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The people problem:
Will anyone take up Gaylord Nelson's fight against overpopulation?
By Rob Zaleski
August 22, 2005

"I don't think most people understand where we're headed." - Gaylord Nelson in 1994, on the perils of overpopulation

That he was a man of exceptional wisdom and courage seems beyond dispute.

But while dozens of pundits and politicians paid tribute to Gaylord Nelson following his death on July 3 at age 89 and lauded him for his sterling environmental record, most made passing or no reference to the issue to which the father of Earth Day devoted the last decade of his life: overpopulation.

It is, Nelson had maintained, not only a critical issue for the future of mankind, but the most compelling issue of them all.

Bill Christofferson, his biographer, says that whenever Nelson gave talks on the issue - particularly if he happened to be in fast-growing Dane County - he'd always try to get people to understand what the local impacts would be if the U.S. population were to double by 2060.

"He'd say, 'Imagine what that will be like. We're not just talking about twice as many people, we're talking about twice as many everything. Twice as many highways and twice as many schools. Twice as many parking lots and twice as many hospitals.

"And then he'd ask, 'If that happens, what will the quality of life be like for the people living here?' "

Yes, it's a complex and explosive subject, the former Wisconsin governor and three-term U.S. senator acknowledged. At the very least, however, we need to have the debate - not only to provide a "road map for the future," he argued, but because the consequences of ignoring it are too grim to even imagine.

But while the world's population has grown by 11.2 million in the eight weeks since Nelson's death, there have been no calls to take up that debate, no signs that anyone in the media or Congress or the White House is interested in accepting Nelson's challenge.

"It's cowardice. What else can you call it?" says Elizabeth Bardwell, a longtime friend of Nelson's and a staunch anti-growth advocate in Madison.

"And you have to ask yourself, what is this sinister plot that keeps us from having the debate? What's going on?"

Christofferson says the answer is simple. People avoid the debate because to talk about overpopulation means confronting such hot-button issues as birth control and family planning - which conservatives and most religious groups adamantly oppose.

And if you talk about controlling the mushrooming U.S. population, he says, it means you must address the issue of immigration, which now accounts for about one-third of the 3.2 million people our country adds every year. Then you will be labeled a racist.

Nelson got away with it, of course, because he was Gaylord Nelson - a bona fide progressive and a man of impeccable credentials, Christofferson says. This was a guy, after all, who commanded an all-black company in the segregated Army in World War II and took immediate action to integrate the Wisconsin National Guard when he became governor.

But even Nelson endured some flak, Christofferson says, especially after he came out in favor of tightening immigration quotas, "which set off all kinds of alarms among a lot of his liberal and progressive friends."

But to Nelson, the issue had nothing to do with racism or "nativism," Christofferson notes. As Nelson himself explained in his 2002 book, "Beyond Earth Day," the "real issue" is numbers of people and the implications for freedom of choice and sustainability as our numbers continue to grow.

"Population will be a major determinant of our future, how we live and in what condition; talk of it should not be muzzled by McCarthyism or any other demagogic contrivance," he wrote. "Rather, the issue must be brought forth and explored in public hearings and discussions, precisely because it is a subject of great consequence."

Moreover, Nelson said was deeply troubled that "rhetoric of this sort has succeeded in silencing the environmental and academic communities and has tainted any discussion of population-immigration issues as 'politically incorrect.' "

But as frustrating as it was to see the president and members of Congress "running for cover on such a monumental issue," Nelson wrote, "it is nothing short of astonishing to see the great American free press, with its raft of syndicated columnists, frightened into silence by political correctness."

Nobody is more troubled by that silence than David Durham, chairman of the board of Carrying Capacity Network, a Washington D.C.-based population stabilization group, who maintains that any objective observer would find the world population statistics downright chilling. (Nelson was an adviser to the group.)

In 1960, for example, the global population was 3 billion. In 1999 - just 33 years later - it had doubled to 6 billion.

Although the rate has slowed in recent years - largely because Canada, Australia, Japan and Western Europe have stabilized their growth - world population is still expected to hit 9 billion by 2054, with 90 percent of the growth occurring in Africa, Asia and Latin America, he says.

That growth will cause enormous strains on our natural resources, particularly the world's fast-dwindling supply of fresh water. As it is, an estimated 800 million humans - more than double the U.S. population - are starving or seriously malnourished, says Durham, noting that Niger is the most recent African country facing massive starvation problems, after years of drought.

