Do we have room for a billion Americans?

September 6, 2020

As I was reading Matthew Yglesias’ piece “The Case for Adding 672 Million More Americans,” the Soviet-era designation of Mother Heroine, initiated by Joseph Stalin in 1944, came to mind. Stalin and subsequent Soviet leaders gave Mother Heroine medals to mothers who bore and raised 10 or more children. Lesser honors were provided for mothers who bore and raised between five and nine children. There is some mention of additional financial assistance from the state to those with such large families, but I could not find much information on this.

For America’s version of Mother Heroines (and Heroes), Yglesias proposes “not just paid leave but financial assistance, preschool and after-care services, reasonable summer programming, and affordable college for all qualified studenst”—all in order to encourage larger families (which he claims Americans actually want).

Yglesias thinks we need to increase our population so that we will be able to compete with 1.4 billion Chinese. Whether you think competing with the Chinese is important or not, there is a problem with the hidden metaphor that Yglesias is using throughout his piece. He is imagining that the United States of America is like the family room in your home. Normally, you might have two or three members in the room at once, watching television, reading, or munching on snacks. But actually, you could fit 10 or maybe even 15 people in the room comfortably if you rearrange the furniture.

So, Yglesias thinks if we, so to speak, rearrange America’s furniture a bit—build more housing near major metropolitan areas, provide more assistance to families, encourage more legal immigration—we can reach 1 billion in population. “America should aspire to be the greatest nation on earth,” he tells us.

But there is one little problem: America is not like a big family room filled with endless snack bowls for guests. America is an ecological territory just like every other square foot of the planet. There are vast areas of America that are desert or classified as arid, especially in the West. That’s one reason those areas are not “full.” There simply isn’t enough water.

I suppose it would be theoretically possible to stuff the extra people in areas with more water. But there is still the question of whether an America pumping out vastly more greenhouse gases and chemical waste, eating more of the declining amount of food it grows (because so much farmland will have to be sacrificed to new housing) and more of the fish from the sea, and using more of its already tainted and taxed fresh water supply would simply be unworkable and deadly for the entire human race. After all, even at our present population, the United States is far over its biocapacity to serve the needs of those living here from our own resources.

Of course, we just import whatever else we need. But in Yglesias’ future many OTHER nations will be increasing their population and consequently need to import (and run down supplies of) resources in ways that create all the negative consequences mentioned above. We cannot by definition have a world in which every country is a net importer of food, water and other essentials. It seems Yglesias missed Herman Daly’s seminal Scientific American piece, “Economics in a Full World.”

I am increasingly amazed at the ability of otherwise intelligent people to ignore completely the systemically destabilizing threats of climate change and the depletion of soil, water, fisheries, energy and key metals and pretend that global society will move forward along uninterrupted trend lines extrapolated from the past.

The path to 1 billion Americans, it turns out, is no path at all. It is a fantasy that is only made plausible if we ignore all the deteriorating indices of planetary health.

Photo: Crowd watching a sports event. Audience, Merfelder Bruch, Dülmen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany; Wildpferdefang 2014 Via Wkimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Merfeld,_Wildpferdefang,_Vorprogramm_–_2014_–_0487.jpg

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: Population