- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 22, 2006

Last Tuesday morning, in a maternity ward somewhere in the United States, the 300 millionth American arrived. He or she got a marginally warmer welcome than Mark Foley turning up to hand out the prizes at junior high.

One could have predicted the appalled editorials from European newspapers aghast at yet another addition to the swollen cohort of excess Americans consuming ever more of the planet’s dwindling resources. And, when Canada’s National Post announced ” ‘Frightening’ surge brings U.S. to 300 million people,” you can appreciate their terror: the millions of Democrats who declared they were moving north after George W. Bush’s re-election must have placed incredible strain on Canada’s highways, schools, trauma counselors, etc.

But the wee bairn might have expected a warmer welcome from his or her compatriots. Alas not. “Three hundred million seems to be greeted more with hand-wringing ambivalence than chest-thumping pride,” observed The Washington Post, which inclines toward the former even on the best of days.

No chest-thumping up in Vermont, either. “Organizations such as the Shelburne-based Population Media Center are marking the 300 million milestone with renewed warnings that world population growth is unsustainable,” reported the Burlington Free Press.

Across the country, the grim milestone prompted this reaction from a somber Dowell Myers. “At 300 million,” noted the professor of urban planning and demography at the University of Southern California, “we are beginning to be crushed under the weight of our own quality-of-life degradation.”

I, on the other hand, was feeling pretty chipper about the birth of the cute l’il quality-of-life degrader. The previous day, my new book was published. You’ll find it in all good bookstores — it’s propping up the slightly wonky rear left leg of the front table groaning under the weight of unsold copies of “Peace Mom” by Cindy Sheehan. Anyway, the book (mine, not Cindy’s) deals in part with the geopolitical implications of demography — i.e., birthrates. That’s an easy subject to get all dry and statistical about, so I gotta hand it to my publicist: Arranging for the birth of the 300 millionth American is about as good a promotional tie-in as you could get and well worth the 75 bucks he bribed the guy at the Census Bureau. But, even if you haven’t a book to plug, the arrival of Junior 300 Mil is something everyone should celebrate.

So why don’t we? The answer is that too many people who should know better are still peddling the same old 40-year-old guff about “overpopulation.” What does Professor Myers mean by “quality-of-life degradation”? America is the 172nd least densely populated country on Earth. If you think it’s crowded here, try living in the Netherlands or Belgium, which have, respectively, 392 and 341 inhabitants per square kilometer compared to 31 folks per square kilometer in the United States. (1 square kilometer equals about .386 square miles)

To be sure, somewhere such as, say, Newark, N.J., is much less bucolic than it was in 1798. But why is that? No doubt Professor Myers would say it’s urban sprawl. But that’s the point: You can only sprawl if you have plenty of space.

As the British writer Adam Nicholson once wrote of America, “There is too much room in the vast continental spaces of the country for a great deal of care to be taken with the immediate details.” Nothing sprawls in Belgium: It’s a phenomenon that arises not from population pressures but the lack thereof.

As for other degradations, the weight of which is so crushing to Professor Myers, name some. America is one of the most affordable property markets in the Western world. I was amazed to discover, back in the first summer of the Bush presidency, that a three-bedroom air-conditioned house in Crawford, Texas could be yours for 30,000 bucks and, if that sounds a bit steep, a double-wide on a couple of acres would set you back about 6,000. And not just because Mr. Bush lives next door and serves as a kind of one-man psychological gated community keeping the NPR latte-sippers from moving in and ruining the neighborhood. The United States is about the cheapest developed country in which to get a nice home with a big yard and raise a family. That’s one of the reasons why America, almost alone among Western nations, has a healthy fertility rate.

Everywhere else, for the most part, they’ve taken the advice of Professor Myers and that think-tank in Vermont. In America, there are 2.1 live births per woman. In 17 European countries, it’s 1.3 or below — that’s what demographers call “lowest-low” fertility, a rate from which no society has ever recovered. Spain’s population is halving with every generation. These nations are doing what Professor Myers and the Vermont “sustainability” junkies would regard as the socially responsible thing, and having fewer babies. As a result, their countries are dying demographically and (more immediately) economically: They haven’t enough young people to pay for the generous social programs ever more geriatric Europeans have come to expect.

By the way, I wonder if any helpful reader would care to provide a working definition of “unsustainable.” We hear it all the time these days. You can hardly go to an international conference on this or that global crisis without Natalie Cole serenading the opening-night gala banquet of G7 finance ministers with a couple of choruses of “Unsustainable, that’s what you are.” Two centuries back, when Thomas Malthus warned of overpopulation, he was contemplating the prospects of a man “born into a world already possessed” — that’s to say, with no land left for him, no job, no food. “At Nature’s mighty feast,” wrote Malthus, “there is no vacant cover for him.” But that’s not what Professor Myers and company mean.

No one seriously thinks 400 million or 500 million Americans will lead to mass starvation. By “unsustainable,” they mean we might encroach ever so slightly onto the West Nile Mosquito’s traditional breeding grounds in northern Maine. That is sad if you think this or that insect is more important than the developed world’s most critically endangered species: people. If you have a more scrupulous care for language, you’ll note that populationwise it’s low birthrates that are “unsustainable”: Spain, Germany, Italy and most other European peoples literally cannot sustain themselves — which is why, in one of the fastest demographic transformations in human history, their continent is becoming Muslim.

As a matter of fact, you don’t have to cross the Atlantic to see the consequences of a loss of human capital: The Burlington Free Press would be better occupied worrying less about the 300 millionth American and more about the ever emptier schoolhouses up and down the Green Mountain State. I used to joke that Vermont was America’s leading Canadian province, but in fact it’s worse than that: Demographically, it’s an honorary member of the European Union.

The reality is that in a Western world ever more wizened and barren, the 300 millionth American is the most basic example of American exceptionalism. Happy birth day, kid, and here’s to many more.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Mark Steyn, 2006

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