CMC on the Map
Clean Air
Population Growth

Founded 1946 with assets next to nothing and an SAT median rivalling Slippery Rock’s, it now has a glossy campus, higher endowment per student than Amherst and Williams, and an SAT median comparable to Columbia and Johns Hopkins. CMC kids are good company. They win more Truman and Watson scholarships per capita than Harvard (Harvard wins more Rhodes and Marshall scholarships). They have defeated Harvard and other sports heavyweights at water polo, rugby, and soccer. In recent years they have gone 2-1 against Harvard in water polo and 16-5 against Harvard debaters.
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Smog and traffic congestion cost the average Southern California household about $4,000 a year in time losses and health or property damage. Smog has been getting a lot better; traffic worse. Both could be greatly improved by real-time emissions charges and peak-hour congestion charges, much more so than by tighter conventional regulations. The way to get to such incentives is to test them out with experimental HOT-lane projects . Two of these are up and running in Southern California. They are a hit with users, saving them up to a half-hour of delay in one ten-mile stretch.
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Population is still growing too fast, both locally and globally, but slowing down significantly, even in less developed countries. Will the slowdown be fast enough to avoid big trouble? More-developed-country populations now have below-replacement fertility rates of about 1.5 children per mother. Some have already stopped growing. Less-developed countries’ fertility rates have fallen from about 6 in the 1960’s to 3 or 4 today, enough, if continued, to double the LDC population in 40 years. One of many possible reasons for the growth decline in developed countries is that, contrary to every big, sloppy sex survey from the Kinsey Reports to the 1990’s, monogamy has not been smashed. Monogamy in practice is the strongest of all population controls because it settles the cost of parenthood firmly on the parents. Non-sloppy 1990’s sex surveys using truly random samples for first time, showed that the average U.S. woman since the 1960’s has had only two sex partners after age 18. 75-85% of U.S. spouses are faithful to each other during a given marriage.
The whole world population, which is now thought to appropriate as much as 40% of the world’s photosynthesis (Vitousek, 1986), would still double in 50 years at present growth rates, and quadruple in another 50. 95% of the growth would be in LDC’s. It is doubtful that the earth could sustain such numbers at all, far less sustain them in comfort indefinitely. If the pessimists are right, the earth has long since passed its sustainable carrying capacity (Grant, 1992, Cohen, 1995). If the optimists are right, we could manage another two or three doublings before things pinch (Simon, 1996). Only continued doubling will show, perhaps in the cruelest of ways, which side is right. For those who would rather not see the question firmly settled, with themselves and their children and grandchildren as the guinea pigs, justifiable optimism is more likely to be grounded in slower population growth than in faster growth in the means of subsistence.
In the meantime, since 95% of the population growth is in the LDC’s, immigration poses problems for the MDC’s similar to those that natural growth poses for LDC’s. The United States population, at present rates, will double every 116 years, enough for us to reach China’s present size in three lifetimes. Do we want that? The population of the Los Angeles Basin is doubling about every 50 years, adding “two Chicagos,” as planners like to put it, by 2020. Each million of the extra 6-7 million inhabitants, at present rates, will generate 140 tons a day of ozone smog precursors in a basin whose safe carrying capacity, already far exceeded, is something like 2-400 tons a day. Do we want that? In both cases, almost all of the long-term projected growth is from immigrants, mostly legal immigrants, and their descendants.
In 30 years of looking, and hundreds of pages of manuscript writing, I have not arrived at the kind of dispositive conceptual breakthroughs about population growth that I think I have turned up for things like smog, congestion, political reforms, and Shakespeare authorship questions, certainly nothing to match Malthus’ classical statement of the problem. But I have learned something. Human ingenuity has done amazing things to soften, qualify, and postpone the Malthusian pinch. But in the end, the craft of men, laws, and markets is no match for the laws of biology and physics. Nothing can grow infinitely in a finite environment. There are such things as natural limits, niches, and physical carrying capacities, and these natural physical limits impose human, moral limits and carrying capacities. You can’t solve all the world’s problems by importing them. You have to have and use hierarchies of entitlement, and it is by no means clear that academic cosmopolitans, who ask us to jettison bounded, tribal, family-centered obligations in favor of unbounded, global, humanity-embracing obligations, have it right, while ordinary people who rank obligation by affinity have it wrong. Humanity is too big to get your arms around all of it at once.

References: Joel Cohen, How Many People Can the Earth Support? W.W. Norton, 1995.
Lindsey Grant, Elephants in the Volkswagen, Freeman, 1992
Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource, Princeton, 1996
Peter Vitousek, et al., "Human Appropriation of the Products of Photosynthesis," BioScience, June 1986, pp. 368-373.

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