- Historic Sites
Catastrophe By The Numbers
In terms of consumption and pollution, America is the most overpopulated nation on earth. We think we can afford it—but we are leading the world to
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
To picture what is in store for us as the population mounts we do not have to peer into the future far as human eye can see. We need only apply a little imagination to the effects of population pressure that we are already enduring. Nearly all of the problems we are wrestling with today are being rendered far more difficult of solution by the addition of nearly 5,500 lodgers to the national boardinghouse every day—such problems as providing adequate education and job training, housing, medical services, parks, playgrounds, sports fields and swimming pools, highways, airports and rapid masstransit, and the wherewithal to relieve the plight of the poor in slums and rural backwaters. If we are finding urban problems today almost more than we can manage, how are we going to handle them as the cities are swelled by ever more millions? Our streams and lakes arc already so befouled with human, industrial, and agricultural wastes that to clean them up will cost one hundred billion dollars, we are told. Our garbage is piling up around us: a million tons more every day, according to specialists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Noise, taking a toll in health and efficiency and generally adding to the strain of life, has been doubling in volume every ten years. The cost of maintaining a nation of 200 million in the ever more expansive style to which we are accustomed comes high, and it bears not on the American people alone. With one seventeenth of the world’s population, we consume two fifths of its production of raw materials, and, even with allowance made for the finished products we return, the disparity is enormous. Into the common atmosphere of the earth we Americans annually pour 140 million tons of pollutants, of which some ninety million come from transport (we burn more gasoline in motorcars than the rest of the world put together) and more than fifteen million from electricpower generation (of which our share of the world’s total is a third). Our contribution to the carbon-dioxide content of the atmosphere, which has gone up by over io per cent in the past century (and which by creating a “greenhouse effect” could result in the melting of the polar ice caps and the inundation of all the world’s ports and coastal plains) is comparable to our share of the world’s fossil fuel combustion—34 per cent.
Within thirty or thirty-five years we may expect to have ioo million more Americans generating refuse, water pollutants, and toxic gases; demanding their share of the world’s resources and of our own—forests and minerals, soil and water. We shall have the same ioo million more taxing those services which already the nation is supplying with difficulty—where, indeed, it is not already woefully in arrears. As the population continues to soar, the costs of providing for its needs will far outpace it. For example, to supply water-deficient areas of the western part of the continent there is already being proposed a North American Water and Power Alliance to redirect southward the flow of several large Canadian rivers now emptying in the north at a price of one hundred billion dollars: just to have water come out of the faucets.
A nd that will be only part of it. The inflation of any commodity results in its devaluation, and so must it be with human life. Humanity, from having been an object to be loved and cherished, will become one to be escaped, which will scarcely be possible as the teeming hordes press in on the resorts of privacy, convert the cities into the psychological equivalent of concentration camps, and necessitate a regimentation and computerization of life in order to manage the packed masses. Human inflation must also strike at the individual’s estimate of his importance. The average American, from having been one hundredth or one thousandth part of a rural community or town two centuries ago, has become one two-hundred-thousandth part of a city today; if he is on the young side of middle age, he can expect to be reduced to one thirty-millionth part of a megalopolis. As the individual is overwhelmed by and lost in a society of ever more monstrous and inhuman forms, we must anticipate a progressive multiplication of the symptoms of anomie and alienation, which range from apathy and despondency to aggression and violence.
We shall also witness the desolation of what remains of the natural world around us and the closing of avenues of escape from the mounting tensions of an increasingly overwrought, high-pressure civilization. Beaches, lakes, mountains—the green kingdoms that have always stood for the living world in our eyes and have been the matrix of every human culture—will be overrun, debased, and obliterated by the products of that civilization, human and material. The process accelerates rapidly today. The cottages crowd rank on rank along the shores and lakesides. The suburbs spread like a skin eruption ever farther into farm land, and with them come the shopping centers and industrial plants, converting fields and forests to asphalt, masonry, and neon lights in eighty- and hundredacre swoops. To the rear, even as they spread outward, the cities are cut to pieces by freeways on which, beneath thickening palls of smog, swelling streams of motorcars race eight abreast.