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population pressures > newsfile > us population hits 300 million, but is it sustainable?

US population hits 300 million, but is it sustainable?

Posted: 11 Oct 2006

by Andrew Buncombe

The population of the United States passed 300 million in the middle of October. No one knows exactly where, no one know precisely when. It is a milestone for sure but is this a cause for celebration or anxiety?

Some American commentators are already saying the landmark is a chance to note the US is perhaps the only country in the developed world where the economy is being bolstered by a population that is growing at a discernable rate. But many experts say passing the 300 million milestone should be a wake-up call that demands a reappraisal of the extraordinary, unparalleled rate of consumption by the world's largest economy and its third largest by population.

As an economic model for the rest of the world to follow - in particular the rapidly developing economies of China and India - it is unsustainable, they say.

On a global scale the average US citizen uses far more than his or her fair share of the planet's resources - consuming more than four times the worldwide average of energy, almost three times as much water and producing more than twice the average amount of rubbish and five times the amount of carbon dioxide, a major contributor to global warming. The US - with five per cent of the world's population - uses 23 per cent of its energy, 15 per cent of its meat and 28 per cent of its paper. Additional population will mean more people seeking a share of those often-limited resources.

1915: US population reaches 100 million 1967: US passes 200 million
The population of America hit the 100-million mark in 1915, two years before President Woodrow Wilson would enter the First World War. Americans were stunned by the sinking of the British liner, 'Lusitania', enthralled by Charlie Chaplin and arguing about immigration. "There is here a great melting pot in which we must compound a precious metal," said Wilson, as a million European immigrants poured into the US each year.

The 'great white hope' Jess Willard beat black boxing champion Jack Johnson in a dubious bout in Havana; Marines were dispatched to Haiti after a mob killed its president and the Ku Klux Klan was reestablished as a 'benevolent' organisation.

By 1967, when the US population hit 200m, the US was up to its neck in the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight title for refusing the draft, dozens were killed in race riots in Detroit, and San Francisco was beguiled by the Summer of Love.

Eugene McCarthy said he would run for president, the 25th Amendment to the Constitution was passed allowing for a transfer of power to the vice-president if the president was incapacitated and three Apollo astronauts burned to death during a simulation at Cape Canaveral. The millionth telephone was installed in the US. Hit films included The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night and Bonnie and Clyde.

It may be that America's citizen number 300,000,000 will be an undocumented migrant, born to undocumented parents somewhere in the South or the West, where population growth is the fastest. Almost one-third of America's annual population growth of between 0.9 per cent and 1 per cent is the result of immigration - much of it illegal.

"America is the only industrialised nation in the world experiencing significant population growth," Victoria Markham, the director of the Centre for Environment and Population (CEP), says in a new report. "The nation's relatively high rates of population growth, natural resource consumption and pollution combine to create the largest environmental impact, felt both within the nation and around the world." She adds: " The US has become a 'super-size' nation, with lifestyles reflected in super-sized appetites for food, houses, land and resource consumption. 'More of more' seems to characterise modern-day America - more people than any generation before us experienced, more natural resources being utilised to support everyday life and more major impacts on the natural systems that support life on earth."

Some commentators believe this growth has a modest impact on the nation's resources and can bring many benefits. Greg Easterbrook, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based, independent research and policy institute, recently wrote: "What should not worry us about continuing US population growth ... is the question of whether we can handle it - we can," he said.

Lester Brown, the director of the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental group also based in Washington, said: "In times past, reaching such a demographic milestone might have been a cause for celebration - in 2006 it is not. Population growth is the ever-expanding denominator that gives each person a shrinking share of the resource pie. It contributes to water shortages, cropland conversion to non-farm uses, traffic congestion, more garbage, overfishing, crowding in national parks, a growing dependence on imported oil and other conditions that diminish the quality of our daily lives."

Mr Brown said there was also a global perspective to America's rapacious model of consumption. In addition to foreign policy decisions at least influenced by a desire to secure diminishing resources, he said the US was setting an example to the developing world that was unsustainable. "We used to think of the developing countries as places that did not consume very much ... But it is starting to change and they are beginning to behave like us and heading for income levels like us," he said.

If China's economy continued to grow at 8 per cent a year, Mr Brown said, income levels in that country would equal the 2004 US level by 2031, by which time China's population would stand at 1.45 billion.

If current consumption rates were multiplied to take into account its population growth, China's paper consumption would be double the current total world production of paper and its vehicle fleet would be 1.1 billion; the world's current total fleet is 800 million.

