An occasional interview series with Americans who are challenging the status quo.
Leon Kolankiewicz, a long-standing and devout environmentalist, is concerned that the movement has lost track of the biggest problem: people.
Overpopulation was once seen as a prime destroyer of woods and plains, but as modern environmentalists fell in love with immigration, the idea that man is the chief encroacher on nature has lost its luster, Mr. Kolankiewicz said.
“Twenty-five years ago, the concept of ‘sprawl’ was a big deal. Al Gore had a big anti-sprawl campaign. You could see the countryside was disappearing,” he said.
Mr. Kolankiewicz insists he is not a misanthrope. He doesn’t think people are necessarily bad, just that there are too many of them.
“I love people,” he said when asked whether his philosophy doesn’t smack of anti-humanism.
“I want to see as many people as the Earth can sustain, and our country can sustain at a high standard of living and a high quality of life. The question is not how many people the U.S. or the Earth can contain, but how many it can sustain,” Mr. Kolankiewicz said.
He serves as science director for NumbersUSA, where he recently completed a study titled “Population Growth and the Diminishing Natural State of Arizona.” The study concludes that 1.1 million acres of the Grand Canyon State have been lost “under buildings, pavement, gravel and other surfaces” and that a population surge of 4.2 million from 1982 to 2017 caused 12 times more sprawl than all other factors combined.
The chief culprit was found to be immigration. “Federal immigration policies were the source of the largest part of Arizona’s population growth,” the report said.
Several other states have undergone the same sort of development. Left unchecked, immigration will lead to more environmental damage, Mr. Kolankiewicz said.
Still, environmentalists have blamed people for a long time, and the errors of overpopulation alarmists are well documented.
When Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich startled the world — and publishers — with his runaway bestseller “The Population Bomb” in 1968, he flatly declared that “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death” in the 1970s.
Mr. Ehrlich was determined to get his message out and the next year wrote a piece titled “Eco-Catastrophe!” In 1970, he predicted that “the death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”
When Mr. Kolankiewicz attended the first Earth Day more than a half century ago, the messages were dire. “It’s already too late to avoid mass starvation,” organizer Denis Hayes declared.
Mr. Kolankiewicz, who has natural resources and forestry degrees from Virginia Tech and the University of British Columbia, acknowledges that hysteria often marches along with the overpopulation argument. Indeed, he has a sense of humor about it.
“I’m a neo-Malthusian,” he said in reference to Thomas Robert Malthus, an English economist and demographer who warned that people would be doomed around the turn of the 18th century. Mr. Kolankiewicz estimates that “about half” of what was predicted a half century ago sounds preposterous today.
Like Malthus, Mr. Ehrlich and others have been tripped up by human ingenuity, which has made agriculture more bountiful than they could envision.
“That’s more what the economists and the conservatives would say,” Mr. Kolankiewicz said when asked about this poor track record. “The environmentalist sort of ignores it as they still do have some concerns about (overpopulation), silenced by those who claim that drawing attention to overpopulation is quote/unquote ‘blaming the victim.’
“Especially in the last five or 10 years, that feeds into this whole kind of ‘woke’ mindset that capitalism, the White people, that wealthy people are oppressing the oppressed people of the earth,” he said.
It hasn’t always been that way, Mr. Kolankiewicz said.
He would like to see the resurrection of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, which President Clinton introduced to great fanfare in 1993 but has since gone silent.
He also cited the work of a subcommittee of that council, the Population and Consumption Task Force, which concluded in 1996 that “this is a sensitive issue, but reducing immigration is a necessary part of population stabilization and the drive toward sustainability.”
“This was all done in a Democratic administration a quarter century ago,” Mr. Kolankiewicz said. “The Democrats won’t touch anything near that now. It’s open borders.”
Another reason people have lost sight of the importance of limiting immigration is declining birthrates, he said. The problem is most acute in Germany, Russia and Japan, but demographers have noted for years that the birthrate in much of the Western world has fallen below the number needed to sustain a group, generally fixed at about 2.1 children per woman.
As Mr. Kolankiewicz sees it, immigration, not babies, is the main driver of the problem in the U.S.
“To me, curbing immigration is a means to an end,” he said. “We need to stabilize U.S. population as part of an honest environmental and economic stability. I want sustainable prosperity. And that means if we take numbers from the Census Bureau or Pew Research — it’s not coming from NumbersUSA — then immigration has to be reduced to sustainable levels.
“Some environmentalists who have dissed the population issue are completely unrealistic,” he said.