High School Students Are Very Worried About Overpopulation. They Shouldn't Be.

New report claims U.S. overpopulation will blight their futures.



American high school students are very worried about overpopulation, according to Negative Population Growth (NPG). The group bases this claim on the responses to a questionnaire it distributed to hundreds of 9th- to 12th-grade teachers across the nation.

Founded in 1972, during the heyday of overpopulation hysteria, NPG's goal is "to slow, halt, and eventually reverse U.S. population growth—eventually stabilizing at a size that is sustainable over the long term." America's "optimal population," it adds, is "approximately 150–200 million people (our nation's size in 1970)." Here are the results of its not-so-scientific survey:

If we stay on track with the present rate of population growth, America will add 90 to 100 million more people (almost 1/3 of the number of people who live here now) by the time you are 40–50 years old. How concerned are you about living in such an overcrowded nation? Very Concerned: 25%, Somewhat concerned: 43%, Not very concerned: 23%, No Opinion: 5%.

How worried are you that an ever-increasing population will continue to use up the Earth's limited reserves of fresh water, fertile soil, forests and fisheries? Very Worried: 29%, Somewhat worried: 38%, Not too worried: 20%, No Opinion: 13%.

Do you believe people should do all they can to solve the world's environmental problems even if it proves to be a very costly endeavor? Yes: 55%, No: 12%, No Opinion: 33%.

Do you think America's schools should put more emphasis on teaching about the consequences of population growth? Yes: 35%, No: 33%, No Opinion: 32%.

Do you feel that future Americans in the 22nd century potentially living in an environmentally-damaged nation would be right or wrong to think that we did not care enough to put limits on population growth to keep environmental problems from spinning out of control? Right: 45%, Wrong: 22%, No Opinion: 33%.

The questionnaire was basically a push poll—that is, an ostensible survey whose true objective is to sway voters using loaded or manipulative questions. Consider this one: "How worried are you that an ever-increasing population will continue to use up the Earth's limited reserves of fresh water, fertile soil, forests and fisheries?" It assumes that some deleterious trends exist and then asks if you're concerned about them. Yet NPG is wrong about the trends: America's "limited reserves" of those alliterative resources are not actually being used up.

Fresh water? Pacific Institute co-founder Peter Gleick points out that the U.S. has long since passed "peak water." The amount of water withdrawn from sources such as lakes or rivers in 2010 was lower than at any time going back to 1970. Often, a portion of this water is returned to the source and is available to be used again. During that time, U.S. population has grown by more than a third and GDP has nearly quadrupled.

Fertile soil? Wind and water erosion of soil has fallen by 44 percent in the U.S. since 1982. The U.S. Department of Agriculture further reports: "In 2007, 408 million acres of agricultural land were in cropland (down 17 percent from 1949), 614 million acres were in pasture and range (down 3 percent), 127 million acres were in grazed forestland (down 52 percent), and 12 million acres were in farmsteads and farm roads (down 19 percent). Nonagricultural uses have increased from 37 to 49 percent of the land base." Farmers are getting more crops from less land. For example, corn yields have soared from around 40 bushels per acre in 1960 to nearly 180 bushels per acre today. Wheat yields have more than doubled since 1960, from 30 to 65 bushels per acre.

Forests? They're expanding. The area covered by forests in the U.S. has increased from 721 million acres in 1920 to 766 million acres in 2012.

Fisheries? This story is not as happy. That's largely because many are still managed as common areas by government bureaucracies. Nevertheless, a 2014 study reported that of the 44 overfished stocks examined, 19 showed significant increases in rate of biomass recovery; none of the 44 showed statistically significant declines in rate of biomass recovery. The increased allocation of individually tradeable quotas means that the health and yields of most fisheries will likely improve.

Now let's consider the claim that today's high school students will be "living in such an overcrowded nation." When I was born, the population of the U.S. was 160 million; it now stands at 320 million. But kids today are very unlikely to see another doubling of U.S. (or world) population. America's total fertility rate—the average number of children a woman is expected to have over the course of her lifetime—has fallen to a record low of 1.84. The minimum rate needed to keep a country's population from shrinking is generally thought to be 2.1. Minus immigration, U.S. population will begin to decline during the lifetimes of today's high school students.

What about the notion of overcrowding? America's current population density is 85 people per square mile. The NPG projects that it will rise to 105 people per square mile by 2050. Assume, for the sake of argument, that that's true. The current densities elsewhere are 660 people per square mile in the United Kingdom, 593 in Germany, 373 in China, and 295 in France. And if for some reason today's high school students do feel overcrowded, they might consider moving to one of the 1,660 out of 3,142 U.S. counties—that's 53 percent of them—that are emptying out.

Meanwhile if current economic, technological, and ecological trends continue, those students needn't worry so much about "living in an environmentally-damaged nation." The Environmental Protection Agency reports that air pollution has fallen by 67 percent since 1980, although it must be acknowledged that water pollution trends are not as positive.

In his 1982 book The Coming Boom, the brilliant futurist Herman Kahn pleaded for the return of "an ideology of progress." Kahn warned that

Two out of three Americans polled in recent years believe that their grandchildren will not live as well as they do, i.e., they tend to believe the vision of the future that is taught in our school system. Almost every child is told that we are running out of resources; that we are robbing future generations when we use these scarce, irreplaceable, or nonrenewable resources in silly, frivolous and wasteful ways; that we are callously polluting the environment beyond control; that we are recklessly destroying the ecology beyond repair; that we are knowingly distributing foods which give people cancer and other ailments but continue to do so in order to make a profit.

It would be hard to describe a more unhealthy, immoral, and disastrous educational context, every element of which is either largely incorrect, misleading, overstated, or just plain wrong. What the school system describes, and what so many Americans believe, is a prescription for low morale, higher prices and greater (and unnecessary) regulations.

NPG is still trying to scare schoolchildren into believing these "largely incorrect, misleading, overstated, or just plain wrong" fables of imminent environmental doom. Shame on them.