Sunday, September 06, 2020

Do we have room for a billion Americans?

As I was reading Matthew Yglesias' piece "The Case for Adding 672 Million More Americans," the Soviet-era designation of Mother Heroine, initiated by Joseph Stalin in 1944, came to mind. Stalin and subsequent Soviet leaders gave Mother Heroine medals to mothers who bore and raised 10 or more children. Lesser honors were provided for mothers who bore and raised between five and nine children. There is some mention of additional financial assistance from the state to those with such large families, but I could not find much information on this.

For America's version of Mother Heroines (and Heroes), Yglesias proposes "not just paid leave but financial assistance, preschool and after-care services, reasonable summer programming, and affordable college for all qualified student"—all in order to encourage larger families (which he claims Americans actually want).

Yglesias thinks we need to increase our population so that we will be able to compete with 1.4 billion Chinese. Whether you think competing with the Chinese is important or not, there is a problem with the hidden metaphor that Yglesias is using throughout his piece. He is imagining that the United States of America is like the family room in your home. Normally, you might have two or three members in the room at once, watching television, reading, or munching on snacks. But actually, you could fit 10 or maybe even 15 people in the room comfortably if you rearrange the furniture.

So, Yglesias thinks if we, so to speak, rearrange America's furniture a bit—build more housing near major metropolitan areas, provide more assistance to families, encourage more legal immigration—we can reach 1 billion in population. "America should aspire to be the greatest nation on earth," he tells us.

But there is one little problem: America is not like a big family room filled with endless snack bowls for guests. America is an ecological territory just like every other square foot of the planet. There are vast areas of America that are desert or classified as arid, especially in the West. That's one reason those areas are not "full." There simply isn't enough water.

I suppose it would be theoretically possible to stuff the extra people in areas with more water. But there is still the question of whether an America pumping out vastly more greenhouse gases and chemical waste, eating more of the declining amount of food it grows (because so much farmland will have to be sacrificed to new housing) and more of the fish from the sea, and using more of its already tainted and taxed fresh water supply would simply be unworkable and deadly for the entire human race. After all, even at our present population, the United States is far over its biocapacity to serve the needs of those living here from our own resources.

Of course, we just import whatever else we need. But in Yglesias' future many OTHER nations will be increasing their population and consequently need to import (and run down supplies of) resources in ways that create all the negative consequences mentioned above. We cannot by definition have a world in which every country is a net importer of food, water and other essentials. It seems Yglesias missed Herman Daly's seminal Scientific American piece, "Economics in a Full World."

I am increasingly amazed at the ability of otherwise intelligent people to ignore completely the systemically destabilizing threats of climate change and the depletion of soil, water, fisheries, energy and key metals and pretend that global society will move forward along uninterrupted trend lines extrapolated from the past.

The path to 1 billion Americans, it turns out, is no path at all. It is a fantasy that is only made plausible if we ignore all the deteriorating indices of planetary health.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Anonymous said...

I feel compelled to be mean, here. Wherever he resides on the liberal-conservative political spectrum so many think important, Iglesias (from NYC originally and now in DC) is clearly a "city-boy" ecological nincompoop. His positioning that way pretty obviously derives from being a verbalist who's totally innumerate, thus only half-intelligentsia--given that I find an article by him urging voting against Republicans as a means to combat climate change, yet at the same time he apparently thinks the U.S. population can be about three times as large as now and somehow miraculously deal with climate change (not to mention a whole host of other resource, conservationist, and environmental problems).

A note on that last parenthetical: Green-ness doesn't equate to being a one-trick-pony climate change opponent, and that's all. There's aquifer decline, fisheries decline, and many many other such issues including other planetary species who are threatened by the sprawling human beings he wants bunches more of. Kurt Cobb is correct that Iglesias must not be acquainted with (and thus IMHO needs a good dose of) Herman Daly.

Sometimes, as a quasi-rural green (actually more like turquoise), I shudder at having to share voting for the same political party (the Democrats) with such people. Especially is that the case when he's a misguided opinion leader who produces voluminous text a lot of people read and mull over rather than reading and mulling over other potential opinion leaders who have a lick of sense (e.g., Kurt Cobb).

Shawn B said...

Agreed on all above comments.

So many other issues with the Yglesias article, even if the resource and environmental issues did not exist, or you don’t believe those issues are issues because flying cars and spaceships to Mars just around the corner, if we just let free markets work.

Just two issues of that different sort. Can a multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-cultural/values population of 1 Billion people have a well-functioning democracy? Maybe, but my guess is such a system is too complex to be managed in a democratic republic or open democracy. So the U.S. democracy that Yglesias presumably treasures would be under threat from his proposal. (People point to India as a functioning large democracy but my understanding is the caste system still has considerable power in India to order Indian society. )

Another issue is whether such a large multifarious democracy implicitly proposed by Yglesias can compete against China, a country that is 92% the Han Chinese, and seems to display a large degree of cooperative in-group behavior under one-party rule. Well, these are sensitive issues to discuss and I don’t expect any answers here.

