition, 57 percent of U.S. forest lands are privately owned and unprotected from development.

    You can guess the rest – a justification for wholesale expropriation, all in the name of protecting wilderness from “development”, whatever that would mean. Hell, if I own land, and tried to place a crap-house, any overzealous government bureaucrat would call it “development” and run me off my property.


    In addition, it notes that undeveloped forests provide critical ecosystem services, including wildlife habitat, clean drinking water, natural-resources-based jobs, and a sustainable output of forest products.

    Maybe I have the wrong dictionary, but doesn’t all this resource-exploitation (drinking water, sustainable output) imply a Development??? This crap reads like the usual demagogic fake-news you see in (old) Pravda.

  28. “If we hesitate, if we dither, we will lose tens of millions of acres of open spaces and forests,” Gilbert added. “We need to make the investment today before our wild places, favorite recreations areas and forests are buried forever under the coming flood of development.”

    The only way you could manage such great evil (i.e stopping development and the betterment of many fellow human beings), would be via sterilization or wholesale murder.

    By the way, this same US Forest Service concluded that privately owned forests are actually growing. America has more forests than it had in 1900, and NOT because of the US Forest Service or other bureaucratic crap. It is the result of more people owning land.

  29. “By the way, good luck taking that lonely planet walk anywhere in California.”

    I’ve spent a ton of time in California, along the coast, up in the mountains, and out in the desert. California is a giant, beautiful, EMPTY state. The vast majority of the state is completely unpopulated.

    Drive from Tahoe to Lone Pine. Go hiking in Joshua Tree or the Mojave Preserve. Go climbing in the Palisades. Camp on the beach in the King’s Range. As far as I can tell from my travels, there are no people in California at all, just amazing, empty wilderness.

  30. To all of the numerous “I don’t see that we are losing too much wilderness” posters–Maybe its just generational. Are any of you over 50? When I was a teenager hiking around southern Colorado, I remember hearing the “old-timers” complain about how things were so much wilder and pristine in their younger days, and I had no clue what they were talking about. I guess I’ve become a codger myself, but the truth is there was a lot more of nature to enjoy 35 years ago, and there will be a lot less 35 years from now. I don’t have a problem with the argument that it is wrong to restrict population growth a la China, but you’ll never convince me that population growth is necessarily a good thing. Furthermore, I’ve never understood the child tax credit–why is the government encouraging population growth? Do we need more draft-eligible people? A larger work force to pay for retiring baby boomers? That must be it.

    Francisco: I’m no fan of the Forest Service. It was the statistics that interested me.

  31. RC,

    “The perception that open space is decreasing is to a significant degree misplaced – the open space that is decreasing is that immediately adjacent to large population centers, where it disproportionately visible to pundits and activists.”

    It’s also quite visible to the overwhelming majority of Americans who live in those areas. Millions of acrese of woodland, desert, and prarie halfway across the country is nice, but it doesn’t really do much good for the people who don’t really have a chance to walk around in a green place very often.

    Of course, this is a problem of development patterns, not population growth per se.

  32. Lemur’s experience with the area around Seattle – with the opportunity to have access to open space increasing over the last few years, even as the population has grown steeply – demonstrate’s my point about effective preservation and planning for development, rather than population growth, being the key variable when it comes to usable open space. Seattle and its environs are one of the best-planned regions in the country. I’m glad it’s working out for you, Lemur.

  33. Joe: I think I agree with you. But if there wasn’t as much population growth, less planning and regulation would be necessary. That has always been the libertarian dilemma. It’s easy to be a libertarian when there are only two other people living within 15 miles of you.

  34. It’s also easy to be a libertarian when you are a fierce individualist and don’t like being told what to do. You then extrapolate from that that if you don’t like others telling you what to do, then you probably shouldn’t go around telling other people what to do.

    What I think would be interesting is to find out how many acres of wilderness have been purchased by conservation groups during the same period as the USFS data Ron cited above.

    Also, by all accounts, the population in the US has been steadily losing steam, and it may well be that we will soon stabilise if not beging reducing population. How is that possible? Well, it seems that wealthy, educated people living in a democratic society have fewer children. You can’t worry about saving the red-peckered woodpecker if you’re busy worrying about where your next meal is coming from or how you’re going to educate your children.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m very much saddened to see “wild” places polluted and developed. I see some benefit to some of our environmental laws. But at the same time, I think it behooves everyone to lessen the layers of beaurocratic bullshit and keep the money in the hands of the people who earn it. I daresay that many folks would help out those less fortunate, save the forests, etc, etc if they could choose where to spend their hard-earned money, and that the free exchange of ideas and capital would do a much better job at handling these things than a top-down, beaurocratic approach.

