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Overpopulation issue overlooked by US Presidential candidates

This article was originally published in the Wisconsin newspaper The Capital Times on 25 January 2008.

Rob Zaleski - 25 January 2008 8:46 am

I kept thinking that at some point during the long, laborious process to elect our next president it was bound to happen. But now, after more than 20 debates and with the election just 10 months away, it has dawned on me that none of the candidates -- or any of the media -- is going to bring up what the late Gaylord Nelson, the former Wisconsin senator and governor and the father of Earth Day, felt was the most urgent issue that humanity faces: overpopulation.

"Don't you get it, Rob? They're not gonna talk about it," Tia Nelson, Gaylord's daughter, chided me in a phone interview last week.

The candidates have talked about global warming, an issue directly related to overpopulation, noted Tia, who is executive director of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands in Wisconsin.

And while they've talked about the economic and social impacts of current U.S. immigration policy, none of them has mentioned that immigration is the chief reason the United States has added 100 million people since the first Earth Day in 1970, swelling our population to 303 million. (Dane County, the fastest growing county in Wisconsin, is expected to add 150,000 people by 2030.)

Moreover, none has suggested that runaway population growth -- both globally and in this country -- is perhaps something we should all be concerned about.

Of course, as I've noted here before, there's good reason politicians are terrified of the issue.

The right won't touch it because it means confronting such volatile issues as birth control and family planning, which most conservatives and religious groups strongly oppose.

And the left won't touch it because if you talk about controlling the U.S. population, it means you must talk about the fact that 10.3 million immigrants have arrived since 2000, the highest seven-year period of immigration in U.S. history, according to the Center for Immigration Studies. Then you'll be lumped with all the racists who are anti-immigration.

Gaylord Nelson, who favored tightening immigration quotas, got away with it because he was Gaylord Nelson.

"No one could accuse a man like my father -- who had such a distinguished record on civil rights, justice and fairness -- of being a part of those hateful folks who are using immigration in a racially motivated way," Tia Nelson said.

Want some scary numbers?

Since Gaylord Nelson's death in July 2005, the world's population has grown by a staggering 154 million -- to 6.6 billion -- with much of the growth occurring in the poor big cities of Third World countries. The United States, meanwhile, has grown by 6 million in those 2 years.

Unchecked growth, as Gaylord Nelson liked to point out, creates tremendous strains on our natural resources and our infrastructure. It boosts the need for more schools, more hospitals, more police stations, more roads, more prisons. "In other words, more of everything," he would say.

What will it take for Americans to finally acknowledge the problem?

Tia Nelson says she isn't sure, but she remains hopeful. She points out that just a few years ago most Americans knew very little about global warming. And now, thanks largely to Al Gore, "there's been a dramatic increase in awareness."

Some environmentalists -- the few willing to address the issue -- say that population experts must find a way to reframe the immigration debate so that it doesn't feed racist perceptions. Americans need to understand, they say, that uncontrolled growth is harmful to our quality of life, regardless of the cause.

Don Waller, a well-known UW-Madison botanist, agrees.

"I'm dumbfounded that population growth, both here and abroad, is not receiving more attention," he told me this week. "I can't think of a more important issue for our generation, nor one that is being more systematically ignored.

"Gaylord Nelson was right. This is a critical issue that should concern all citizens -- particularly those running for high office."

Yes, Waller says, "we should celebrate our diversity and the fact that we've harbored generations of refugees and immigrants. But we shouldn't let this cloud the fact that environmental conditions generally, and wild natural conditions in particular, are disappearing from our nation and planet."

More people means less space for nature, Waller says. "And ultimately, that impoverishes us all."