There was a time when climate change meant moving out West, sprawl was what you did on the couch after work and the nation’s destiny was manifest. This month, as the U.S. population reaches 300 million people, Americans are taking stock of how they got to this point and where they are going from here. “My grandmother came out here in a wagon train, flew to Hawaii on a jet airplane and saw a man land on the moon,” said Dr. Bob Guild, a 72-year-old physician who retired in Spokane.
Back when Phyllis Burwell was a girl in the 1920s and ‘30s, the obituaries were full of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s.
“Now they’re all in their 80s and 90s,” said the 82-year-old retired social worker.
That’s part of the reason the nation has gained 100 million people in the last 39 years. The average life expectancy of an American newborn today is 77.8 years. It was 70.5 years in 1967 when there were 200 million people and 54.5 years in 1915 when there were 100 million.
American population has increased every year but 1918, when world war and pandemic influenza took their tolls. The nation’s population is growing by nearly 1 percent annually.
Advances in public health and medical care have contributed greatly to U.S. population growth, according to Dr. Kim Thorburn, chief health officer of the Spokane Regional Health District. Immunization, water sanitation, food safety, antibiotics and prenatal care all have given Americans extra years on Earth.
“At the turn of the (20th) century, moms died in childbirth with great regularity,” Thorburn said.
But the big reason the U.S. population is growing when that of other industrialized nations is not is immigration. There were fewer than 10 million foreign-born people here in 1967, compared with 36 million today.
“More of a presence”
America is becoming increasingly diverse, largely due to Hispanic immigrants and their descendents.
A mid-decade survey by the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the nation’s minority population at 98 million, one-third of the total. Hispanics were the largest minority group with 42.7 million people.
Washington has more than 546,000 people of Hispanic origin, or 8.9 percent of its total population. Idaho has more than 126,000, or 9.1 percent.
Hispanics accounted for nearly half the U.S. population growth of 2.8 million people between July 1, 2004, and July 1, 2005. Of the 1.3 million increase in U.S. Hispanic population that year, 500,000 were immigrants. The rest were born at the rate of 2.3 births per Hispanic woman.
By comparison, black and non-Hispanic white women average 1.8 to 1.9 births. The natural replacement rate is 2.1.
As America becomes more and more “Latinized,” the clamor for immigration reform has gotten louder, reaching a crescendo earlier this year in the U.S. House of Representatives. As vigilantes patrolled the southern border in search of illegal immigrants, lawmakers were passing legislation that would make those immigrants felons.
The nation has seen such a reaction before, said Dale Soden, a professor of history at Whitworth College, citing backlash against Chinese and Japanese immigrants at the end of the 19th century and against southern Europeans in the early 20th century.
“It is a familiar problem,” Soden said. “There has always been a deep divide over how to control our borders.”
The Ku Klux Klan was active in Washington and Oregon in the 1920s as a reaction to Catholic immigrants, he said. Congress attempted to restrict the flow of southern and eastern Europeans into the country with quotas until the 1965 Immigration Act.
No going back
To Albert Andrews Redstar, a 63-year-old descendent of the Joseph Band of the Nez Perce and Palouse tribes, this month’s census milestone is more evidence that he will never be able to go home.
Redstar said his ancestors, who refused to submit to a treaty, were taken from their lands in Oregon’s Wallowa Valley in 1877 and scattered to reservations across the Northwest.
“I can still remember the elders grieving over the loss of their home,” said Redstar, who lives in Nespelem on the Reservation of the Colville Confederated Tribes.
“I went to the Wallowa, and it is filling up with trophy homes,” he said. “I look to our people and we can barely afford an $80,000 or $90,000 home.”
To Native Americans in the Northwest, who saw their ancestral homes flooded to feed the encroaching population and power the newcomers’ electrical conveniences, loss of land was the price of civilization.
When explorer David Thompson established the Spokane House in 1810, the Spokane River supported one of world’s greatest salmon runs, and Indian people lived in dynamic equilibrium as they had for centuries.
