By Donella Meadows
–October 16, 1997–
When you hear talk about what to do with all the garbage, what to do about traffic, health care, urban sprawl, hunger — almost any kind of people-related problem — sooner or later you hear someone say that the real trouble is population growth.
Everyone sighs, agrees and changes the subject. Nothing can be done about population growth.
That helpless response has always bothered me. People make populations grow. Surely people could make populations stop growing. If we didn’t shrug if off, if we looked hard at the problem, if we really wanted to solve it, it seems to me we should be able to do so.
Now a powerful little book has come along that confirms my hunch. It’s called “Misplaced Blame, the Real Roots of Population Growth” by Alan Thein Durning and Christopher D. Crowther of Northwest Environment Watch. That organization is a think-tank for a bioregion, the Pacific Northwest from northern California to southern Alaska. The statistics and examples in the book are taken from that region. But its message, I think, is valid for anywhere in the U.S. and probably the world.
The United States has the highest fertility rate and the highest immigration rate of any industrialized country. We have 260 million people now. At the rate we’re projected to grow, we will have 300 million 10 years from now, and 335 million by the year 2025. A disproportionate amount of that increase ends up in the Pacific Northwest, whose population growth rate is higher than that of India. Twelve percent of that growth comes from foreign immigrants. The rest comes roughly half from folks moving in from the rest of the U.S. and half from the natural increase of the people already there.
Durning and Crowther list five reasons for these trends. They are: misguided immigration laws, subsidies to domestic migration (mainly tax breaks to developers), inadequate family-planning services, sexual abuse, and child poverty.
The last three are by far the most important, and they are interrelated. The poor are the ones who can’t afford family planning. They are the most likely to be abused, which can lead to a lifetime of self-loathing and promiscuity. Kids who have grown up poor are likely to have kids very young, to have many of them, and to raise them in poverty, continuing the cycle into the next generation.
Durning and Crowther make this argument in words and anecdotes, but most strikingly, they make it in statistics.
Of teen mothers in America, 83 percent come from poor families; 62 percent have been raped or molested as children.
The father of a baby born to a teen-age girl is two and a half times more likely to be a man in his twenties than a teen-age boy.
Only 45 percent of Oregon’s single mothers get financial help from the fathers of their children; in Washington only 34 percent, in California 25 percent. Absent dads are ten times as likely to be current on their car payments as on their child support.
Colleges graduates in the U.S. typically have 1.6 to 2.0 children. High school graduates average 2.7 children. High school dropouts average 3.2 children.
Children from poor families are 18 times more likely to be sexually abused as children from middle-class families. The assault is 200 times more likely to come from someone in the home than from a stranger.
More than a third of babies born in the Northwest are conceived by accident.
It is possible to predict the teen birthrate in the United States with 90 percent accuracy from the previous decade’s child poverty rate. Every one percent increase in the rate of child poverty leads to a 3.3 percent increase in the teen birthrate.
The average American child receives public assistance worth about $5,000 per year (mainly the cost of public education). The average elderly person receives about $15,000 per year (Social Security and Medicare). The average prisoner costs the public $25,000 per year.
One-third of births in Pacific Northwest would not occur if there were no poverty, say Durning and Crowther. Poor women have children not out of ignorance, but out of a logic that would make sense to you and me, if we had been raised in poverty. “Their entire life experience confirms they will not go far in the fiercely competitive global economy. They do not actively seek pregnancy, but they are less aggressive in attempting to prevent it. At least, they reason, they can be good mothers and fill their lives with the challenges and rewards of having a family.”
Durning and Crowther call their book “Misplaced Blame,” because they see population growth blamed on the Third World, on immigrants, teenagers, welfare recipients and above all on unwed mothers. They make a compelling case that the blame should more logically be placed on adult men who love (or rape) and leave, on moralists who cut family planning budgets, on developers and the city officials who subsidize them, on liberals who think we help the poor by letting them immigrate here, and above all on a public policy that increasingly turns its back on the poor.
“Population,” they point out, “is nothing but a four-syllable word for ‘us.’ When we take care of people, population growth will take care of itself.”
(Alan Thein Durning and Christopher D. Crowther, “Misplaced Blame: The Real Roots of Population Growth,” Northwest Environment Watch, 1402 Third Avenue, Suite 1127, Seattle WA 98101-2118, 206-447-1880, nwwatchigcapcorg)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997