And I don’t expect we will have to answer the questions above anyway if we are now beginning the end of growth powered by fossil fuels and especially oil.

More likely the U.S. will be faced with decisions about how many people to accept and from where, as the energy descent picks up speed, and waves of political and environmental and climate change migrants and refugees seek entry to the U.S. And we will have to make those decisions when our domestic oil production will be far lower than in the very recent past.

RobM said...

This paragraph stood out for me:

"I am increasingly amazed at the ability of otherwise intelligent people to ignore completely the systemically destabilizing threats of climate change and the depletion of soil, water, fisheries, energy and key metals and pretend that global society will move forward along uninterrupted trend lines extrapolated from the past."

Many people see reality denial, very few understand it. There can be no positive change until we confront our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities. I encourage you to study Ajit Varki's Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.

Don19 said...

Japan - Hungary - Italy and many other countries have a declining population - on part by Men not being able to see opportunities for long-term employment. Hence they don't want to get married and have children.

Bill said...

Yes physically the US does have space for 1 billion people, but in an era of declining resources [peak oil late 2018 etc], those billion will be sharing the resources USA currently has. If the US dollar is no longer the world's reserve currency, it will be like Britain in 1960 trying to export things to buy the goods and materials it needs. It will also have to have a standard of living a great deal lower, maybe European 1960 level, and almost no private vehicles or very small model T ford size and power. USA was very fortunate to manage to take over a landmass whose original people had mostly died of diseases before full contact. USA had a treasure house of resources from deep soils, plenty of wood, coal and oil etc. Capitalist raping of the continent for a quick buck has left it impoverished and diminished. Yes it has the space for 1 billion but at what quality of life?

Steve Bull said...

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”
― Albert A. Bartlett

Yglesias needs to view Dr. Bartlett's presentation on exponential growth!

Anonymous said...

I am persuaded that we already have far too many humans now, probably on the order of 4 billion too many. Ecological destruction is extremely widespread, with rampant pollution, toxic chemicals, wastes and the damaging effects of terraforming already wrecking havoc on the planet. This can only get much worse, and never better. Claims that we are 'improving' our waste stream are utter hogwash, we're not. Only by reducing planetary population can we hope to avert an extinction level event for all species still surviving.

The rising energy imbalance will never be rectified by more breeding - nor will anything else.

The notion that the United States must "compete" is outdated and antiquated nonsense.

We don't HAVE to be on the top of the heap, in fact, nobody does. Each nation can still flourish and not be #1, examples abound throughout the world. ~Survival Acres~

The North Coast said...

I read Ygelsias' article in a state of stone astonishment, just gobsmacked that anyone with any reasoning ability could think that this country could endure a population triple its current load, without a steep loss of quality of life, and deep poverty for at least half the population. The author reasons like a 9-year-old.

In fact, he displays a contempt for life and total lack of compassion in proposing that we "compete" with China's swollen population of 1.4 billion. For, while a larger portion of those people now have something resembling a middle class lifestyle, the overwhelming majority still live in deep poverty with very little chance of doing better, because of the depletion of essential resources.

As has been pointed out, a large part of this country is uninhabitable, because it is implacably arid, even after 85 years of building immense federal and state dams and reservoirs. Moreover, most of the country's aquifiers are in steep depletion, even in water-rich areas of the country like the upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest. And there are other resources, like arable land, that are also necessary. How many acres of land does it take to grow the produce, graze the animals, and produce the wood, cotton, and other materials consumed by just one person leading a minimally comfortable lower-middle class lifestyle? How much fossil fuel is required to keep that person in hot showers and motorized transportation in any form, or ship the food and goods required.

Sure, you can stuff 15 people in your family room for an hour, but your quality of life would drastically deteriorate if 15 people moved into your 1800 sq ft house with you.

S. W. Lawrence said...

Just on a personal note, not only have I seen Dr. Barlett's presentation on the criticality of understanding exponential growth, I had the great good fortune several decades ago to not only hear him lecture in person, but ask him a couple of questions directly at the end of his talk. What a gracious + sagacious individual.

Staunchly concur with Steve Bull's recommendation to watch his onlline lecture. Great guy.

Anonymous said...

Just saw an interview on TV with the book's author.
This person Yglesias is a pudgy little mutt. This is important, because it is clear from his smug academic demeanor and lack of physical fitness that he has never had to do hard physical labor to support himself. Anyone who has ever traveled into the countryside of China or India has been 'woke' to the marginal survival conditions and filth the peasantry lives in. They are the vast majority of the population. Stalin would have sentenced Yglesias to a few years at backbreaking collective farm labor and opened his eyes to the real-world consequences of famine.

American bourgeois Beltway academics in their cozy tenure-track salons who shill for open borders and ever-expanding herds of consumer sheep are always blind to the most important long-term consequence. Collide enough migrants with any existing culture anywhere and they become invaders. The result is usually civil war. Those same academics are the least equipped to survive the civil wars they help create. In fact they are usually among the first to be sent off to the camps, or simply lined up and shot.