U staff discuss future of U.S.

Some professors think education is the key to dealing with population growth.

Elena Rozwadowski

When the Census Bureau announced Tuesday that the U.S. population had surpassed 300 million, people across the country reacted to the milestone by discussing the future of the U.S. economy, resources and government.

But University professors in the geography and sociology departments have been facilitating this discussion in the classroom for a while.

John Adams, a retiring professor in the department of geography, taught several population-related courses in the past because he said it is important to educate people who will soon be running the country.

“Growth in and of itself isn’t the problem, it’s how it is handled,” he said. “The Earth has an almost unlimited capacity to support people if you don’t exploit things.”

Education, he said, is the key to avoiding this problem.

“If you do it right, you can send clean water into the river from the sewage treatment plant,” he said. “Part of the obstacle is that people often don’t understand these things.”

Education for the future

While the United States is still the third largest country in the world – behind China and India by almost 800 million people – it is one of the faster-growing countries in the world, Adams said.

“Our population grows faster than any other in terms of the numbers and in terms of the rate,” he said. It’s expected to hit 400 million by the year 2043, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

“Over a decade, we add the equivalent of a (European) country,” Adams said.

He said this growth can be a strain on school systems and local resources as people move to find jobs.

The problem, he said, is that people are often unwilling to pay the extra cost to do things “the right way.”

“Resources are limited,” Adams said. “If (resources are) not properly charged for, then people use and abuse them.

“Something’s got to give, because nothing is free.”

Deborah Levison, a Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs professor, teaches her students about population forecasting and the effects of population growth over time.

“Our rate of natural increase is not negligible,” she said.

Similar to an interest rate, this rate and its effects compound over time, she said.

“We don’t do much planning in the U.S.,” she said. “Unless we start doing more planning, we’re going to see our green spaces disappear.”

Population growth is not always a bad thing, Levison said. In Europe, for example, the population is aging and even declining, causing a lot of anxiety about the future of the economy.

In the United States, however, there is a large young population that will be able to replace the retiring baby boomers in the work industry in the next 20 to 30 years, she said.

Immigration also helps feed the job market, as many people enter the country at a young age and start their own families.

Although immigration is an important factor in population flux in the United States, the number of foreign-born people is much lower now than it was in the 1930s, said sociology professor Ann Meier.

“Immigration is not really a new thing,” she said. Although it has “ebbed and flowed” throughout the course of the country’s history, she said, immigration is not at an all-time high.

“If we widen the lens on history, we’ll see that it’s not that different from what we saw at the turn of the century,” Meier said.

Different ideas

Some students feel population growth is a much bigger problem in other countries than it is in the United States.

Jennifer Knapp, a French senior, said she thinks the

discussion about population is a distraction from the real issues.

“We have so much flat, arable land we can farm here, unlike in China,” she said. “The technology is such that we can feed the entire world, just from the U.S.”

Knapp said she thinks urban sprawl and immigration are more important things to talk about.

“I feel that we could be spending our time on more relevant and interesting topics than population.”