“In the blink of an eye, profound changes took place and continue to do so,” said Dr. John Osborn, conservation chairman of the Upper Columbia River Group Sierra Club.
The discovery of silver, gold and lead in the Coeur d’Alene mining district brought thousands to the area and left behind a legacy of lead, zinc and arsenic pollution in the nation’s largest Superfund site. Extensive logging left the upper watershed of the Coeur d’Alene Basin destabilized and increased the risk of flooding, which aggravated the movement of mine waste into Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane River.
The Spokane River is also contaminated with PCBs and the fire retardant PBDE, Osborn said. A tremendous period of growth saw subdivisions “sprawling uncontrollably” across the Spokane Valley and Rathdrum Prairie, below which flows the area’s only source of drinking water, he said.
“The 300 million figure may seem cold and distant until you drive between Spokane and Coeur d’Alene and realize none of this was here 200 years ago,” Osborn said. “Much of it wasn’t here just 20 years ago.”
A nation of consumers
Others have a more optimistic view of population growth.
The housing market has been carrying the economy in recent years, and that is driven by growth, said Spokane County Commissioner Mark Richard.
“When you look at that 300 million number, that’s us,” Richard said. “That’s you and me having children. I like to think that my children are a positive.”
Spokane County was the 93rd fastest growing metropolitan area in the country in 2005 and Kootenai County was 10th, according to Avista economist Randy Barcus.
Population growth is where customers come from, said Eastern Washington University economist David Bunting. A growing market means more opportunities for companies and people.
“Youth can find jobs,” he said, “they’re not waiting for people to die to get jobs.”
A stagnant economy, on the other hand, means status quo, Barcus said. It might be a good thing for those with wealth, but not for those at the socioeconomic bottom.
Paul Erlich’s prediction of mass starvation due to overpopulation in the 1968 best-seller, “The Population Bomb,” did not come true because prices dictate allocation of resources, Bunting said. When a commodity gets scarce, people find other sources or a substitute.
As far as the environmental health of the world is concerned, the problem is not so much that the United States has 300 million people. It’s that the nation represents 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes 25 percent of the world’s resources.
“A child born in the U.S. ends up consuming 300 times more of the world’s resources as a child born in a nation like Chad,” said Patrick McCormick, chairman of the religious studies department at Gonzaga University.
“Traditional Catholic teaching would argue that population growth itself is not the most pressing problem,” McCormick said. “It’s consumption growth.”
The Bible teaches that humans are to be stewards of the land, McCormick noted.
“Pope John Paul II argued through much of his pontificate that the greatest crisis of our time was the growing disparity between rich and poor,” McCormick said.
The tipping point
America’s thirst for one resource in particular, cheap oil, has driven the global economy since the mid-1800s.
Now, as experts estimate the world will reach peak oil production by 2015, the United States finds itself at “a significant geographical disadvantage,” according to Melissa Ahern, an economist in WSU’s department of health policy and administration, who teaches a class in global oil and natural gas depletion and its implications for community health and sustainability.
“We have really tapped the easy sources for light sweet crude,” Ahern said.
Recent announcements by Chevron of the discovery of vast reserves in the Gulf of Mexico are highly speculative, she said, and will not come on line for years.
America’s reliance on foreign oil will continue to increase, she said. As oil reserves are depleted, the burgeoning economies of China and India are competing with us for the same mostly Middle Eastern and Russian reserves.
At the same time, Ahern said, in terms of climate change there is a scientific consensus that we have to be very careful in the coming decade. Increasing the number of coal-fired power plants as China is doing and Texas is attempting will only aggravate carbon dioxide emissions.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Earth’s surface has undergone unprecedented warming over the last century, particularly over the last two decades.
“There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities,” according to a 2001 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The United States is by far the world’s leader in carbon dioxide emissions, 5.37 tons per year per American.
“We may have already reached the tipping point,” Ahern said.