Back in 1968, when I was a sophomore in college and the United States took a turn for the worse from which it has never quite recovered, biologist Paul Ehrlich published a best-seller called “The Population Bomb” that envisioned a dire future for the world due to overpopulation.
The book itself fizzled out over time as Ehrlich’s visions of famines, plagues, and wars failed to materialize quite as he imagined. But while Ehrlich may have gotten the particulars wrong, his major point was absolutely correct – population growth is the most serious problem facing humankind.
Funny though, in all the rhetoric about climate change, rising sea levels, greenhouse gases, energy alternatives, agricultural sustainability, economic crisis, immigration policy, and refugee issues, you rarely if ever hear anyone suggest that the root of all our global and national problems is overpopulation. But it is. There are too many people in the world and too many people in the United States. We could use a few less people in Maine as well.
So what ever happened to the ZPG (zero population growth) movement that was once such an integral part of environmentalism? If we had all just replaced ourselves (two kids per couple) and gotten out of the way, we might not be in some of our current environmental, energy, economic, and ethical dilemmas.
(Easy for me to say. I have three daughters.)
When I was born in 1949, there were 152 million people in America and 2.5 billion people in the world. Today, there are 308 million in America and close to 7 billion in the world. Ehrlich was right. How can a doubling or tripling of population in one lifetime not be an explosion, a population bomb?
My parents were part of the Greatest Generation, those selfless folks who did what had to be done. But, of course, it was the Greatest Generation that ignited the post-World War II baby boom. Now I have a feeling that my generation, the 76 million Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964, will be remembered as the Grossest Generation, selfish folks who insisted on doing their own thing.
If you want to understand graphically why Social Security and Medicare have become such contentious national issues and why MaineCare is under attack here in Maine, just look at population pyramids from 1950 and 2010.
In 1950, a U.S. population diagram resembled a Christmas tree with a broad base of young people tapering on up to the oldest at the top. Plenty of worker bees to support their elders. Today, the bloated pyramid is approaching a solid rectangle, a fat demographic top-heavy with oldsters. The median age in this country has gone from 30.2 in 1950 to 37.2 in 2010.
Here in Maine, the oldest state in the nation, the median age is a gray and grizzly 42.7 years. It’s not welfare fraud or freeloaders that are putting a strain on social services, governor; it’s us, you and me. We’re old.
I’d like to think that a lot of the population-based problems in the country – demand for social services, energy, food, jobs, etc. – will disappear once the big bubble of Baby Boomers passes through the system and out of existence. Unfortunately, just about as many Americans were born in the 18 years between 1988 and 2006 as in the 18 years between 1946 and 1964. The birth rate has come way down as the population has increased, but the sheer numbers have not. And it’s those sheer numbers that have to eat, stay warm, get educated, find jobs, and stay healthy.
Come 2050, when I will be 101 if I’m still around, the population of the United States is projected to be 440 million.