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March 29, 1992|JOSEPH ALPER | Alper is a free-lance writer living in St. Paul, Minn.

By the time you finish reading this sentence, 12 more people will be living on the planet. A year from now, 95 million or so human beings will have joined the 5.4 billion earthlings competing for food, clean air and water, shelter, and fuel, and the U. S. population of 251 million will have grown by 3 million. By 2025, the 100 million people now living in Mexico and Central America will have more than doubled to 225 million. And unless something drastic happens, the Earth's population should hit 14 billion by the middle of the next century.

Something drastic needs to happen.

Adding 8.6 billion people to the current crowd, say most population experts and environmentalists, is something the human race must avoid at all costs. If we cannot check our rate of reproduction on our own, the environment could come close to collapse, and Nature would enact its own, more drastic methods of population control.

"There are a number of environmental disasters looming--increasing emissions of carbon dioxide, destruction of the ozone layer, rising global temperature and sea level, deforestation and desertification, soil erosion, faltering food production, large-scale extinction, and accelerating pollution of the world's rivers and oceans--and all are tied directly to the rapid growth of the world's population,' says Werner H. Fornos, president of The Population Institute in Washington. "Already, there are too many people for the Earth to support in a sustainable manner, and the situation is only going to get worse. Far worse."

One should not feel smug and dismiss this as a problem that is happening elsewhere. After achieving zero-population growth briefly in the 1970s, the U. S. population is on the upswing again. Certainly, the rate of population growth in the United States is much less than India's or Kenya's or that of the 90 or so Third World nations that could double their population within the next 30 years. But even the seemingly small 1% population growth in the United States presents a huge danger to the environment.

"Any growth in the U. S. population is ominous because though we (make up) only 5% of the world's population, we use 25% to 30% of the world's resources and produce a third of its pollution," says Rose Hanes, executive director of Population-Environment Balance, an organization that focuses on controlling population growth in the United States.

To illustrate her point, Hanes cites statistics for per-capita energy use: one American, in energy consumed, equals three Japanese, six Mexicans, 14 Chinese, 38 Indians, 168 Bangladeshi or 531 Ethiopians. On average, an American uses more than four times as much water as a British subject and more than six times that of a Tunisian.

The United States is the world's fastest-growing industrialized country, and the environment is suffering as a result. Each day, a person here needs 150 gallons of water and 3.3 pounds of food and produces 120 gallons of sewage and 3.4 pounds of garbage. And as the population grows, so grows the demand on our already stretched natural resources. Eight states, for example, will fill their garbage dumps to the brim within the next five years, and 17 more will exhaust the capacity of their landfills by the end of the century.

Soaring populations in the Sun Belt have raised the demands for drinking and irrigation water. The water table in Tucson has dropped 150 feet in the last 20 years and the Florida Everglades are drying up. Population pressures also create a demand for more living space and for more timber to build houses and furniture. As a result, 80% of the nation's old growth have fallen to the lumberman's ax, and creatures such as the spotted owl are nearing extinction as their habitat vanishes.

This is the not the first time that experts have raised the population alarm and pointed out its connection to environmental problems. As early as 1960, the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, the leading professional organization of American scientists, passed a resolution calling for increased support of scientific research on the problems associated with population pressures. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich, professor of Population Studies and Biology at Stanford University, wrote "The Population Bomb." In this landmark book, Ehrlich detailed the problems of overpopulation, particularly in the world's poorer nations, and called for a worldwide effort to bring population growth under control.

Ehrlich stressed that population growth itself is not the only factor leading to environmental disaster. Environmental impact, he said in a mathematics analogy, was equal to a country's population times its relative affluence times its level of technology. This explains why the United States, with its high level of affluence and technological development, has such a high impact on the environment.

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