To 300 million and beyond

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The population of the United States will pass 300 million this month, says the Census Bureau. Only about 220 more years, according to my deeply unscientific extrapolations of United Nations population projections, and we’ll pass China!

China will start losing population towards the middle of this century, predicts the UN’s Population Division. Japan and Europe will begin shrinking well before that. The most dramatic population losses will be in Eastern Europe, which already began its decline in the 1990s and is expected to lose another quarter of its current 295 million inhabitants by 2050. The world’s population should peak sometime in the latter half of the century, at around 9 billion.

Meanwhile the U.S. will keep chugging along, barring of course a major crackdown on immigration or a mass loss of interest in making babies.

Some worrywarts, like the group Negative Population Growth, see this as cause for great alarm. NPG is launching a “Wake Up America” ad campaign keyed on the 300 million milestone to warn us of the dire consequences of population growth:

Productive farmland is being paved over, fragile wetlands are falling victim to population pressures, urban sprawl is suffocating our cities and suburbs, and we are fast depleting the limited water and energy supplies we will need to survive as a strong and productive nation.

Given how sparsely populated the U.S. is by the standards of much of Europe and Asia, I tend to think this kind of talk is nonsense. If we are in fact depleting our resources and letting sprawl suffocate our cities, it’s because we’re profligate and stupid, not because there are too many of us.

Five people driving Priuses use up less gas than one in a Hummer H2. City apartments take up a lot less space and use lot less energy than exurban McMansions. And as this article in today’s New York Times (registration required) points out, we’re actually getting pretty good at controlling urban water use. Population growth isn’t in and of itself an environmental disaster–and population loss certainly isn’t turning Eastern Europe into an environmental paradise.

Rapid population growth in poor countries usually involves a collision between tradition and medical advances that allow more children to survive childbirth, and is a temporary phenomenon. There’s some of that at work in the United States among poorer immigrants. But this country’s continued growth seems mainly to be a product of the optimism and economic opportunity that reign here and not in much of the rest of the developed world. Which is something to celebrate, not bemoan.