Are we growing at an unsustainable rate?

Population density of the United States based on the 2000 census

CORRECTION
This story stated that Population Connection seeks population stabilization through an end to immigration. According to the group's website, it advocates working with neighboring countries to improve educational and economic opportunities for people.

KAI RYSSDAL: Demographers are set for a big week next week. The Cenus Bureau says that's when the 300-millionth American will be born. We hit 200 million back in 1968. And we're on track to pass the 400 million mark in another 37 years. For some...those milestones are cause for celebration. A growing population has usually meant a growing U.S. economy, after all. But Ashley Milne Tyte reports there are unwelcome consequences too.


ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE: About 40 percent of America's population growth comes from immigration. The rest is due to the fact that Americans are living longer: There are almost twice as many births as deaths these days. Martha Farnsworth Riche is a fellow at Cornell University and a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau. She says with a growing population, the U.S. can stick to its usual business modela€¦
MARTHA FARNSWORTH RICHE:"Our model is basically we grow the economy or we grow a business by growing the market, and we can still continue to think in those terms, those other countries with declining populations can't think that way."

Countries like Japan, Germany and Italy. They also worry about how their aging population will be supported by a dwindling base of younger workers. But some see a darker side to America's future as well. Ridley Scott's 1982 film Bladerunner is set in the L.A. of 2019. High-rises loom over the smoky city. Citizens scuttle about the rundown streets under a constant pall of rain. People have even started to decamp to other planets.

BLADERUNNER CLIP:"A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies . . . the chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure."

Brian Dixon of the group Population Connection wants Americans to enjoy a golden land here and now. But he says there's little chance of that with a spiraling population. His group campaigns for population stabilization through increased access to birth control and an end to immigration. He says traffic congestion already wastes billions of gallons of fuel. And that's not his only worry. He says some U.S. fishing zones are becoming depleted, and parts of the country already have problems getting enough water.

BRIAN DIXON:"Agricultural concerns are gonna become more and more important as we need to figure out ways to grow more food for more people more quickly. So I think these are just sort of a taste of what we might be experiencing in the coming years."

WILLIAM BEACH:"Doomsayers have an economically vital role to play in public policy."

William Beach is an economist with the Heritage Foundation.

BEACH: "Because the more convincing they are, the more effort there will be by ordinary people to find ways around the doom scenario. I mean, if we're running out of water, do you think we'll just sit idly by and wait for the water to evaporate? Obviously not."

Beach says time and again America has innovated to avoid crises like filthy air and water. He has no doubt it'll continue to do so. And he says as innovation and population increase, so does productivity.

BEACH:"Then wages will continue to rise. And if wages, compensation for labor, continues to rise, then we can expect a rising standard of living."

But that productivity depends on workers being well-educated. Cornell's Martha Farnsworth Riche says American education levels hit a peak with the baby boomers.

FARNSWORTH RICHE:"And the current generations that are following them are not any more educated — in some cases not as educated."

At the same time education for workers in the developing world is improving. In 2000, Riche says, North America had over half the world's college graduates. In 2030 it's projected to have only 30 percent. China will claim a growing percentage of those graduates. Still, its one-child policy may be backfiring. Just as its economy is exploding, China's population is starting to shrink.

In New York, I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

About the author

Ashley Milne-Tyte is the host of a podcast about women in the workplace called The Broad Experience.

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