Leon Kolankiewicz's picture

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  by  Leon Kolankiewicz
A Bad, Bad Idea

Journalist Matthew Yglesias, co-founder of the progressive website Vox, occasionally has some good ideas. But Yglesias also has some really, really bad ideas, as when he claims the United States is “empty” and advocates in his new book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, for a tripling of the U.S. population from 330 million at present to one billion – or 1,000,000,000 – just so we can better compete with China on the world stage.

One of China’s most infamous features (along with its totalitarianism) is its population of 1.4 billion This led to the implementation of the Chinese communist government’s draconian “one-child” policy decades ago, which has rightly been condemned worldwide.

Yglesias would have America follow China’s bad example on population size. It reminds one of George Orwell’s quip that “some ideas are so bad that only intellectuals believe them.” And Vox writers, apparently. At least Yglesias is a bit self-aware, admitting in his recent New York Intelligencer article that his plan “sounds a little loopy.” Not just a little loopy, Matt – downright crazy!

Bigfoot Lives

Let’s start with America’s ecological footprint (EF), as calculated by the analysts at the Global Footprint Network. The EF is a widely used, if imperfect, index of overall ecological sustainability.

According to EF analysis, the United States, at just its current population and levels of consumption – to say nothing of Yglesias’ call for a population 670 million (3x) larger – is already deep into “ecological overshoot,” that is, living far beyond our ecological means.

In 2016, the most recent year for which EF data are available, the U.S., with a population of 322 million (8 million less than today) and a per capita GDP of $52,319, showed a per capita EF of 20 global acres and a per capita ecological deficit of 11 global acres (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Trends in U.S. Ecological Footprint, Biocapacity, and Ecological Deficit, 1961 to 2016
Source: Global Footprint Network, Country Trends

The U.S. has the biggest per capita EF of any large country on the planet. And in aggregate, only the U.S., China, and India – not coincidentally the three most populous nations on the planet – have total ecological footprints in excess of one billion hectares (2.5 billion acres).

According to The Overpopulation Project, if every country on the Earth had the same per capita EF as Americans, it would take five Planet Earths to be ecological sustainable. But if Yglesias were ever to get his way, it would take 15 Planet Earths to meet America’s ecological demands on the biosphere. For a supposedly conscientious progressive to push for such a selfish imposition of one country upon the collective wellbeing is nothing short of unconscionable.

Climate? What Climate?

How about carbon emissions and climate change? Yglesias cheerfully waves away these concerns by dismissing global warming as an issue that is, well, global, and therefore U.S. emissions are irrelevant. But that is not how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the U.N.’s Paris Climate Agreement view matters. These bodies call upon individual countries – not just generic, random “global citizens” – to make firm commitments to reduce their emissions.

How could three times the number of American energy users and carbon emitters substantially cut our aggregate U.S. carbon emissions? Through magic and technological wizardry, that’s how! The same magic that would, say, allow a dieter to consume three times as many calories but still lose weight!

This is the sort of absurd, fanciful and wishful thinking that Yglesias indulges in when he writes that: “what is needed is a wholesale re-creation of our energy infrastructure to make sustainable power sufficiently abundant that population would become less relevant.” Just snap your fingers, Matt, wish upon a star, and Voila!

Land’s End

Accommodating three times as many Americans will require more land – a lot more land, on which to build our homes, offices, shopping centers, freeways, schools, warehouses, factories, power plants, and other buildings and infrastructure.

All of this land is now open space or rural land – that is, beleaguered farmland or wildlife habitat – that will have to be “converted” (aka “paved over” and lost permanently) into developed or urbanized land to accommodate Yglesias’ feverish dream of hundreds of millions of additional American consumers.

At NumbersUSA, our series of sprawl studies document that in recent decades immigration-driven U.S. population growth has accounted for the lion’s share of urban sprawl, and that percentage of sprawl related to population growth has increased over time.

Nationwide, from 1982 to 2015, approximately 43 million acres (68,750 square miles) – an area about the size of Florida – of previously undeveloped rural land was paved over to make way for our growing cities and towns. The total cumulative amount of developed land was 72.1 million acres in 1982. By 2015, this cumulative total had risen to 115 million acres.

This is about equal in size to the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, New York, and Pennsylvania, in other words, all of New England and then some. All of this land was originally developed from either agricultural land or natural habitat. In essence, every additional person added to the United States population entails the development of about a third to half an acre of farmland or natural habitat.

If the same rate of cropland conversion and loss that has prevailed in recent decades were to continue all the way to the year 2100 – just 80 years from now – America will have lost nearly an additional 193 million acres of its remaining 361 million acres of cropland, for a total cumulative loss of 253 million acres.

Only 168 million acres would then remain – about 40 percent of the original endowment – and none of this acreage would be in pristine condition after two centuries or so of intensive exploitation. The acreage per food consumer will have dropped precipitously (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Projected Long-term Decline in Cropland per Person
Its soils and nutrients, while perhaps not exhausted, would require even greater inputs of costly fertilizers. Two of the most crucial fertilizers – ammonium nitrate, produced from natural gas, and phosphorus, produced from phosphate mines – may be far more expensive, perhaps prohibitively so, in 2100 than at present, due to the inexorable depletion of the highest-quality reserves of these non-renewable resources.

