The Corner

A few More Population Points

I’m in the car with the family so, linking to articles in a problem. But I thought I’d respond to a few complaints offered by readers. 

First, the idea that overpopulation is costing Americans opportunities to hunt and fish is hardly persuasive. In much of the Northeast, there’s more forest today than at any time in the last century.  Here’s an excerpt from Bill McKibben’s 1995 piece in the Atlantic (McKibben is a very respect left-environmentalist):

In the early nineteenth century the cleric Timothy Dwight reported that the 240-mile journey from Boston to New York City passed through no more than twenty miles of forest. Surveying the changes wrought by farmers and loggers in New Hampshire, he wrote, “The forests are not only cut down, but there appears little reason to hope that they will ever grow again.”

Less than two centuries later, despite great increases in the state’s population, 90 percent of New Hampshire is covered by forest. Vermont was 35 percent woods in 1850 and is 80 percent today, and even Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island have seen woodlands rebound to the point where they cover nearly three fifths of southern New England. This process, which began as farmers abandoned the cold and rocky pastures of the East for the fertile fields of the Midwest, has not yet run its course. Forest cover in New York State, for instance, continued to grow by more than a million acres a decade through 1980. In sum, writes Douglas MacCleery, of the U.S. Forest Service, “the forest and farmland landscape of the Appalachians, as well as many other parts of the East and South, has come full circle. By the 1960s and 1970s, the pattern of forest, fields, and pastures was similar to that prior to 1800, its appearance much like it must have been prior to the American Revolution.”

 Meanwhile, out West, much of the country is becoming rapidly de-populated. From a 2001 New York Times story:

And the numbers do tell a compelling story. More than 60 percent of the counties in the Great Plains lost population in the last 10 years. An area equal to the size of the original Louisiana Purchase, nearly 900,000 square miles, now has so few people that it meets the 19th-century Census Bureau definition of frontier, with six people or fewer per square mile. And a large swath of land has slipped even further, to a category the government once defined as vacant.

But something else is under way from the Badlands of the Dakotas to the tallgrass fields of Oklahoma: a restoration of lost landscape and forgotten people, suggesting that European agricultural settlement of big parts of the prairie may have been an accident of history, or perhaps only a chapter.


Perhaps more importantly, our environment has gotten much, much cleaner as our population has increased. The reader below who whined somewhat incoherently about how our population was 200 million in 1967 seems to be unaware that our air and water are far and away cleaner today than they were in 1967. For people who doubt me, I highly reccomend Greg Easterbrook’s the Progress Paradox which makes it quite clear that almost all of our environmental indicators have been improving over the last fifty years. 

I’m not saying that in certain areas that habitat or other hunting areas haven’t been lost. I’m not saying there aren’t problems. I’m not being a pollyanna. But the widespread intuition that population growth and environmental degredation go hand in hand is simply not true.  


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