In addition, an estimated 700 species of plants and animals are endangered from destruction of habitat caused by population growth.

But while it's mainly a Third World problem now, that doesn't mean the United States can ignore its own burgeoning population, Durham says.

Yes, the birth rate in the United States is at replacement level, or about 2.1 children per woman on average, he says. But we're still the fastest growing developed country in the world. And if we don't act now to stabilize our population - currently about 292 million - we could reach 500 million by 2050 and 1 billion by 2100, he says.

And if that doesn't alarm you, Durham and other population experts say, consider this: If current trends continue, by the year 2020 - or just 15 years from now - the U.S. will add enough new people to create another New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco, Indianapolis, San Jose, Memphis, Washington, Jacksonville, Milwaukee, Boston, Columbus, New Orleans, Cleveland, Denver, Seattle and El Paso.

Which is why, Durham says, CCN and some 50 other slow-growth organizations are pushing Congress to enact a five-year moratorium that would cap legal immigration - now at 1.2 million a year - at 100,000 annually and reduce illegal immigration to about 50,000 annually.

(In the last two sessions, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., has introduced a bill that would cap legal immigration at 300,000 annually. Durham says it's received lukewarm support.)

John Nichols, associate editor of The Capital Times who was, like Bardwell, a friend of Nelson's, says he talked to the former Wisconsin senator on several occasions about overpopulation and could sense his exasperation that so few people seemed to grasp how serious the situation's become.

Nichols says that while he doesn't excuse it, he can understand why politicians are terrified of the subject. "Because this issue, above almost all others, touches the trip wires- or the third rails - of our politics."

But the media's refusal to address it is a little more complicated - and disturbing, Nichols says.

"I think the American media 25 years ago would have been quite comfortable digging into this issue," he says. "But increasingly we have media that tend toward celebrity coverage and noncontroversial, simplistic approaches to issues.

"Most of our newsrooms today are guided not by traditional journalistic values but by marketing values. And so the desire was to make Gaylord Nelson into an easily digested iconic figure - the Earth Day founder and environmentalist who never did anything too controversial."

When, in fact, Nelson was "never a pretty little politician" but a militant foe of the Vietnam war who took strong, bold positions on all sorts of politically dangerous issues throughout his career, Nichols says.

(Nichols acknowledges that, although it's taken strong stances on international family planning and other "tough choice" issues, The Capital Times hasn't exactly been out front on overpopulation. "And maybe Gaylord's passing does call us to address the issue more aggressively and open up the debate even more," he says.)

George Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, says anyone who's done a lot of traveling worldwide knows there are numerous examples of how uncontrolled population growth "has destroyed the whole base of life for people and other creatures."

And he suggests there's no better example than Haiti, "where the forests have been removed, the soil has washed away, people are starving and the quality of life is terrible.

"Of course, there are political complications in Haiti, too," adds Archibald, a board member of World Population Balance. "But when people are basically unhappy because they don't have a good way of life, they don't have a job, it's often related to too many people and too few opportunities."

Fortunately, there are a few signs of hope as well, Archibald says - notably Bhutan, a small country sandwiched between China and Nepal on the southern slope of the Himalayas.

"Here's a very stable country under a traditional political system - a monarchy merging into a democracy, with an elected assembly - that has a low population (2.2 million) and tremendous conservation of culture and biodiversity," he says.

In fact, its national motto is "Gross National Happiness" - meaning that its chief economic objective is to boost the health and overall satisfaction of its citizens rather than the growth of its Gross National Product.

"Bhutan - having looked at its neighbor, Nepal, which is overpopulated, has ruined its environment and is very unstable politically - knows what it wants: not to become another Nepal," Archibald says.

To that end, it has not only adopted strict land use and immigration policies, he says, but even limits the number of tourists who visit each year.

"So Bhutan would stand out as a model, and Haiti is at the other end," Archibald says. "And everybody else sort of falls in the middle somewhere."

Dr. Dennis Maki, the esteemed head of infectious diseases at the UW-Madison Medical School, feels so strongly about the threat that he said in an interview with The Capital Times in 2002 that if he could do just one thing to make the world a better place, he'd devise a form of birth control that would make people sterile for about 10 years.