"What China is teaching us is that the Western economic model is not going to work for China and if it will not work for China it will not work for India and in the long-term ... it will not work for us as well," he said.

It was in 1915 that the US population reached 100 million. Fifty-two years later, in 1967, it reached 200 million. It has taken just 39 more years for the milestone of 300 million to be achieved.

As its population reaches 300m, how America is eating the world
Expected population of the United States by the end of this week

Life expectancy for men in the US. Women are expected to live until 80

Life expectancy for men in the developing world. Women are expected to live until 67

Projected population of the US by 2050

number of vehicles on US roads

Percentage of the total cars in the world on America's roads

1 in 7
Barrels of world oil supply used by US drivers

Number of Americans who drive SUVs

US annual water consumption per capita

The world's annual water consumption per capita

The developing world's annual water withdrawals per capita

US Gross National Income per head, 2004

World's GNI per head

Developing world's GNI per head

US carbon dioxide emissions per capita, in metric tonnes

World's carbon dioxide emissions per head, in tonnes

Developing world's carbon dioxide emissions per head, in tonnes

Number of burgers consumed by Americans every year

Number of Americans who are obese

Deaths per year related to obesity

US annual paper consumption per head

The corresponding figure for the world

The figure for the developing world

US energy consumption per capita, 2001, expressed in kilograms of oil

World's energy consumption per capita, in kilograms of oil

Corresponding figure for the developing world

Amount of waste each US resident produces per day. That compares with about 3lbs per person per day in Europe, and about 0.9-1.3lbs per person a day in the developing world

COMMENT: Andrew Gumbel
Americans want it all, and hang the consequences

In the 1970s film Five Easy Pieces, Toni Basil plays a hippie who is hitch-hiking to Alaska (in Jack Nicholson's car) because it's the only place she can think of that is still clean. The rest of the US, she frets, is filling up with more and more "crap". "They got so many stores and stuff and junk full of crap, I can't believe it," she says. "Pretty soon, there won't be any room for man."

The film came out in 1971 and coincided almost exactly with the birth of the modern environmental movement, the launch of Earth Day, and the realisation that the limitless consumption of the capitalist-era American Dream simply could not go on forever. In the intervening years, the accumulation of rubbish has continued pretty much unabated - not helped by a population increase of almost 100 million people, and an orgy of environmental deregulation of industry. But so too has the level of anxiety about the consequences.

Today's counterparts to Toni Basil's character are still relatively marginal figures, if less eccentric in their obsessions. They also tend to be rich and successful - environmental consciousness now carries a high price tag.

Of course, they go to open-air farmer's markets to seek out pesticide-free organic fruit and vegetables supplied by small, family growers but they also pay a premium for it. They might drive energy-efficient, low-emission hybrid cars but they also pay more for their fancy petrol-electric engines than they are likely to recuperate in petrol savings over the lifetime of their car.

The same is true for many other aspects of environmental consciousness. Who uses washable cloth nappies rather than throwaway ones? Who has solar panels installed on their roof? Only those who can afford them.

The severely limited impulse to conserve is not only about economics. It is also deeply cultural. The United States is a place where the prevailing instinct is to want it all, no matter the consequences. Sure, there may be wars in the Middle East, Islamic militants on the march, smog in the air, pollutants in the water, hurricanes, floods and other tangible side-effects of global warming but that's not going to stop most people from hankering after a big car and a big house with state-of-the-art gadgets.

Cutting back is not cool or sexy. Given the choice between laboriously reviving old city centres with apartment renovations and corner shops, or ripping up cornfields to create suburban developments with huge houses and monster shopping malls, most Americans opt for the monster.

People certainly have mixed feelings. At the height of the Iraq war, it was not uncommon to see huge, gas-guzzling four-wheel-drives sporting "No Blood for Oil" stickers. Americans aren't happy about their obesity epidemic or their tendency to overspend in grocery stores or over-order in restaurants, even while they consume 200bn calories a day more than they need and throw away around 200,000 tons of edible food each day.

But will anything ever change? Telling Americans to consume less doesn't work. Giving them environmentally smarter versions of the same things - more fuel-efficient cars, better insulated houses, less heavily packaged food - may be a more promising avenue. Until the government, however, gets serious about forcing manufacturers to produce these things, the age of the more rational American consumer will remain a distant prospect.

Andrew Buncombe and Andrew Gumbel are both staff writers with The Independent.

Copyright: © The Independent (2006), reproduced with kind permission.

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