Keep in mind that this is under Business-As-Usual growth scenario, not the Yglesias Megagrowth-on-Steroids Nightmare. Yet even so, we are demanding more and more food to feed more and more people with less and less cropland because those additional people require additional land to live on. There will be intensified competition for our limited productive land base because it just so happens that the best land and soils to build on is the best land to grow crops on.

Whither or Wither Wildlife?
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 now lists 1,275 species and subspecies of flora and fauna as endangered (at risk of extinction in the wild) and another 388 as threatened (at risk of becoming endangered). Listing entitles a species to protections that substantially increase its chances at avoiding extinction – at averting permanent oblivion at the hands of man. One such measure is designating “critical habitat” deemed crucial for an imperiled population’s recovery. The bald eagle, osprey, peregrine falcon, brown pelican, California condor, whooping crane, alligator, crocodile, manatee, black-footed ferret (Figure 3) and many other species all owe their continued existence and recovery to the ESA. Under the Yglesias proposal, the number of threatened and endangered species will skyrocket as human demands on wildlife habitat surge. No ifs, ands, or buts.

Figure 3. The federally endangered black-footed ferret, which feeds on prairie dogs, is a member of Mustelidae, the weasel family, and is related to weasels, mink, river and sea otters, wolverines, and badgers

A 2019 study by scientists with Conservation Science Partners for the Center for American Progress identified urban, agricultural, energy, and transportation stressors as the major causes in the loss and fragmentation of wildlife habitat in the lower 48 states. Population growth already exacerbates each of these factors, and if Matt Yglesias and others of his ilk prevail, what is left of our wildlife will be crushed under an unprecedented onslaught of new wind and solar farms, roads, subdivisions and strip malls, mines, dams and reservoirs, power lines and pipelines, habitat fragmentation, deforestation, oil and gas drilling – all that additional “stuff” needed to support more human lives. Vastly more people would mean vastly more aggregate energy production and consumption, hence more land needed for petroleum exploration and development, coal mines, wind farms (Figure 4), solar arrays, and so forth.

Figure 4. With one billion Americans, more and more pristine landscapes will have to be plastered and disfigured with “clean, green” renewable energy facilities like this industrial-scale wind farm at San Gorgonio Pass in California

Figure 5. Where will the buffalo roam in the future if Americans become bullish on a billion? Lone bison grazes at Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in western Oklahoma

Lest We Forget
Noise, traffic congestion, groundwater and surface water depletion, non-renewable (mineral, metal, fossil fuels) resource depletion, air and water pollution, and soil erosion would all worsen substantially. The pursuit of authentic environmental sustainability would become far more of a pipe dream than it already is. Our beloved national parks would come to resemble overcrowded theme parks – Disneyland with a few more trees – rather than natural treasures. Many already do. The problem would worsen considerably. Light pollution from the glare of trillions of new lights would blight dark skies (Figure 6). It would obliterate views of the Milky Way that have inspired our ancestors for tens of millennia and instilled a humility lacking in anyone who thinks an America of one billion residents would be a better place.

Figure 6. Composite Satellite Image of the United States at Night. With a billion people and roughly three times as many lights, thousands of stars would disappear into the glare of billions of additional lights; stargazing would disappear as a pastime

Apologists for the Yglesias vision would undoubtedly plead and push for higher density (Figure 7) as a means of taming urban sprawl and reducing the aggregate footprint of two billion feet. Yet the Covid-19 pandemic has cooled Americans’ enthusiasm for living in vertical communities. Mass transit (subways, buses), elevators, apartments stacked like rabbit hutches, and even crowded city parks all contributed to the spread of the virus.

Figure 7. Density to the Rescue! The Covid-19 pandemic revealed one major Achilles heel of high population density – facilitating the spread of infectious, contagious diseases without severe, coercive, and controversial measures to check the spread. Whither freedom?
Environmental Dystopia
One billion Americans is the last thing America needs. Indeed, a fundamental commitment to environmental and economic sustainability would point us in the opposite direction. News flash for Matt Yglesias: Bigger Is Not Always Better.

I thought that we Americans had established a long time ago – round about the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, half a damn century ago – that there can simply be too much of a good thing. It’s disheartening to see someone supposedly so woke and enlightened still laboring under the delusion that infinite growth on a finite planet is possible or desirable in the third decade of the 21st century. The hour is late for that kind of retrograde thinking.

Judging from their scathing comments, many of Yglesias’ environmentally aware readers at the Intelligencer would appear to agree:

"God forbid the economy of China becomes larger than ours, because then we would no longer be 'on top.' To prevent this, let's pave the country over and triple our population."

• "Wide open spaces are one of the beauties of this country--places where one can stretch out the soul. Yglesias would take that away."

• "My commute is bad enough, as it is. Hard pass."


Earth to Matt: I am round and finite, not flat and infinite. America to Matt: Spare me your gratuitous delusions of grandeur! Environment and natural resources to Matt: We are not a dismissible afterthought or luxury, but the very foundations of a sustainable civilization. Is Matt’s proposal dangerous or merely a whimsical flight of fancy? Either way, it’s a non-starter.

LEON KOLANKIEWICZ is the Scientific Director for NumbersUSA

Updated: Fri, Sep 11th 2020 @ 7:47pm EDT

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