    History has shown this to be true time and again, so why people are still against it is beyond me. Maybe it’s our education system. 🙂

  35. Lowdog: After slogging my way through this thread today, I am convinced that much of this is “eye of the beholder” stuff. For example, you might very well cite New Hampshire to support your argument that you don’t have to have a lot of regulation to preserve a beautiful, scenic environment, while Joe might point to Vermont to make the opposite point, where I happen to live. I go to New Hampshire pretty often, and I am appalled by the development there, whereas I’m sure there are many who would say “what development”? Lemur talks about all these pristine places in California he has been to, and I have been to some beautiful places there, but I have also seen areas in California that are clearly less pristine today than they were 10 years ago, just from additional visitation. I’m not a “ten days in the backcountry” hiker, so I can’t really speak to the quality of those experiences over time, but I suspect the same type of deterioration is occuring, albeit at a slower rate.

    Regarding conservation organization activity, it has been a while since I have looked at statistics, but my recollection is that the activities by the Trust for Public Land (which has been very active in California) and Nature Conservancy are a drop in the bucket compared to acreage lost to development each year.

  36. Er, I thought all you people lived in the DC metro area? Doesn’t matter really; I imagine its the same in most metropolitan areas.

    Open space issues aside, the story a few weeks ago was that DC surpassed NY in terms of the longest commute times.

    I know a few “workin class joes” who spend 3 hours a day in their cars already as it is. So how do you figure a few hundred million more people are gonna impact that equation?

    If little niceties like sidewalks and corner bakeries are your shtick, fuhgedaboudit. Your life is work-walmart-garage. ‘ceptin for the weekly joy of applebees on a friday night…

    Kill me now.

  37. Places which are being developed in California – the Inland Empire, for example, or the Antelope Valley – are filling up with people who have moved here from somewhere else. They have left behind Kentucky, or Nova Scotia, or wherever the hell they came from. Those are the places where land is going fallow, and houses are not being built.

    People I know here in the city – myself included – buy up land – mythical, magical ACREAGE – in these other places, with every intention of leaving it the hell alone. That’s where we’re going to retire when we sell our precious homes in the city, you see?

    Seriously, though – the Nature Conservancy is a big deal here in California. I get the impression that the heavyweight land conservancies pick their battles with care, and use means both fair and foul to get the parcels they really care about. And then limit or restrict public access to said lands, once acquired. Which does give things on those parcels a chance to just *be* – without having to tolerate human traffic.

  38. I wouldn’t bank on real wages increasing over the next 50 years. They’ve been stagnant ever since the dot com crash and statistics that say different aren’t taking full inflation into consideration. Asia’s eating your lunch.

    Chomp, Chomp

  39. 1) Ron, your use of the word “deterioration” is question-begging. “Change” would not be.

    2) “I’m most familiar with what has been happening in Colorado the past 4 decades, and it is not a pretty sight.”

    To you. To the people who move there, it is indeed “pretty” (either aesthetically or economically compelling, or both), or they wouldn’t be moving there.

    3) Wouldn’t a partial solution be to make it as easy as possible to start new towns? Cities and megacities and “urban corridors” have been growing like tumors – maybe we should remove any and all barriers to those tumors’ metastasizing.

    Would you rather have a few megahypergigantocities and lots of open space, or many moderately sized cities?

  40. “[A}t 300 million, we are beginning to be crushed under the weight of our own quality-of-life degradation.”

    The federal government requires a constant rise in population in order to fund Social Security and Medicare; we have no choice but to keep adding massive amounts of newcomers to the pyramid otherwise the systems will collapse. The only question is whether we want to bite the bullet and address the problem now (not bloody likely) or dump it onto the future population (the popular choice by a landslide).

  41. Are you nuts? Explain to me how Air Travel has gotten any better over the past 20 years?

    I have to:

    1. Pay more for my ticket than I ever have
    2. Lose my luggage more than ever before
    3. Sit in a smaller seat with less leg room
    4. Not get any meals. Remember when there were meals?
    5. I’m about to have to start paying for soda.

    And this is AFTER an 11 Billion dollar bail-out package the feds gave them.

    There’s a special place in hell for Airline CEOs if you ask me.

  42. “3) Wouldn’t a partial solution be to make it as easy as possible to start new towns? Cities and megacities and “urban corridors” have been growing like tumors – maybe we should remove any and all barriers to those tumors’ metastasizing.’

    Yes, exactly!

  43. “[A}t 300 million, we are beginning to be crushed under the weight of our own quality-of-life degradation.”

    As an American who now lives in Germany (population 82 million, land area about 4% that of the US), I just want to say that Americans have waaay more space than they realize. Compared to most First World nations the US is underpopulated. To hear people whine about the quality-of-life issues in this regard is just insane, and indicates a certain lack of perspective on the part of anyone who writes it. Sure, not every person has a home on the range with neighbors outside of shooting distance, but that hardly means that Americans are struggling under the crushing weight of overpopulation.

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