We are pleased to announce the winners of our 2015 NPG Essay Scholarship Contest. Each year, NPG conducts an Essay Scholarship for high school and undergradute students.
Should the United States’ government pursue population policies to protect our quality of life for future generations?
By Calvin Wilder, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
The Price the Future Will Pay
The first (and only) time I visited Alaska, I was only six years old. Even so, the experience of seeing that truly wild, untamed land has always stuck with me. I was there for just a week, but in that time I saw a black bear feed her three cubs, a moose forage for food in a pond, and more bald eagles flying above me than I could count. The difference between that underpopulated paradise and the crowded lower 48 was stark, and even my six-year-old brain couldn’t miss the importance of it.
America is overpopulated, and we are paying a price for it. Environmental destruction is an obvious example – those black bears and moose are hard to find in most of America – but it’s only one of the many ways we are paying for vastly exceeding our carrying capacity. Traffic congestion and smog in cities, depleted soil on our farms, and the constant battle to meet our energy needs all threaten our quality of life, and they can all be traced back to a single problem: this land was never meant to support over 300 million people. And our growth is showing no signs of stopping, with a population projected by many analysts to hit 400 million people by 2050.The US government must pursue population policies to protect our quality of life for future generations – the costs of not doing so are too high.
Our resources are strained to the breaking point already and nowhere is that more obvious than with regards to our energy consumption. Our constant need for more energy for our cars, homes, and businesses has led us to make choices with perilous consequences, sacrificing the quality of life for future generations in order to meet our own short-term needs. Fracking has destroyed environments across America, the remnants of strip mines for coal in Appalachia have not been properly cleaned, and our greenhouse gas emissions threaten the entire globe. A smaller population would have more manageable energy needs that could be better met through sustainable alternatives to oil and natural gas. A larger population, on the other hand, would leave future generations with a nation blanketed in Superfund sites created in the process of meeting the energy needs of their parents.
California’s drought underscores an even more basic problem: the amount of fresh water our nation has access to is limited, and we’re stretching it thin. It takes a lot of water to produce the crops and livestock to feed 300 million or more people, let alone for them to actually drink or use to shower. California is the first state to face a large-scale water crisis, but on our current trajectory, it won’t be the only one. If America in 2050 is home to 400 hungry (and thirsty) mouths, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where millions don’t suffer serious consequences for overburdening our nation. The consequences of government inaction are high for future generations, higher than many Americans today realize.
But there’s good news. One of the main reasons the government should pursue these policies is that it would be really, really easy. A stricter enforcement of immigration laws that already exist, coupled with more border security and a streamlined deportation process, would cut down on illegal immigration (a major source of population growth) with very little cost to the average American. If the US government were to combine that approach with a tax break for two-child families, and an even larger one for one-child ones, population trends would start shifting quickly. It wouldn’t require draconian measures like China’s one-child policy to see a change, just basic incentives that still leave Americans with the freedom to make their own choices. A final step would be for US politicians to actually take up the issue of population growth through speeches and awareness campaigns. Most Americans today don’t realize that we are vastly exceeding our nation’s carrying capacity, and if they were aware of that fact and its ramifications, their thinking on immigration or large family sizes might change.
But the real reason I want the government to pursue these policies is because I want future generations to be able to experience Alaska the way I did. The wild, raw beauty of nature is being replaced by cities and highways, destroying nature and depleting our resources in the process. That’s a tragedy that future generations will pay the price for, and that’s why I think the government should start pursuing policies now.