Social Issues

Mo' Better People

As America's population hits 300 million people, will we re-live the Summer of Love?


Welcome to America, pop. 300 million. This morning, at the faux-precise time of 7:46 a.m., one more person joined the other 299,999,999 of us already here. I slept through it, but I don't seem to have missed much.

When America hit the 200 million mark in 1967, people were worried. Congress was worried. Nixon was worried. Perhaps concerned that all the Love that Summer had produced too many people, President Richard Nixon would later write:

One of the most serious challenges to human destiny in the last third of this century will be the growth of the population. Whether man's response to that challenge will be a cause for pride or for despair in the year 2000 will depend very much on what we do today.

And so the Rockefeller Commission was born, to "study the matter." Two years later, it delivered the Report of the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, which declared that "our country can no longer afford the uncritical acceptance of the population growth ethic that 'more is better,'" and announced that "no substantial benefits would result from continued growth of the nation's population."

The commission was careful not to espouse anything that sounded too much like outright eugenics, instead choosing the more modest solution of redefining of human nature:

It is comfortable to believe that changes in values or in the political system are unnecessary, and that measures such as population education and better fertility control information and services will solve our population problem. They will not, however, for such solutions do not go to the heart of man's relationship with nature, himself, and society. According to this view, nothing less than a different set of values toward nature, the transcendence of a laissez-faire market system, a redefinition of human identity in terms other than consumerism, and a radical change if not abandonment of the growth ethic, will suffice.

Another product of the same era, Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, took the lessons of the Rockefeller report a step further in practical terms. John Tierney, acolyte of Ehrlich's nemesis Julian Simon, recounted this telling anecdote ($):

Under prodding from Westerners like Robert McNamara, the head of the World Bank, countries adopted "fertility targets" to achieve "optimal" population size. When an Indian government official proposed mandatory sterilization for men with three or more children, Paul Ehrlich criticized the United States for not rushing to help. "We should have volunteered logistic support in the form of helicopters, vehicles, and surgical instruments," he wrote, and added: "Coercion? Perhaps, but coercion in a good cause."

Turns out it's a good thing we didn't institute a commando corps of OBGYNs. Contrary to Ehrlich's—and Nixon's—worst fear, there were no famines caused by overpopulation. No food riots broke out in the streets of Chicago. We didn't run out of land to farm and develop. In fact, the United States isn't running out of room at all, despite the difficulty of finding an apartment in Manhattan. The country has very low population density—only about 80 people per square mile, compared with 876 in Japan (and eight people per square mile in Canada, which we can always annex if we need more room later on). Our birthrate has drifted, very gently, down to 2.0 children per woman, just a bit less than replacement rate. Immigrants are keeping our numbers up. And while it's true that metropolitan areas are growing denser, only 4.7 percent of American land is developed.

And contra the Rockefeller Commission's finding that "there is hardly any social problem confronting this nation whose solution would be easier if our population were larger" one big one now looms—the Social Security crisis.

The Population Research Institute (motto: "Putting People First"), which lives for moments like this, says 300 million people isn't nearly enough:

According to United Nations figures, the percentage of the American population 65 or over will rise from 12.3 percent today to 20.6 percent by 2050. The proportion of Americans 80 or over will rise from 3.6 percent to 7.3 percent of the population. Our worker-to-retiree ratio is already at a dangerous 3-to-1. By 2050, it will be 2-to-1. And those retirees will be living much longer than they do today thanks to beneficial improvements in health care. We've been trying to make up for our low birthrate though lots of immigration, which has created its own problems. But if Americans won't create the next generation, then it must be imported.

When the population bomb turned out to be the population cap gun, neo-Malthusians of various stripes had to regroup. There's something quite reasonable and intuitive about worrying that we're eventually going to run out of something, but once it became clear that it wasn't food or space, it took a while to settle on what we should worry about instead. Water is a contender, as is oil. Global warming is a pretty solid catchall. But it's consumerism that seizes the hearts of doomsayers time and time again.

The rhetoric has changed but little since 1967, and the underlying message is comfortingly familiar: "It's not the population, it's the consumption that can do us in," William Frey, a demographer for the Brookings Institution told the AP. "These are the luxuries we have been able to support until now. But we're not going to be able to do it forever."

The Rockefeller Commission made the same point 34 years ago:

The United States today is characterized by low population density, considerable open space, a declining birthrate, movement out of the central cities—but that does not eliminate the concern about population. This country, or any country, always has a "population problem," in the sense of achieving a proper balance between size, growth, and distribution on the one hand, and, on the other, the quality of life to which every person in this country aspires.

In their preface to the report, the commission wrote: "Consideration of the population issue raises profound questions of what people want, what they need—indeed, what they are for." They're absolutely right, and—with the 300 millionth person lurking in the shadows—we're at it again. Groovy.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is Reason's associate editor.