And he said he'd distribute it worldwide - literally drop it from airplanes - so that no children were born in the world for an entire decade.

Have his views changed?

Not one bit, says Maki, adding that he wishes every U.S. citizen could spend a week in rural India or parts of Brazil or sub-Saharan Africa and witness firsthand the suffering that's a daily fact of life for tens of millions of people.

"Then they'd suddenly realize what the impact of overpopulation is," he says. "I mean, there's not enough food, there aren't the educational resources. And so overpopulation is absolutely the most regressive tax there is on the people who can least afford it: the developing world.

"To me, it's a great, great tragedy."

And what's even harder to bear is that the situation isn't about to change anytime soon, Maki says - in part, because the Bush administration "doesn't have any interest in population control for a variety of reasons I think are obvious to most of us."

Neither, he says, does the Catholic Church, which still has enormous influence in many Third World countries, especially in Latin America.

"I like to think of myself as open-minded and pretty tolerant of things," Maki says. "But I've been profoundly disappointed by the position of the leadership of the Catholic Church on population control, because it creates so much unnecessary misery in the developing world."

But, like Nelson, Maki believes it's foolish to think this is just a Third World problem, pointing out that the educational and health care systems in California are already reeling from the massive influx of immigrants over the last two decades.

So does the United States need to curb immigration?

Absolutely, Maki says.

"Anybody who's had a reasonable education understands this isn't a racist issue," he says. "I mean, any Hispanic immigrant realizes that mass immigration will affect the quality of life that their kids and their grandchildren are going to have. They see that, and it's in their own self-interest to get on the bandwagon for population control."

Nichols says restricting immigration "isn't the core answer," but agrees that it's an important question and certainly one worth debating.

Are many of those who favor restricting immigration racists? No question, he says. But he says it's wrong to suggest that anyone who opposes uncontrolled immigration is a racist and notes that there are also racists on the other side of the issue; namely, the many U.S. companies that exploit immigrants - especially illegal immigrants - as cheap labor.

A big reason he opposes tightening immigration quotas, Nichols says, is the North American Free Trade Agreement - or, more specifically, the impacts of NAFTA.

"What we did with NAFTA is force 1 million smaller farmers in Mexico off their land," he says. "We displaced them, and a great number of them did become immigrants to the United States because NAFTA didn't work in Mexico. There weren't jobs.

"So our policies put people in a situation where they faced the threat of starvation, radical dislocation, all sorts of other crises. To then impose an immigration quota and absolutely bar those people from coming into this country either legally or illegally is irresponsible."

What's the solution?

"We have to, as a country, stop causing the crises that create massive immigration," he says. "We just caused another crisis two weeks ago. We voted for the Central American Free Trade Agreement. That will do more to cause illegal immigration and legal immigration to the United States than anything else done this year. Guaranteed."

So it doesn't make sense, Nichols says, "to just say, 'Oh, we're going to have tighter immigration quotas.' I don't think it's going to do a thing.

"But I do think that ultimately if we address trade, if we address foreign aid, if we address international family planning and other issues in a responsible way, we can dramatically decrease immigration."

There is one other issue here that the slow-growth advocates rarely address, and that's the positive economic benefits of our current immigration trend, says Alberto Palloni of the Center for Demography and Ecology at UW-Madison.

"Think, for example, who is going to finance your Social Security check when you retire?" he says. "Or who allows that your burrito at Qdoba is only $6 - not $15?"

Christofferson says he once asked Nelson why, if overpopulation was a global problem, he thought controlling immigration in the United States was so crucial.

Nelson then related an argument put forth by famed environmentalist Garrett Hardin, which he called the "global pothole problem," Christofferson says.

"He said, 'That's like saying if you can't fix every pothole in the world, there's no sense in trying to fill the one right in front of your house.' "

His point, Christofferson says, "was that you have to start somewhere and with something you can actually do something about" - as opposed to, say, the birth rate in India.

"He told me that if we try to solve every other country's problems by just saying, 'Send your extra people here,' that means they'll never have to face their own problems. And it doesn't do anything to encourage them to find a solution of their own."

Nelson didn't expect everyone to agree with him, Christofferson says. But he couldn't believe that Americans would simply turn their backs on what he felt was the most critical challenge of our time.

As he put it in his book, "It is the biggest default in our history."

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