Going green is all the rage. "Consider the environment before printing out this email," is one of many cautionary notes office administrators sound to encourage their employees to respect our diminishing resources.
During Earth Day, more than any other, Americans acknowledge the importance of recycling and using alternative public transportation. On college campuses, engaged students spread warnings about the negative long term consequences of excessive consumption.
But preserving our precious space is a challenge that requires full-time attention, especially since popular culture celebrates procreation. Famous celebrities' baby bumps are pictured on tabloids with fawning headlines. Conversely, discussions that stress the importance of limiting children to replacement level or lower are taboo.
Yet, although family planning is considered politically incorrect, nothing is greener. The basic science is beyond dispute: The more children born, the more toxic carbon dioxide emissions are eventually created.
Three years ago, the Optimum Population Trust commissioned the London School of Economics to study childbirth and its long term environmental impact. The report concluded that meeting the unfulfilled birth control needs of women who indicated a desire to limit reproduction would reduce unintended births by 72 percent and cut the projected 2050 world population by half a billion to 8.6 billion. Extending its calculations, the LSE concluded 12 billion fewer "people-years" would be lived and 34 gigatons of CO2 that would otherwise be generated could be saved. In short, condoms and other safe birth control methods represent the maximum green.
One reason so few intelligent debates about overpopulation occur is that the mind can't grasp the staggering numbers at the issue's core, like billions and gigatons. To break population growth into more digestible bites, consider California and the data contained in the 1940 and 2010 U.S Bureau of the Census reports. For natives like me who remember California back when, the findings are stunning.
Comparing the 1940 census to today, a host of negatives appear obvious. Seven decades ago, only six California cities had populations of 100,000 or more: Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego and San Francisco. But overpopulation, which is fueled in large part by another unmentionable, over-immigration, has created 67 cities in 2010 with populations greater than 100,000. In 1940, California was the nation's fifth-largest state. As California approaches 40 million people, it's the most populated and the most adversely impacted by sprawl and pollution. According to Forbes Magazine, California has four of the top five dirtiest cities in America, including three in the once pristine San Joaquin Valley: Bakersfield, Modesto and Fresno.
As a result of California's unsustainable population increases, the Golden State, once synonymous with unspoiled beaches, vineyards and the magnificent Sierra Nevada, now has the nation's most densely urbanized areas.
California ranks in the top three nationwide when measured by population density: Los Angeles, San Francisco/Oakland and San Jose. In Los Angeles, an average 7,000 residents live on each square mile — people on top of people. Even tiny Delano with its 54,000 residents ranks fourth, with 5,500 humans per square mile, higher in density than New York/Newark.
Unchecked population growth makes every social challenge harder to resolve. Each time a new person is added to the existing population, the crises facing education, crime, medical care and mass transit have fewer solutions.
There's good news to report, however. After years of conservationists pounding away about limiting population, a key demographic may finally have gotten the message.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Vital Statistics reported that the teen birthrate declined 9 percent between 2009 and 2010 to 34 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19. A CDC spokesman called the drop "phenomenal."
The climb back to population stability is still uphill. But teen awareness is a first, important step to a smaller and greener society.
Joe Guzzardi is a Los Angeles native, born when the city was still considered a small town. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.