WHEN THE population of the United States hit 200 million in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson marked the occasion with a speech at the Commerce Department, home to the US Census Bureau and its official "population clock."
In 1776, Johnson said, the American people had numbered only 1.5 million, but as the nation grew in population, so too had it grown in stature and strength. "We have seen success in America beyond all of our wildest dreams," said LBJ, but "mighty challenges" remained: the challenges of urban life, of race relations, of industrial pollution, of inadequate public schools. "I cannot tell you this morning that we are going to be able to meet successfully all of these challenges."
It was not a particularly upbeat speech, but at least it was a speech. When the population clock surpassed 300 million last week, President Bush offered only a two-paragraph statement calling the big round number "a testament to our country's dynamism and a reminder that America's greatest asset is our people."
If presidents seem less than thrilled about the population milestones reached on their watch, perhaps it is because they have been unable to shake off the prophecies of doom about "overpopulation" that date back at least to Thomas Malthus's prediction that starvation and misery were the inevitable consequence of population growth. That was in 1798, and we have been hearing from "Malthusian" alarmists ever since.
Within months of President Johnson's speech, for example, Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, which grimly asserted that "in the 1970s, the world will undergo famines -- hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now."
But "the Great Die-Off," as Ehrlich called it, didn't arrive in the 1970s. Nor in the 1980s. Undaunted, Ehrlich wrote in 1990 that "starvation and epidemic disease will raise the death rates over most of the planet" and humanity would experience the "deaths of many hundreds of millions of people in famines." It still hasn't happened. In fact, on the whole human beings are better fed today than ever before. Where starvation still occurs, it is usually the result of deliberate government policy, not agricultural failure. In many parts of the world, the fastest-growing nutritional problem is not hunger, but obesity. Yet the idea that more people means more pain and penury dies hard.
At 300 million, America's population is three times what it was in 1915. Over that time the quality of American life has soared. From health and wealth to technology and transportation, from leisure time and homeownership to life expectancy and productivity, from clean air and water to entertainment and travel, most Americans today enjoy conveniences and benefits that not even the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts could have afforded a century ago. But to hear some experts tell it, we should be tearing our hair out in distress.
"The world does not need more people, and the US in my judgment does not need more people either," grouses Charles Westoff of Princeton's Office of Population Research. The
Crushed? We're not even slightly cramped. It might not seem that way to someone stuck in rush-hour traffic, but America is one of the world's least congested nations, with a population density far lower than that of Britain or Germany. The land area of the United States is so vast that each American could have 7 acres to himself, and there would still be 200 million acres left over. We are in no danger of running out of space.
To be sure, the United States has its problems, some of them quite serious. But a burgeoning population isn't one of them. As Europe and Japan age and shrink, America continues to grow and stay comparatively youthful. That means not just more mouths to feed and more bodies to house. It also means more brainpower and more human energy -- more problem-solvers, more entrepreneurs, more thinkers, more fighters, more leaders. The late Julian Simon famously called human beings "the ultimate resource," and the United States is blessed with more of it than any other First World nation.
"In other words, you ain't seen nothing yet," The Economist predicts. "Anyone who assumed the United States is now at the zenith of its economic or political power is making a big mistake." As good as things are, they are about to get even better. It's great to have you with us, number 300 million. Welcome aboard!
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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